Why has a seemingly uncontroversial debate about Trans and Non-Binary rights spiralled into a public, and very toxic row over public bathrooms, the safety of children and being ‘cancelled’ on Twitter?
Content warning: references to, and examples of, Transphobia
Trans Rights are a prickly topic. Often framed as an issue where ‘rights collide’, it is one of the great cultural and social debates of the moment. To the layman, the debate seems impenetrable – with disagreement over everything from the correct term to use for someone with a uterus, to who gets to access certain single sex, or single gender spaces. This article will seek to give as brief as possible rundown of the handful of times the debate has made its way into the broader public consciousness, and explain why the ‘toxic’ debate is not a product of trans people, but old, bigoted narratives being repurposed and reinjected into the public sphere.
As has already been hinted at, this is not an unprecedented, or even unique conversation, as many have drawn comparison to debates about homosexuality and the ‘gay panic’ of the 80s and 90s following the AIDS pandemic. Delays to reforms to the Gender Reform Act, and the Conservative Government’s choice to ignore the results of the first report into public opinion are reminiscent of institutionalised anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes that resulted in legislation such as the deeply homophobic Section 28. This is not just a simple or superficial comparison, as there is a tangible parallel between the trans rights and gay rights debates, with mainstream media outlets and public figures urging anything from caution to fear around the increasing public presence of transgender people, citing potential threats to children. Though we see overt bigotry, at least aimed at LGBTQ+ people as something of the past, it is as relevant and prominent today as it has been for decades, as the Independent demonstrates here.
The toxicity of the trans rights debate has lately been brought into the spotlight by the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, and he is undeniably correct, though perhaps not in the way he intended. Calling on participants to ‘detoxify’ the ‘bitter argument’, Starmer expressed his support to reforms for the Gender Recognition Act in response to intense pressure around allegations of transphobia levelled at MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield. However, Starmer’s continual refusal to openly come out in support of trans party members, or tackle the issue of Duffield and other MPs conduct has cost the party the trust and support of many LGBTQ+ people. Duffield, whose public anti-trans stance has led to two women quitting her office, is the latest in a succession of public figures to be acrimoniously embroiled in debates about trans rights, following criticism of JK Rowling’s platforming of transphobic businesses and individuals, and Graham Linehan’s removal from twitter.
The common thread between these three high-profile incidents of transphobia has been rhetorical focus. Though Rowling, Linehan and Duffield are from very different walks of life, they have all focused their public statements around allegations of misogyny and gay erasure being implicit in the movement for trans rights. This is in spite of none of these individuals having any personal connection to the LGBTQ+ community. Linehan’s line of arguing that trans rights will impact women’s rights further gives the impression that the safety of other marginalised groups is being weaponised by those with little vested interest in the actual repercussions of legislative changes.
These three have also decried being ‘deplatformed’ or ‘silenced’ for their views, another commonality between anti-trans or ‘gender critical’ activists. This argument is at least plausible in Linehan’s case, having been removed from twitter for various terms of service violations, the final straw being a display of candid transphobia. Regardless, none of these individuals have suffered any material loss in any meaningful way, other than having to face the consequences of voicing opinions generally considered to be incorrect and deeply unpleasant.
The idea that the world’s most successful author or a sitting MP with enough of a platform to be interviewed in the Times, are being ‘silenced’ by being publicly criticised is thus somewhat hyperbolic. By framing accountability as some violation of freedom of speech, there is a tendency amongst figures like Rowling to dismiss criticism as censorship, stalling any kind of productive outcome from the conversation. This belies the root of the issue in the trans rights debate: power, who is able to wield it, and how it can warp public perception of the nature of the conversation.
For instance, the idea that Linehan’s candid bigotry, responding to a tweet from the Women’s Institute celebrating their transgender members with “men aren’t women tho”, is in any way a useful or valid contribution to any reasoned debate about the potential issue of trans rights, is patently untrue.
