Transphobia, Yet Again

Rowan Fortune provides a roundup of the transphobic culture war being tirelessly but tiresomely waged in the UK, and puts it into the global context of creeping fascism.


In a slightly better Britain, trans and nonbinary peoples’ genders would be uncontroversial; we would be permitted to go about daily life without feeling forever on the defensive. We would be acknowledged in society, from education to the workplace. Even as a nonbinary person, it is possible to be fatigued by how frequently the subject of trans and nonbinary existence comes up in politically contentious discussions. My passions are for utopian literature, Marcel Proust’s great secular redemption stories, the whimsicality of grimdark fiction and the nuances of political theory. I am not so fascinated by far-right conspiracies, however laundered by BBC banalities.

In that other, slightly better world, we could be discussing why the Good Law Project must take on the NHS for so catastrophically failing to provide trans healthcare, not whether trans women have the right to pee in a public lavatory or if we gender rebels are all sexual deviants. That other discussion certainly has more relevance for everyone, cis and trans, as the illegal failure to treat trans people serves as a terrifying precedent to anyone wishing to further erode an already damaged healthcare system. Medical apartheid, a society where cis people can more easily access the same hormone treatments that are gatekept from trans people, persists to our mutual disadvantage. What they do to us, they can and likely will do to you.

Unfortunately, the British media insist that we have the toilet conversation (and its equivalents). They insist that we repeat this conversation again and again, literally reducing public discourse to sewerage.

Transphobic Britain

After a year of undoubtedly intense investigation, on 26th Oct. 2021, a BBC reporter named Caroline Lowbridge, wrote that cis lesbians are pressured into sex by some trans women. This claim, replete with its weasel-word framing, was unsubstantiated; the only non-anecdotal ‘evidence’ comprising a poll of some 80 people conducted on those belonging to the self same hate group directing the ‘study’. Even then it only indicated that just over half (56%) agreed with the controversial assertion about trans people’s sexual habits, despite a biased sample of the organisation’s membership. One of the those quoted uncritically in the article, Lily Cade, has previously called for the execution of trans women.

As well as its incendiary misreporting, this BBC article is characterised by screen grabs of tweets and links to old YouTube videos. With the aesthetics of a post on 4Chan, it glibly muddles a small number of trans women complaining about the challenges of dating, with an unspecified number of trans women insisting people must date them or be called out. This peculiar cis fantasy about trans people tricking or otherwise coercing them into sex is a canard, a tired trope belonging to bad 1990s comedy. The article’s existence is as much an indictment on the state of journalism in the UK as it is a testimony to the depths to which the moral panic against trans people has sunk. A tiny minority (less than 1% of the population) face a relentless deluge of conspiracy and bigotry from the press (liberal, left and right), including the public broadcaster.

As this article was published, elsewhere in the depths of Britain’s sewers another controversy raged about anti-trans academic Kathleen Stock, formerly of Sussex University. A trustee of the anti-trans charity LGB Alliance (its unmerited status a further attack on trans people), and author of a book describing trans people as delusional (living in an ‘immersive fiction’ to use her pretentious euphemism), students at her university called for her sacking. They were right to oppose Stock’s transphobia, and insist that trans humanity is beyond any dehumanising debate. Moreover, I sympathise with the student’s concern about the rigour of her work and, therefore, value of her teaching. Still, I might hesitate in calling for firing her providing her indiscretions did not include discriminatory behaviour at work, such as deliberate misgendering. This was roughly the position adopted by the teaching union UCU, who disagreed with her views but rejected calls for her to be sacked. (A detailed analysis of Stock’s case and UCU is provided by Grant Butters of rs21.)

Stock was additionally supported, and shamefully without UCU’s vital caveats, by her university, many other transphobic academics, the head of the EHRC, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, and the minister for women and equalities Liz Truss. None of whom spoke to the concerns of trans people. That is not so surprising, as Liz Truss has even compared trans people taking a pee to paedophilia and antisemitism, despite being the person entrusted to champion minorities. When the EHRC and equalities minister have so demonstrably turned on us, it is impossible for trans and nonbinary people to have any confidence in the British state. I would certainly call for Falkner and Truss’s dismissal, they are both outrageously unfit for their respective roles.

Under such circumstances, with powerless queer and ally students arrayed against numerous institutions of the establishment, Stock chose to fake martyrdom and resign. Such action is typical of transphobic individuals who are unable to tolerate others exercising their free speech, despite hiding their bigotry behind an argument for the right to express unpopular views. Rather than make her case, she fled under the false pretence that she had been forced out. Stock arguably does have the right to vent her poisonous opinions, but expressing the belief that she should be fired is at least less odious than spreading hate against a tiny minority and should also be protected speech. Yet few have made the case for the students, despite their relatively lesser clout. The Guardian, a paper so rife with transphobia their US counterpart and hundreds of staff have written letters of complaint in the past, responded by publishing a piece fully accepting Stock’s version of events. Her resignation already serves only to pour additional fuel on the country’s transphobia.

