For We Were Strangers: Trans Refugees and Moral Panics

For We Were Strangers: Trans Refugees and Moral Panics
For We Were Strangers: Trans Refugees and Moral Panics

(Image by Camilo Freedman for Getty Images)

The scene is haunting: Families packing up their belongings and leaving their homes because they fear for their children’s wellbeing and safety. In Austin, Texas, one of the items lovingly packed was a poster emblazoned with “Trans Girls are Girls.” It belongs to Jessie, a 10-year-old, who along with her family, fled to Oregon after a spate of anti-trans legislation was enacted in the Lonestar State.

Jessie is not alone. In Alabama, a 48-year-old mother fled with her 15-year-old son after the state criminalized gender affirming healthcare. And news reports are steadily documenting the ongoing travels of trans youth who must now seek medical treatment out of state. These trans refugees and migrants have been displaced by the force of a multi-year moral panic that has demonized trans adults as sexual predators and trans youth as endangered victims of “gender theory,” or, as dangerous influences on other “innocent” children.

The fearmongering around trans people now has legislative teeth in a growing number of states. At the urging of conservative politicians, legislatures have passed hundreds of bills including bans on trans youth from playing on sports teams, the censorship of LGBTQ topics in classrooms and libraries, the gendered policing of bathroom use, and the creation of religious exemptions for anti-discrimination statutes. Some laws even empower state agencies to investigate and charge parents and physicians who provide gender-affirming care to minors. Other legislation intends to punish parents for traveling out of state with their children to seek supportive medical treatment.

Today’s state sponsored stigmatization—which seeks to disappear trans people—has all the hallmarks of a moral panic. Sociologists and historians have shown that moral panics are political tools that have allowed members of dominant groups to demonize minorities. In most cases, these same minorities have limited access to political and cultural resources that might stymie the harmful story being told about them. As a result, these engineered fears have justified draconian laws, surveillance, and the institutionalization of minorities. Less acknowledged is that these orchestrated outbursts of fear and loathing also create refugees who engage in temporary or permanent migrations. The current panic over trans people means that their healthcare and visibility is ever more precarious and dangerous in certain regions of the United States. And it is forcing some trans people and their families to flee from home permanently. Others face the hardship of traveling repeatedly in order to seek essential medical care.

(Photo by Jay Janner for the Associated Press)

Because of the uneven restrictions and laws surrounding gender and sexuality at the state level, there is a long and diverse history of forced migrations and temporary travel. These ongoing displacements directly link trans folks to broader histories of sexual refugees and medical migrants. At a moment when the far right and trans-exclusionary feminists both would deny the existence, dignity, and rights of trans folk, such histories offer an urgent reminder that trans people shared and continue to share in persistent forms of oppression and resistance. In this sense, trans struggles for healthcare and equality must be seen as part of – rather than apart from – other historical struggles for civil rights in the face of moral panics.

We should think about trans folks as overlapping in the experiences of a number of groups, but especially queers and abortion seekers. Members of each of these groups, at one time or another, were forced to leave home to seek dignity, legal recognition, safety and/or medical treatment in other parts of the country. The places where they sojourned sometimes embraced them. More often they tolerated them. And frequently, these destinations became sites from which to challenge the restrictive moral regimes elsewhere.

Sexual Refugees

“By the tens of thousands, we fled small towns where to be ourselves would endanger our jobs and any hope of a decent life; we have fled from blackmailing cops, from families who disowned or ‘tolerated’ us; we have been drummed out of the armed services, thrown out of schools, fired from jobs, beaten by punks and policemen.” – Carl Wittman, “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto

Queers have long left their homes for cities like San Francisco and New York where urban anonymity and thriving communities have provided shelter and support. Urban queer enclaves, already burgeoning by WWII, became safe havens in the wake of a series of midcentury moral panics—what historian David K. Johnson calls the “lavender scare” and George Chauncey names a “sex crime panic”—about homosexuality. These 1950s and 1960s paranoid paroxysms that saw police and politicians fearmonger about queers haunting public parks, public bathrooms, suburbs, the military, and government agencies, have been well documented but their consequences and afterlife are worth considering.

Media reporting about an upsurge of sex crimes – most of which involved adult men assaulting young girls – led to violent anti-gay crackdowns and the flight of gays and lesbians from their communities. In numerous cities, police forces and politicians, striving to show they were tough on sex crimes, unfairly stigmatized “all homosexuals as potential child molesters or murderers,” writes George Chauncey. Police regularly raided the places where gays and lesbians congregated. In the wake of such raids, local newspapers would frequently print the names and home addresses of those arrested, leading to a cascade of consequences including interpersonal violence and job loss.

