There’s a considerable amount of concern and fear about the direction Florida is heading. Florida’s legislature is passing bills hostile to civil rights and its administrative bodies are engaging in a coordinated assault on anyone who doesn’t fit the white evangelical vision of America as a theocratic ethnostate. These attacks have targeted trans people, of course, as we represent merely the latest in a sequence of right-wing bogeymen, but also Black folks, liberals, and anyone else who Republicans think they can hurt. Republican hatred is a big tent; it’s a politics built on fear and fragility, so there’s no shortage of people they can despise.
It’s important to recognize that this fascist step forward was built on and fuelled by social media drama, so it’s fitting that Ron DeSantis kicked off his presidential campaign with an embarrassing and catastrophic failure on Elon Musk’s Twitter Spaces. This, too, should have been predictable; Musk’s track record on launch failures is robust. Nevertheless, I digress. The point is that Republican strategy has been built on “triggering the libs” for the past seven years, even as this strategy has progressively led to deeper and deeper Republican electoral failures. Republicans are evil, not clueless; they know that the only way to stop the bleeding is to assault democracy itself while we’re all outraged on Twitter.
Trans people in particular, as some of the primary and most vulnerable targets of this hatred, have been raising alarms about this growing fascist threat. These alarms might be counterproductive—more on that in a moment—but they point to the many similarities between Florida today and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Often cited is that one of the targets of the infamous Nazi book burning in May 1933 was Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology), which at the time was the home of the most advanced and progressive research on gender and sexuality in the world. The comparisons are apt but overstated; the American queer community has a history of overrepresenting the extent to which Nazis targeted homosexuals, though this perhaps balances against the broader trend of omitting these narratives from Holocaust discourse. It was only this year that the German government put queer people into frame during its Holocaust remembrance.
Hirschfeld was targeted during the Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist partly because of his support of homosexuals' and women’s rights, partly because of his outspoken politics against the Nazi party, and largely because he was a Jewish scholar. The stain on human history that these raids represent nevertheless does provide an entrypoint into understanding how the Nazi party cemented its power and consequently also gives us insight into how and why DeSantis will fail and what we can do to accelerate that failure.
The historian Ulrich Schneider writes:
Another cause for the failure of the Weimar Republic can be seen in that too little support for democratic principals was given by elites and by the population. Weimar was a “Republic without Republicans.” In fact, the political anchoring of the parliamentary democracy was in the (Kaiserreich-socialized) ruling circles scarcely pronounced.
Schneider goes on to describe how the old ruling elites were allowed to stay in positions of power, and step by step the anti-republican forces were allowed to gather in strength, step by step. In this reading, assaults like the Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist became a symptom of a corruption of democratic ideals, and not the cause of one.
In examining Florida, I believe that these are the deeper concerns to have, and these are also the indications of how we can roll back the damage that’s been done. I am naturally deeply concerned by the assaults on transgender people in Florida, but I believe that this is a symptom of a deeper sickness in our democracy, one that scares me a lot more.
I’ve written before how the use of the word “genocide” is unsuited to describe what’s happening in Florida, not only because it is incorrect and can lead to undue panic, but because it focuses on the wrong curative action. Fascism won’t be defeated simply by delaying its agenda. The roots must be poisoned and burned.
One lesson to take from Nazi Germany is the potential of genocide and the Holocaust, but taking this lesson alone would be incomplete. There are civil rights struggles all around the world; most of them don’t lead to the Holocaust or to genocide. The lesson of Nazi Germany is not only the potential outcomes and the steps that led to them, but also in the actions not taken and the guardrails not put in place. Setting the standard of objectionability so high as genocide risks allowing more mundane transgressions against civil rights to slip in unopposed, step by step. In other words, we should care about transgender rights not (only) because the attack on transgender people may presage a potential future genocide, but because a society based on the principles of human dignity and democracy demands the equal and just treatment of all who live in it today.
Florida’s crackdown on queer people is hardly unique in the world. In 2014, Istanbul Pride attracted an estimated 100,000 marchers. The following year, Istanbul police started cracking down on demonstrators, using water cannons to disperse the crowd and using flimsy “public safety” excuses to justify the ongoing ban of the event. Despite this, Istanbul takes place each year (albeit with a pause, like elsewhere, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Each year, there are dozens of arrests, sometimes hundreds. But the march still continues.
