How Transphobic Moral Panics Fuel Authoritarian Politics

Britain’s moral panic over the trans “threat” is often promoted by people who see themselves as liberals. But their transphobia echoes the same reactionary themes long used to demonize minorities.

A trans rights activist holds a placard while taking part in the “Furies Against Fascism” protest in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 5, 2023. (Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images)

The horrific murder of Brianna Ghey has put transphobia in Britain’s news headlines yet again, with police currently investigating it as a potential hate crime. Brianna, sixteen, who was fatally stabbed by two teenagers in a park, had become known on TikTok and spoken of being bullied at school because of her trans identity. Her murder led to over fifty vigils across the country, with thousands attending.

Violence targeting trans people is unfortunately not rare. In 2022, Vice reported that “the number of homophobic hate crime reports in the UK has doubled and the number of transphobic hate crime reports has tripled over the last five years”.

It is essential to see such extreme actions as part of a broader discursive environment — one that links together mainstream, far-right, and extreme-right actors. The disproportionate and generally negative focus against trans people across the media spectrum has been well documented. In a 2020 report, the Independent Press Standards Organisation in the UK noted that there had been a 400 percent increase in coverage of “trans issues” between 2014 and 2019. Many mainstream public actors have also used their huge platforms to push anti-trans narratives into the mainstream, emboldening extreme-right activists.

It’s not that all of these actors necessarily share a wider political project. While there have been some clear examples of alliances with reactionary movements, those pushing transphobia within the mainstream often claim that they stand in opposition to more illiberal articulations.

But individual intentions aren’t all that matter. The anti-trans discourse they’re joining in supports a more global reactionary movement by reinforcing key far-right tropes and giving mainstream legitimacy to forms of exclusion. Here, we explain some of the key facets of this collusion, and the danger that mainstream, liberal transphobia poses not only to trans people but also to all communities at the sharp end of the wider reactionary resurgence.

It is worth clarifying what we mean by transphobia. The term refers to the production of essentializing discourse and politics regarding trans people to construct them into a homogenous group incompatible with “normal” society. Indeed, in today’s moral panic, trans people are also posed as a threat to that society, to which they supposedly do not belong.

We choose to use the term “transphobia” as others, such as TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) or Gender Critical, could inadvertently lend legitimacy to these movements and ideas. Transphobic discourse can revolve around more or less liberal articulations, as we discuss below. But we will also speak of an “organized” transphobia — for this discourse does not occur in random, isolated events, but rather is today being generated and promoted by a highly organized social movement.

Moral Panics and Transphobic Epiphanies

Back in the 1970s, Stuart Hall, Charles Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts’s work Policing the Crisis famously characterized the moral panic about mugging in the following terms:

When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when “experts”, in the form of police chiefs, the judiciary, politicians and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms, and appear to talk “with one voice” of rates, diagnoses, prognoses and solutions, when the media representations universally stress sudden and dramatic increases (in numbers involved or events) and “novelty”, above and beyond that at which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then we believe it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic.

This quote from almost half a century ago is extremely prescient when it comes to the trans panic. As Shon Faye notes in The Transgender Issue, the anti-trans moral panic has also relied on the paradox “that the rights of a small minority of the population wielding little institutional power are in fact a risk to the majority.” A recent opinion piece in the Guardian is particularly illustrative of this, suggesting that men in the Labour Party (often gay men) who defend trans rights are more of a threat than infamous violent misogynist Andrew Tate.

This also relates to the memetic nature of how the threat of “trans ideology” and “social contagion” is discussed in political and media circles. For example, it is common to see stories about dramatic 3,000 percent or even 4,000 percent increases in referrals to the youth gender identity service, which turn out to represent an increase from mere dozens of referrals per year to stabilization at the number of referrals we should broadly expect, if existing estimates of the size of the trans population are correct.

There is also the constant hammering of the idea that trans existence is dangerous and new, despite documented histories of gender incongruence spanning thousands of years and decades of gender confirmation surgery and use of hormone treatments for medical transition — including by children. Finally, much disinformation is splashed in headlines about detransitioners, ignoring that these numbers are very low in comparison to other medical procedures and can even find their source in social pressure and the climate of transphobia.

