The UK is Horrendously Transphobic. The US is Next.
Dispatches from TERF Island
Recently, Prism & Pen editor James Finn wrote ‘UK Cited for Anti-Trans Human Rights Abuses. Is US Next?’, in which he lamented the UK’s slide into ever more strident transphobia. His piece came as the Council of Europe, Europe’s pre-eminent human rights organisation, cited the UK for its appalling record of transphobia. This placed the UK next to the usual suspects for human rights abuses across the continent, the likes of Russia and Hungary under Orban’s regime. My country used to be held up as a paragon of progressive values, a place where intolerance was generally not tolerated.
USED TO BE …
James worries that the US might follow this path. If the UK can fall so far, why not the US? It’s a valid concern. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic, but right now I don’t share those hopes.
In my opinion America can, and likely will, follow in the UK’s transphobic footsteps.
I’m fine with questions. So long as they’re not ‘why shouldn’t we treat you as a second class citizen?’
To understand my pessimism we need to look at how the UK got to its current unpleasant position, and the ways in which transphobia differs here from the States.
In the United States, transphobia finds the majority of its basis in misguided religion and opportunistic politics, with a dash of plain old ignorance. Christianity and the other majority religions have a poor record when it comes to LGBTQ rights but for the ‘T’ it’s far worse. For lesbian, gay, and bi people acceptance is still quite poor, but sexuality is only a part of our lives as human beings. Our gender informs EVERY aspect of our lives.
Our gender is often the first thing ever declared about us (‘It’s a boy!’ etc) and that assignment at birth dictates the entire course of the rest of our lives. Our gender is foundational, every facet of society is built around our gender. Because of this, transgender people like myself are too often regarded with existential horror. Our mere existence is viewed as a threat to our entire way of life.
Transphobia is visceral, and because it is visceral it need not be rational.
For the major religions we are an affront to their ideas of a flawless Creator. For the (nearly ubiquitously Republican) politicians who use us we are a handy bête noir. A few whispered insinuations about trans women really being predatory men is all that’s needed to set pulses racing and garner support from a general public who know so very little about us.
However, the American public is cynical enough to recognise political opportunism and wise enough to accept that religious objections to our existence are simply unjust. In these ways transphobia in the US might well be discarded over time, as antithetical to Americans’ general tolerance.
Transphobia in the UK is very different. The UK is a far more secular country. Religious spite would have little or no bearing on public policy nor on national attitudes to trans people. And were it simple mob mentality hatred being weaponised by careerist politicos we’d likewise have little problem. Disturbingly however transphobia in the UK has a far more problematic origin.
It should be oxymoronic that leftist academics would espouse transphobic positions openly. But the path to this condition was easily predictable. Academia has long challenged long-standing sexism and systematically dismantled arguments that had long held women back. To the extent that the protection of women has become dogmatic. The fight for equality between the binary genders is one I, of course, support. But it does not follow that women’s rights and trans rights are mutually exclusive.
Yet this is the narrative that underpins almost all transphobia in the UK.
‘Protecting our women and girls’ is, of course, similarly at the heart of America’s transphobia, but when it’s coming from right-wing male politicians, their handmaidens, or intolerant religious figures, it’s a lot easier to dismiss as scaremongering. When it comes from seemingly respectable scholars it’s less easy to mitigate. And these figures all too often have the ears of those in power.
In the last four years or so we’ve gone from Teresa May’s promise of reformation of the Gender Recognition Act to Johnson’s administration siding with transphobes in tribunals and ordering a nationwide review of who pisses where. The nature of transphobia’s origins in the UK is one factor. But the other is a factor that causes me concern for the US.
I’m talking about the erosion of credibility of experts.
Brexit was a plebiscite led by a conscious undermining of expert opinion. Michael Gove went as far as to put words in the nation’s mouths when he claimed, on our behalf, that we were ‘sick of experts’. As a result, Britain made its most self-destructive decision in peacetime.
This denigration of expert analysis and input was bolstered by our press. There is a general misconception, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the press is duty bound to tell us things we need to know. This simply is not true. News media exists to justify its own existence. Newspapers need to be sold, as does advertising space on news channels. Sensational, knee-jerk reactionism is where the money is.
Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to transgender people. The so-called ‘transgender debate’ or ‘issue’. Or, most disturbingly, given the connotations ‘the transgender question’. Across the UK’s media any manner of bigoted talking head is free to spew bile about women like me with impunity. All while claiming they are being silenced. This supposed ‘silencing’ is nothing of the sort. It is merely level-headed, liberal people who believe in universal human rights asserting that they will not allow hate speech in their venues. But to hear it told in our media, women like me, my trans brothers and non-binary siblings are really secret power brokers with an unlimited reach to snuff out those who don’t support us.
I came out only two years ago. Yet in that time I’ve seen a seismic shift in all of the UK’s news media in their coverage of trans people. Even once level-headed outlets like the Guardian and, incredibly, the BBC have become openly hostile to my community. The BBC even went as far as prohibiting its news staff from attending Pride events, even in a personal capacity, because of the supposed toxicity of the ‘debate’. This otherwise august public media organisation has also pitted trans people against transphobic bigots citing ‘balance’, as well as quoting infamous anti-trans asshats, LGB Alliance, in pieces relating to trans people. It’s small wonder they don’t invite the KKK to debate race relations with a Black person ...
The Guardian is a prime example of how transphobia works here.
It is a very left-leaning newspaper that had a good record of supporting minorities, including the LGBTQ community. Until, that is, some of its leftist feminist columnists started leaning into the idea that women’s rights and trans rights are mutually exclusive. Rather than correct this false narrative, the paper has doubled down, time and again, in giving voice to anti-trans opinion.
I live in a country where it is seen as dangerously incendiary to support the human rights of one of society’s smallest minorities, one that is discriminated against on an unprecedented scale.
And the US is likely to be next because the same kinds of avenues of transphobia are being explored there too. LGB Alliance has set up shop there. Noted British transphobes have visited the US to harass transgender legislators (the trip being paid for by the Heritage Foundation…). Biased ‘commentators’ like Ben Shapiro are parroting British leftwing ‘feminist’ talking points. A position that would be unthinkable were it not that their bigotry is handily aligned.
Disdain for experts has, arguably, always been a characteristic of the American psyche but it was coupled to a trust of the government to act with wisdom and benevolence. A shift back to a right-wing administration, in the wake of Trump’s Orwellian assault on expert opinion, along with a shift in America’s academia to mirror Britain’s ‘discussion’ of the ‘transgender question’ could easily usher in the type of transphobia that has seen the UK cited by the Council of Europe. It would take the merest tweak of the framing as being women’s rights vs. trans rights (neatly ignoring that many of us are, in fact, women) and suggesting, with a veneer of it being ‘reasonable’, that it should be ok to ask questions and debate the ‘issue’.
I’m a human being. I’m a woman. I’m transgender.
Human rights, women’s rights, and trans rights are all the same thing for me. I’m fine with questions. So long as they’re not ‘why shouldn’t we treat you as a second class citizen?’
Indeed the acceptability of transphobia in Britain was on show just this week with the release of new sporting guidelines that would be plainly evil were the word ‘transgender’ replaced with ‘Black’ or ‘gay’. I’ll be covering those guidelines in a future Dispatch.
My worry for America is that it is all too susceptible to the causes of Britain’s transphobia, and that a lot of the groundwork has already been laid. When the credibility of dissenting voices is undermined, when voices of reason are dismissed as ‘fake news’, it becomes all too probable that transphobia in the US can become at least as bad as here on TERF Island. And that’s an accolade no-one should aspire to.