In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which he loudly proclaims to be a Christian country, anti-LGBT laws have been pushed forward. These laws include repressive restrictions on free speech, including banning education material, forbidding people from displaying pro-LGBT merchandise in shop windows, and more. The Hungarian Pride community did not back down; in fact, Budapest Pride organizes over a hundred events each year and draws tens of thousands in support.
Similar stories can be seen in Romania, a country that got a lot of publicity for banning Gender Studies in universities, and Poland, which vocally announced the formation of “anti-LGBT” zones in the country. It’s not hard to find a lot of news about all of these queerphobic crimes against human rights. Perhaps it’s a little harder to find the good news. Romania’s highest court overturned the Gender Studies ban shortly after it was put into place. The European Commission started infringement proceedings against Hungary for breaching the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Perhaps most noteworthy is the ongoing battle known as the Polish rule-of-law crisis, of which anti-LGBT sentiment is but one leg of a larger anti-democratic race taking place in Poland. The European Union has reacted strongly, and many Polish cities found themselves quickly cut off from some sources of EU funding.
The wheels of democracy spin slowly, but they spin in the right direction. There are lessons in how our queer peers and institutions globally react to their oncoming threats. Undoubtedly, there are almost surely imperfections in how Pride events in Budapest or Istanbul or Bucharest or Krakow are organized. But let us not, as Žižek says, attack the strongest link in the chain instead of the weakest. The democratic process is not limited to the official powers of courts and legislative bodies, but falls also on the people to resist.
This is not to say that courts and legislative bodies are to be ignored. Street antifascism is a great response to street fascism. There’s a real glory to be had when a Proud Boy has a tooth knocked out in self-defense. But when the fascism has reached the governor’s office, there’s limited options that remain. In fact, there are exactly three paths through which Florida can be fixed: through the courts, through legislation, and through uprising.
The battle in the courts is already taking place, and as much a fan of uprising that I am, the legal battles are an interesting watch. Like in Poland, Florida may have overreached in a self-harming way. In the case Doe v. LADAPO (N.D. Florida 4:23-cv-114), parents of transgender minors are suing over the recently-passed SB 254. The legal argument they make is an interesting one: rather than attacking the law on the basis of healthcare rights, such as those guaranteed under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, they’re arguing on the basis of parental rights. This argument is interesting because it represents a sort of reversal on the evangelical right.
The parental rights movement is a decades-long evangelical project that attempts to constitutionally encode the absolute right of a parent to control their child. This includes factors of education, healthcare, and legal rights. The parental rights movement is an extremist movement that fits into the same theocratic goals I mentioned above. It’s important to understand that that right’s hatred of LGBT+ people is not due to ignorance; it’s a necessary component of their white christian ethnostate project. The same is true with parental rights.
In moving for a preliminary injunction to block SB 254, plaintiffs in Doe argue that the law interferes with their parental rights. They cite substantial case law, including Supreme Court and 11th Circuit (of which Florida is a part) precedent, arguing that the laws establish that parents, and not the state, are best positioned to decide on the medical needs of their children. The legal arguments appear sound; they establish that transgender kids are treated medically, in conjunction with nationally-accepted best practices, and that prior case law establishes a strict scrutiny standard of judicial review. Strict scrutiny means that the government’s infringement on rights must have a legitimate aim and be narrowly construed.
This argument is interesting. If a court corruptly tries to reject their argument, then the court also risks weakening parental rights. If the court accepts the argument, parental rights aren’t really strengthened at all, as it simply affirms existing precedent. I’m not an expert, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of wiggle room. A corrupt district court may still find an excuse, as might a corrupt circuit court, even one assessing the case en banc. Any ruling against the plaintiffs might open a can of worms to leverage the courts for all sorts of similar arguments that go against the right.
It is exactly this sort of thing that we can and should prepare for. Many legal experts find various elements of unconstitutionality in what Florida is doing. Florida’s democratic overreach is not without a whole array of blowback effects. We should be looking for test cases and topping up legal funds. There’s very little chance that Florida’s laws can stand up in court. If they do, we can and should be prepared to turn them against the right. I’ve been in a few fights in my life and I can tell you with certainty that the only thing honor gets you is a black eye. Fight dirty and fight like hell.
