The Specter of the Trans Activist

The specter of the “male-to-female transactivist” has been allegedly haunting the contemporary Western world, we’ve been accused of attacking free speech, contaminating children with trans ideology, and ruining science by insisting on the fact that we are women and deserve to use the woman’s restroom. Proponents across the political spectrum have been actively working to rebrand trans feminism in order to delegitimize our social, cultural, and political concerns.

Before I get into this argument, I want to be clear that I do not think that the work of activists is any less valuable than the work of experts. In fact, sometimes experts are also activists, and vice-versa. Knowledge production is complex, partial, variable, and consists of constantly shifting standards and values. So when I refer to the anti-trans mythology of the “radical trans activist”, I am referring instead to the character trope and strawman set up by anti-trans writers who want to demonize any form of criticism to their bigoted views.

The media of late has been lit up with transphobic and cissexist op-eds that are openly hostile to our basic human rights and skeptical of the expert knowledge of health professionals who advocate for gender affirmative approaches to trans health care.

As investigative journalist Siobhan O’Leary highlighted in a recent blog post, this media frenzy has been revolving around a false dichotomy that positions trans activists as always opposed to expert scientists, even when a trans activist is a scientist. Both the mainstream media and the academy have failed trans folks because of its inability to engage in nuanced discussions over queer issues and its hostility towards vocal trans critics.

O’Leary writes, “We continue to be upset because no matter how level-headed our criticism, no matter how rooted in the academic research we are, no matter if we are published in academic journals or not–we are demonized as activists to the exclusion of scientific findings, rather than understood as activists because of scientific findings”.

Just a few days ago, I published an article in Vice Canada in response to a shit show of a transphobic opinion piece written by professional bigot Barbara Kay. In this response, I made reference to several scientific studies and an analysis piece to debunk Kay’s misinformation, however, I’ve still been accused of being anti-science in reader responses.

Because of the past decade of increasing attention to trans issues and forms of marginalization, we’ve become an easy target for bigots who interpret our basic human rights as threatening to their own privilege. This sense of aggrieved entitlement is the key stone of the treatment of trans folks in the news media and even if we are now protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we are still at the mercy of an increasingly hostile cissexist public.

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Just a few days ago Kay published an op-ed where she bemoans that medical experts acceptance of gender affirmative approaches to trans medical care, grinds her teeth at the thought that trans women are women, and digs into some classic moral panics to conjure up vitriolic stereotypes that trans women are hysterical activists and dangerous sexual predators.

She couches her work in Orwellian references of authoritarian and violent politics and co-opts feminist language to accuse trans women as being misogynistic for merely being in public.

Kay’s arguments aren’t worth contesting, they’re just venomous dribble with cherry picked evidence and exaggerated stereotypes. However, my contention in this essay is that the socio-cultural climate is just the right degree of toxicity to camouflage hate speech in the public discourse. We live in transmisogynist era where the substance of Kay’s hatred for trans women is business as usual, and challenges to her work are either ignored or accused of attempts of suppression.

Of course, this article is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, other stories have been citing a fresh new study that makes massive claims about the existence of a new form of gender dysphoria. Behavioural scientist Lisa Littman published an article claiming to have empirical evidence for the existence of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) which explicitly impacts children and adolescence through so-called “social or peer contagion” that allegedly spreads through social media websites like Tumblr and YouTube.

In a reimagining of the “contagious gay” epidemic of the last century, folks are peddling the idea that being trans is contagious and it’s all the fault of trans activists and their transgender ideology (often awkwardly called “transgenderism”).

Julia Serano, trans writer and biologist highlighted a series of major methodological critiques in a now notorious essay she published to her Medium page. Among other serious concerns, Littman didn’t actually interview or survey the children who allegedly have ROGD, just “concerned” parents sampled from already transphobic websites. These online communities have rather illuminating titles, 4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals, and consist of transphobic parents who are looking to legitimize any hostility towards their trans children through pseudoscience that carries the veneer of expert knowledge.

These methodological criticisms quickly roused some concerns in the wider scholarly community as experts began to question how such flawed and unethical research could make it through a rigorous peer review process.

Brown University, Littman’s scholarly nook, has recently pulled down mentions of the article from its website in response to criticisms of methodological rigging and the study’s hostilities towards trans folks. And on top of this, the article’s publisher, PLOS ONE began a “post publication investigation” into Littman’s methods, methodologies, and analysis to assess its scientific validity.