For Hall et al., a key element of moral panics was the notion of “crossed thresholds” — the idea that the “problem” group will inevitably transgress a legal limit or a threshold of violence. Crossed thresholds are also key to the trans panic. Organized transphobia trades heavily in images of trans violation of violence thresholds — often specifically stated as a violence against women threshold. These thresholds are powerful enough to invoke regardless of reality. For example, despite the fact that trans people’s access to gendered public spaces in the UK is governed by the Equality Act 2010, not by gender recognition legislation, the fear that trans women will attack cis women within such spaces has generated significant support for the UK government to block meaningful gender recognition reform, first within its own jurisdiction, then by the Scottish Parliament.

Crossed thresholds also form another part of the lore of the organized transphobia movement, specifically members’ own narratives regarding their conversion to transphobia. Participants are encouraged to share their “peak trans” moments, the events they claim transformed them from people sympathetic toward trans issues into anti-trans crusaders — generally upon discovering that trans people or “trans activists” had “gone too far” and crossed some threshold or other.

“Peak trans” bears a striking resemblance to narratives of conversion found in extreme-right circles and particularly to “red pill” narratives in online misogynist communities (the “manosphere”). To “take the red pill” is to have an epiphany about the harms of feminism, the naturalness of male dominance, and how “All Women Are Like That” — it is no surprise that such ideas generally link to support of racism and white nationalism. For Alexandra Minna Stern, this rite of passage is cathartic: it “makes red pilling a communal experience and helps construct a shared language of social transformation.” We argue that sharing “peak trans” moments performs the same function for the organized transphobia movement and leads to the intensification of othering and exclusionary processes.

A Powerful Other?

As with moral panics, processes of othering have been extensively studied, from Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking work on highlighting the way in which women are constructed as men’s Other, to Edward Said’s work on Orientalism. And as with moral panics, they apply particularly well to organized transphobia. Key to understanding the process of othering is its external nature: how the “Other” is defined by the actor doing the othering. Othering is therefore a process through which hegemonic representations are created and for which power is thus key: as Emily Harmer and Karen Lumsden note, “by defining itself against an ‘other’, the dominant group silences or delegitimizes the ‘other.’”

As with processes of racialization, for example, those who produce, absorb, and reproduce anti-trans discourse apply quasi-immutable characteristics to otherwise diverse communities whose members may only share their trans identity. Transphobia is not about the trans person or their identity, but about how the transphobe assigns an essentialized identity and characteristics to anyone they deem “other.” As such, it is not uncommon to see cisgender women who do not fit the transphobe’s own “female ideal” being abused when they come into female-only spaces. We also see this in the vilification of athlete Caster Semenya as a woman with high natural testosterone levels.

It is thus essential here to look beyond the more extreme, illiberal articulations of transphobia and pay particular attention to seemingly liberal ones. For transphobia, it is common to see the actions of the extreme right or ultraconservatives denounced by more liberal voices, whose attacks remain discursive and couched in pseudo-liberal and even progressive arguments. It is for example common to see bad-faith arguments similar to what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva terms the “abstract liberal” frame of color-blind racism, whereby transphobes cite legal documents to suggest that trans people are already equal in law and that therefore any attempt to seek equal rights or justice would benefit them at the expense of others.

Some also couch their attacks in pseudo-progressive defense of the rights of women and the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community. While they tend to be lapped up by mainstream actors and reactionary centrists in particular, such strategies are not new in wider reactionary circles. For example, Christine Delphy and Sara Farris made clear the exploitation of women’s rights by mainstream Islamophobic politics and split the feminist movement, while Jasbir Puar highlighted the use of homonationalism to help justify the “war on terror.”

This seemingly progressive twist links to attempts to create a semblance of popular support for liberal articulations of transphobia akin to the “populist” strategy of the more reconstructed far right. This has become key to spreading and mainstreaming reactionary discourse, as it lends otherwise minoritarian and exclusionary ideas a veneer of democratic legitimacy. In a typical reactionary fashion, trans people, despite being generally prevented from accessing public discourse and widely discriminated against throughout society, are painted as a powerful and homogenous group with privileged access to power.

