We, the Abuser State
With Texas declaring trans childhood to be de facto child abuse, what will it take for us to break the cycle?
(Image via ACLU)
Beginning in the 1850s, the British administration of the Northwest Provinces (NWP) of colonial India experienced a moral panic about the local hijra population. They libeled hijras, who played a variety of customary roles around fertility and marriage, as a biologically degenerate population. The British termed them “habitual sodomites,” deliberately mislabeled them as men, declared them all prostitutes, and accused them of being “an ‘opprobrium’ upon colonial rule.” On this basis, the province made it official policy to exterminate the hijras. Section II of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 provisioned for the “gradual extirpation” of hijras in the NWP. A police registry was created; all hijras were required to be registered, as well as their property, which could no longer be inherited or transferred. They were banned from performing in public; dressing in women’s clothing was also made illegal. To justify its actions, the colonial state whipped up special outrage at the idea that children who lived in hijra households were in immanent danger of sexual corruption. The NWP attempted to remove children from hijra households as part of their plan to breakup the hijra kinship structure, criminalize their livelihoods, and bring about their total eradication.1
This is one of the first extensively planned genocides of a non-normatively gendered population (although it came on the heels of several centuries of the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English eradicating two-spirit peoples in the Americas). The hijras of the NWP were immensely strong and they survived. Today, they remain at the center of Indian trans culture and politics. But the organized mobilization of a police state to register and eradicate them was no less horrific just because it failed in its deadly aspirations. In 1876 several District Superintendents in the police reported on the preferred method of officers for dealing with the hijras they saw in public while on patrol: “they would cut off their long hair, strip off their female attire and ornaments, and selling them, fit these people out with a set of men’s clothes.”2 Public humiliation and scapegoating was central to the project of eradication. The account is eerily similar to the contemporary conduct of federal agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States, who reportedly attacked two spirit badé on a Crow reservation in the 1890s: as an elder recalled, the agent “incarcerated the badés, cut off their hair, made them wear men’s clothing.”3
The vicious abuse of colonized people’s gender systems was no dress rehearsal. As the modern Western state came into being with its massive police and administrative arms, legalized abuse has long been one of its calling cards. The nineteenth and early twentieth century is littered with the skeletons of child removal, the planned mass-abduction of indigenous, Black, and immigrant children from their homes, particularly in large cities, and their incarceration in work camps, reform schools, and other “caring” state institutions.4 Historians of childhood have examined in grisly detail the sheer amount of state sponsored abuse of children that has been packaged up as in “the best interests of the child.” Two-spirit children were sent to places like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where their language and culture were forcibly stripped away for reformation into binary men and women.5 The very concept of child welfare, not to mention the historically anti-Black system of child protective services and foster care that were developed in the twentieth century, has long been used to intimately police African American families and communities deemed politically subversive.6
Now we see that the state of Texas is moving to declare that any affirmation of trans children is statutory child abuse. A bill in the Texas Senate last year aiming to do the same failed. But yesterday, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion from his office that he considered gender affirmation to constitute child abuse; today, the Governor produced a letter instructing state agencies to make necessary preparations to mandate reporting and allow for the investigation of trans children and their caregivers. As Melissa Gira Grant explains in a useful article contextualizing these developments alongside proposals like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, the pretext is being generated for the removal of trans children from their families.
The state of Texas would abuse trans children in the name of protecting them from child abuse.
I have suggested before that it’s important to say that the state has never been cisgender before. It has never been the official policy of the state to coerce its subjects into aligning their anatomy with their legal gender. That much remains at stake. But from another point of view, this particularly violent open season on trans kids in Texas is part of a centuries’s long record of blood. A record of the state as the abuser, often an abuser who manipulates and pacifies the population by lying to our faces and telling us that the abuse we must inflict on kids is to protect them from the real danger: an immoral, degenerate population of sexual predators.
The slogan of “parental rights” is at its root the fantasy that children are quasi-property, not people.7 And in the cowardly inability of progressives to stand up to the crisis of state legislation, moral panic, and the growing global alliance of anti-trans groups with authoritarian and anti-democracy groups, we have collectively failed. While centrists fret over whether we ought not just give up on trans kids to appease right wingers, and the empty corporate shills of LGBT diversity and inclusion think who we see on tv or in makeup ads is the only measure of progress we care about, we are left with a serious problem: what sort of feeling is enough to get us to act? What sort of imagination of the disaster befalling trans childhood do you need to understand that you are complicit with the abuser state if you do not work to stop it? Is it awful enough to imagine spending your childhood traveling to the state capitol year after year, begging lawmakers not to sign away your rights? Is it awful enough to imagine that your doctor, your teacher, or your parent will be legally obliged to report you to the state for investigation? Is it awful enough to know that children have to figure out how to live in a world where everyone around them has been trained to see them and to see them as a morality play, rather than people?
I fear for the lives of trans children in Texas and everywhere, but I fear for the living they have to do. To live on in such conditions in a world they did not author is nothing short of horror. This world, the one we adults have made for them, is a nightmare. Why would they ever trust us?
One of the worst things about the abuser state is that it makes abusers out of us all by coercing our consent over and over. This is how state power works, particularly in its anti-democracy form. Until we learn how to stop the cycle of abuse that has long used transness as its scapegoat, the cold, calm plans for eradication laid out by the modern state, whether the British in India in the 1870s, or Texas in 2022, will carry on.
See Jessica Hinchy, Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c. 18500-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Quoted in Hinchy, 201.
Quoted in Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 180.
The classic study is Anthony Platt, The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency (University of Chicago Press, 1977).
Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books, 2001).
On the history of how childhood in the US has been used to shape the difference between person and property, see Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence