For over a decade, gay rights opponents peddled a set of myths and fearmongering tactics to try to sway voters against marriage equality and basic rights for gay people. Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, anti-LGBT organizations have started recycling the same bogus scare tactics to target the new bogeyman of the LGBT rights movement -- the transgender community.
The Slippery Slope
The “slippery slope” argument has been one of the most popular arguments used by opponents of LGBT equality, aimed at making even basic protections for LGBT people appear dangerous.
In debates over sexual orientation non-discrimination laws, opponents warned that prohibiting discrimination against gay people would begin a slippery slope towards protecting pedophilia and bestiality.
Similarly, in the debate over marriage equality, anti-gay activists predicted that allowing same-sex couples to marry would cause a slippery slope to legalized polygamy, bestiality, incest, and pedophilia.
That idea persisted even after gay couples had been legally wedding in Massachusetts for over a decade without opening "a Pandora's box." Immediately following the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision in June 2015, anti-gay advocates continued to argue that marriage equality would undermine the legal limits on who could get married.
Now that the debate over marriage equality has died down, the "transgender slippery slope" argument is emerging in debates over protections for trans people. Opponents suggest that allowing transgender people to define their gender identity would open the floodgates, with people claiming to be a cat, a flower, or a Cocker Spaniel. Fox News and other conservative media outlets have deemed non-discrimination protections for transgender people a “slippery slope.” As one prominent anti-LGBT group declared, accommodating transgender people is “not a slippery slope, but a trap door to sexual nihilism.”
Opponents of legal protections for gay people have also warned that these protections threaten religious liberty -- specifically the religious liberty of Christians who oppose homosexuality. One of the most commonly cited myths in the fight against marriage equality was the idea that legalizing same-sex marriage would cause churches or pastors to be forced to marry gay couples, despite clear religious exemptions in marriage equality legislation. Anti-LGBT groups like the National Organization for Marriage, Alliance Defending Freedom , and Family Research Council (FRC) hyped claims that pastors and churches were in danger of being forced to perform same-sex marriages.
Despite the obvious constitutional protections for churches and ministers, both conservative and mainstream media outlets parroted religious liberty talking points, even years after states began legalizing same-sex marriage without issue.
Baseless concerns about religious liberty are now playing a major part in debates about accommodations for transgender people. In March, Fox News contributor Erick Erickson claimed that a broad “religious freedom” law was needed to protect churches from being forced to build gender neutral bathrooms. In the same vein, the anti-LGBT legal organization leading the fight against accommodating transgender students claimed that these protections somehow violate the "religious liberty" of other students. And in November, an anti-gay hate-group successfully canceled a school reading of the trans-supportive picture book “I Am Jazz,” with the claim that reading the book would “undermin[e] the religious free exercise” of teachers and students.
Threat To Kids
Opponents of gay equality used to be wildly effective at invoking concerns about the safety of children to argue against basic protections for gay people.
For decades, the myth that gay men are more likely to engage in pedophilia than straight men has been a central right-wing talking point. Anti-LGBT organizations frequently employed the talking point to argue against marriage equality, allowing gay parents to adopt children, and even accepting gay Boy Scout troop leaders.
Though the pedophilia talking point has fallen out of favor with mainstream anti-gay groups, fearmongering about children's well-being remains a central focus of anti-gay politics. Opponents of gay equality regularly cite pseudoscience to falsely argue that the children of gay parents fare less well than the children of straight parents. Others warn that prohibiting anti-gay discrimination would cause gay people to have "inappropriate" jobs like school teachers.
Child-focused fearmongering has been incredibly effective in anti-LGBT politics. In a 2012 report, Political Research Associates noted that the “harm to kids” theme had a “clear, negative impact on how voters felt about same-sex marriage.” Even people who generally support LGBT equality become anxious when opponents warn about potential harm to children.
Which helps explain why anti-LGBT groups are using nearly identical talking points in attacks on transgender equality. In cities and states across the country, opponents of non-discrimination protections for transgender people have adopted the myth that these protections would be exploited by sexual predators looking to enter women's bathrooms and commit sexual assault -- especially against young girls. Government experts, advocates for sexual assault victims, and law enforcement officials have debunked that talking point, but it continues to dominate debates about transgender equality.
In November, opponents of transgender equality in Houston, Texas successfully demonstrated how horror stories about children's safety can impact public and media discussions about trans non-discrimination. The city's broad non-discrimination law was repealed following a public misinformation campaign that relied heavily on an ad picturing a man following a young girl into a public bathroom stall:
The transgender community continues to face astronomical rates of harassment and discrimination at work, in school, in public places, and even from law enforcement. While public attitudes about same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexuality shifted considerably over the past decade, acceptance of transgender people has lagged behind. Given that only 16 percent of Americans personally know someone who is transgender, it's still common for anti-LGBT groups to spread myths about the transgender community with impunity.
But these myths aren't new -- and journalists should recognize that the talking points being used to attack transgender equality are the same bogus, recycled attacks that anti-LGBT groups have been peddling against gay people for years.