Rather, his glib comments run parallel to an increasingly hostile situation for trans people, that has seem Trump roll back LGBTQ+ rights, including threatening to define any non-cisgender people out of existence, and proposed Gender Recognition Act reforms being sidelined in the UK, in spite of overwhelming support for the reforms. Without this context, and Linehan’s track record, one could dismiss these comments as thoughtless or simply ignorant of the situation. However, when contextualised, this kind of rhetoric contributes to the continual normalisation of hostility, open or otherwise, to trans people, and does nothing to aid anyone’s understanding of the plight of trans people.
Similarly, Rowling overtly promoted a website that sold explicitly and intentionally transphobic products, such as pins emblazoned with ‘transwomen are men’ phrases comparing transitioning to gay conversion therapy, and a mug sporting the graphic ‘notorious transphobe’.
By feigning concern about the tone of the conversation, figures like Linehan and Rowling take advantage of their pre-existing public platforms to deflect attention from their barely-concealed vitriol, insisting that their critics are those creating a conversation mired in venom. By invoking their right to speak, ‘gender critical’ public figures are crucially distracting everyone from the real issue – the content of their speech, and the environment it creates for the trans people they so evidently have little regard for.
The reality is that, in spite of constant attempts to correct their misguided views, Rowling and co. are continuing to peddle unsavoury and untrue ideas about trans people. If toxicity is the symptom, the root cause lies in the public conduct of those with the most power in this debate.
This is not to diminish the self-evident toxicity that pervades the internet, and especially twitter. No doubt figures like Rowling, Duffield, and others critical of the movement for trans rights have faced unacceptable and unpalatable language being hurled back across the aisle from anonymous accounts, as is the case for practically anyone that voices a controversial opinion online.
The difference here is who is being held to what standard, and the leniency given to figures like Rowling’s irresponsible use of her platform. Figures like Rowling have little authority to speak on trans issues, but when corrected or countered by those with more knowledge, refuse to take criticism on board, instead doubling down, producing lengthy tirades to justify their faulty beliefs. Far from just holding controversial opinions, figures like these have also routinely platformed and drawn attention to groups like the LGB Alliance. The group, purporting to be a well-meaning ‘gender critical’ group, has extensive and tangible connection to far right, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ organisations, such as the US conservative lobby group The Heritage Foundation.
Beyond these individuals, publications from across the political spectrum, home and abroad have published inaccurate or overtly transphobic coverage of trans issues. The prescription of puberty blockers to adolescent transgender people for instance, an entirely reversible and low-risk means for young people to begin transitioning or delay puberty so as to not go through sexual development that could cause discomfort, has been compared to castration. In spite of the reality that transitioning is a steady process, often to a fault, the prevailing ‘gender critical’ narrative frames essential and beneficial treatments as an insidious and rushed process. As many trans people will attest to, this is a clear misrepresentation of the reality which has seen limited resources and increasing demand result in waiting lists of over two years for initial consultations. Beyond this, negative press has led to further disruption of essential services, as negative headlines devoid of nuance cause mounting public pressure on the few structures operating to support trans people.
This is further exacerbated by the common talking point surrounding ‘trans ideology’ or the ‘transgender lobby’. An illusory concept, these high-profile figures often rally against a perceived yet inscrutable ‘other’ that does not refer to any specific figure or organisation, but rather the general concept of trans rights. Though non-profits like Stonewall, Mermaids or GenderGP are often singled out, these organisations lack the political or material resources of what most would consider a genuinely powerful lobby group. Whilst Stonewall’s guidelines have often been implemented by local councils, comparing their financial influence as a lobbying group to, say, the Confederation of British Industry, a true powerhouse in British political lobbying, shows a discrepancy. The former’s 2017-18 accounts indicated spending of around 8 million pounds, whilst the latter spent three times this amount. Stonewall is by far the largest LGBTQ+ rights organisation in the UK, and much of its expenditure is spent on issues aside from trans rights. Given this context, it is apparent how relatively limited scope of trans rights organisations is, far from being some excessively powerful lobbying apparatus in the UK. The fixation on the so-called ‘trans lobby’ then, further highlights the parallels between conversation about ‘trans ideology’, and the age-old anti-LGBTQ+ smear of the ‘homosexual agenda’, casting it as a pernicious and threatening plot.
