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The Pendulum of Queer History

Systematic oppression often begets systematic opposition
A woman on the floor of the Montana House holds up a microphone, her right hand clutched against her chest, in protest.

On April 26, the Montana House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming margin to bar Representative Zooey Zephyr from the chamber floor. Eight days earlier, Zephyr, the state’s first trans woman lawmaker, had dared to speak out during debate on a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors. Her colleagues, she said, would “see blood on [their] hands”: denying care to trans youth was “tantamount to torture.” The bill nevertheless cleared the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Greg Gianforte, despite a last-minute appeal by Gianforte’s nonbinary son.

The measure is part of a tsunami of anti-LGBTQ legislation that has swept conservative states since 2020. Over four hundred such bills were introduced between January and April of this year alone, including laws to ban drag performances, scrub public school curricula of LGBTQ content, censor books from public libraries, ban gender-affirming care for minors as well as adults, and forcibly de-transition adults. Old staples like bills to exclude trans people from sports and to deny trans people access to bathrooms aligned with their gender identity have also advanced.

The national Democratic Party—self-styled protector of LGBTQ rights since the Obama years—has preferred to keep quiet. Biden’s Department of Education even issued a mendacious “compromise” rule on trans athletes that will effectively allow school districts to bar trans students from certain sports. But at the state level, the glut of legislation has spurred a furious though generally impotent response from Democratic lawmakers. Take Nebraska, where state senator Machaela Cavanaugh filibustered an anti-trans bill for over ten weeks, promising to “burn the session down to the ground.” Her colleague Senator Megan Hunt told GOP legislators, “the bridge is burned. We’re not cool.” Republicans nevertheless muscled the bill—which also bans abortion after twelve weeks—through in mid-May, and the governor signed it shortly thereafter, calling it the “most significant win for social conservatives in a generation.” Hunt, incidentally, is now the subject of an ethics complaint alleging a conflict of interest because her son is trans.

The rampant transphobia of 2023 may augur not a permanent turn away from LGBTQ rights.

When Zephyr spoke of “blood” on her colleagues’ hands, she was not speaking metaphorically. Studies show that gender-affirming care is associated with dramatically lower rates of depression and suicide among trans people. When the Kentucky legislature voted on a bill to ban all gender-affirming care for minors, including puberty blockers and hormone therapy, state senator Karen Berg rose to speak about her trans son Henry, who had killed himself the year before. The extremist rhetoric coming from the GOP and their far-right allies has spawned a dramatic increase in anti-LGBTQ violence, from the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs last year to armed far-right militias showing up armed at drag events.  

It is something of a mystery, though, why the Republican Party continues to double down on transphobia, advancing a platform of book bans and laws that empower officials to inspect children’s genitalia. These laws are unpopular: polls regularly show most Americans oppose them, and fully 91 percent of heterosexual Americans believe queer people should be able to live without facing discrimination, according to a recent poll from GLAAD.

The likeliest explanation, of course, is that it is all just a cynical ploy, culture-war cover for the Republicans’ lack of coherent economic policies. The president of the American Principles Project admitted as much when he recently told the New York Times, “we threw everything at the wall” looking for “an issue that the candidates were comfortable talking about.” Whether or not these laws will prove a successful gambit in the immediate term—and there is already considerable evidence that they won’t (see: the 2022 red wave that wasn’t)—there is reason to hope that they will backfire in the long term. The history of sexuality and gender is littered with violent attempts to regulate human identity and to exterminate those who do not conform. But more often than not, whatever suppression those attempts achieved in the short term, they provided tinder for the flame of reform and revolution. In this view, the rampant transphobia of 2023 may augur not a permanent turn away from LGBTQ rights, but the dawn of a new queer age.

Persecuting queers is nothing new. There have been laws regulating sodomy and the expression of gender for thousands of years, going back to Assyrian law codes. In Europe, though, what we think of as modern anti-queer laws—sodomy statutes—only really began to take shape starting in the twelfth century. They had been on the books before, but this was the period when they started to be enforced somewhat more systematically. It was an era when European societies began cracking down on what it considered outsiders, including Jews, women, and sodomites, laying the groundwork for what historian R.I. Moore called our “persecuting society.” These new social prohibitions did not come out of nowhere; they were part of a coherent political strategy by new elites to cement their control of government. That is, much as modern-day conservatives rely on scapegoats to win elections, so, too, did medieval elites demonize outsiders to shore up their authority.

But they were terribly ineffective at stamping out queerness. Evidence of queer life in the medieval and early modern periods is at best spotty, in part because the terms by which we identify and self-identify today—queer, trans, gay, lesbian, bi—had not yet been invented. But from what evidence we do have, we know that sodomy laws rarely discouraged queer sex in practice. When the Italian city-state Florence created the Office of the Night in 1432 to arrest and prosecute sodomites, its officers discovered that an overwhelming number of men in the city were engaging in buggery. Seventeen thousand residents were incriminated at least once out of a citywide population of forty thousand. Similarly, when religious officials in the German city of Cologne started interrogating sodomites in 1484, they discovered a vast subculture of queer men in the city. Sodomy statutes were just not that effective.