(Image source: CBS News)

In one notorious backlash in Boise, Idaho in 1955, news of a single sodomy arrest led to the displacement of that city’s gay community. Boise’s local press both instigated and accelerated this moral panic. An op-ed in the city’s leading newspaper warned that “a number of boys have been victimized by these perverts” and demanded that all homosexuals “be removed from this community.” The city’s prosecutor promised to “eliminate” all homosexuality from Boise. One gay school teacher read about these threats in the morning paper as he ate his breakfast. Fearing the worst, he “jumped up from his seat, pulled out his suitcases, packed as fast as he could, got into his car, and drove straight to San Francisco never bothering to call up the school to let it be known that he would be absent. The cold eggs, coffee, and toast remained on his table for two days before someone from his school came by to see what had happened.”

Remarking on the anti-gay panic, the same teacher remembered: “First they say, ‘Save the kids.’ Then they say, ‘Crush the homosexuals.’ Enemies of society—that’s what we were called. I remember very well. So I asked myself, where will this stop? I’ve never had any kind of relations except with consenting adults. But is Boise going to be calm enough to draw the difference? Will they look for the difference? No, I knew they’d go after anybody who wears a ring on their pinky. I wasn’t going to take the chance and get swallowed up in a blind, raging witch hunt. I got the hell out.” The teacher was one of many gay refugees leaving Boise for safer locales.

Federal policy codified the midcentury anti-gay panic. Numerous government agencies, believing that queers were security risks, attempted to ferret out gays and lesbians. As various government agencies investigated and interrogated suspected queers, there was a “subdued hysteria” among Washington DC’s gay and lesbian government workers, records David K. Johnson. One lesbian woman who worked for the Department of Commerce in the 1950s recalled: “You lived not knowing what would happen next… You would be socializing with somebody, and then they disappeared, they had gotten kicked out and left town.” The woman who shared these recollections was fired from her job for being a lesbian. Like many of her colleagues, also ended up fleeing DC for San Francisco in the summer of 1958. There she joined other sexual refugees, who in the wake of being outed and fired, continued to battle “long-term unemployment or underemployment, resulting in severe financial or health problems.”

But the flight from their hometowns was not the end of the story for these queer refugees. Rather, their plight spurred a wave of activism and institution building. Groups like the Mattachine Society, a path-setting gay rights organization, was devoted to helping “the most desperate individuals,” many of whom were minors, in their migration westward. As historian Martin Meeker has shown, the Mattachine Society pioneered civil rights activism for gays and lesbians even as it offered advice for refugees, helping them find jobs, places to live, and integrating them into the queer community. One letter to the Mattachine from a man in Owensboro, Kentucky encapsulated both the plight of queers and the activism of the Mattachine: “I would like to ask if you could guide me as just where can I go to live a peaceful, happy life…? Would San Francisco be the place[?]”

While many queers arrived to new cities alone having fled their families and towns of origin, they often found organizations—imperfect though they were—in place to help them sojourn. “San Francisco is a refugee camp for homosexuals,” declared gay liberationist Carl Wittman in 1970. “We have fled here from every part of the nation, and like refugees elsewhere, we came not because it is so great here, but because it was so bad there.” And while San Francisco—a gay ghetto in Wittman’s words—was one of the places that offered greater protection and tolerance, the work of gay rights groups radiated outward far beyond that city’s limits.

Moral panics thrive when its targets can be easily silenced and stigmatized. The queer legal and cultural activism in San Francisco, and in other urban centers, slowly produced transformations over the next seven decades that made the demonization of same-sex sexuality more difficult to sustain. Increasingly, queers, the families that loved them, and the organizations that supported them, worked on neutralizing the cultural and legal minefields sewn by the moral panics of decades’ past. This work produced tangible, albeit imperfect results by transforming the meaning of same-sex sexuality and making greater swaths of the United States habitable, if not hospitable, to queers.

Compulsory Pregnancy and Medical Migration

“When we found ourselves unable to get help in the United States we were forced to go overseas. [A doctor] called it self-imposed exile…. It sounds kind of cruel but we really had no choice at that point. I knew that I was right in terminating the pregnancy.” – Sherri Chessen, “The Lesser of Two Evils” (1966)

Overlapping neatly with the state persecution of queers, from the 1940s until Roe, abortion seekers traveled out of state or abroad for services because police, prosecutors, and hospitals engaged in a “newly aggressive level” of suppression of skilled abortion providers. A sensationalistic press regularly glorified the ongoing police raids on abortion clinics. Headlines screamed that these medical practitioners—some of whom were in fact well respected and conscientious physicians—were dangerous members of a “criminal underworld.” And the women who sought out abortion, conservative doctors argued, were abandoning their motherly responsibilities and feminine destinies.

Many newspaper articles did more than approvingly describe the raids. They also publicly named and shamed the providers and abortion seekers who sought their help. Against this backdrop, hospitals dramatically tightened their abortion restrictions, making it difficult for sympathetic physicians to help their patients.

