By Greyson Van Arsdale (United States) and Ollie Bell (Ireland).
Despite the increased awareness and visibility of the transgender community over the last few years, there has been a huge backlash against trans people and attacks on their rights. An ongoing culture war is being waged against trans people and diverse gender expression.
In 2020, under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hungary passed a law that banned trans and intersex people from legally changing their gender. This law, which came into effect in January 2021, requires the gender on someone’s legal identification to reflect that which they were assigned at birth. Hungary also passed a bill banning LGBTQ+ people from appearing in school educational material and TV shows aimed at under-18s.
Poland recently approved a new law which allows regional supervisors to ban LGBTQ+ inclusive teaching in classrooms. This law followed the proposed “Stop Pedophilia” bill which aimed to criminalize anyone who is seen to be promoting sex education to minors. It would have banned the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity to anyone under 18 and was set to be voted on in April 2020, alongside the “Stop Abortion” bill which would have eliminated legal access to abortion in cases of severe or fatal fetal anomaly. Both bills were sent to committee for “further work,” meaning they could well be reintroduced at a later date.
In the UK, the growing transphobic rhetoric in the media has gone alongside continuous attacks on trans rights. During the middle of a historic strike wave of workers fighting for better pay and working conditions, the UK parliament used Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 for the first time, to block Scotland’s Gender Recognition Bill. This bill would have allowed trans people to legally change their gender on their birth certificate without the need of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, decreased the amount of time one is required to “live as their acquired” gender to six months, and reduced the qualifying age from 18 to 16. Reforms very similar to the Gender Recognition Act passed in Ireland in 2015.
More recently, the British Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote a letter to the UK government recommending that the Equality Act 2010 be amended to remove protections for trans people. This amendment would seek to redefine one’s legal sex as biological sex alone rather than gender, which would force trans people to use the facilities of their assigned gender and deprive trans women of important safety protection against transmisogynistic violence. This growing TERF and transphobic rhetoric has had a drastic effect on the mental health of trans people while also causing an increase in transphobic hate crimes. At its worst, it has led to deaths like that of Brianna Ghey, a 16-year-old trans girl who was stabbed to death by two teenagers in February.
These attacks are not only a feature in Europe but in the US as well. As of late March 2023, over 430 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced. Trans healthcare for under-18s has been banned in places like Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee. States like Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina are even considering banning gender-affirming care for trans people under the age of 26. Since the start of the year, bills targeting drag performances have been introduced in at least 32 states. Tennessee was the first state to pass a law barring “adult cabaret performances” on public property and places where they may be viewed by children. This bill mentions banning “female and male impersonators,” among other things.
The undercurrent driving these attacks on trans people is the idea that trans people, especially trans women, are sexual predators. Trans people and the wider LGBTQ+ community have been smeared by TERFs and the far right as groomers and pedophiles. “Protection of women and children” is often the stated motive behind these political attacks, yet they are often carried out by conservative politicians with a horrific record on women’s rights.
Even in countries where trans healthcare isn’t banned, many gender clinics are bogged down by long waiting lists and poor models of care. Trans people are disproportionately affected by austerity, low-income jobs, homelessness, and gender-based violence. Even outside of targeted political attacks, capitalism has never worked in the favor of the trans community.
What’s Behind Attacks on Transgender People
While an increasing number of people in many nations identify as LGBTQ+, especially in younger generations, transgender people and queer people in general still make up a very small part of the overall population. This means that the targeted attacks of the right wing against transgender people are aimed at a tiny, already marginalized minority.
For example, twelve US states have banned gender-affirming care for minors, including puberty blockers and hormone therapy, portraying it as a rampant wave of medical malpractice that is “disfiguring” an entire generation of children. In reality, receiving gender-affirming care often takes years of approval processes from doctors and therapists, and a recent study found that only about 4,500 people under the age of 17 are on hormone therapy in the United States.
Why is such anger directed at so few? It is especially confounding given that these attacks on transgender people are not actually popular among working-class people. According to Pew Research, 64% of Americans agree that transgender people should be protected from discrimination. Attacks on transgender people have not resulted in significant electoral gains for the Republican Party, either – in fact, a Republican candidate lost a race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in April after spending $45 million on advertisements that primarily accused his opponent of working with school officials to make children transgender.
But while attacks on transgender people don’t win elections, they do benefit the right wing in another way. We are living in a political landscape dominated by massive increases in the cost of living, war, disease, and climate change-fuelled disasters. The social consequences of defunding housing, health care, and public services for decades are coming home to roost for millions of people. There is a pervasive sense that society has somehow “gone off the rails,” and that is expressed through a certain amount of pressure on institutions and politicians to do something about it.
