Self-fulfilling fears of the far right
Many people who believe themselves to be progressive, socially liberal types look at the push for “trans rights”, and think to themselves how can anyone possibly be against that? Trans people are disadvantaged, and more rights are good, so surely the obvious, kind thing to do is to support them.
Ban conversion therapy for all. No LGB without the T. Who could seriously object to such expressions of well-meaning solidarity? It is so obviously the correct - moral - course of action to fight for equality for all in society
From that point of view, opposition can seem incomprehensible, and the only possible reasons for not wanting to support “trans rights” must either be immoral, or to have been duped by persuasive lies from someone immoral. The question is, how to square this perspective when your opponents don’t actually seem to be using any outright hateful language, but perfectly sensible terms - man, woman, male, female, gay, lesbian - that were uncontroversial five minutes ago?
If you are certain your enemy is hateful, but their words do not seem to be, the logical explanation must be that they are using code - that when they say innocuous-seeming things like “biological sex” or “gender ideology”, they are actually deviously mainstreaming hatred behind normal-seeming terms. There is some truth to this - for example, this piece by Mallory Moore is a convincing overview of the timeline of the use of the term “gender ideology” in this sense. So while many simply believe it to be a neutral term for “an ideology about gender”, when others hear it they understand it to be a broader term used by the Christian right.
Whether or not you accept any of this, it is absolutely worth reading and understanding what it is that people are arguing, and there is - to my mind - definite merit to the claims that the term “gender ideology” has a history particularly among the Christian right that alludes not to “gender identity” specifically, but to a wider sense in which feminism and LGB acceptance are disrupting the “natural order” of patriarchal gender roles.
Those who interpret “gender ideology” as a dogwhistle in this way are focused on an “anti-gender” authoritarian backlash from the reactionary right that - in targeting “gender ideology” - aims to remove rights and freedoms more widely from women and LGB people. It is this that Judith Butler attacked in this 2021 piece in The Guardian, and we can see exactly what they are afraid of in the moves in Russia to ban public talk of both homosexuality and “child-free lifestyles”.
They are not wrong that this exists.
Where they veer wildly into conspiracy theorist territory is to frame anyone who ever uses terms like “gender ideology” or who doesn’t accept Judith Butler’s ideas of sex and gender as either secret advocates for this reactionary “anti-gender” movement, or its unwitting pawns. Basic terms used in good faith attempts to communicate clearly - gender (identity) ideology, biological sex, same-sex attraction, adult human female - are increasingly being flagged on sight as coded bigotry, to stem the spread of “far-right tropes”. Once you start to see honestly expressed opinions as a cover for a hidden agenda, or dogwhistles, it isn’t hard to cherry-pick evidence and frame absolutely anything in the worst possible way to reinforce your beliefs, and a descent into conspiracism swiftly follows. Where wholly valid concerns about just how many gender-questioning LGB youth are being needlessly sterilised via paediatric transition all become reframed as akin to far-right racism and ultimately genocidal:
This obsessive focus on white fertility is of a piece with fascist propaganda about being overrun or replaced by people of colour.
this agenda is, clearly, already genocidal where trans people are concerned
The widespread insistence among those who see themselves as “pro-trans rights” that their opposition is all part of a wider “anti-gender” movement serves to collapse nuanced opinions into a ridiculous binary of the virtuous transactivist faux-‘left’ vs everybody else is a hateful right-wing fascist. Anyone who does not appear to fit into that binary is considered to be either a front or a useful patsy, their mind warped by “right-wing tropes”, their politics shaped by conservatism and fear. That is how you end up with absolutely ludicrous - yet widespread - beliefs like considering Mumsnet to be “part of the global resurgence in fascism” (9m50s in that podcast).
A July report from the organisation GATE is a textbook illustration of the conspiracism and institutional groupthink that dominates this debate.
The report claims to map “opposition to trans rights” in the UK and show how it is part of a wider, connected, “anti-gender movement”. However, this is also the starting point - that all opposition is part of a wider, connected, anti-gender movement - and the whole report is an exercise in selecting evidence to prove what they already believe.
Disparate and conflicting perspectives are lumped together under one umbrella, with no differentiation between “campaigning against trans rights” and “campaigning for women’s/LGB rights”. The report’s ingrained biases are clear: if you disagree with the authors’ legal and political aims, you are part of the “anti-gender” movement. From the far right to the radical feminist: it is all part of the same opposition, and come what may they will find a way to tie those disparate actors together.
The authors background overview of the controversy around reform of the Gender Recognition Act presents a thoroughly one-sided view of the process, which fails to account for how heavily driven the whole process was by transactivist demands and groupthink. Lobby groups had the ear of the government all the way through, women with objections had to fight to be heard, and their concerns were dismissed or ignored. What the authors describe as a “a widely publicised consultation” actually went largely under the radar until grassroots campaigning organisations like Fair Play For Women were built from the ground up through hard work and at great personal cost, and managed to force the issue into the wider consciousness.
