“There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing,” Michael Knowles declared at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event attended by some 2,200 conservative activists and officials. While Knowles doesn’t have the national profile of some of his fellow CPAC speakers — a list that included Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene — his influence within conservative circles is enormous. Each month, “The Michael Knowles Show” on The Daily Wire, an online network co-founded by Ben Shapiro, attracts over half a million listeners. Nearly twice as many people follow him on Twitter.

“If transgenderism is false, as it is,” Knowles continued, 

then we should not indulge it, especially since that indulgence requires taking away the rights and customs of so many people. If it is false, then for the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely. The whole preposterous ideology — at every level.

The online backlash from progressives was immediate, with many interpreting Knowles as endorsing what amounts to “genocide.” An Equality California article warned, “Knowles’ call to ‘eradicate transgenderism’ smacks of genocide and mass acts of violence.” Alejandra Caraballo, an attorney at Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic, tweeted that “Knowles is openly calling for genocide against trans people.” And Adam Vary, a writer for Variety, argued that “this is genocidal. That is not hyperbole or alarmist; this rhetoric is calling for the eradication of a group of people for who they are.”  

Michael Knowles, a leading proponent of “eradicating” trans ideology, speaking at CPAC in March of 2023. Credit: C-SPAN 

Are these accusations correct? “Genocide” is a powerful word that should not be thrown around recklessly. It matters that people use it accurately to denote a class of crimes that, as a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 put it, “shocks the conscience of mankind.” After all, the first use of the word “genocide” was in reference to the horrendous atrocities committed by the Nazis, who murdered roughly 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. Is Knowles’ claim that “transgenderism” should be “eradicated” really in the same category as the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate the Jewish people during World War II? Is calling Knowles’ comments “genocidal” a step too far?

The answer to this last question is an unequivocal “no.” The case for describing what Knowles said as “genocidal” is extremely strong, for reasons that go back to the very origins of the concept of genocide in 1944. 

* * *

To see this, it’s important to understand what Knowles means by “transgenderism,” also called “trans ideology,” and how this relates to the trans community. The word “transgenderism” was coined in 1965 by the psychiatrist John Oliven. For a time, it was considered a respectable term that both academics and trans people used to mean “the state of being transgender.” These days, however, the word is almost entirely employed by anti-trans activists to denote what they consider to be an “ideological” assertion that each of us has a “gender identity” that arises from a subjective, inner “feeling” about whether one is a woman, man, nonbinary individual, etc. As the Christian Institute summarizes it, “the ‘real you’ is what you feel it to be on the inside.”

The problem, they argue, is that sex and gender cannot be separated: gender must necessarily align with sex, which is, supposedly, an objective fact about individuals. Hence, you are either male or female, a man or a woman, based on your genes or biological makeup. End of story. To think otherwise is to suffer a “delusion,” and according to the anti-trans lobby, this delusion is rapidly spreading thanks to trans activists, progressive politicians, “woke” companies and governments that are caving to the demands of the “woke mob” or “woke mind virus.”

Conservatives like Knowles claim that they are especially worried about children being indoctrinated, or “groomed,” into this new “ideology,” which they often express in apocalyptic language, as if trans people threaten the very foundations of Western society. A notable example comes from Elon Musk, an anti-woke crusader whose transgender daughter recently disowned him. During an interview with the conservative Christian satire website Babylonian Bee, Musk declared that “wokeness,” an umbrella term that covers a range of progressive causes, including efforts to make society more welcoming to the trans community, is “arguably one of the biggest threats to modern civilization.” This captures why Knowles and others on the far right believe that stamping out “transgenderism” is of such moral urgency: trans people are not just unnatural, a violation of the cosmic order established by God, but a serious threat to the traditional, Christian values upon which our society is supposedly built.

