The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I thought right-wing scare tactics were ridiculous. These laws are deadly serious.

Lil Nas X performs at the Spotify Best New Artist Party in West Hollywood, Calif., on Jan. 23, 2020. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

If only the right wing hadn’t started picking on trans kids again.

Until then, I'd been enjoying the spectacle of conservative media and politicians searching for a way to scare people.

Nothing truly scary, no pandemics or anything, just something that sounded scary. Like the “nasty vultures” of cancel culture swarming Dr. Seuss after picking at Shakespeare’s corpse. True, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bookstore that does not stock Dr. Seuss or an English department that does not teach Shakespeare. Just in case, though ... Boo!

Might I interest you in the terrifying vision of having a hamburger slapped right out of your hand?

Sure, that supposed Democratic goal is pure fiction, but how else are the right-wingers going to distract us from President Biden’s strangely popular governing strategy of trying to help people? Russia used to be reliably frightening, but now the Russians are on their side. Also on their side: the year’s scariest congressman.

They can’t even threaten us with hell or Satan — the original right-wing scare tactics — since rapper Lil Nas X co-opted both in a popular new song. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” positively dares conservative critics to decry the Devil.

Follow Kate Cohen's opinionsFollow

The video, which shows Lil Nas X (or a version thereof) riding a stripper pole down to hell and giving Satan a lap dance, has had more than 170 million YouTube views. The song has been streamed more than 240 million times on Spotify since it debuted in March, spawning the sale of Satan Shoes” and prompting right-wing fainting spells over the singer’s “depraved ideas and images” — plus a steady stream of clapbacks by the artist himself: “y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when i actually go there lmao.”

As fun as it is to watch Lil Nas X dance with the Devil, it’s even more fun to watch him crow about “getting a song about gay sex to the top of the billboard charts.” (“LET’S GO GAY AGENDA!!!”) And every time a right-wing preacher or Republican governor wags a finger at him, an angel gets its wings, or a gay Black hip-hop artist makes bank, or whatever that expression is. Brilliant.

But there’s a brutal truth behind the fun: Although scare tactics can be ridiculous, they are not always harmless.

As Lil Nas X put it, “i spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the shit y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay.”

In fact, social conservatives didn’t just use hell to scare gay people when Lil Nas X was growing up. They used gay people to scare America.

And they’re doing it again now to trans kids, an even more marginalized group Republicans have chosen to demonize. Trans girls will take your daughter’s rightful spot on the track team! Boys will pretend to be girls just to go to the bathroom with your daughters! Something else scary about trans people!

This threat is just as imaginary as the woke mob, of course. The difference is that actual laws are being drafted and passed that will affect people’s lives. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, legislatures in more than 30 states have introduced anti-trans bills this year, most which prohibit health care that transgender kids need or exclude trans kids from school sports, bathrooms and locker rooms. Missouri HJR 53 would amend the state’s constitution to make sure trans girls don’t compete on girls’ teams. The constitution. Arkansas’ HB 1749 would make it illegal for public school employees to call a trans boy “he.” Alabama’s HB 1, nauseatingly titled the “Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act,” would require school employees to tell parents if students said their gender didn’t match their assigned sex at birth.

Most Americans oppose such bills, but that doesn’t help the kids in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, where some have become law. Trans kids already experience harassment and discrimination at school; every variety of legally mandated prejudice — from misgendering to exclusion from athletics — seems likely to contribute to already alarmingly high rates of suicide and assault. Studies show that when trans kids receive gender-affirming medical care, on the other hand, they are less likely to attempt suicide. These laws will add to the mental anguish and physical suffering of a vulnerable population; they will cost lives.

That’s genuinely scary.

At the end of “Montero,” Lil Nas X dramatically accepts his role as designated bogeyman: He kills the Devil, dons his horns and stares at the camera, eyes glowing with Satanic power. Boo!

I fervently hope that some trans Arkansas teens will likewise grow up to have the last laugh, with a top-grossing horror film about trans girls terrorizing a track team. But first they have to survive.

Read more:

Megan Rapinoe: Bills to ban transgender kids from sports try to solve a problem that doesn’t exist

Asa Hutchinson: Why I vetoed my party’s bill restricting health care for transgender youth

The Post’s View: Arkansas is now the poster child for ignorant anti-trans reaction

Alyssa Rosenberg: North Carolina’s bill regulating gender would be terrible for kids — not just trans ones

The Post’s View: Republicans see attacking transgender youth as a convenient way to whip up bigotry