In alliance with other elites, a “trans lobby” is claimed to conspire against “the people,” in this case generally embodied by a generalized and essentialized understanding of “women” (which is then extended to traditional forms of white, hetero, cis patriarchy by the far right). In a move akin to antisemitic and Islamophobic discourse, reactionary fantasies portray trans people as a conspiring minority with nefarious intent undermining the health of society in an almost pathological way. It is again therefore no surprise that these conspiracy theories are echoed in antisemitic circles and even coalesce at times.

As Sara Ahmed notes, “gender conservative feminisms are part of the not-so-new conservative common sense, which has reweaponised ‘reality’ as a ‘war against the woke,’ that is, as an effort to restore racial as well as gendered hierarchies by demonizing those who question them.” As with other articulations of reactionary politics, the power of mainstream liberal transphobia comes from what Ruth Pearce, Sonja Erikainen, and Ben Vincent have described as “‘respectable’ middle-class feminism” — credentials that tap into narratives of progress and therefore could not possibly be on the reactionary side.

In a sleight of hand, it is not transphobia that threatens the rights of the trans community, but those who oppose transphobia who are threatening women (understood as a monolithic group, in which only the experiences and expectations of middle-class white women matter). As Ahmed highlights, “It is not only that the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are being used to de-realise and de-legitimate trans people, but the project of trans inclusion can be framed as feminist exclusion, as if trans people are replacing us by replacing our terms with theirs.”

Authoritarian Slide

For Hall and his coauthors, moral panics are “one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a ‘silent majority’ is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a ‘more than usual’ exercise of control.” Ironically, the current moral panic about trans people is voiced in the name of women as if it were trans activists and their allies who were the oppressors, in the same manner in which women have been accused when pushing for women’s rights. This is not surprising: as Ahmed notes, “anyone involved in trying to challenge norms and conventions to enable them to be more accommodating, we will know how quickly you will be judged as imposing restrictions on the freedom of others. . . . It is not only a bitter irony that tactics so often used against feminists are being used against trans people by ‘gender critical’ feminists.”

It should be clear to anyone paying attention that it is mainstream, liberal transphobia that seeks to mobilize in service of coercive measures, not trans people demanding protection and equal rights. Such coercive measures can be witnessed across a wide range of areas that seek to regulate and restrict trans lives, chiefly education, health care, state recognition of identity, and sport.

No one should therefore be surprised about the growing links of mainstream transphobes with far- and extreme-right groups, their collusion in certain conspiracy theories, or to see them participate in demonstrations together. This is not a bug, but a feature. The far- and extreme-right support of mainstream liberal transphobia is a logical step, for it not only builds on the same methods of exclusion, but legitimizes many of the Right’s own talking points and opens the field to further processes of exclusion, including eugenics.

Critiques like our own are often characterized as “silencing.” But that is a power we do not have — and large swathes of the mainstream media have bought into transphobic disinformation, regardless of the evidence. They are not about denying individual, personal experience either — more often than not, it is trans experience that is denied space by mainstream transphobia. Equally, our aim is not to speak on behalf of trans people but to build on our research to make clear the dangers of essentializing, exclusionary discourses — not just to trans people but to all communities threatened by the growing reactionary movement.

As recent research has shown, the gains regarding the acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities remain fragile, and the attacks on some, justified by powerful actors in public discourse, risk precipitating threats to all. As Shon Faye powerfully argues, “trans justice is justice for all” — and by extension the exclusion of one must be felt, and combated, as the exclusion of all.

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Fran Amery is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. She is author of Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: The Changing Politics of Abortion in Britain. Her research addresses contemporary feminist politics, particularly in the context of struggles for reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ rights.

Aurelien Mondon is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses on racism, populism, and the mainstreaming of far-right politics. His latest book, Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, cowritten with Aaron Winter, is now out with Verso.

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