When They Call for “Eradication,” It Means What It Sounds Like
History has vital lessons when it comes to brazen attacks on trans identity and people.
At CPAC over the weekend, right-wing columnist and podcaster Michael Knowles told the assembly, “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” The crowd erupted in applause. Like many crises today, this escalation of rhetoric by the right is both a five-alarm moment and entirely, terrifyingly predictable.
News organizations and activists denounced the statement as genocidal in its language and intent, and there is no doubt that it was, even though Knowles now denies it. After all, you can’t have transgender people without transgenderism, and one need only substitute another “-ism” to see why: “Judaism must be eradicated from public life” also means exactly what it sounds like.
How should we interpret Knowles’s horrific pronouncements? And why is the right targeting trans people in particular and at this moment?
It’s admittedly difficult to talk about “genocide” in America without being dismissed as having a Cassandra complex, so let’s turn to history as a useful and distressingly on-point guide in this case. Let’s also examine the recognized societal indicia that tip nations into violent and hellish “final solutions.”
Attacks on trans identity kicked off German extremism
Those warning of the dangers of genocidal language deployed openly against an entire community have some disturbing history on their side. When Hitler rose to power as German chancellor in 1933, he enacted policies to rid the country of Lebensunwertes Leben, or “lives unworthy of living.” His targets included Jews, Roma people, disabled people and communists—but also specifically homosexuals and transsexuals.
We hear echoes of “lives unworthy of living” in the rhetoric of the right today. Radical podcaster and columnist for the Daily Wire, Matt Walsh, who has amplified Knowles’s attacks, recently told his listeners that he would rather be dead than have a trans kid. Knowles himself has argued on his podcast (which until recently he co-hosted with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)) that words like “genocide” do not even apply in the first instance, because being trans “is not a legitimate category of being.”
While many are familiar with haunting images of the first book burnings in Germany, which took place in May of 1933, most aren’t fully aware of their origin story.
The books and texts that provided the fuel for that first bonfire came from the library of the Institute for Sexual Research, founded in 1919 by Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay, Jewish doctor. As Scientific American notes, the Institute was “full of life everywhere” and provided incredible and groundbreaking gender affirmation care to trans individuals. Its mission was to provide a center for “research, teaching, healing and refuge” that could “free the individual from physical ailments, psychological afflictions and social deprivation.”
In other words, the first book burning in Germany, which led to copycat bonfires around the country, was an attack on a trans care institution. There are echoes of this today: The far-right has specifically chosen to target trans care centers in America, including repeated bomb threats to Boston Children’s Hospital, for providing gender affirming medical care.
Yes, a call to eradicate “transgenderism” is a call for genocide
When news organizations such as Rolling Stone and The Daily Beast ran headlines that Knowles had called for transgender people to be eradicated, Knowles called the headlines libelous and had his PR department at the Daily Wire threaten to sue for mischaracterizing his statement. Knowles insisted he wasn’t calling for the eradication of people, just an ideology. (Rolling Stone responded by changing its headline to an even better one: “CPAC Speaker Calls for Eradication of ‘Transgenderism’ — and Somehow Claims He’s Not Calling for Elimination of Transgender People.”)
Dangerous semantics aside, even if we were to look at Knowles’ statement as a call to eradicate an “ideology”—which of course logically would mean the eradication of the practice of transitioning and therefore the eradication of all trans people—we very quickly run into problematic history. As author Brandon Friedman notes,
“Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life” vs. “transgender people must be eradicated” is a meaningless distinction to the historically literate. Nazis very specifically began excluding German Jews from public life years before the first extermination camp.
In fact, during the six years of Hitler’s dictatorship prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, as the Holocaust Encyclopedia cited by Friedman notes, Jews felt the effect of 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives. This is what it meant in real terms to “eradicate Judaism” from society. Similarly, in America the internment of Japanese Americans began with the freezing of bank accounts, a curfew past sunset and sharp restrictions on travel.
Today, that same dire historical pattern could not be clearer. So far this year alone, there have been over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed, some of which are now signed into law, with a particularly cruel emphasis upon trans identity and trans kids. As trans rights activist Erin Reed observes, such legislation is surfacing in a majority of states in the country:
28 states propose to:
- Strip us from meds
- Arrest us in bathrooms
- Take away kids
- Define us out of the law
In sum, the push to eradicate “transgenderism” and erase trans people is in fact already fully underway in much of the country.
We are on the doorstep of something truly terrible. But we can turn back.
Genocide Watch lists the 10 stages that historically lead to genocide. Importantly, the group writes, “At each of the earlier stages there is an opportunity for members of the community or the International Community to halt the stages and stop genocide before it happens.”
As LGBTQ+ activist Alyssa McKenzie notes in a powerful thread, we have already gotten to eight of these steps with respect to the trans community:
This is why it is so vital, at this moment, for us to understand where we are in historical terms and what we must do to protect vulnerable minorities like the LGBTQ+ community. We must do so not only for their sakes, but because we know that this kind of hatred and targeting is a test: If the far-right can drive a wedge and cause a majority of the population to turn away from one vulnerable community, either through indifference or pure fatigue, then it also knows the country is susceptible to other forms of autocracy, madness and violence.
Our first obligation as citizens of a free and, yes, liberal democracy is to guarantee the full participation of every member, and not ever allow demagogues and hate-mongers to silence any part of it, whether they call any of us communists, “woke,” or queers. We are not without power in the face of these attacks. We can lift up trans voices, call out trans hate, oppose anti-trans legislation, offer trans sanctuaries and donate to organizations fighting on the front lines.
The same right wing groups have already come not only for LGBTQ+ people but for women’s reproductive rights, for minority voting rights, and for press and academic freedoms. So this isn’t a drill. We know from history where this could lead if we fail to take a stand now.
The main difference between pre-war Germany and America today is that we have the benefit of their painful, devastating history. Our duty is to demonstrate that we have learned those vital lessons. When we hear that “trans rights are human rights,” we must not only concur loudly and with all our voices, but actively identify and teach the terrible mistakes from the past so that we never repeat them.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
As a trans woman who transitioned in the late 1980s, I watched silently for years, keeping my head down, seeing and privately cheering for progress while hiding my past for my own safety I chose to publicly come back out a few years back because of the push back that trans rights and acceptance have been getting.
We have existed, we have been there but we were often silent to protect ourselves.. but it is clear to me and has been for some time that we need to raise our voices to speak up and refuse to be silenced / refuse to be "othered", refuse to be the butt of jokes or a trope - we are valid - trans men, trans women, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender - all of these and more are valid ways to be, valid expressions of identity and people who identify this way are every bit as capable of lives worth living ... the idea of a life not worth living comes directly from and out of the hate - trans people who start a transition then decide to stop often do so not because transition is not what they want but because of push-back from unsupportive family and friends - from the hate and discrimination they face.
And most of all, the anti trans rhetoric is the fascists attempt to find a marginalized group that they think is small enough and not well enough protected that they can get away with using us as a focus for hate and fear - they're also going after Drag queens (not the same thing as being trans, but part of our wonderful larger gender non conforming family) and against the greater LGBTQIA+ community - they're using language equating all of us with predators and child molesters. They attack immigrants,, asylum seekers, Women's reproductive health and rights, BIPOC,.. anyone and everyone who is not White, heterosexual, christian nationalist.
Those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it
Those who do learn history are doomed to watch those who did not learn it ... repeat it.