There are genuine solutions to these problems, but they would require a massive transfer of wealth from the richest in society to the working class, investment in the basic needs of society, and ultimately the overturning of capitalism to transition to a socialist world – all of which is incompatible with the raison d’être of the right wing. Instead, as the right wing has done for countless years already, it relies on scapegoating to explain to its base why life suddenly feels vaguely, amorphously “worse.” Fear-mongering about “gender ideology” gets the right wing out of having an answer to the genuine problems of society.
The right wing has a tremendous amount of political momentum at the moment, but that is not totally a situation of their own making. Not only do working-class people support the right of transgender people to live as they choose to by a significant majority, there are also significant majorities behind left-wing solutions to the problems that plague our world, such as taxing the rich to fund housing, health care, and social services.
In the United States, a Green New Deal remains popular, supported by a 31-point majority of voters generally and even one-third of Republicans. But the capitalist parties who have claimed to champion progressive solutions have consistently abandoned them when in power, and misled and derailed movements aiming to win them. Without genuine fighting institutions of the left – like mass working-class parties – to mobilize this enormous support, no one remains to fill that vacuum except the right wing.
Despite the direness of the situation, this is cause for determination. The political basis to defeat attacks on transgender people exists; the question is how to do it.
Raising Awareness in the US
Attacks on the legal rights of transgender people are thrusting new layers of people into a position of having to be activists – in particular, trans high school students, and their parents. The entry point for these new activists is often to link up with local LGBTQ+ NGOs, like those connected to the Human Rights Campaign, who (especially in parts of the southern United States) may be the “only game in town” when it comes to mobilizing against attacks on LGBTQ+ rights.
Unfortunately, these burgeoning activists are often immediately pulled into an ineffective strategy that amounts to lobbying of individual representatives, either through one-on-one conversations or through participating in public comment sessions for discriminatory bills, with the hope that one or multiple politicians might “listen” and “do the right thing.” In reality, this is hardly ever effective, and when done on an individual basis, representatives can (and do) simply lie – as two high school activists in Kentucky experienced earlier this year.
This does not mean that confronting representatives is a useless tactic. When leveraged well, it can be enormously powerful, but it must be done with the knowledge that hardly ever will representatives backing anti-trans legislation be “convinced,” either by moral arguments or by the factual refutation of their erroneous reasoning. The right wing isn’t creating a transgender panic out of genuine fear, but because they can cynically use it to their political advantage. To dissuade right-wing politicians from moving discriminatory legislation and scapegoating transgender people, they need to be swiftly shown political consequences.
This means not just mobilizing people to their offices and to public comment sessions en masse, but doing so with the intention of shutting down “business as usual,” and incorporating large-scale protests and walkouts as part of the immediate response to these bills, not as a last resort after lobbying fails.
We need to take on board lessons from the victories of the past. In the 1980s, ACT UP, a movement of overwhelmingly queer working-class people, fought for pathways to treatment for people with HIV/AIDs in part by developing a strategy they called “inside/outside.” In this strategy, some ACT UP-ers would “go inside” and attend meetings of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other government bodies to demand discussions on medication and treatment. But they knew they were unlikely to be heard – when they were shut down, they would go back “outside”, where a bigger ACT UP group was waiting to stage a large, loud demonstration. Though this strategy of being publicly combative and disruptive, ACT UP transformed the lives of thousands of people with HIV/AIDS.
As long as scapegoating transgender people is a useful political strategy for the right wing, it will be continued. We need to build a movement capable of making attacking trans people far more trouble than it’s worth.
How to Fight Back
With a significant increase in right-wing transphobic violence, a few trans people are looking for a solution in the form of armed self-defense. In a cry out in desperation, many see a quick fix in an individualized fightback against the far right. But trans liberation needs to be fought for in solidarity with all oppressed minorities, and the wider multi-gender, multi-racial working class.
In Ireland, we’re not only seeing the emboldening of the far right against the trans community but also against library staff for displaying LGBTQ+ positive books. On two separate occasions, far-right transphobes have harassed and filmed library staff in Cork and Dublin, with one man taking a copy of This Book Is Gay and destroying it.
While there was an effort to counter-protest the far right at a Dublin library along with organized counter-demonstrations against conservatives disrupting Drag Time Story Hours in the US and UK, it is essential that trans activism doesn’t get bogged down by just reacting to right-wing protests. The support for trans people is there; the trans community and allies outnumbered known TERF and fascist sympathizer Posie Parker during her tour in New Zealand and Australia. While we can organize protests against the far right disrupting queer events, it is also our duty to mobilize that support and solidarity to a broader program for trans rights and liberation.
The struggle for trans liberation will not be fought in NGOs or by individuals but by organizing together with the working class. Teachers and healthcare workers are under attack alongside the trans community due to the growing transphobia under capitalism. Trade unions should follow in the footsteps of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Ireland’s largest teachers trade union, who at their recent congress passed a motion condemning the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association stance against the teaching of trans identities in schools. Trade unions need to be strong in their support of trans people and actively mobilize their members to stand in solidarity with the community.
The time for an organized movement for trans liberation is now!