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Transphobia and The Far Right

16 03 22

Patrik Hermansson reveals how the extreme right is actively exploiting anti-trans focus in the mainstream press and elsewhere.

The far right believe that the world can be structured into strict hierarchies and categories. This worldview seeps through every segment of their belief system and is expressed in different ways: through concepts such as nationalism, a desire for strong leaders and perhaps most clearly in racism. It is also present in the far right’s view on gender, and recently this has come to be expressed through attacks on the rights of transgender people.

In recent years transgender people have become an important target of far-right hate, both here in Britain and internationally. Anti-trans views include fear, dislike or mistrust of people who are, or who are perceived to be, transgender or non-binary, as well as denial of their identity, abuse and vilification of trans people.

Such beliefs now comprise a large part of far-right propaganda, as well as social media content and, worryingly, regular and direct calls for violence. Hate against trans people has united the broader far right in a way few other issues have done. From more mainstream figures and parties that usually avoid explicit references to race, to explicitly fascist and racist groups, transphobia has become a central focus.

Anti-trans views span the entire far right. The fascist group Patriotic Alternative has published multiple blogs on transgender people over the last year. It also reviewed the anti-trans, antisemitic book The Transgender Industrial Complex and hosted the book’s authors in one if its “book club” livestreams. Mark Collett, the organisation’s leader, has also regularly broadcast transphobic messages on Telegram.

Promotion image for Patriotic Alternative’s livestream on anti-trans conspiracy theory book The Transgender Industrial Complex.

Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), who has a following of 155,000 on Telegram, has also made anti-trans politics a central part of his agenda in recent years. In December 2021 alone he posted 14 transphobic posts and additional anti-LGBT+ posts, frequently using the slur “tranny”. In one post he wrote: “It’s not natural, biological men can’t have babies, they are not supposed to have babies.”

It should be no surprise that the far right almost universally opposes transgender rights. Far-right ideologies have at their core strongly patriarchal gender norms, no matter the gender of the ideologue. Views on gender reflect the far right’s view of the world as one of strict and unchangeable categories, framed in many cases as dictated by “nature” (a theme referenced by Yaxley-Lennon’s quote).

Gender, in the view of the far right, is intrinsically linked to biological traits and should determine one’s place in a social hierarchy. Ultimately the traditional gender roles and the subjugation of women is justified in terms of ensuring the reproduction of the nation. Emancipatory struggles, whether that is migrant rights, feminism or the movement for transgender equality, challenge these boundaries and are therefore clashing with this core tenet of far-right ideologies.

Because this strict view on gender as binary and biologically defined is shared across the far right, so too has opposition to the movement for transgender equality. This opposition is shared almost universally across the far right’s, usually conflicting, segments.

Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) speaking for Hearts of Oak

Mainstream media coverage of trans issues

What has changed in recent years is the focus on the issue outside of the far right: in mainstream media, culture and politics. The newspaper regulator, the Independent Press Standards Association (IPSO), found a 400% increase in the coverage of trans issues between 2014 and 2019. A report by Mermaids, a charity supporting transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and their families, similarly found that mentions of transgender children in British press were 23 times as common in 2018-19 compared to 2012 and that a majority of the coverage was negative.

The far right has noticed. Activists regularly parrot critical articles from the mainstream media or share positive press coverage in condescending or ridiculing ways. Last year Patriotic Alternative published several articles on its website based on reporting in the mainstream press. One article titled “Transgender Inmates Over-Represented in Prison Sexual Assaults”, linked to two Telegraph articles and one Daily Mail article to make its case. The piece also called gender confirmation surgery “body mutilation.”

Finding ways to insert themselves into ongoing debates and salient issues in mainstream media is an effective tactic by far-right activists, allowing them to access new audiences by showing agreement with one or the other side in issues that receive media attention. There is some evidence that this has already led to overlaps between movements, as well as a potential slip road into far-right politics.

The American far-right “citizen journalist” Andy Ngo, who frequently posts anti-trans content on his social media, attended a conference organised by British group LGB Alliance in October as a member of the press. LGB Alliance is an anti-trans campaign group formed in October 2018. Ngo had left his job as editor of Quillette after it was revealed that he knew that the far-right group Patriot Prayer was planning violence without reporting it. Attending and reporting from the LGB Alliance conference exposed both Ngo’s and LGB Alliance’s audiences to one another. Another case reported by Trans Safety Network is that of Harry Miller, a police officer critiqued for transphobic tweets, who later went on to join far-right organisation Hearts of Oak.

However, the far right’s attention to the topic in the media should not be seen as purely tactical. Specific themes in the mainstream media’s portrayal of trans issues have struck a chord with far-right views on gender. A common theme in media coverage is the portrayal of trans people being a threat – primarily towards children and, especially in the case of trans women, as a threat particularly to cis[1] women. There have been numerous media-led debates and columns discussing the topic of trans women’s access to women-only spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms, often with a critical party arguing that it would give (what they define as) “men” a possibility to commit sexual violence. This focus discards the fact that trans people are disproportionally affected by sexual violence themselves.