* * *

There are three points to make about this. First, an overwhelming mountain of scientific evidence confirms that one’s gender doesn’t always correspond to one’s sex or the gender that one was assigned at birth. Historically speaking, some psychiatrists early on saw the phenomenon of men claiming to be women, and vice versa, as an illness. They pathologized it. But the more this was studied, the clearer it became that when people were allowed to transition from one gender to another, or express themselves outside the gender binary, their lives and mental health improved tremendously. Consequently, one psychiatrist began to distinguish between “biological sex” and “psychological sex,” the latter of which is what we now call “gender identity.” To underline this point, literally every major medical organization in the United States supports gender-affirming care for trans people, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association.

Second, the reality is that gender-nonconforming people have been around since the dawn of recorded history. To be clear about this, our contemporary notion of “transgender” is, indeed, new. It didn’t exist 100 years ago. Consequently, it’s anachronistic to speak of “trans people” existing in the past. By analogy, imagine hopping in a time machine and setting the dial to the late 17th century, when Isaac Newton lived. You step out and ask Newton: “Do you consider yourself to be a scientist?” Newton would look at you with puzzlement, since our contemporary notion of “scientist” was introduced more than 100 years later — in 1834. Back in Newton’s day, people we would now classify as “scientists” considered themselves to be “natural philosophers.” They saw what they were doing as a branch of philosophy, not “science.” So, was Newton really a scientist, even though he wouldn’t have thought of himself this way? One could argue both “yes” and “no.”

the reality is that gender-nonconforming people have been around since the dawn of recorded history. To be clear about this, our contemporary notion of “transgender” is, indeed, new. It didn’t exist 100 years ago. Consequently, it’s anachronistic to speak of “trans people” existing in the past.

The same goes for “trans people” of the past. Consider the case of Murray Hall, who “lived as a man for 30 years, becoming a prominent New York City politician, … and marrying twice.” It was only after Hall died in 1901 from breast cancer that people discovered that he was assigned female at birth. In fact, he seems to have “avoided medical treatment for several years … out of a fear that the gender assigned to him at birth would become public.” While his wives knew this about him, literally no one else did, not even his adopted daughter. Was Hall “trans”? It certainly seems so — although, once again, this concept just didn’t exist at the time, and hence Hall wouldn’t have thought of himself as a “trans person” the way people today would think of him.

Still, the important point is that throughout human history, across cultural space and time, people have expressed nonstandard gender identities relative to the norms of their societies. This is just a fact. In many cases, past societies embraced gender-nonconforming individuals. Some even recognized a third gender category. A famous case in the U.S. comes from Christine Jorgensen, a woman who was assigned male at birth. In 1952, her story appeared in a rather sympathetic front-page article of the New York Daily News along with the headline: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.”

New York Daily News, Dec. 1, 1952
New York Daily News / via Newspapers.com

This leads to the third point: in his CPAC speech, Knowles explicitly states that he wants to “eradicate” the trans ideology, not trans people. But this is misleading: the real aim is to eliminate the trans community by eliminating “trans ideology.” The reasoning is that, since people are coming out as trans because they’re being told that one’s gender identity is whatever you “feel” it to be, by getting rid of this “ideology,” trans people themselves would cease to exist. Root out the false “ideology” and the trans “problem” evaporates.

To illustrate, imagine that Knowles was talking about “homosexual ideology,” understood as the belief that some people can be attracted to members of the same gender. If Knowles had said his aim is “to eradicate the ideology of homosexuality,” would anyone wonder what he’s really getting at? By eliminating the homosexual ideology — that is, by insisting that it’s false to say that people can be attracted to others of the same gender — one would also erase the gay community, or so the argument would go. What would it mean for the “ideology of homosexuality” to be eradicated if gay people still exist? As Diana Goetsch writes in the Los Angeles Times, had Knowles “said, ‘Judaism must be eradicated,’ or had he proclaimed an ‘all or nothing’ solution for homosexuality, nobody would mistake the murderous intent of such a message.”

So, Knowles was indeed calling for the “eradication” of trans people, by way of eradicating the “ideology” that, he claims, tells trans people that they can exist. Yet we can still ask: Does this call for “eradication” amount to a call for “genocide”? Or does describing it this way commit the sins of “hyperbole” and “alarmism,” to borrow Adam Vary’s words? In what sense would eradicating the “ideology of transgenderism” be a form of actual genocide?

