Who the hell is “the trans lobby”, anyway?
A common theme of trans coverage in UK media over the past year has been the ever-present threat of a “trans lobby”. It reached sublimely hyperbolic heights when the Times published Janice Turner’s piece entitled “Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby”, which was such a ridiculous title there were few moments on Twitter where people sincerely didn’t believe it was run with said title. The phrase seems to be everywhere at the moment, and no doubt we’ll see it even more as we turn the page to 2018.
Nobody in these articles explicitly states that they literally believe there to be a single organized entity of a) all trans people or b) at least enough of the vocal trans population to be representative of us all. Nonetheless, the language used tends to imply a single point-of-supposed-attack through which we are pursuing a single-minded agenda, creating a scenario where the implication gets to exist without the burden of justification falling on its user. Any time someone says “wait, what?” the author gets to say: I never actually said that trans people have all banded together to be big ol’ meanies!
Much has (rightfully) been made of the obvious paralells to the tradition of using such tactics against LGB communities in UK media, especially in the run up to legal forms of discrimination like Section 28 during the Thatcher years, a part of the Local Government Act 1988 which forbade “promotion” of homosexuality in UK schools. From the huge emphasis on children in the media furore leading up to it, and especially emphasis children in school settings, to the hateful tendency to focus on trans women’s perceived status as sexual predators- the stage is being set to create a similar culture of fear if not literal legislation.
The general tendency when refuting the indirect implication of a nefarious and organised trans lobby has, naturally, been to mock how ridiculous it is. As though we all get together in a room and plot to force the government and society to bend to our unified will, when half the time trans people can’t even agree on our own internal politics! And it’s true, it is indeed uttely absurd to assume trans people are some organized force, like we aren’t simply people bound by somewhat similar experiences who actually demonstrate a wide array of differing and sometimes intensely contradictory politics. As though even more clearly unified trans rights movements- plural, mind you, there’s more than one- don’t show in-fighting and discord.
I would argue this lets what many of these writers are doing go unnoticed. The fact of the matter is, some of these writers are probably “true believers” in a trans lobby and some are probably not. The importance lies in the concept of a trans lobby, undefined and ambiguously referenced, as a suggestive piece of rhetoric, not in whether the writers using the phrase count amongst the true believers.
Here’s an Umberto Eco quote I often find myself thinking of in relation to scapegoating, no matter the context: “Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak”. In context, this quote is about a very different thing: it’s about the twentieth century rise of fascism on an institutional level, from his article “Ur-Fascism” published in 1995. But the principle behind such rhetoric is easily found across all sorts of ideology, on both small and grand levels.
Let’s step back a moment and discuss another talking point shared by many of these pieces, and by those that support such pieces. A common refrain is that too much is being done to appease a minority so small as to not justify the effort. In other words, we are not important enough to make it worth the “special measures” being taken to help us. Ignoring for a moment that many pushes for trans rights impact gender equality more broadly and are therefore important to a much wider demographic, the takeaway from such attitudes tends to rely on the assumption that we are small in number, powerless, and that we can be safely ignored with no ill consequence to society as a whole. In turn this is an attitude that allows so many trans people to be effectively held up as unique objects of ridicule, paraded around as though we belong to a freakshow- this year has also brought a metric ton of articles that can basically boiled down to “look at this trans person- weird, right?”. Look no further than the repeated claims of “the first trans [x]”, from the insistence the UK has seen its “first” trans man giving birth to the obession with being “the first” person to try and register as gender neutral/nonbinary. These stories repeat over and over with no shred of irony detectable.
These two views appear to present contradictory claims, unless one truly buys into the conspiracy theory that trans people represent both a statistical minority and also a powerful minority elite that has gathered disproportionate socioeconomic power and influence. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen people who believe that conspiracy theory. Yet the tenor of much of the transphobic discourse we’re seeing never goes so far as to actually present this idea outright. Instead, the reconciliation of this cognitive dissonance lies in the power of suggestion, and I would argue that we need to pay attention to the way staying vague and relying on the buzzword-esque “trans lobby” enables people to hold these contradictory views without questioning their logical inconsistencies.
Nobody ever defines who or what the trans lobby is. That makes it easy for the word to shift meanings even across individual articles or essays. Let’s create a template for how this can work. You start off an article with the implication trans people are here, loud and organized in pursuit of a single goal, and you end with the implication the trans lobby is some tiny group of people asking for way more than their statistical insignificance justifies, justifying society ignoring them by suggesting we are too small for them being overlooked to truly matter. And since a hypothetical cisgender reader is unlikely to have any particular definition in mind- because every previous article using the term has shifted its meaning around too- there isn’t a point where they can explicitly go “but that’s not right, that’s not what it means”, which might lead to the cognitive dissonance coming to the forefront of their mind.
Because “the trans lobby” does not mean anything. It’s the epitome of a buzzword, destined to lose meaning far faster than it gains it. All it does is set the tone of the article, allowing for talking points to be expressed without the need to clarify and justify viewpoints as strongly- because readers are trained through past experience to skip past it without paying too much attention. All readers are susceptible to this tendency when we read. If we encounter a phrase in certain contexts over and over, we are not inclined to mentally check what it means here, in this context, but to get the vague shape of its meaning in our mind and move along to the next sentence. Efficient, but in situations like these, it can create an uncomfortable disinterest in examining potential logical fallacies in the rhetoric we consume. We get the vague sense that trans people are pushing us to do things we don’t want, and we don’t pay enough attention to think, “then why am I being told trans people are so small and weak a population that they should be mocked?”
We currently occupy that space the Eco quote so eloquently outlines in the above quote in the “culture wars”. We are the powerful trans lobby, and the weak, tiny minority getting too big for our britches. Trans women are in every women’s bathroom and a threat to be feared, while also being such a tiny group that it’s ridiculous to think we need to have guidelines in place to protect them. We are everywhere, and we are nowhere. We can be vilified at will and ignored whenever society feels like it.
How do we argue against this? With great difficulty. You can point out how illogical the set of assumptions look when put next to each other, but this type of rhetoric is inherently well suited to create shifting goalposts. But I do think it’s important that as we go into the next year preparing to defend ourselves in the media, we make sure we know that simply going “haha, that doesn’t even make sense!” isn’t enough. The rhetorical devices used against us are as important as the content of these articles, and we’ll struggle to meet transphobia head-on unless we understand why, exactly, the rhetoric is working in the first place.