These narratives fit with existing far-right discourses and feed into common anxieties. There is an enduring figure in far-right discourse of a hypersexualised black or Muslim rapist. This trope serves the far right by posing white men as protectors of (white) women. This in turn strengthens the status of white men and entrenches traditional, patriarchal gender roles. There is a direct link between this existing idea of a sexual threat and how the far right speaks of trans people today.

Media coverage that portrays transgender people in a negative light is therefore often shared by the movement’s activists, and transgender people are framed as a threat to cis women and children in the same way that black or Muslim men often are. Lastly, the idea that trans people (and the LGBTQ+ movement more broadly) harms children additionally frames them as some sort of direct “threat” to the future of the nation.

An example of such a convergence of twisted views is shown by Hearts of Oak, an alliance of far-right and libertarian activists, including Tommy Robinson. The organisation heavily promotes Robinson’s project “The Rape of Britain”. While he has claimed to expose the sexual exploitation of children by predominantly Muslim men, he has also made multiple videos targeting trans people. In one speech titled “THE TRANS TIME BOMB!!!”, he argued that gender-neutral children’s books and LGBT+ education in school causes mental health issues, calling it child abuse and comparing it directly to sexual grooming.

“The all-powerful trans movement”

The far right’s rhetoric around trans people is similar to that of many other groups that it targets. It uses a similarly contradictory language to justify its hate. Transgender people are simultaneously ridiculous and threatening, weak and powerful, depending on context.

Depicting trans people as powerful and dangerous serves to legitimise hate and obscures the fact that transgender people face a remarkable amount of persecution. Research by LGBT+ hate crime monitoring organisation Galop found that in 2020 as many as four out of five trans people had experienced a hate crime in the previous 12 months, and that one in four had experienced a transphobic physical assault or the threat of physical assault.

Shon Faye notes in her recent book The Transgender Issue that the rhetoric about trans people has changed in recent years. She writes:

“We were no longer portrayed as the ridiculous but unthreatening provincial mechanic who was having a ’sex swap’; now, we were depicted as the proponents of a powerful new ‘ideology’ that was capturing institutions and dominating public life.”

While Faye writes about mainstream media, the far right has adopted a similar language fed by conspiracy theorist thinking. It does not focus on individual trans people but views the transgender equality movement as a monolithic, powerful and disruptive force with a secretive agenda. This has fed existing far-right conspiracy theories which can incorporate anti-trans narratives.

“Cultural Marxism” is a theory alleging that (usually) Jewish people promote progressive ideologies through their supposed influence in cultural and political institutions, and are working to smuggle communism into Western culture, to brainwash populations and undermine the West. LGBTQ+ rights and feminism are some of the most common issues attributed to cultural marxism. Promotion of these causes, many segments of the far right believe, will lead to the breakdown of order, a weakening and the corruption of society, through the weakening of white men and lower birth rates. In its fascist interpretation, LGBTQ+ people, as well as other minority groups, are seen as impurities that need to be removed for the good of the nation.

Trans rights are a central target for those adhering to this idea. In countless messages in antisemitic chat groups on Telegram, trans-rights are described as a “jewish agenda”. One message by Patriotic Alternative leader Mark Collett exemplifies the conspiracy theory: “The New York Jewish Week asks: Were Adam and Eve black transgender refugees?”

Other groups do not reference it explicitly. The Traditional Britain Group (a far-right discussion group) used the phrase “trans tyranny”, while the nazi hooligan group Pie and Mash squad wrote during Pride month in Brighton in June that trans people “now enjoy supremacy in the city. Just another loud minority calling the shots for the silent majority”. Britain First wrote on its Telegram channel in November: “Don’t mess with the all-powerful trans movement! They are very, very powerful and exercise a disproportionate influence on society!”

Calls for violence

Trans people are now one of the primary targets of violent far-right groups. Some of the most extreme fascist groups are also virulently anti-trans and in some cases they have turned their ideas into action.

In March 2021, HOPE not hate infiltrated and exposed the fascist and terror-advocating group, the National Partisan Movement. The group’s internal chat used directly threatening language. One member asserted that transgender folks are “not people” and posted a picture of a noose which he captioned: “Send this to blacks and trannies.” Going even further, one member bragged about planning to vandalise a transgender support centre in Ontario, Canada. He was encouraged by other members to throw rocks through the centre’s front window and paint graffiti on its facade outside. Meanwhile he sent pictures of his attack back to the group.

There is little sign of far-right groups and organisations losing interest in this topic, and that presents a serious threat to transgender people. This is unlikely to change as long as the issue remains intensely reported on in mainstream circles.

However, the relationship between media coverage of trans issues to far-right anti-trans views is complex. The far right’s antipathy towards trans people is inherent to its ideologies and a product of its view of gender, but it is clear that media attention on the issue has also attracted the focus of the movement. That both positive and negative coverage in mainstream press is being exploited by far-right social media activists suggests they know it will rile their supporters. In this regard, negative press coverage and disproportional focusing on issues such as bathrooms and trans athletes have likely not been beneficial.

State of Hate 2022

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NOTES:

[1] ‘Cis’ is short for ‘cisgender’, which means someone’s identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.

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