Two days after a gunman opened fire on people gathered for a drag show at an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing five people and injuring 19, Herschel Walker, Georgia Republican senatorial candidate, released an ad in which he appeared alongside a former college athlete who claimed she had been victimized by the inclusion of trans women in her sport.
As a descendant of a Holocaust survivor, I see frightening parallels in the long lead-up of laws in Hitler’s prewar Germany with the current climate for trans people in this country.
In the ad, former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines says, “For more than a decade, I worked so hard, 4 a.m. practices, to be the best. But my senior year, I was forced to compete against a biological male,” referring to Lea Thomas, a trans woman. Walker adds, “A man won the swimming title that belonged to a woman.”
Nevermind that Gaines and Thomas tied for fifth place in the March race. Nevermind that both received trophies, only Gaines received hers later by mail. In her view, she was the real woman on the podium — and Thomas had taken something from her.
With views like this permeating high-profile, mainstream politics, the implications for trans people are truly chilling. That Walker could be elected to the U.S. Senate in the Georgia runoff election Tuesday makes it even more so.
Watching Republicans adopt violent transphobia as a central plank of their party is alarming, but it’s not without precedent. And history has shown us time and time and again what happens when people stay silent when groups of people are oppressed.
That’s part of why it’s hard not to see the parallels to the many human rights abuses of the past and present: African slavery and Japanese internment in America; Chinese Uyghurs held captive in their own country. And as a descendant of a Holocaust survivor, I see frightening parallels in the long lead-up of laws in Hitler’s prewar Germany with the current climate for trans people in this country. Those laws targeted Jewish participation in civil service, medicine and law, and went as far as to control their sex lives, health care and finances, ultimately relegating them to disenfranchised, second-class citizens under the Nuremberg Laws. This eventually resulted in the state-sanctioned murder of my family members and millions of others across Europe.
“Empathy is what’s missing in the conversation around threats to trans people,” Parker Molloy, writer of the media and politics newsletter The Present Age and a transgender woman, told me in an email. “There need to be discussions about what different policies would effectively do if implemented. People need to understand what they’re demanding when they call on legislators to do things like ban medical treatment or limit the ability to update identity documents.”
Nov. 21, 202203:26
This coming January in Texas alone, the Legislature will consider 10 separate bills that would criminalize trans people who live in the state. A reported 238 anti-trans bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2022. These bills serve to dehumanize trans people by attacking gender-affirming care, gender identity and participation in sports, and impose penalties for performing in drag. GOP government officials want us to question their very existence so we feel less guilt when they blame the trans communities for all of society’s ills and dismantle their rights.
In Nazi Germany, there was a word for this: “untermenschen.” It means subperson, and it was used to justify the destruction of Jewish homes, businesses and, ultimately, lives. Adolf Hitler also described his master plan as one to rid the country of Lebensunwertes Leben, meaning “lives unworthy of living.” Today in American conservative politics, we have the term “groomer,” which The New Republic writes is “central to the massive national Republican effort to accrue more power by targeting trans and queer children and teenagers, along with their families, health care providers, and educators.”
What often gets lost in history is the fact that trans people under Nazi rule suffered similar fates to the Jews.
What often gets lost in history is the fact that trans people under Nazi rule suffered similar fates to the Jews. In 1933, one of the first-ever Nazi book burnings targeted Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research, where he and his staff performed the world’s first modern gender-affirmation surgeries. “Troops swarmed the building, carrying off a bronze bust of Hirschfeld and all his precious books, which they piled in the street,” according to Scientific American. “Soon a towerlike bonfire engulfed more than 20,000 books, some of them rare copies that had helped provide a historiography for nonconforming people.”
Hirschfield, who was gay, said the purpose of the institute was “research, teaching, healing, and refuge.” If it hadn’t been destroyed by Nazis, the institute would’ve turned 100 years old in 2019. The mind reels thinking about how different modern conditions for trans people could be if those years of learning and care hadn’t been scorched by hate.
On the Saturday night at Club Q in Colorado Springs in November, shots rang out as patrons gathered for a drag show — an innocent, joyful activity that happens all around the country, and which far-right leaders and media have made a concerted effort to demonize and shut down. In the hours following the shooting, Chaya Raichik of the transphobic Twitter account Libs of TikTok targeted a nonprofit group in Colorado that teaches kids about the art of drag. This was after months of tweeting about drag story hours at local libraries, which led to multiple aggressive real-life confrontations, and popularized the idea of LGBTQ+ people as groomers.
Nov. 30, 202204:07
“The ‘groomer’ smear also plays into a conspiracy theory that underpins the propaganda of Raichik and other like-minded influencers: that LGBTQ people and their sympathizers have entered mainstream institutions to prey on children, recruit them to ‘transgenderism’ and divide them from their families,” writes the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hateful groups and individuals.
Complicating this all are right-wing accounts with massive followings threatening members of the media for being vocal trans allies. As NBC News’ Ben Collins said on air following the Club Q shooting, “I think we have to have a come to Jesus moment here as reporters: Are we more afraid of being on Breitbart for saying that trans people deserve to be alive, or are we more afraid of the dead people? Because I’m more afraid of the dead people.”
As I reflect on my family’s story, in which my grandfather and his sister barely made it out of the Holocaust alive while the rest of their family perished, I wonder how different history would have been if more people had come forward in the early years of Hitler’s regime when, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “German Jews felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives,” in the years preceding World War II. Watching Republican politicians seek to do the same to trans people is chilling and uncanny.
A key difference between pre-Holocaust Germany and post-Trump America is our media ecosystem: Today we have an unlimited number of resources to understand and support our trans friends, family and neighbors, going up against a vast array of sources seeking to prove that trans lives are inferior. We have the tools at our disposal to call out disinformation and condemn violence in a way that dissenters never could, historically. And to avoid reaching the point where dehumanization descends into mass violence, it’s crucial to use those tools.
I often think of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem “First they came,” and about our obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us before ourselves. There’s a connective tissue that binds people targeted by white supremacy, and it’s incumbent upon the allies to fight back against nefarious forces, because no group is an island. Seeking harm against trans people should be seen as seeking harm against us all, and it’s time to make that a core part of our deepest-held beliefs, and, more important, our everyday actions.