During Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the legal impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges called out Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) for his attempt to turn the hearing into another excuse to criticize trans-inclusive language. Predictably, right-wing media latched onto Bridges’ comments, using her defense of pregnant trans men and nonbinary people to push their latest attack on the trans community and distract from the Supreme Court’s unpopular assault on abortion rights.
Bridges, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, was one of several speakers who testified at the hearing, using her time to discuss how issues like systemic racism and the assault on voting rights further compound the fallout of Republican attacks on reproductive rights. Hawley, who has a history of attacking Democrats for recognizing that some trans men and nonbinary people are able to become pregnant, opted to use his time to question Bridges’ use of the term “people with a capacity for pregnancy,” asking her, “Would that be women?”
In turn, Bridges responded with a concise and accurate explanation of both how Hawley’s assertion excluded pregnant people who are not women as well as how the continued dehumanization of trans people contributes to the mental health crisis among trans youth. Hawley responded by denying that pregnant men exist and asked Bridges how access to abortion can be a women’s rights issue while including pregnant men, to which Bridges responded that the two “are not mutually exclusive.”
Later that day, Hawley tweeted the exchange with Bridges and reacted with incredulity to the fact that some men can become pregnant while falsely suggesting “today’s left” was attempting to censor him. The latter claim has become a common refrain from Hawley (a sitting senator with nearly a million followers on Twitter alone). While anti-trans rhetoric and claims of censorship would frame right-wing coverage to come, Hawley’s approach seemingly inspired other members of Congress.
During the next day’s House hearing on the issue of abortion access and the law, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) continued the same line of questiong, this time asking a witness from the anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom if men could become pregnant.
Fox News leads the right-wing effort to stir fear about gender-inclusive language at the expense of trans men and nonbinary people
Fresh off its recent meltdown over a depiction of a trans man in a Disney show, Fox News was quick to latch onto this week’s excuse to attack the trans community.
Prime-time host Sean Hannity brought Hawley onto his Wednesday show for a segment, during which the two also railed against trans athletes and claimed conservatives were being censored. Hannity also suggested Hawley’s questioning was “honest” and “fair." Later that night, Fox News @ Night ran with the narrative that Hawley was being condemned for a simple question, displaying a chyron during a brief segment on the story that read: “Questioning is transphobic.”
The next morning, Fox & Friends First covered the story twice, including in a segment that brought on Fox News contributor Sean Duffy, who claimed that there were “so many teachers like this indoctrinating our kids” before using the story to spread vaccine hesitancy and misinformation on COVID-19 health measures. On the following hour’s Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade reacted to the clip, saying “That’s a professor from Berkeley who doesn’t know what a woman is,'' and later accusing Bridges of “trying to marginalize and cancel somebody.” During a segment on that day’s The Faulkner Focus, The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway was more pointed with her political motivation, saying if “Republicans can make this a campaign issue … I think it will further exacerbate problems for Democrats.” On that evening’s Gutfeld, Fox anchor Shannon Bream likewise made the political motivation of the story clear, saying, “If the Democrats and the left want to go this route for the midterms this fall and say this is who we align with, this is the ideology we align with, you know, they’re taking their chances.”
When Fox contributor Jessica Tarlov made an appeal for her colleagues to respect the humanity of trans men on that evening’s The Five, her co-hosts eventually shouted her down.
Tarlov’s colleagues were not alone in failing to see the irony of claiming dissent was disallowed while punishing any voices that broke their mold of bigotry. When The Washington Post ran an article that simply recognized Hawley’s refusal to “acknowledge that some transgender men can get pregnant,” some right-wing media figures went after the paper. When an editor at USA Today defended Bridges and called out the transphobia in Hawley’s rhetoric, he too was piled on by conservative figures on social media.
The familiar faces of right-wing media’s anti-trans outrage machine followed Fox’s lead. On his podcast, The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro compared trans people to schizophrenics before accusing Bridges of “corrupting the society and destroying it from within – that’s what you’re watching in that clip.” Shapiro followed with an op-ed on The Daily Wire’s website in which he repeated many of the same points he touched on in his rambling half-hour diatribe, including denying that acceptance reduces suicidality among LGBTQ people (it does) and accusing Bridges of being a pseudo-intellectual (she isn’t). Shapiro’s employee and huckster documentarian Matt Walsh tweeted his outrage over the “liberal witnesses” who “claimed that men can get pregnant,” writing, “We cannot share a country with these people. There can be no unity. They are lunatics and monsters.”
Denying the existence of trans men and nonbinary people is a politically-motivated tactic with serious potential medical repercussions
As Republican politicians joined in the right-wing revelry of denying the existence of pregnant trans men and nonbinary people, they invoked an unfounded line of attack on a group of people who, along with many cis women, now face a serious threat to their reproductive care. Hawley’s rhetoric echoes questioning Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson faced during her confirmation hearing concerning how to define a woman. As was true then, it is an attempt to wield a question for which traditional orthodoxy had a simple answer, in an effort to undermine the legitimacy of trans identity. Hawley’s attempt to claim ignorance of how this rhetoric is used could reasonably be called into question considering Hawley’s wife (who works for ADF) wrote an op-ed just last year stoking fear over precisely the sort of gender-inclusive language he singled out on Wednesday.
This affront to trans Americans is driven in large part by the pursuit of political capital, namely the belief among conservatives that the mere existence of trans people can be the latest moral panic that drives evangelical voters to the polls. Hawley, in whose home state of Missouri more than a third of adult voters are evangelicals, is surely aware of this coordinated strategy. After all, along with fundraising off of another alarmist anti-LGBTQ attack that targeted Disney, Hawley relies on anti-LGBTQ extremist groups like ADF for financial support.
This political strategy has a human cost, coming at the expense of those trans men and nonbinary people who can become pregnant, for whom access to reproductive care, including abortion, is disproportionately difficult to access. In fact, the cisnormativity that Hawley and right-wing media’s rhetoric seeks to uphold is the same outdated doctine that can put the lives of trans men and nonbinary people at risk.