Creating Social Panics to Entrench Bias: A Brief History

Cary Gabriel Costello
4 min readApr 11, 2021

Creating social panics about sexual problems that don’t actually exist has been a favorite of reactionaries in the U.S. in response to civil rights movements.

In the 1950s, reactionaries claimed that ending racial discrimination would lead to white women getting sexually-transmitted infections from Black women in public bathrooms. If schools were racially integrated, they said, white schoolgirls would get syphilis from Black girls in shared school bathrooms.

These claims were racist and ridiculous. But many white people believed them, and this fear was harnessed to generate waves of resistance against racial integration.

In the 1970s, reactionaries claimed that prohibiting sex discrimination with the Equal Rights Amendment would mean that public restrooms could no longer be segregated by gender, which would lead to widespread rape of women by men.

The ERA would not have banned gendered restrooms — that was a lie. But bathroom panic was a main reason the ERA failed to pass.

In the 1980s, reactionaries claimed that protecting people from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would lead to gay and lesbian teachers and scout leaders sexually abusing children. Gay men were said to be pedophiles who would somehow be empowered to assault boys in bathrooms by employment nondiscrimination. A “crusade” against this was led by Anita Byrant, dramatically named “Save Our Children!”.

This was homophobic nonsense. But masses of parents were filled with panic and hate, which slowed and reversed antidiscrimination efforts.

In the 2000s, reactionaries claimed that allowing same-gender marriage would destroy the American family and enable bestiality. Politicians equated same-gender marriage to claiming a right to marry a table — something only a society that had lost all sense could support.

It was the reactionaries’ assertions that were nonsensical. But between 1998 and 2012, 31 states passed state constitutional amendments banning same-gender marriage due to panic that the institutions of marriage and family would be destroyed by. . . marriages and families.

Now reactionaries claim that respecting trans students’ lived genders will “destroy female sports,” and laws that ban trans girls from playing sports with other girls have been introduced in over 30 states. You know what the real problems are? Sports for girls and women are underfunded and disrespected. And as for trans children and adults, we suffer poor health due to exclusion from gyms and athletic activity. Far from the mythic domination of sports, transfeminine girls and women are at particular risk from harassment and lack of a safe place to change or shower that keeps so many from being able to exercise where other people can see them at all, let alone compete in sports.

And then, somehow simultaneously with presenting trans girls as a threat to cis girls, reactionaries claim that their goal is to protect trans kids, who are said to be victims of terrible medical experiments, in which evil parents conspire with mad doctors to mutilate their bodies. Republican politicians are writing laws that hold no minor can understand what they are saying when they assert a trans identity — that it’s like saying they want to be a dinosaur when they grow up. And they are pretending that evil doctors are pumping tots’ bodies full of adult hormones and cutting up their genitals. None of this has any relation to reality. Nobody is doing genital reconstruction on kids (unless they are born intersex, and this is forced on them as infants, but that’s another story). Nobody is giving adult hormones to elementary schoolers.

The fact is that medical transition services for pre-pubertal kids consists of psychological support. Then, at adolescence, youths and their families are offered medication that simply postpones pubertal changes. This makes no permanent alteration to a youth’s body — it just prevents bodily changes from taking place that cause despair. Some pubertal developments, like voice change in a transfeminine youth, are irreversible. Others, like breast growth in a transmasculine youth, can be surgically addressed, but that’s much more invasive than simply postponing pubertal changes. That’s why the American Medical Association supports puberty suppression for trans youth.

But if you look at commentary about these bills, there are masses of comments from enraged and panicked adults and fulminating politicians claiming that abusive parents are making monsters out of little children with scalpels and drugs. The reactionaries claim they are not motivated by bigotry, they just want to protect children. But passing a law that states that a person’s sex is “genetically encoded at the moment of conception” and “cannot be changed,” as the law passed in Arkansas banning transition-related care for minors does, makes it clear that what this is really all about: enshrining the misgendering and rejection of trans people in law. The proposed law in North Carolina would even require schoolteachers to immediately inform a child’s parents if they observe the minor exhibiting “gender nonconformity,” making the policing of binary gender stereotypes a state employee duty.

Once again, we see a panic about sex and the cries of “what about the children!” being used to spread bigotry, dressed up in concern trolling. Anita Bryant claimed to be motivated by her “love of homosexuals” to be trying to save them by promoting homophobic discrimination. Transphobes today claim they are motived by care as well. But the fact that banning recognition and care for trans youth is likely to lead to increased despair and suicidality doesn’t deter them at all, because “care” is not the real motivation here. Bigotry is, fanned into a firestorm by a social panic.

The thing you have to remember about sexual panics is that they are not spontaneous or random. They are purposefully generated by people with power to prevent social change.

We have to call out these manufactured panics they are. Putting current faux fears in the context of past ones can help make it obvious. So share these histories!



Cary Gabriel Costello

Sociology professor, intersex and trans advocate, scholar studying intersectional identity and the body, gendernaut. He/him or ze/zim. Cheers!