By portraying the trans lobby as some unified, and inscrutable organisation, figures like Rowling and Linehan portray publicly accountable organisations with comparatively small influence on actual policy as puppet masters exercising antidemocratic and insurgent influence on British politics. Furthermore, it perpetuates the idea that opposition to transphobia is in some way maliciously staged, lacking the genuine public support that saw the Gender Reform Act proposal for gender self-identification conclusively demonstrate public backing for breaking down barriers to transition. By manipulating the debate, making earnest public support for trans people seem conspiratorial, and abusing public platforms to spread thinly veiled bigotry, figures like Rowling, Linehan, and others are the root of this conversation’s toxicity.
This rhetoric of ‘clashing rights’, where transgender people, without evidence, are positioned as a public menace and a threat to women, is both unsupported by the facts, and a useful tool for bigots when spread by those with purer intentions, as people like Rowling insist they have. Whilst ‘gender critical’ public figures include members of parliament, the world’s best-selling author and a number of British newspaper outlets, with ready access to huge platforms, the number of people with similar standings in opposition are few. Munroe Bergdorf, arguably the highest profile figure explicitly committed to trans rights, lacks the platform or influence of equivalent ‘gender critical’ figures, and herself has been the victim of public transphobic remarks.
Groups like GenderGP have been attacked and smeared in the press for attempting to rectify NHS shortfallings and remedy excessive wait times and unequal distribution, that Pinknews have referred to as a treatment ‘postcode lottery’. Even more alarmingly, the BBC, criticised earlier this summer for being ‘institutionally transphobic’, has been accused of banning employees from attending pride events. It has since been clarified that staff can attend, but cannot be seen to publicly support trans rights while in attendance, as it is a current affairs issue they must be seen to remain impartial on. Though this has been limited to certain current affairs and ‘factual’ journalists, it would be remiss to forget the origins of pride being a brick-throwing political protest, and the implications of the BBC restricting political action, as trans people become an increasingly politicised group, against their will.
Any institutional limit on individuals to publicly support LGBTQ+ rights is worrying. Even if these restrictions are smaller in scope than initially thought, the potential remains for a significant erosion of employees’ right to protest at the BBC.
Developments such as these must be focused upon and understood. Allyship and activism do not end at displays of support, but must extend to a continual and vigilant recognition of threats to progress on LGBTQ+ rights, and action to continue the fight for acceptance in the face of bigotry.
Though this article paints a grey picture for the future of the trans rights movement, there is much we can do to remedy the situation. In a conversation feeling increasingly strangled by bad-faith arguments, supporting organisations working to help transgender people, and being conscious of how the conversation is skewed against trans, nonbinary and genderqueer people is vitally important. If we want to detoxify the conversation or ‘debate’ about transgender and nonbinary rights, we have to recognise and tackle bad faith arguments, hold those responsible for transphobic comments accountable, and push back against reactionary fearmongering.
Here you can find a link to a list of some great trans/genderqueer/nonbinary support organisations and resources, as well as a more in-depth study into transphobia in the US and UK, from Brandwatch & Ditch The Label.
I’d also like to take a second to thank the transgender and nonbinary people that helped me look over this article – Charlie Tidmas, Seb Emmerson, Pagan Boydell, Caomhin Toland, and Isaac Saward. Their feedback, constructive criticism and additions really shaped this piece, and I’m incredibly grateful for their time and effort in making this piece reflective of a reality that is often sidelined or ignored.