Opinion: What the CPAC speaker meant when he said ‘transgenderism must be eradicated’

A seated man with a mug
Michael Knowles on a TV set in 2022. At CPAC last weekend, Knowles said that in “dealing with transgenderism” it was “all or nothing.”
(Jason Davis / Getty Images)

When far-right commentator Michael Knowles announced from the Conservative Political Action Conference stage this past weekend that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” Rolling Stone ran the headline “CPAC Speaker Calls for Transgender People to Be Eradicated,” under the banner GENOCIDAL MANIA. But hours later, after Knowles threatened multiple news outlets with libel suits, Rolling Stone editors changed that headline to “CPAC Speaker Calls for Transgenderism to Be Eradicated,” and put “GENOCIDAL” in scare quotes — which is fitting because editors are scared of lawsuits.

Knowles pretends to claim transgenderism and transgender people are two different things, and he was careful to use the “ism.” He said, “There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing.”

Let’s not overthink this. Had he 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. The story would have earned a front page headline in every major newspaper in the U.S. and beyond. (Which I hope will someday be the case when it comes to threats of trans genocide from a major political party.)


For the record, trans people have existed throughout history in every culture, which has been exhaustively documented. By turning trans existence into an ism, conservatives are attempting to misrepresent a struggle for equality as a culture war.

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The campaign against Black history is another attempt to turn one group’s existence into an ism. Critical race theory is taught as an upper-level elective in some law schools, not to children in public schools. In reality, when Florida’s Ron DeSantis and other Republican governors ban “CRT” they are banning the teaching of basic historical facts — such as the details of slavery, the events leading to the Civil War, what happened during Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. (You know, the kinds of things on posters during Black History Month.)

The state of Florida has also banned discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity through the third grade, and “inappropriate” instruction beyond that — lest queer and trans children feel safe enough to come out. When DeSantis says Florida is where “woke goes to die,” he’s going after people. Again, the propaganda strategy is to turn some humans into a problematic idea — “wokeism” — and then eradicate the ism.

It’s also the legal strategy. While the gaslit GOP base is attacking drag queens, trans people and LGBTQ nightclubs, its leaders are introducing anti-trans bills in state legislatures at a dizzying pace — more than 410 in the first three months of 2023, according to the Human Rights Campaign — targeting trans people, particularly trans kids.

It’s worth remembering that during the first six years of Hitler’s dictatorship more than 400 anti-Jewish decrees and regulations were issued, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia. Many were national laws, “but state, regional, and municipal officials, acting on their own initiatives, also promulgated a barrage of exclusionary decrees in their own communities.” Was the legislation “anti-Jewish” or “anti-Jew”? Does it matter, given what happened next?

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Here’s a piece of good news: That Rolling Stone headline now reads, “CPAC Speaker Calls for Eradication of ‘Transgenderism’ — and Somehow Claims He’s Not Calling for Elimination of Transgender People.” The updated story features Erin Reed, a trans writer and legislative researcher — and needless to say the scare quotes are where they belong, around the “ism.”


Here’s one ism we ought to be citing: fascism. We should have been using it for years to describe what’s transpiring, yet few people in the national media choose it, opting instead for blunted substitutes like “anti-democratic” or “extremism” or “ultra-MAGA.” I’m wondering how the majority of Americans can see clearly where things stand when news sources employ mealy-mouthed euphemisms instead of the right word: fascism.

Maybe national media outlets are cautious about deploying this ism, lest they be branded extreme, or lose audience. Or maybe they are saving it for the right moment, lest they become the boy who cried wolf. If so, now is the time. When a political party calls for the eradication of a group of people, that’s fascism.

Diana Goetsch is the author of the memoir “This Body I Wore,” a 2022 best nonfiction selection of the Washington Post.