In Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, I analyze the long history of transgender smear tactics used by the Religious Right, a large social movement that opposes LGBT rights. One area where this occurs is the production of campaign ads addressing attempts to protect transgender individuals from discrimination. The ads almost always focus on either children or bathrooms.
Back in April, voters in Anchorage, Alaska, rejected Proposition 5, which would have created a law protecting residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Such laws are primarily to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) residents. Transgender inclusion in the potential law was the focus of two commercials by the organization Protect Your Rights.
In both of these political ads, figures of large, hairy male-bodied individuals in dresses, described as “transvestites”, represented transgender inclusion. They present transgender individuals as grotesque and threatening. At the heart of these ads and other transgender smear tactics is anxiety about bodies in gender-segregated spaces that are typically occupied by women.
The women’s bathroom in particular is a site where gender conformity is policed. According to scholar Judith Halberstam in her book Female Masculinity, women’s bathrooms “operate as an arena for the enforcement of gender conformity…a sanctuary of enhanced femininity, a ‘little girl’s room’ to which one retreats to powder one’s nose or fix one’s hair” (p. 24). In this ad, the locker room operates in parallel way, as a space where gender conformity and bodies are strictly policed:
The other ad focused on the possibility of a “transvestite” getting hired at a daycare facility:
In addition to the use of stereotypically-presented “transvestites” to represent all transgender individuals as grotesque and laughable, the ads also argue that employers should have the right to discriminate if they think their customers are prejudiced toward a particular group or uncomfortable with them in certain jobs — an argument that has been used to resist allowing racial minorities and women into various careers. The ads also suggest that Anchorage is already sufficiently tolerant and thus doesn’t need to address the issues Proposition 5 supporters claimed were a problem.
Ads that raise fears about transvestites teaching in the classroom have been used since the 1970s during ballot measure campaigns, and the Religious Right has been raising concerns about transgender women in women’s bathrooms since the late 1980s. These two ads from the Anchorage Proposition 5 campaign are among the newest additions to the long tradition of ads that rely on stereotypes of LGBT individuals as predatory, dangerous to have around children, and having ulterior motives.
Amy L. Stone is an associate professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.