Given all of this hatred, usually provided the gloss of respectability by academia, the government and the press, it is easy to assume that the UK is rife with transphobia, that it is a bottom-up problem. However, (credible) polling evidence shows that this bigotry is in fact an elite hobby, with little support from cis men and significantly less from cis women. While it is not hard to find people condescendingly projecting their prejudice on some vague masses, truthfully most British people adopt a live and let live attitude; it is a small but loud minority who make our lives difficult. They claim to speak for women, LGB people or the average man on the street, but they speak first for their own myopia.

What trans and nonbinary people fear, however, is that were such relentless anti-trans propaganda to continue, hatred might trickle down and become normalised. And evidence suggests that this is already happening, as transphobic hate crimes quadrupled in the last five years. Meanwhile, more and more trans people hide their identities at work, and face discrimination in almost every sphere of social life with serious material and mental health consequences. The media has a responsibility for this situation, for not reporting it accurately, but also and worse for making it okay to hate trans people. They must own a portion of blame for the violence and misery their words certainly inspire. It is no exaggeration to say that the press has blood on its hands. 

Looking elsewhere in the world, the situation is even more dire, a warning to us all.

A Hateful World

In Ghana, legislation is being proposed not only to criminalise LGBTQIA+ people, but even any attempt to organise for their rights. Hate crimes and violence against queer people has consequently spiked. Meanwhile, in Poland a third of the country is now a so-called ‘LGBT free-zone’. The governing Law and Justice party attacks ‘LGBT ideology’ in its popularist right-wing screeds, identical language to that used by anti-gender organisations in the UK, including those on the left. Both here and elsewhere such hate is often funded by the US theocratic Heritage Foundation and similar fascist groups, outspending progressives on this issue by hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the US, anti-trans rhetoric is a lynchpin for culture war Republican strategists in the post-Trump environment. It is a facet of creeping fascism, as the American far right sees trans people as an expediate wedge issue to radicalise vulnerable people to their broader white supremacist, anti-worker beliefs. Trans people were amongst the earliest victims of the Nazis, with the first major book burning in Germany a German Student Union assault on Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in which a treasure-trove of research on LGBT+ life was destroyed, including research on gender transitioning. Today, in Brunei, Russia, Mexico, the Gambia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Jordan, South Sudan, Turkey, Tonga, and elsewhere, trans and other queer people are policed, harassed and sometimes murdered by the state or by mobs who feel safe from repercussions.

The entire left and anyone fighting for freedom should make opposing this contemporary onslaught a firm point of principle. Support for transphobia is an attack on a part of the working class, and therefore on the working class as a whole. It is antithetical to socialism, a reactionary position at the very least adjacent to fascism. Trans and nonbinary people cannot win our fight for freedom alone, not because we lack agency but because we are outnumbered and out funded by those who want us at best excluded from public life, and at worse – in many places in the world – simply slaughtered. Spreading lies about us being a threat to cis lesbians, or offering other rhetorical covers to hate, does real world harm.

A Possible Future

Cis people can help. As I know many comrades already do, they can speak out against transphobia wherever it rears itself. Whether in unions, political parties, street level activism, the workplace or everyday life, anti-trans views should be unwelcome even as space is provided to those on a difficult journey. Cis people ought to do so not because they are cajoled to feel some tiresome duty, but from an organic solidarity as a joyous expression of our shared humanity. So much liberal anti-bigotry, while well intentioned, proceeds foremost through ineffectual moralising. It does so because it lacks a class basis to ground any emancipatory vision. But in its socialist form, unity against hate is an assertion of a shared, realisable desire for a better world. For all of us. Cis and trans; gay, bi, ace and straight.

Cis and trans comrades have a future to win, and anyone who wishes to fight for that future can do so – even if they have previously fallen victim to fear and ignorance. As Marx made clear, in that future, liberated from class, we can be done with what he called the shit of ages, the festering and congealed prejudices of history. And maybe we can also finally stop worrying about which private cubicle people use to have a piss, and I can write more on the fictions of Thomas More and Ursula K. Le Guin.

The protoscientific tradition of alchemy used to talk of making gold from shit. Transitioning, socially or medically, can feel like such an act, creating a fuller sense of self from the shit of gender dysphoria and internalised prejudices. Revolutionary socialism also seeks to perform a figurative alchemy too, turning society’s shit into gold.

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Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

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