The War on Children: Historical Context for the Assault on Trans Rights

We’re only four months in, and so far 2021 is turning into a banner year for assaults on transgender equality. Over one hundred bills have been introduced in at least twenty-eight states, all of them targeting a group of people who still constitute less than 2% of the population. There have been previous waves of anti-trans legislation, the most recent of which mostly focused on trying to “protect” public facilities from trans people–most infamously North Carolina’s 2016 “Bathroom Bill“–but this one is uniquely vile, in that Republican lawmakers have decided to focus their attentions primarily on trans children. Several states have banned transgender students from participating in school sports, with many other such bills currently working their way through legislatures. Even more disturbing is the trend of states attempting to criminalize gender-appropriate healthcare for trans youth. Arkansas has already passed such a law, with potentially devastating results for trans children in the state. Other states are following suit, with even more draconian proposals. In North Carolina, legislators want to mandate that state employees report any evidence of “gender nonconformity” to parents. In Texas, the mooted bill would reclassify providing trans children with transition-related healthcare as “child abuse”, allowing the state to remove them from their homes.

There’s a lot to be said about this. Many people have pointed out the cynicism and calculation behind this strategy. Republicans, realizing that the broader culture war they’d been waging against LGBT+ rights has mostly been lost, very consciously settled on demonizing trans people as the next wedge issue that they can to use to rile up their base. The same arguments that were made a decade ago to warn of the impeding societal damage of gay marriage or the Homosexual Agenda are now trotted out to explain why trans people will soon destroy Western Civilization or whatever. But I think it’s worth taking a deeper look. It’s not a coincidence that children have become the focus of this legislative push. Children are the future of society, and those that seek to mire us in the past have always sought to control them. This isn’t the first time that reactionary Christians have waged ideological and religious warfare on vulnerable children.

In 1857, in the city of Bologna, the police arrived at the door of Salomone Mortara, a local Jewish merchant. They were there to kidnap his eight-year old son, Edgardo Mortara. It had come to the attention of Father Pier Feletti, the city’s Inquisitor, that six years ago the Mortara family’s Catholic servant had secretly baptized Edgardo when he had a childhood illness and was believed to be on the verge of death. Under the law of the Papal States, it was forbidden for a Catholic to be raised by infidels. His parents protested, but to no avail. Their son was taken by armed men to Rome, to be raised in the Catholic faith.

The case provoked international outcry, becoming emblematic to many of the tyrannical and Medieval nature of the Papal regime. At the time, the Vatican was almost certainly the single most antisemitic institution in Europe outside of the Russian Empire. Rome was the last city in Western Europe to have a ghetto, which was not abolished the city’s liberation by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. Across Europe and America, public opinion called for the child to be returned. The Spectator, a British magazine, cited the case as proof that the Papal State had “the worst government in the world—the most insolvent and the most arrogant, the cruelest and the meanest”. In turn, the Catholic press accused Europe’s newspapers of being controlled by the Jews. Among those swayed by the case was Emperor Napoleon III of France. Formerly a supporter of direct Papal rule, Napoleon III was infuriated. Many believe that this was one of the factors that led to his support for the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in the Second War of Italian Independence which began in 1859. But Pope Pius IX would not budge, despite the firestorm. Edgardo Montara spent the rest of his life in the Church. He was ordained as a priest in 1873, and often preached of the divine miracle that had led him to the Faith.

This incident may seem irrelevant to anything in modern times. But just in 2018, the theologian Father Romanus Cessario wrote an essay defending the kidnapping in First Things, one of the country’s most prominent conservative Christian journals. In it he articulates what must be considered his core thesis: that theological concerns trump those of civil liberties or basic human rights. “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith? We should be grateful if that question does not become pressing, but we cannot assume it will not.” (It is only fair to say that this was met with fierce criticism from many other Catholic writers and intellectuals). But that theme of the demand for hierarchical and patriarchal control will continue to be relevant.

