A foggy illustration of a grey sky and a brow field of empty steel cages.
The right’s white Christian nationalist utopia.

We will not be caged

I was a trans child in the 1980’s United States. Quiet, shy, and serious, but curious and creative, my experience of false boyhood was one confinement. The world wasn’t about what I might learn or who I could be, but what might be allowed. I couldn’t play with girls, I couldn’t wear girls clothing, I couldn’t have an affirming name; but the boys knew I wasn’t one. I feared telling anyone about these these things would risk ridicule, bullying, homelessness, and death. Though my family provided food, water, shelter, and opportunity, my world was full of limits, threats, risks, and fear.

Despite the suffocation, I managed to hold myself in. I denied myself my self and instead pretended. My teens, my young adulthood, even my own first decade as a parent was mostly numb. I was a stoic, serious, heartless pseudo-man, unavailable to my child, to my partner, and to my family, incapable of having true friendship. Instead, I sought freedom in fiction, in simulations, and in the early glimpses of the internet, where I could be whatever I needed to be, stripped of embodiment. In the land of the free, my freedom was imaginary.

To today’s cruel right in the United States, my childhood is the goal. One in which trans youth hide themselves, deny themselves, restrict themselves, and hate themselves. The ideal they imagine is the one I lived, where fear, self-loathing, and restraint contain trans youth, molding them into muted, compliant adults. Because the conservative dream is one in which trans people do not exist, or at least pretend not to exist, so that others may continue pretending in a gender binary. The word is erasure.

If the right were just individuals advocating an oppressive viewpoint, this word might be the whole story. But this is not just individuals. This is 34 U.S. state governments, a coordinated attack on the very existence of trans children and adults, a cynical distraction to motivate midterm votes. The goal for the right is power, but the effect is subjugation. The word is tyranny.

Which is ironic. Because the Reagan right I grew up with was supposed to be the party of freedom, of small government, of choice. Its core value was an individualism that promised freedom, while shielding Americans from responsibility to each other. But our last president, and this past decade of assaults on trans rights, have revealed the right for what it actually is: a white Christian nationalist hegemony, whose only goal is conformity to a deformed interpretation of Christianity that rejects nature’s inevitable variation in gender, race, ability, and more, while somehow embracing the supposed God who created it.

For me, and likely other trans adults who were born to be hidden, the message from the right is clear: get back in your cage. But for trans youth of today, who were born visible, the message is different: you belong in a cage. Do you see the difference? I know the cage. I lived in it for decades. I know what’s being asked. But a child in Texas, with parents who affirmed their gender from day one, does not know the cage. They might say, I was born free, why would I live in a cage? The trauma in me that lingers, the scars that believed I belonged in a cage, looks to our trans youth with hope, but also envy. They know they deserve freedom.

What then, of the parents of these brave youth? The right says that it’s fighting for their freedom, to cage their own children. And this reveals another truth about the right’s vision for the world: it is not just about conformity, but power, and who should have it. Parents, not children. The right, not the left. The church, not the government. The Bible, not college. The right does not value freedom, it values authority, and from this, autocracy.

And so trans folks find ourselves at a hinge in democracy’s history: will our mere existence help America further reckon with diversity, or will it tear us apart? I know one thing: I will not be caged, trans youth will not be caged, and a million strong, trans Americans will kick, bite, scream, scratch, fight, kick, and sue. We will burn every last cage on Earth. Because trans youth deserve liberation, just as everyone deserves liberation. And in demanding it for ourselves, we will free everyone.



Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.