In January of 2021, I led an online workshop to inform journalists about the context, history, and patterns of specific elements of “trans rights” discourse that were emerging over time. I am particularly interested in how some so-called feminists – primarily in the US and the UK – have taken to attacking trans rights, and positioning trans women as infringing upon cis women’s rights.
From tracking the evolution of the term “Terf” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and the lightning-rod moment of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, to visiting trans-rights activists in North Carolina who were dealing with the fallout of HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill” that sought to undercut the safety of trans people in public spaces), I’ve watched this manufactured discourse snowball, cause division, and essentially radicalise once reasonable people now stuck in a funhouse mirror version of events.
Along the way, I’ve implored journalists to understand how inauthentic discourse can cascade, how right-wing fearmongering and manufactured moral panics can often take on the facade of reasonable debate, and how Irish media must utilise common sense to understand that our reality – where the Gender Recognition Act has existed in legislation for seven years – does not need to fold in on itself by importing phony discourse.
Unfortunately in recent times, several outlets have stumbled over the tripwires set by manufactured “debate”, including a rolling discussion over several days on RTÉ’s Liveline, which led to Dublin Pride ending its media partnership with RTÉ. It’s time to take a breath.
We know that one of the tactics of right-wing disinformation is to Trojan horse hate and division within a facade of reasonableness; to pretend you care about women’s freedoms, but only when it offers an opportunity to bash Muslims, or to pretend you care about children’s rights, but only as an avenue to delegitimise same-sex parents, for example.
These tactics have been spoken out loud by the American right. In 2017, the anti-LGBT group, Family Research Council, held its Values Voter Summit, which was notable as the first time a sitting US president, Donald Trump, attended. On one panel, titled Transgender Ideology in Public Schools: Parents Fight Back, tactics were detailed to divide and conquer – separate the “T” from the “LGBT” in order to achieve anti-LGBT goals. Aspects of feminist discourse were framed as a proxy through which fear could be seeded that women’s rights are being infringed upon by trans rights. This misdirection has been especially embraced in the UK.
Anti-trans rhetoric in Britain – essentially a Gender Brexit framing gender as some kind of siege where no one is allowed in or out – positions gender in classic colonialist terms; the body as territory, gender as bordered, and characteristics as something to be categorised. I think we would do well not to take lessons from a jurisdiction where some people appeared to be more concerned with who gets to take a dip in the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath, than the descent of their nation into a fascistic farce. Priorities, please.
Those who think there’s a “point” to this manufactured discourse, need to look around at who their allies are. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin disinformation machine has centred anti-trans rhetoric as a propaganda tool for his domestic audience to fear this manufactured spectre of the decadent West, in an almost identical manner to how Russia previously pushed anti-gay propaganda. Conspiracy theorists rant about “gender ideology”. Ethno-nationalists bolster anti-trans rhetoric masquerading as feminism. Fundamentalist Catholics – who oppose gay rights and women’s rights at every juncture – are on board. The American Christian right is busy using the pincer move of attacking trans rights and women’s reproductive rights in order to deny anyone but cis-men bodily autonomy. The accompanying chaotic online “discourse” must be a delight to anyone who stands to benefit from division in progressive liberal democracies.
As a lesbian feminist, the idea that trans people are infringing upon my rights is utterly detached from reality. It’s not trans people who are trying to roll back reproductive rights. It’s not trans people who are up in court, day in, day out, for sexually assaulting women. It’s not trans people who sent domestic violence incidents rocketing during the pandemic. The threat to cis women’s rights and safety is the same threat to trans rights and safety: male violence and the patriarchal structures that uphold it.
The Irish media has a duty to inform itself and ask why this “discourse” is heightening now. A new lie is being spun that the Irish Gender Recognition Act was “rushed” or somehow devoid of debate. Nonsense. This was an extraordinarily high-profile piece of legislation, with all the accompanying media coverage, political debates and processes, and came on the back of one of the most well-known legal cases in contemporary Irish history, that taken by Dr. Lydia Foy. Some sense, please.
This is not about being “woke”. It’s about media literacy and seeing through inauthentic discourse. The LGBTQ+ community is not being sensitive when it’s challenging media failures, it’s being vigilant. Let’s use cop on, and cut through the nonsense. Long may we continue to resist any disingenuous attempts to divide people or disrupt the social cohesion we have developed through mature, respectful discussion rooted in reality, empathy, and lived experiences.