Edgardo Mortara was one child, and one who lived a long and (apparently) happy life, despite the Church’s assault on his family. In Spain, under the fascist regime of Franciso Franco the Church and State together may have kidnapped as many as 300,000 children from “undesirable” families. Franco took power in Spain in 1939, after a long and bloody Civil War against a left-wing coalition who had attempted to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco’s military coup. He established an authoritarian, Catholic government that lasted until 1975.

The kidnapping of children began during the war on ideological grounds. Communists, republicans, socialists—none could be permitted to raise children who would not be loyal to the regime. Women incarcerated in prison after the war had their children taken away and given to loyal Christian families to be raised, as did people executed by the new government. Others were put in the custody of the State’s Department of Social Aid. Uxeno Alvarez, one of the many orphans raised by the State said later of the experience “We had to be like them, like the victors. They stole my childhood, they killed my soul in 1936.” Another major source of children were the repatriations. During the war, many republicans had sent their children abroad so that they’d be safe. Afterwards, Franco’s government arranged for their return, but arranged for their adoption by new families instead of returning them to their parents.

As the Civil War receded into the mists of the past, the kidnappings continued. Now instead of stealing babies from ideological opponents, it was increasingly done from those deemed to be financially or morally unfit to be mothers. It had become a business, too, one that entangled the Catholic Church that ran most hospitals and schools under Francoist Spain. Approved families paid priests and nuns from babies. In turn, their mothers were told that their newborns had died. True numbers are impossible to obtain. Under Spanish law, it was permissible to list “mother unknown” on birth records, which has made it impossible to track large numbers of children. It’s only since the fall of the regime that people have begun openly discussing this and attempting to track down their original families.

In 2011, a journalist from BBC confronted Dr. Eduardo Vela, who has been implicated in a number of these cases. Waving a crucifix he shouted “Do you know what this is, Katya? I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers. Enough.” You will recognize, of course, the similarity between Dr. Vela’s justification and those made by apologists for Pope Pius IX. In both cases, they claim the right to radically interfere in the lives of children–to rip them from their homes, decide what they will think, and how they will live–and justify it on the grounds of Christian necessity. It is, essentially, a claim that you don’t know what’s good for you. Only they do.

The 1862 painting The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

That argument was also made in Ireland between 1922 and 1996, where between ten and thirty thousand children and young women underwent state and Church sponsored imprisonment, torture, and abuse. This was the so-called ‘Magdalene Laundry’ system. Operated by The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters, these were institutions designed to punish girls who had committed a wide spectrum of offenses. According to Justice for Magdalenes, a survivors’ group, “those who were perceived to be ‘promiscuous’, unmarried mothers, the daughters of unmarried mothers, those who were considered a burden on their families or the State, those who had been sexually abused, or had grown up in the care of the Church and State” all found themselves incarcerated there, sometimes by family members, sometimes the court system, sometimes the Church, sometimes other institutions. The Laundries were for-profit institutions, but the girls received no pay, despite preforming backbreaking labor. Neither was there any education provided to the inmates. Work lasted all day, punishments were harsh, and the death toll was very high. Many who gave birth in the Laundries had their babies taken away and put off for adoption against their will and without their knowledge.

To quote Adam Serwer’s seminal essay on Trump’s immigration policy–the cruelty was the point. These institutions were designed not just to house these women, but to punish them for the sin of violating the social order–the sin of being raped, or being born out of wedlock. Catherine Corless, an Irish genealogist and amateur historian, recalled what it was like to attend school with girls from the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home (a similar institution, designed to house illegitimate children):

“They were always segregated to the side of regular classrooms,” Corless tells IrishCentral. “By doing this the nuns telegraphed the message that they were different and that we should keep away from them. 

“They didn’t suggest we be nice to them. In fact if you acted up in class some nuns would threaten to seat you next to the Home Babies. That was the message we got in our young years,” Corless recalls. 

Now a dedicated historian of the site, as a schoolgirl Corless recalls watching an older friend wrap a tiny stone inside a bright candy wrapper and present it as a gift to one of them.

