In March, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill banning gender-confirming medical treatment for transgender youths. The bill marked just one instance of a wave of recent anti-transgender legislation across the country that would restrict trans people’s access to athletic participation, health care, sex education and other accommodations. As Arkansas state Sen. Alan Clark (R) declared: “This bill sets out to protect children in an area where they very much need protection.”
It might seem strange that a politician with no medical training could justify a bill denying certain children medical treatment — without which, advocates note, they will suffer horrifying consequences — on the basis of “protecting children.”
Yet history shows that political discourse about protecting children since the mid-20th century has never really been about improving their health. Instead, it has a lot to do with race.
The roots of “protecting children” in U.S. political rhetoric lie in efforts to defend white supremacy. While the groups targeted as threats to children — African Americans in the South, unmarried mothers, abortion rights activists, lesbians and gay men, and, more recently, transgender people — have changed over time, the underlying political logic has proved enduring and successful.
Children’s well-being first became a political issue as industrialization and urban growth accelerated toward the end of the 19th century. Debates over child labor, education and immigration catalyzed a broad Progressive Era “child-saving” movement. Then, in the mid-20th century, postwar prosperity and Cold War tensions contributed to a renewed focus on children as symbols of the American future.
But in the South, the politics of “protection” did not at first focus on children. After Reconstruction, White elites in the states of the former Confederacy consolidated their rule through a combination of political exclusion and violence, with White vigilantes committing thousands of racial terror lynchings between 1880 and the 1950s. Though their violence aimed to suppress labor disputes, breaches of racial etiquette and Black political organizing, lynchers nearly always justified their actions as necessary to protect White womanhood.
But as the civil rights movement gained strength, racist violence that targeted Black children discredited White men’s claims to be justly protecting women. A turning point came with the brutal 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose mangled body and grieving mother shamed the nation and catalyzed sympathy for Black civil rights. By the time of the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing, which killed four children, the Jim Crow regime had lost all moral legitimacy to national observers.
However, backlash against the civil rights movement gave rise to a new, more successful strategy of appropriating the rhetoric of child protection. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision mandated public school desegregation, “massive resistance” to impede integration took shape across the South. While male politicians signing the “Southern Manifesto” against Brown emphasized “states’ rights,” the women who formed the movement’s grass-roots base mobilized as White mothers to argue that school segregation was necessary to protect their children and white supremacy. Integrated schools, they claimed, would lower educational standards, expose White children to disease and violence, and lead to interracial dating and, eventually, marriage.
By the late 1960s, however, these activists had shifted to a formally race-neutral language of “school choice” and “parental rights.” By toning down racist rhetoric, linking with the broader conservative movement and anchoring defense of de facto segregation in their moral authority as parents, once-defenders of Jim Crow and White womanhood gradually merged into the defenders of children and family values. While the wording shifted, the goal — maintaining White social and economic dominance — remained the same.
This strategy expanded through the 1970s and 1980s, as conservatives deployed child-protection rhetoric to justify welfare cuts, restrictions on reproductive health and mass incarceration policies — each disproportionately harming communities of color. The new right, like its segregationist predecessor, successfully mobilized its White base by claiming to protect children. But this remained a racially polarizing strategy, as bitter controversies over school busing from Boston to Charlotte revealed.
In 1977, however, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign discovered a winning formula by finding a new marginalized group to target, making race a subtext while focusing on sexuality.
A mostly White coalition of gay and lesbian activists had secured passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida’s Miami-Dade County by drawing on civil rights discourse. In response, Bryant led a wildly successful campaign to repeal the ordinance by forging a multiracial coalition of socially conservative voters. To White voters resentful of Black and Latino advances, she recast them as the bearers of civil rights, while to parents of color, she drew on resentment over White gay and lesbian appropriation of Black freedom rhetoric. Both groups could unite behind her moral vision of the family as bearers of children — whom lesbians and gays, unable to reproduce, could only “recruit.”
This masterful blend of dog-whistling to White resentment while leveraging homophobic child-protection rhetoric with multiracial appeal put the gay and lesbian movement on the defensive. Bryant’s campaign re-energized the national conservative movement, providing a new language and fundraising model for the emerging religious right. Anti-gay and anti-feminist messaging focused on defending children became central to the “family values” paradigm of conservative politics for decades. And behind this rhetoric, conservatives rolled back civil rights gains, cut social programs and expanded policing and prisons.
In the following decades, however, LGBTQ+ movements won victories by contesting — or even co-opting — this narrative. The activism of lesbian parents and gay men caring for partners during the AIDS epidemic challenged perceptions of family as exclusively heterosexual. The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard and his mother’s activism against homophobic violence and bullying recast gays and lesbians not as child predators but as vulnerable children themselves. Twenty-first century advocates of same-sex marriage found that by downplaying civil rights rhetoric and emphasizing love, families and parenthood, they could outflank conservative “family values” and dramatically shift public opinion. With legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the LGBTQ+ movement seemed to have turned the tide against the right’s claims to protect children through anti-gay legislation.
Yet, within months, the right found that by refocusing hatred and legislation specifically on trans people, they could once again use the promise to protect children to regain political ground.
The opening salvo came with the 2015 “Campaign for Houston,” which successfully mobilized to overturn a local anti-discrimination law behind the slogan “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” — using ads that depicted young girls terrorized by adult men. A range of “bathroom bills” and court cases followed, peaking with the current wave of anti-trans legislation.
Today’s conservatives argue that respect for young people’s gender self-determination marks a radical new experiment that endangers children for the sake of political correctness. Although trans children are not a new phenomenon, the politicization of trans children’s lives by right-wing culture warriors represents a new page in a long story.
Anti-trans agitators today draw on rhetoric of “parents’ rights” honed in the struggles to defend segregation and demonize lesbians and gays. Then, as now, the innocence ascribed to children and the moral status of parenthood have served as smokescreens for political agendas that have far more to do with reversing economic and racial justice gains than protecting children. Remember that while the bathroom provisions of North Carolina’s 2016 HB2 were largely symbolic and unenforceable, the law also overturned municipal minimum wage ordinances — sneaking through a major blow to low-wage workers, disproportionately of color, under the guise of protecting children.
Today’s anti-trans legislation is more than a cheap ploy by a fractured Republican Party desperate to shore up its socially conservative base. It is a time-honored strategy of picking on marginalized groups using appeals that stoke the racial and sexual anxieties of the majority. Tracing the ugly history of conservative efforts to combat school desegregation, welfare, reproductive freedom and gay and lesbian rights by claiming threats to children helps us understand why politicians today think they can gain votes by brutalizing vulnerable children in the name of protecting them.