While I have a little more faith in the courts than many, we shouldn’t put too much faith in the same system that brought us to this point. Which is why we shouldn’t take uprising off the table. In America, we live in a state of saturated outrage, anger flows through us in dynamic equilibrium, like too much sugar in a cup of coffee. Every new outrage displaces some older one, and this cycle repeats with ceaseless rapidity. It’s popular to scream at cisgender people to wake up, but what are they supposed to wake up and do? The counter-productivity I mentioned before in constant references to the Holocaust is that they set the bar to an impossible level. Genocides happen neither often nor overnight, but rather only under conditions of substantial social decay. What do we expect people to do with the outrage to help prevent that decay? Let me suggest a few constructive actions anyone can take, regardless of what state they live in:
- Work with your own legislators to prevent something similar from happening in your state, city, county.
- Run for local office, particularly things like library boards or other administrative roles. This is often boring as dirt but you can beat the fascists, who often slide in unopposed.
- Donate to your local queer rights organization. The Equality Federation is not perfect, but again, let’s not go after the strongest links. I have my own gripes about the ACLU, but I’ll follow my own advice here and save that for another post.
- Attend Pride. Even if it’s been “outlawed.” Especially if it’s been outlawed.
- Denounce corporate Pride. The time for parties and celebrations is over. The time for loudly demanding equality is back.
- Network with and support your local activist groups, especially immigrant and Black activist groups. As much as the latest trend is to assault trans people, we’re spring chickens in the fight for civil rights and we should be following the leadership of others. We’re far from the first groups to be targeted by today’s Republicans.
- Stop spreading panic on social media. It does nothing and adds nothing to drown in a sea of everyday negativity. For some reason, Americans are obsessed with raising awareness, as if problems magically go away when people find out about them. I’d rather we be obsessed with raising barricades. Or money.
- Learn about queer struggles across time and space. This means understand our history and understand what is happening around the globe. There is a lot to learn about how people survive(d) under conditions that are considerably and objectively worse than what we have anywhere in America in 2023.
As we explore these histories, it’s important not to forget that the trans rights fight today probably has more in common with the civil rights struggles in the latter half of the 20th Century in the US than it does with Nazi Germany. It’s easy to look at the mechanics of Nazi Germany while overlooking the scale, even in the early days. The Nazis grabbed power because of the lack of democratic speedbumps to retard their progress. No genocide has ever been prevented by warning about genocide. But several have been prevented by protecting a people’s right to self-determine. It is not too late for us to strengthen the bulwark of democracy.
Of course, a critical element of that democracy is the ability of people to make themselves heard. I mentioned earlier that there are three paths to resolving the situation in Florida—the courts, the legislature, and uprising—and of these I have covered the first two. It’s important to prepare equally well for the third.
Uprising can look like getting in the streets and shutting things down, but it can also look like upheaving the social norms that govern us. Maybe you can’t risk arrest at a sit-in, but you can cover the bail of someone who can. Maybe you can’t march in the streets, but you can be ready to tell a friend or family member why you’re not OK with transphobia. If people in Istanbul can support each other marching headfirst into a water cannon, surely we can find ways to support trans people to march headfirst into a water closet. Ask yourself, how will you respond to a Karen playing bathroom cop? How will you help people retain access to their meds, or provide access to the forbidden books?
I don’t expect that we’ll see protests the scale of those that happened in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, nor do I think that that would be necessary or effective. The state has only as much power as we’re willing to grant it. The times seem really bad right now, but I am resolute that we stand much closer to the brink of liberation than the brink of disaster. Antifascsim is fundamentally a politics of hope. There are lessons we can learn from Nazi Germany, but there are also lessons we can learn from the pie-ing of Anita Bryant, from the Civil Rights Movement, from the AIDS crisis, from the queer liberation movements from Bangkok to Budapest, from the immigrant rights struggle in the US and in Europe, from disability rights movements, from ex-vangelicals, from intersectional feminists. Florida’s fascist project will crash and burn spectacularly, because we have all of the tools and all of the power to guarantee that outcome. All we have to do is organize and be ready to use them.