Patients, of course, paid a heavy price. Those caught up in anti-abortion dragnets were subjected to invasive gynecological exams, interrogations, and public humiliation. Other abortion seekers lost access to local medical assistance, as police pressure shuttered clinics and drove providers out of business. Medical scarcity became the norm. Some who might have chosen to terminate pregnancies were compelled to carry them to term. Mainland American women with the means to do so were forced to travel offshore. Growing numbers of medical migrants headed for Cuba, Japan, Puerto Rico and Mexico in the 1950s and 1960s. Newspapers termed these destinations “abortion meccas” and “abortion capitals.” After England legalized abortion in 1968, it too became an “abortion capital.” New York City in 1970 also assumed this title as abortion seekers—denied medical services at home—traveled there by the thousands, desperate to control their bodies and reproductive futures.

The travel experiences of abortion seekers ran the gamut from harrowing to comforting. Such travel was consistently costly. And for some, this journey was their first trip outside of the United States. “My mother nearly emptied their savings account to buy roundtrip plane tickets to Havana, and get the money to pay the abortionist,” wrote Miriam Levine Helbok about her sister’s medical migration in the mid-1950s. “Neither my mother nor my sister had ever been on a plane,” she explained. But the kind of care abortion seekers encountered upon arrival varied significantly. Some received compassionate and competent care. Others, like Helbok’s sister, experienced painful or poor medical treatment. Too many women faced sexual assault or exploitation from providers. And some returned home suffering from infections or complications, some of which proved fatal.

Early on, women found their way to abortion providers through word of mouth. A friend, a relative, or a physician might have a connection. Such referrals were often dicey and involved clandestine behavior. Fearing identification and arrest, abortion providers would have clients wait on street corners where they would be picked up in cars, blindfolded, and driven around before arriving at the site where the abortion would be performed. Sometimes the blindfold would be removed. Other times it would not. For abortion seekers, these experiences were harrowing. And stories of “knitting needles or coat hangers as instruments, of the administration of dangerous drugs, of blindfold pick-ups, of free sex as part of the fee, of blackmail and intimidation” circulated widely as the terrible cost of controlling reproduction. Despite these dangers, women were willing to risk their lives to control their fertility and their future. “I feel that even that I’ve heard a few bad things,” wrote one woman who braved the abortion underground, “and this is the only answer.”

By the late 1960s, a network of activists helped thousands of abortion seekers navigate travel, directing them to pre-vetted abortion providers around the globe. Groups like Association to Repeal Abortion Laws and the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that forced medical migrants’ journeys were as uneventful as possible. These and other networks offered extensive guidance on how to cross borders safely to reach trusted physicians for safe and comparatively affordable care. At the same time, reproductive rights groups worked to ensure that abortion opponents would not have the final word on the meaning of abortion. Through concerted advocacy and strategic use of the press, abortion rights groups shifted the public meaning of abortion from “deviant to decent.”

Such efforts did more than save abortion seekers’ lives. They helped destigmatize abortion and raised the expectations of abortion seekers for better and more accessible healthcare. As American abortion seekers encountered each other while traveling on planes and buses, in clinic waiting rooms, and in recovery rooms, they quickly realized they were not alone. They, and the doctors who helped them, also wondered together why they could not easily and affordably have abortions at home. And on the eve of Roe v. Wade, there was a widespread consensus among feminists, religious leaders, medical professionals, the press, politicians, lawyers, and an ever-wider public, that abortion ought to be legal, local, and available on demand.

The Past is Not a Foreign Country

Today, as growing numbers of states restrict abortion healthcare, trans healthcare, and seek to roll back gay and lesbian civil rights, the past is far from a foreign country. Rather, we are traversing familiar terrain as conservatives look to these oppressive legacies, not with horror, but with longing. The backlash against queers, trans folks, and abortion seekers is all part of the long rise of anti-democratic movements in the United States.

But the differences between past and present are also marked: far from solitary, the medical migrations of trans youth and abortion seekers are often guided by supportive parents, empowering organizations, and affirmative physicians. Gay and lesbian institutions have deep political infrastructures and a bedrock of legal precedents to draw from. So too do abortion seekers and those who support them, who look to half-a-century of constitutionally protected abortion rights as a touchstone for their expectations.

There are many who would maintain that trans quests for dignity and treatment are somehow outliers, deviant, or out of step with American traditions. But even the most cursory glance at the parallel journeys of trans folk with abortion seekers, queers, and many others, offers an urgent reminder that they are not alone. History shows us that a moral panic is most dangerous and efficacious when its proponents can silence and isolate the groups they are targeting. By placing trans youth and those who love them within larger American civil rights histories, we work to blunt the force of conservatives’ manufactured fears. Instead, we insist that our trans kin are in good company in the ongoing American quest for medical dignity, social equality, and civil rights.


Gillian Frank is a historian of religion and sexuality who co-hosts the podcast Sexing History. His book, Making Choice Sacred: Liberal Religion and the Struggle for Abortion Before Roe, is forthcoming with University of North Carolina Press.

The post For We Were Strangers: Trans Refugees and Moral Panics appeared first on The Revealer.

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