“When the child opened it she saw she’d been fooled,” Corless says. “Of course I copied her later and I tried to play the joke on another little Home girl. I thought it was funny at the time.”

But later – years later – Corless realized that the children she taunted had nobody. “Years after I asked myself what did I do to that poor little girl that never saw a sweet? That has stuck with me all my life. A part of me wants to make up to them.”

In 2014, Corless publicized her findings that 796 children had died at the Bon Secours Home and been buried in a septic tank. Excavations in 2017 confirmed it. The discovery set off a firestorm of controversy, culminating in the Irish government issuing a major report on the Mother and Baby Homes this year and apologies from both the government and the Bon Secours Order. Recent years have seen a major repudiation of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Republic legalized gay marriage in 2015, legalized abortion in 2018, and liberalized divorce laws in 2019. Revelations such as these have played a major role. In his apology, Taoiseach Micheál Martin acknowledged that “We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction.”

Which brings us back to where we started.

The current legislative and cultural assault on transgender children isn’t identical to any of these antecedents, obviously. But it springs from the same source, the same reactionary conviction that children have no rights beyond that to be inculcated with their parents beliefs or beaten into line if they stray. Republicans and others who campaign against trans rights today claim that they’re trying to protect children from harmful medical procedures or dangerous ideology that might “confuse” them. They claim to be motivated only by the desire to rescue children from those that would misled and mistreat them. I’m sure they believe this. I’ve read enough of their (mostly extremely tedious) arguments to believe that they’re sincere. (For some extensive debunking of their claims, please see this resource page). But I believe that Pope Pius IX was sincere when he decided that a baptized Jewish boy now belonged to him, and I believe his modern-day apologists are sincere too. When Dr. Vela swears that he always acted in the best interests of the mothers and children I believe he thinks he’s telling the truth. I’m sure that the nuns who humiliated and starved the girls in the Magdalene Laundries truly believed that they were helping to save them from eternal hellfire. They believed the same thing when subjecting children to gay ‘conversion therapy‘, something that the Republican Party platform still endorses.

I just don’t care.

Over and over again, the forces of the reactionary right have proclaimed their God-given right to impose their own will on children, no matter the cost. They warn that “trans ideology” is being used to brainwash students and must be banned from the classroom while pushing through legislation that would criminalize “gender nonconformity”. State legislatures are passing laws designed solely to punish a tiny number of student athletes, for no purpose but to punish, to ensure that these children understand that they are not welcome. They are attempting to use the coercive power of the state to force parents, teachers, and doctors to compel transgender children into repressing their identities. This isn’t a supposition on my part–creating a hostile environment for trans people so they don’t come out is very explicitly the goal for the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the major anti-trans legal groups involved in this fight. It is an argument from hierarchy, a claim that they have the authority to control the lives of others because of who they are. Reactionary Christians make this argument about everyone, of course. But children occupy a unique position in society. They are, definitionally, the future. Education is such a perennial flashpoint issue because everyone understands the power there is in shaping future citizens. But more than that, children are already a subordinate class of people, against whom coercion and force are explicitly allowed.

Incidentally, the author of that article has a trans daughter, and a New York Times OpEd writer recently accused him of being a pedophile for talking about respecting her rights. The question of how to balance protecting and raising children with respecting their right to free expression and autonomy isn’t an easy one. I don’t agree with everything Berlatksy says. But I think it’s a good example of how vicious these issues quickly become, and how so many social conservatives view the idea that they don’t have a right to impose their worldview on children as inherently outrageous.

It’s no coincidence that religious conservatives target children for conversion, indoctrination, kidnapping, or punishment. The same logic that told them that it was acceptable to take children from their families for the crime of being republican is the same logic that said it was justified to punish girls for the crime of being raped with hard labor is the same logic that demands that trans children be banned from playing sports, denied appropriate medical care, and forcibly converted from their chosen identities. Nothing ever changes, the story is always the same. Enough!

Let this be the end of it.

A 2017 protest against the Irish government by survivors (Source)

With Special Thanks to The Airship Chronos for Help with Research!

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