* * *

So far as I can tell, no one in the anti-trans camp seems to understand what “genocide” means — which makes their exhortations for “eradication” all the more dangerous. Consider Knowles’ response to accusations of employing “genocidal” rhetoric, which he made on his Daily Wire show several days before his CPAC speech:

Oh my goodness, what these people say. They said that I was calling for the extermination of transgender people. They said I was calling for a genocide against — I said what? I must have missed that part of my show. When did I — did I say that? I don’t — one, I don’t know how you could have a genocide of transgender people because genocide refers to genes, it refers to genetics, it refers to biology. And the whole point of transgenderism is that it has nothing to do with biology. That’s what the transgender activists say. They say, forget about biological sex. My gender expression doesn’t have to have anything to do with my biological sex. Okay, well, then there can’t be a genocide. It refers to genetics.

So, according to Knowles, genocide is inherently linked to genes, genetics and biology. But this is flatly false, as we will see in a moment. Another common misconception is that genocide requires physical harm or murder, an idea inadvertently reinforced by Goetsch’s comments above. Consider, for example, a New York Post article published a week before CPAC 2023, titled “Don’t Believe the Activists’ Hype: There Is no ‘Trans Genocide.’” As the author, John Mac Ghlionn, explains: “We’re often told that a genocide is occurring in America — namely, a ‘trans genocide.’ … This would be horrific if it were true. But thankfully, it’s not.” Why? Because, Ghlionn writes, “trans people are not under threat. In fact, they are no more at risk of being killed than non-trans people,” which he bases on some questionable FBI crime statistics from 2020.

Like his Daily Wire colleagues, Matt Walsh also does not understand the word “genocide.” Credit: The Daily Wire

The same argument was made by Matt Walsh, a colleague of Knowles’ at the Daily Wire who won The New Republic’s 2022 “Transphobe of the Year” award. In a “Standing Up for Faith and Freedom” talk from this year, hosted by Young America’s Foundation, he says:

But what else is going on here? Well, we know that the genocide claims cannot refer to any kind of external physical threat, because trans people face no such threat. … What [the media] don’t tell you is that nearly all of those murders were just murders. They were homicides related to domestic disputes, prostitution, drug use. The propagandists, what they’ll do is they’ll tally up every single trans person who was the victim of any homicide at all in a given year, and they’ll imply … that every single one of them was a hate crime, as if it’s impossible for a trans person to be killed for any other reason. 

He then reiterates Ghlionn’s claim that almost no trans people are murdered for being trans. “The number,” he says, “of trans people being killed for being trans, according to the FBI, [is just] two in the entire year. … This is the epidemic you hear about, this is the genocide: two people.”

* * *

All of these claims, though, fundamentally misunderstand what genocide is. It needn’t have anything to do with genes or biology, nor does it require any physical violence to occur. Genocide could take place without a single person being killed — and this has, from the start, been a central feature of the concept.

To make sense of this, let’s begin with what distinguishes genocide from other kinds of atrocities. The key idea behind genocide is that it involves the intentional elimination of some group of people. Whereas homicide denies individuals the right to exist, genocide denies this right to groups. For example, the Nazis didn’t just target Jewish people during the Holocaust because they were Jewish; their ultimate aim was to completely erase the category of “Jewry” from the world. Put differently, imagine a list of every social, ethnic, racial, religious, etc. group that existed in the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis’ goal was to shorten this list of groups by deleting the entry for “Jewry.” This is why the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her famous book on “the banality of evil,” described genocide as “an attack upon human diversity as such.” If the Nazis had succeeded, the world would contain one less unit of “human diversity” than it had before the Second World War, and this is what makes genocide a unique — and uniquely appalling — crime.

Notice that this conception of genocide says nothing about how the elimination of a group might proceed. The most obvious way to erase a group from the face of the earth would be through mass killing, which is precisely what the Nazis did in the Holocaust. However, the person who introduced the idea of genocide, a Polish-Jewish jurist named Raphael Lemkin, was clear that there are other methods for erasing whole groups that do not involve murder. Nor does genocide need to be a single event. It can also be a drawn-out process that unfolds slowly, incrementally, one small step at a time.

Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland, initiated the Genocide Convention of 1948—which enshrined the word he
coined during the war. Photo via UNHCR Central Europe 

This points to a crucial distinction between physical and cultural genocide. Whereas the former involves the physical destruction of some group — for example, via targeted massacres — the latter aims to eliminate a social group by dismantling the cultural practices and systems that enable that group to exist. Some scholars have thus described cultural genocide as a more “subtle” genocide, which, “in spite of not being bloody, engenders the same result as genocide” in the physical sense. For example, laws might be passed for the purposes of forced assimilation, whereby certain people are compelled to alter their “lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, tradition, and beliefs” until the social group to which they belong is no longer present on the cultural landscape.

This points to a crucial distinction between physical and cultural genocide. Whereas the former involves the physical destruction of some group — for example, via targeted massacres — the latter aims to eliminate a social group by dismantling the cultural practices and systems that enable that group to exist.

Lemkin himself invented the ideas of physical and cultural genocide at the same time, and in fact he placed a special emphasis on cultural genocide. One reason is that physical genocide — the mass slaughter of human beings — is “always preceded” by cultural genocide. The Nazis provide an example: “In the first six years of Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship,” from 1933 to 1939, “Jews felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations on all aspects of their lives. The regulations gradually but systematically took away their rights and property, transforming them from citizens into outcasts.” Many of these were adopted at the national level, though “state, regional and municipal officials, acting on their own initiatives, also promulgated a barrage of exclusionary decrees in their own communities.”

The goal was, essentially, to incapacitate or enfeeble the Jewish people, to weaken the group, after which the Nazis moved on to the next step of physical genocide that catapulted 6 million people into the grave. Yet, while cultural genocide is always a precursor to physical genocide, it could succeed in dismantling a group without any murders taking place. It might not even involve the group ceasing to exist entirely. Rather, according to Lemkin, a successful genocide might simply result in the group losing its life force, so to speak, an idea that scholars note is “supported by the references scattered throughout” Lemkin’s writings “to non-murderous genocidal policies directed towards other peoples occupied by the Nazis.” As one genocide expert writes, “plainly, Lemkin was as concerned with the loss of culture as with the loss of life.”

Here’s how Lemkin made the point:

Genocide is a gradual process and may begin with political disenfranchisement, economic displacement, cultural undermining and control, the destruction of leadership, the breakup of families and the prevention of propagation. Each of these methods is a more or less effective means of destroying a group. Actual physical destruction is the last and most effective phase of genocide.

This gets at why genocide needn’t have anything to do with genes or biology, as Knowles’ falsely claimed. My guess is that Knowles observed that “genocide” looks similar to “genetics,” and assumed that genocide must be related to genes. But Lemkin coined the word “genocide” by combining the word-forming element -cide, which means “to kill,” with the Greek word genos, which translates as “race,” “tribe” or “kind.” (“Genetic,” on the other hand, comes from the Greek word genesis, meaning “origin.”) A social or cultural group is, of course, a “kind” of thing, and it needn’t be defined in terms of “genes,” or have anything to do with genetics or biology at all. Indeed, even defining “race” in terms of “genes” turns out to be impossible, as race is a social construct that has evolved over time, and studies show that there is more genetic diversity within “races” than between them.

* * *

So, Knowles is wrong that he couldn’t have been calling for the genocide of trans people because genocide “refers to genetics,” and so is Matt Walsh when he claims that a trans genocide can’t be unfolding for the reason that very few trans people were murdered in 2020 because they’re trans. Both simply misunderstand what genocide involves, and rely on the fact that most of their listeners are equally ignorant for their claims to sound compelling. In fact, calling for the “eradication” of “transgenderism” — which, on their view, would cause the trans community to disappear — is calling for genocide: cultural genocide. And the avalanche of anti-trans bills that have been proposed over the past few years is a clear, unequivocal effort from conservatives to undermine, and ultimately eliminate, a community of people that many anti-trans activists are quite explicit they want gone.