It is important to note that this research only contains the illusion of clinical authority, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the body that sets international standards of care, published a statement setting the facts straight: “The term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” is not a medical entity recognized by any professional association, nor is it listed as a subtype or classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM) or International Classification of Diseases.

And even if the study has been rejected by the majority of clinicians, it’s been championed by transphobic public figures and organizations and it’s contents are being used to justify the “concerns” of hostile parents who will inevitably force their children back into the closet. In a society defined by cisgender supremacy, as a recent study has illuminated, trans communities are facing a suicide crisis as trans folks are pushed into the closet to suffer in shame and isolation.

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Articles from big name media outlets, such as The Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist have been downplaying the academic criticism and characterizing detractors as radical activists trying to suppress Littman’s right to academic freedom and free speech.

Any opposition or critique to these ideas are usually rendered biased subjective nonsense, totalitarian, or anti free speech. And regardless of a trans person’s credentials, if we engage in these discussions publicly or stand up for ourselves, we are accused of being dangerous “male-to-female transactivists”.

Of course, this is not how the scientific community works. Free speech works differently in academic spaces where knowledge must be vetted by other experts in the discipline before it is solidified into an acceptable fact. This vetting process usually occurs through General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) or Institutional Review Boards (IRB), rigorous peer-review processes, and robust academic debate in order to make sure that what an expert is saying is, in fact, accurate. Anyone can publish an op-ed in the National Post and lash out at the trans community, but in academic publications, only the most rigorous work is published.

Of course, this process isn’t perfect, and sometimes bad research makes it to the academic press. But this is why PLOS ONE has decided to run a post-publication investigation. If they’re caught publishing bad research, it’s the journal’s credibility on the line.

To characterize methodological criticism as “suppressing speech” is a gross manipulation of the scientific method. Of course, these tactics seem to be super common on research that attempts to re-pathologize trans folks.

So to re-cap, the mainstream media is publishing a constant stream of anti-trans dribble, any critique of that dribble is considered the hysterical nonsense of radical trans activists, and certain members of the scientific community are willing to ignore the scientific method and proper methodological rigor when it involves trans topics.

Of course, these writers often try to dilute their hostilities with statements of support for “regular” trans people. These are the trans people who apparently don’t use public restrooms and try their best to meld in with the wider cisgender society.

For instance, Kay wrote near the end of her article, “In fact, [transactivists] bullishness actually hampers broader societal acceptance for the majority of trans men and women who do not feel represented by [trans activists], have no wish to die on vocabulary mountains, and who accept their biological reality as a fact of life” (p.s. I removed the name of the trans activist Kay was trying to run through the mud).

Though Kay’s article is an exception in that it is clearly a piece of hate speech, in most anti-trans articles, bigotry is embedded in the subtext. The writing might seem innocent, even impartial and objective, but will still tap into tropes and moral panics such as the spectre of the trans activist.

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This trend is not new but in the current political climate of Trump style far-right politics, it’s become fashionable to dog pile trans folks. The starting point of this collective anti-trans tantrum can be traced to the explosion of popularity around the now cultish, messiah-like figure Jordan Peterson.

In the Canadian context, the intensity of anti-trans rhetoric hit a spilling point after Jordan Peterson pulled a straight-up tantrum over Bill C-16, a piece of legislation to add the words “gender identity or expression” to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The extension of basic human rights to trans folks was apparently an unprecedented attack on free speech that would drive the country into an Orwellian nightmare.

Peterson put forward the myth that C-16 would pave the way for “compelled speech,” or the idea that people would have to use a trans person’s correct pronouns or risk imprisonment. Of course, this is far from the case. Legal expert Brenda Cossman set the record straight by fact checking the legal consequences of a robust human rights legislation that could help protect trans folks from active discrimination. Peterson’s opposition to the basic human rights of trans folks remains the key stone for anti-trans rhetoric by setting up the trans activist as the enemy of free people.

The results of this hot mess? Regular trans women must constantly and unwillingly confront transphobia in the media, in the restroom, and in public institutions as they navigate their everyday lives. The very act of being publicly trans is read as radical politics, whether or not they could be considered activists.

This trans activist versus scientist trope is a means for shutting down debate by delegitimizing the authority of trans folks to even engage in these issues. By using this trope in the media, journalists and editors have made it clear that the free speech of trans folks carry little weight or value.