The report’s aim, rather than to truly acknowledge any of these dynamics or the genuine concerns, is instead to dismiss such campaigning is part of the web of influence of the “anti-gender” movement, which is illustrated as follows:
This illustration tells us absolutely nothing, but gives the impression of interconnections between groups, which “reveal” that UK feminist groups are “connected” to the US far right. Let’s look at how this image is constructed:
this project mapped 368 actors that have been active on (or closely linked to actors) campaigning against trans rights in the UK, and 1,036 relationships between them.
The authors hand-selected and categorised these actors according to their own judgement. They have not made public who any of these actors are, or identified what the actual links between them are. They have not indicated how a group is labelled “trans exclusionary” or - yet again - differentiated between campaigning against trans rights as opposed to for womens or LGB rights. The entire selection and categorisation process bakes in the assumptions of the report.
When it comes to relationships between these actors they include:
personnel links (e.g., employment, appointment, board, or freelancing at); organisational partnerships (e.g., network members, joint initiatives); campaigning, collaborating, or endorsing/promoting; co-authorship, publishing, or other writing links; participation in interviews, podcasts, videos, or panels; collaboration in legal actions; and funding links
We don’t know what a “network member” is. We don’t know what “endorsing/promoting” consists of. Does following or liking or retweeting someone count? What counts as collaboration? The report admits they don’t differentiate between eg. material funding links and being “signatory to a declaration, or participation in a joint podcast”. These “links” can be anything from tight interconnection to passing alignment of interest, and the only ones that have been picked out are the ones that fit the narrative. There is absolutely no counterfactual information, because only the relationships that match the conclusions are plotted.
They’ve taken data that they themselves have selected by their own criteria, labelled according to their own criteria, weighted according to their own criteria, drawn connections between them by their own criteria, published none of their data or methodology, and by staggering good fortune produced exactly the result they wanted all along.
The report relies on selective use of questionable statistics to build an underlying sense of threat and paranoia, of a rising tide of a united “anti-gender” movement, warning early on that the rights of the “LGBTIQ+ community” are declining in the UK:
the UK currently ranks 10th out of 49 states mapped by ILGA Europe on their LGBTI rights record; down from 1st during 2011-2015
As I wrote back in May this is because ILGA Europe change its ranking criteria year-on-year in order to advance specific demands. The UK has stood still, while apparently being leapfrogged in human rights terms by Malta - where abortion is illegal in all circumstances. The rankings are not neutral, they are a continually revised treadmill with a specific aim in mind, a tool for lobbying for their specific legislative demands. Keep in line with ILGA Europe’s worldview or you’ll be marked down, and organisations like GATE will portray this as backsliding.
Of course, rather than truthfully acknowledge the role of ILGA Europe in manufacturing this apparent decline, they lay the responsibility at the feet of “anti-gender mobilisations” and perceived threat from rising media visibility:
More steadily, over the past 5-10 years, we have also seen rising visibility and representation of trans people in British media and popular culture (see Mediatique for IPSO 2019; Mermaids 2019).
The cited Mediatique report is here, and ironically its primary author was consultant Conrad Roeber, who is now a trustee of LGB Alliance, and has stated it was specifically during the researching of this report that “he became concerned about the potential for harm to women and LGB and transgender people in the confused debate about trans-related rights”.
Unfortunately, this insight contradicts the foundational assumption of the GATE report authors that there is no such thing as a conflict of rights:
Firstly, many actors share a zero-sum conception of rights.
Which is a ludicrous position - rights conflict all the time - but one which was maintained by Stonewall et al right through the process of lobbying for reform of the GRA. There is no conflict, and anyone who says there is must be misled, a liar or a bigot. There cannot be permitted to be seen to be a conflict, because then there might be grounds to discuss like adults how to move forward. Everything in reports like this and in the whole tenor of this debate as pushed by such lobby groups and their supporters is to prevent debate - because once people start talking, their demands become ever more insupportable. All suggestions of a conflict of rights must be seen as manufactured, and indeed old-fashioned:
all groups in the mapping are generally, anti-intersectional, and in some way critical of younger social movements
Since there is neither desire nor ability to actually engage honestly with genuine disagreements, the report concludes with a call to develop strategies for bypassing debate:
A need to develop campaigning approaches which can de-centre, disrupt and/or speak past the core messages of anti-gender actors, which emphasise safety of women and children, and threats to freedom of speech and belief
On no account engage with or address legitimate concerns - just say all concerns are illegitimate and talk past them. Dismiss them as “astroturfing, fearmongering, and disinformation”. Produce reports like this linking all opposition to the Christian right by any means necessary. Make the arguments even wider and more intersectional, so you can claim to be “anti-racist” - and therefore by definition anyone who disagrees with you must be racist.
Once you decide that all of your opponents are hateful there is nothing to be gained by listening to them and everything to lose by even allowing them to speak.
Having arbitrarily insisted that LGB and womens groups who stand up for LGB and women’s rights are all part of a connected “anti-gender” movement - by picking only the relationships that agree with this position - they also insist such groups are not a driving force of “the movement”:
this is not a movement significantly driven by trans-exclusionary feminist and LGB actors. Together with wider data, this suggests a level of enmeshment with, instrumentalisation by, and/or overshadowing by wider actors with far greater resources, policy-level access, public and media influence, and agenda-setting power.