Walsh provides a terrifying example. In a segment of The Matt Walsh Show from late 2022, he repeatedly described drag artists and their supporters as “pure evil.” He continued:

I can’t believe there are so many evil people in this country. There are. And they are evil people who we should not want to compromise with, not want to reach an understanding … I don’t want to be nice to you. I don’t want to be around you. I want nothing to do with you. I don’t want to share a country with you. I don’t want to share a planet with you. That’s how much I despise everything you represent.

Other comments from Walsh paint a chilling picture of how easily the cultural genocide that he and his right-wing colleagues are encouraging could slip into an actual physical genocide. Consider that, a decade earlier, he gave a speech at a Tea Party rally in which he praised the Founding Fathers for being willing to pursue their goals “with guns and violent force. If you want extreme things to happen, you have to be willing to take — to go to extremes… They were willing to pick up guns and kill people for what they wanted.” He reiterated this on a radio show, declaring that “if you want extreme change [that] isn’t going to reverse itself in 10 years or five years or even one year, then you do have to look at extreme action… You have to make people hurt.”

This rhetoric looks eerily similar to that used by the Nazis in the run-up to the Holocaust. In fact, Walsh literally describes himself as a “theocratic fascist” whose “preferred system of government is a Christian dictatorship,” to quote an article of his seemingly intended to upset progressives. Yet the truth is that fascism is on the rise — not just at home but globally — and the anti-trans movement is very much part of it. As the renowned philosopher Judith Butler writes in a 2021 op-ed for The Guardian, using the term “anti-gender” instead of “anti-trans”:

Anti-gender movements are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support increasingly authoritarian governments. The inconsistency of their arguments and their equal opportunity approach to rhetorical strategies of the left and right, produce a confusing discourse for some, a compelling one for others. But they are typical of fascist movements that twist rationality to suit hyper-nationalist aims.

They add that,

as a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children and LGBTQI people.

This is evident in the aforementioned avalanche of anti-trans legislation. According to the website Trans Legislation Tracker, just this year has witnessed a staggering 537 anti-trans bills introduced in 49 U.S. states, with 49 having been signed into law and another 15 having been passed. One in Oklahoma states that “a physician or other healthcare professional found to have knowingly referred for or provided gender transition procedures to an individual under twenty-six (26) years of age shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a felony.” Another from Wyoming declares that “a person is guilty of child abuse, a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than ten (10) years, if a person intentionally inflicts upon a child under the age of eighteen (18) years any procedure, drug, other agent, or combination thereof that is administered to intentionally or knowingly change the sex of the child.” Yet another in Kentucky “would force schools to out trans children to their families and potentially withhold health services at parents’ demand,” while others aim to restrict which restroom trans people can use, outlaw drag shows, prevent trans kids from participating in sports and “encourage parents to report and ban books which ‘promote gender fluidity or gender pronouns.’”

This rhetoric looks eerily similar to that used by the Nazis in the run-up to the Holocaust. In fact, Walsh literally describes himself as a “theocratic fascist” whose “preferred system of government is a Christian dictatorship,” to quote an article of his seemingly intended to upset progressives.

On the national level, Republicans recently introduced, this year, the so-called “Women’s Bill of Rights,” which “would erase trans recognition by the federal government, defining sex assigned at birth as an ‘immutable’ definition of man or woman, boy or girl.”

The aim of these bills, as the Trans Legislation Tracker puts it, is “to erase transgender people from public life.” This is cultural genocide, or what we could call transicide, on the model of similar terms for specific types of genocide, such as “indigenocide” (genocide targeting Indigenous peoples) and “ethnocide” (a term coined by Lemkin himself to mean the elimination of an ethnic or cultural group). So, when Knowles claims that he’s not advocating for genocide, he is just plain wrong: the entire anti-trans phenomenon, embraced by Republicans and far-right activists, is a fascist movement whose ultimate aim is to commit cultural genocide against trans people: transicide.

