Police femininity | Melissa Gira Grant

Illustration by Vivienne Flesher

The Supreme Court’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. jackson leaked on the anniversary of the Memphis Massacre, a turning point on the path to what looked like freedom. During the first three days of May 1866, white residents of Memphis brutalized, murdered, and sexually assaulted the city’s black residents. Seven men entered Frances Thompson’s house, including two policemen – “I know they were policemen by their stars,” Thompson later explained. They pulled out their guns, threatening to shoot her and burn down the house if she and her friend “don’t let them do whatever they want with us.” Several weeks later, Thompson, a former slave, and four other black women who had been sexually assaulted testified before the congressional select committee investigating the massacre. Their testimony bolstered support for the Fourteenth Amendment, which affirms the constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

Ten years after the Memphis Massacre, Frances Thompson was arrested and charged with “cross-dressing” as a woman. The police forced her to undergo a physical examination and, as historian Susan Stryker told at a recent conference, dressed her in male attire and posed her for illustrations that appeared in newspapers across the country. The press requalified her as a liar and her testimony as a dangerous fiction, brandished in the service of Reconstruction which was already disintegrating around her. After Thompson’s denunciation, historian Hannah Rosen writes in her book Terror in the Heart of Freedom (2009), the press used accusations of gender “identity impersonation” to claim that Thompson and other black women who testified to sexual violence “were not virtuous enough to be believed when they testified. before a legal forum”, or “to be granted citizenship rights”.

Today, the heirs of this project of policing femininity and citizenship rights include groups linked to the Christian dominionist movement, such as the “legal army” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). For these groups, the control of gender and sexuality is not fodder in a culture war; it is fundamental to their resurgent world under white Christian patriarchal rule. ADF’s current CEO, Michael Farris, was a leader of the fundamentalist homeschooling and “parental rights” movements; this last question was taken up recently and forcefully by the republican party. Farris has since drafted unsuccessful “Stop the Steal” lawsuits for President Trump and supported restrictions on voting rights.

Alliance Defending Freedom, as investigative journalist Sarah Posner has reported, remains at the forefront of the fight to exclude trans people from the law. An ADF strategy document details that the organization seeks to “stop efforts to elevate sexual orientation and gender identity to protected class status in race-like law.” ADF considers it a “generational victory” on par with another award: roll back deer and the related decision on the right to abortion Planned parenthood v. Casey. In fact, the ADF also lobbied for the Mississippi abortion ban being considered in Dobbs. They see the erosion of abortion rights and trans rights — of our shared reproductive freedom — as complementary pathways to the Christian nation they seek to build. As Frederick Clarkson of Political Research Associates told the Mississippi Free Press, “Roe’s end is a beginning, not an end.” The end is their theocratic control of the law.

Groups like the ADF, the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council and their various umbrella effortswith the support of Republican lawmakers, pump medical misinformation on gender-affirming health care in state legislatures and media sources to make the lives of trans people a topic of debate, in the same way that, as journalist Amy Littlefield has reported, they have pushed the pseudoscience like the “fetal heartbeat” to stigmatize abortion. Having fostered intense anti-abortion and anti-trans views among large swathes of the public, they are unleashing them as vigilantes. Texas six-week abortion ban SB 8 rewards private citizens who report suppliers, abortion funds and others that help someone get an abortion. This is a model taken from the state recent directive which attempts to redefine gender-affirming care as a form of child abuse and asks private citizens to report families of trans children to child protective services. Anti-abortion and anti-trans laws and administrative policies “represent a dual track under a single GOP agenda,” writes journalist Christine Grimaldi for LADY“which dictates the terms of having and raising a family, or else. The ‘other’ is criminalization.” They don’t just rely on the law; they also wield mob power.

When the Supreme Court heard his first case regarding trans rights in 2019, ADF lawyers represented an employer who engaged in discrimination against a trans woman. Their side argued that because Congress did not explicitly include gender identity in the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, transgender people had no protection against anti-trans discrimination. under the law. “The fact is, no one in America would have understood ‘sex’ to mean ‘gender identity’ when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964,” an ADF staffer said. It was another way of saying that no one could have dreamed of including trans people, claiming – wrongly – that trans people weren’t there to be included.

In truth, civil rights and equal protection under the law themselves owe their existence in part to figures like Pauli Murray, a gender-nonconforming black lawyer and women’s rights advocate who successfully demanded that the Congress includes “sex” in the law. Today, Murray has been recovered as a trans ancestor, along with Frances Thompson. When the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868, jurist Peggy Cooper Davis argued that lawmakers saw it as a “direct response to the heartless separations of slave families and the brutal human-breeding practices of slaveholders”. Her protections, following the testimony of Thompson and other black women, were fundamentally tied to the assertion of reproductive and sexual autonomy for black women. A century later, deer v. Wade used the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment to establish abortion as a right.

Now like deer ends, I think of Frances Thompson. Even though Judge Samuel Alito might argue they are not rooted in American “history and tradition,” the principles of reproductive freedom for which Thompson helped lay the foundation – freedom to be born and freedom not to birth, freedom to consent and freedom not to violate, freedom from discrimination based on sex and freedom of self-determination — were integral parts of the constitutional amendment that protects them today. No one, and certainly not this Court, has the exclusive power to decide otherwise, to decide who holds the right to claim womanhood and citizenship.

Colin L. Johnson