But these laws and practices bear little resemblance to queer life today. Understandings of gender and sexuality really began to change dramatically in the nineteenth century, a massive paradigm shift that saw the rise of sexual identity as a way of understanding human behavior. Western governments began applying sodomy laws methodically, and police departments founded vice units to crack down on the practice. Doctors and scientists became interested in studying and quantifying these phenomena, inventing labels to describe “deviant” behavior: homosexual, onanist, transvestite. It was the start of the modern persecution of queerness, and even if their rhetoric was not exterminationist in the way we see today, their aim was to understand and thereby “cure” queerness.

But it was a double-edged sword. Systematic oppression begets systematic opposition. And the language that states and sexologists used to define the targets of oppression also gave the oppressed a language with which to describe their oppression. It is no accident that the first queer political movements arose in this period in opposition to sodomy laws and their enforcement. They gathered strength remarkably quickly. In Germany, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first queer political lobby in history, was founded in 1897 and pressed for repeal of the country’s sodomy laws. The group circulated petitions that gained thousands of signatures from prominent politicians, jurists, and intellectuals, including later Nobel laureates Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. The movement was not successful in changing the law until the 1960s, when decades of pressure from progressive lawyers and sexologists finally bore fruit in the years of the sexual revolution. Nonetheless, the movement made queer life visible in previously unimaginable ways.

Today’s backlash is a sign not of strength on the right, but of desperation.

That era saw the birth of the first trans political movement, also in Germany. Calling themselves “transvestites,” which did not carry the derogatory air it does today, these men and women began to band together in the days of the Weimar Republic. The first trans periodical was published in the 1920s, and the first social and political organizations dedicated to trans issues were formed in the same decade. Trans Germans fought discrimination, in particular by helping each other obtain so-called “transvestite certificates” from the police, documentation that nominally allowed them to wear their preferred clothing without harassment. Some of them also succeeded in legally changing their names, though this involved clearing considerable bureaucratic hurdles. Consenting to work through liberal legal institutions, campaigners in the 1920s harnessed queer frustration with social prejudice and persecution to launch remarkably successful trans, lesbian, and gay political movements.

This period came to an abrupt end in 1933, when Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. The next twelve years witnessed the furious persecution of queer people by a fascist regime bent on imposing traditional gender norms. Fifty thousand queer men were convicted under a beefed-up sodomy law. Around ten thousand were sent to concentration camps, where some were subjected to medical experiments. An unknown number of queer women and trans people were harassed, imprisoned, and sent to concentration camps because of their sexual behavior and gender expression. But even the Nazis could not extinguish the light of queer Germany. After the war, queer people began once again to organize in an effort to make the country a welcoming place for LGBTQ people. In many respects, they succeeded.

In the seesaw of LGBTQ German history, there’s a more generalizable dynamic at work. Periods of liberation are often followed by spates of repression. In the United States, after all, World War II—which brought queer Americans together in unprecedented ways—was followed by the Lavender Scare. The gay liberation movement of the 1970s sparked a conservative backlash personified by orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant and her pernicious “Save the Children” campaign. And the achievements of the 2010s preceded the catastrophe now unfolding before our eyes.

But it is equally true that each of those repressions tended, in turn, to spark bolder, more successful campaigns of queer liberation. Just as enforcement of sodomy laws in Germany spawned one of the first queer rights campaign in history, so, too, did the privations of fascism gave postwar activists a sense of solidarity and moral clarity with which they fought for expanded rights. The Lavender Scare led to early victories of the U.S. homophile movement, and police harassment led to the Stonewall riots, which are still seen as a turning point in the history of American queer activism. The AIDS Crisis, made immeasurably worse by the Reagan administration’s homophobia, birthed new, more radical movements. The second Bush administration’s use of gay marriage as a political wedge issue backfired spectacularly.

This is not to say that these movements were perfect embodiments of queer solidarity—far from it. Each was plagued with its own internal divisions, preoccupations with respectability, and petty animuses. The American queer movement has, for instance, long been skeptical of or outright hostile to trans rights—something that has only slowly started to change. But critiquing the imperfections of liberation should not prevent us from also recognizing that in many areas we have made progress, and that that progress has often burst forth after moments of intensified persecution.

When the right persecutes queer people, then, it often leads not to a permanent conservative realignment of gender norms, but rather to the expansion of rights for queer people. By harnessing the solidarity and sympathy aroused by persecution, queer activist movements have, in the long run, turned conservative overreach into leverage.

Today’s backlash is a sign not of strength on the right, but of desperation. That makes it no less terrifying. Queer history is without a doubt a history of violence. There’s hardly a moment in the past devoid of laws targeting, regulating, excluding, or endeavoring to exterminate from public life those whose gender expression and sexual desires do not conform. And the right’s language has become increasingly genocidal: “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” according to one conservative commentator. During the mpox crisis of last summer, some conservatives called for queer people to be put in camps. And as it becomes more genocidal, the rhetoric becomes ever more hypocritical and ever less coherent. The same people who mendaciously insist that trans and queer people are a threat to children can offer no more than “thoughts and prayers” as children are regularly gunned down in their schools.

In the next days, months, and years, then, there will be suffering and death. That is what they want. They want us gone. But there is no way to actually eliminate queerness. It is inherent to the human experience. It is not something taught, nor is it inherited. As soon as you stamp out one form of “deviance,” another arises. And this is precisely what fascists find so terrifying about us. In their search for stable norms and enforceable rules, for a return to a simpler time “when men were men,” queers are living manifestations of the very futility of their desire.