* * *

To those who understand both what “genocide” actually means and what anti-trans activists are up to, there is simply no doubt about whether we are witnessing a genocide unfold before our very eyes, in the public theater of contemporary socio-politics. In fact, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention released an official statement on Nov. 29, 2022 that reads, “The Lemkin Institute believes that the so-called ‘gender critical [i.e., anti-trans] movement’ that is behind these laws is a fascist movement furthering a specifically genocidal ideology that seeks the complete eradication of trans identity from the world.” 

“Genocidal ideologies are ideologies that deny or seek to erase the existence of a specific group because of the supposed threat it poses to the holders of the ideology,” the statement continues, 

The gender critical movement simultaneously denies that transgender identity is real and seeks to eradicate it completely from society. … The movement, a centerpiece of right wing ascendancy in the Western world, calls for discrimination against and [harassment] of transgender individuals and the transgender community through laws and policies that criminalize trans identity and trans life. The Lemkin Institute is alarmed by the growing number of attempts in the Western world to enact policies and spread prejudice that threaten the well-being, and even the existence, of transgender people …

The Lemkin Institute reminds readers that one of the first libraries to be burned under the National Socialists in Germany was the library and archive of Magnus [Hirschfeld’s] Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, a groundbreaking research organization studying human sexuality and gender. The Nazis, like other genocidal groups, believed that national strength and existential power could only be achieved through an imposition of a strict gender binary within the racially-pure “national community.” A fundamentalist gender binary was a key feature of Nazi racial politics and genocide … All these laws seek to create a society that is hostile to the very idea of trans identity and in which it is impossible to live openly and legally as a trans person … There is no shutting the floodgates once states and societies acquiesce to the eradication of a specific people from the earth.

Following Knowles’ comments at CPAC this year, the Lemkin Institute released yet another statement, this one titled “Red Flag Alert for Genocide—USA.” It reports that the institute “is horrified by Knowles’ statement, which is part of a much more widespread pattern of genocidal language and policies being used by political actors in the USA against the transgender community.” The document emphasizes that “genocide is a crime against group identities rather than against individual human beings and that it can be achieved through various acts, including but certainly not limited to physical murder,” and adds that Knowles’ claim that “by eradicating ‘transgenderism’ he would not be eradicating a real identity” is, by virtue of “the arrogance of determining which identities are real and not real … already a giant step in the direction of genocide.”

* * *

In 1941, Lemkin turned on the radio. The voice passing through the speaker was that of Winston Churchill, who described the “methodical, merciless butchery” of people by the Nazis as “a crime without a name.” It was this radio address that inspired Lemkin to coin the word “genocide” in 1943, which he then promoted in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” published the following year. (“Axis,” of course, refers to Nazi Germany, as well as other European countries like Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.)

Yet Lemkin, who lost a mind-boggling 49 family members in the Holocaust, including his parents, wasn’t just concerned with physical genocide. He was equally worried about the destruction or enfeeblement of social groups through cultural genocide — the precursor to physical genocide — by means of forced assimilation via legal restrictions that undermine the practices and systems necessary for certain social groups to exist.

[Lemkin] was equally worried about the destruction or enfeeblement of social groups through cultural genocide — the precursor to physical genocide — by means of forced assimilation.

This is precisely what is now happening to that social group called the “trans community,” which — by the way — constitutes a mere 0.5% of the American population. The bills that Republicans are proposing to disrupt, dismantle and dissolve this community, paired with explicit calls to “eradicate” the “ideology” of “transgenderism,” constitute a clear case of cultural genocide. And while anti-trans fanatics like Knowles haven’t explicitly called for violence against trans people, “theocratic fascists” like Matt Walsh have a troubling history of endorsing “violent force” to catalyze social and political change. The situation looks even more urgent with the backdrop of the Jan. 6 insurrection, which showed that members of the MAGA movement are willing to take extreme, homicidal actions to maintain power in violation of critical democratic norms.

The alarm has been sounded. This is nothing less than genocide in the making. If Lemkin were still alive, I have no doubt that he would agree.

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