The implication of this is clear - it is really “the right” calling the shots all along. Feminists with objections are being used and co-opted, or the connections (which have been cherry-picked by GATE) prove that they are not “proper” feminists at all, but associates of and direct agents of “the right”.
This is all pure conspiracism, baked into a report whose aim is to influence policymakers - and acceptance of this sort of “anti-gender” conspiracism seems institutional.
In January the Council of Europe passed a motion that conflated the term “gender critical” with this reactionary “anti-gender” movement, and denied the existence of any legitimate rights conflict. In June, the trade union Unison passed a motion containing:
a commitment to provide members with materials to counter the ‘gender critical’ narrative and provide information on the links between the gender critical movement in the UK and the far right.
The same month, the Trades Union Congress LGBT+ conference passed a motion calling out the “rise of anti-LGBT+ organisations and their role in promoting a global resistance to LGBT+ rights”, seemingly referencing the same ILGA Europe leaderboard manipulation as the GATE report. This motion specifically called for the removal of LGB Alliance’s charitable status.
Hope Not Hate’s 2022 update report tries to link LGB Alliance to the far right. ILGA Europe’s 2022 report - whose UK chapter was authored by representatives of Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence, Scottish Trans Alliance and others - smears LGB Alliance as a hate group. Labour List published an article claiming links between LGB Alliance and US right-wing thinktanks, before being forced to retract and apologise:
Feminist campaigners who dare to have different opinions are routinely challenged by journalists as to whether they have secret links with the Christian right.
It doesn’t matter how many times such things are protested, or patiently explained, or debunked, or laughed at - there must be links, and the dogged conspiracist will turn up any subprime evidence in service of this particular picture, and never let it go.
This insistence that all opposition be subsumed into a singular “anti-gender” movement has empowered reactionary elements. “What is a woman” was once a challenge by exasperated feminists to politicians unable to give a straight answer. Now it has been co-opted by the US anti-abortionist right wing, and is parroted by antifeminist trolls as they pile-on the activists who have been actually doing the thankless hard work for years. Once upon a time “gender critical” was a shorthand term adopted somewhat bemusedly by people who were critical of gender itself, but never realised that their position was one that even needed a label. Over time it has been increasingly directed at (and consequently adopted by) those who are - in reality - far more aligned with the “anti-gender” movement, and whose positions aren’t necessarily tied to any sort of serious analysis of gender that would lead one to be “gender critical”. Those who in truth have a singular focus on what they see as the incomprehensible societal capitulation to the bizarre and harmful demands of “the left”, and blame it variously on “feminism going too far”, or “marxists” or “the woke” or any other suitable placeholder for stuff they don’t personally like.
The pretence that opposition to transactivist demands is all a far-right ploy serves only the extremes. “Anti-gender” conspiracists get to pretend that this element is who the real enemy was all along, and the reactionary right gain useful cover for wider attacks on LGB people, on women, and so on. The grassroots groups of mostly women who have been doing all the hard work at great personal cost, for years, are quietly erased and defamed. The destruction of nuance ensures that the only people who get heard are those without nuance.
All of which is leading to ever more violent and intimidating actions directed at women, because of the completely false conflation of feminist opinions with those of reactionary, right-wing provocateurs.
Meanwhile, the feared wider backlash is coming to pass, and neo-Nazis who have apparently started violently picketing drag queen story hour events are seized upon as if they are representative of all objectors. Are the people who questioned the sexism of these events in recent years responsible for racists and conspiracy theorists using them as an excuse for violence and homophobia? Or is all this the end result of spending the last decade insisting in ever more hyperbolic terms that if you don’t fall in line, you must be a fascist? Is someone who argues that drag isn’t a great example of gender nonconformity and calls for more butch lesbian visibility really on the same side as a crowd of violent homophobes? Are the drag queens who think such adult entertainment is inappropriate really right-wing agitators? Why is it so hard to accept that more than two perspectives exist?
Dissenting voices on the political left in particular have increasingly been finding themselves adrift, caught between rejection by their own political representatives, and being exploited by their political opponents. But it doesn’t matter how they choose, how carefully they express themselves, how considered they are in forming or rejecting alliances - organisations like GATE will ensure they are considered part of a far-right driven “anti-gender” movement no matter what, and will do their best to lobby policymakers to see them the same way.
In recent years so many reasonable people across the political spectrum have been falsely attacked as bigots for using uncontroversial terms like biological sex in order to silence them, but in practice all that’s happened is that actual bigots have gained a useful veneer of “talking sense”. Attempting to destroy the reputations of ideological opponents for expressing legitimately held points of view and frame everything short of total ideological capitulation as “hate” has been massively counterproductive. Meanwhile, institutions like the TUC and Unison and the Labour party have dug further in to “anti-gender” conspiracism and become deaf to reason.
With an incoherent belief system that collapses under the slightest scrutiny, and lacking persuasive counterarguments, whether by design or by groupthink righteousness they have arrived at a strategy of forcing everyone to make as simplistic a moral choice as possible: do you agree with us, or the hate groups?