Category Archives: LGBTQ

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.

Ford’s snitch site and the chilly climate of surveillance culture

In the past week the Ford administration has been increasing the political stakes around their discriminatory sex-ed repeal. In order to impose punitive measures to ensure compliance to their repeal, they rolled out a snitch site for parents to file complaints if they believe that their teachers aren’t following the newly reinstated 1998 sex-ed curriculum. In his statement to the press, he declared, “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act”. The governments implementation of a snitch system is a blatant use of surveillance technology to punish teachers through a punitive use of citizen tattle tailing that will only lead to a divisive and chilly climate in Ontario politics.

This is highly significant, as invasive surveillance has become a cornerstone of contemporary society. Our media saturated lives have allowed for the development of a wider surveillance culture where being watched and being visible has become ingrained in our everyday lives. Ford’s decision to implement a Snitch Site is moving the bar of what we consider a normal quantity of surveillance, and we must actively resist the normalization of state-sponsored, punitive surveillance strategies.

The sex-ed repeal

The sex-ed repeal is among the Ford Nation’s more controversial political interventions into the lives of Ontario citizens. I’ve argued in The Conversation that Ford’s initiative to roll back to the fossilized, 1998 sex-ed curriculum is explicitly discriminatory against LGBTQ+ children and will make life incredibly difficult for queer kids who just want to live normal lives as they navigate their school lives.

The move to repeal sex-ed curriculum is a dog-whistle for cis- and hetero- sexism, meaning that the Ford government is enacting legislation to attack LGBTQ+ rights, while actively disguising their homophobic and transphobic motives with talk around “parent consultations”. This has allowed the Ford administration to roll back the curriculum with a promise of future modernization after consulting parents. Of course, the status of queer inclusion into the curriculum is unknown, but if we take a lesson from the state of populist style politics, queer folks are typically left behind or actively discriminated against. The 1998 curriculum was designed in a time before the Internet, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the various human rights changes that were designed to protect queer folks.

The snitch site, aptly named For the Parents is both an attempt to roll out a public consultation, as well as a surveillance mechanism to ensure compliance to the repeal. The Ford government makes no attempt to hide their motives, for any teacher who wishes to teach scientifically supported sex-ed curricula, Ford’s staffers are out for blood.

The chilly climate of surveillance culture

The Ford government ran on a neoliberal platform that seeks to treat our democratic process as a capitalist playground of top-down leadership strategies. Doug Ford is no stranger to using management strategies that belong in capitalist businesses to obfuscate democratic institutions and government transparency. This mentality is readily present in his attempts to strong arm his decision to cut down on democratically representative councillors in Toronto’s City Hall. As well as his attempts to lash out against government transparency by dodging the press. This was certainly the case when politically appointed staffers engaged in intentional applause to drown out questions from reporters at a press conference concerning an increase in funding for the Toronto police. When reporters pressed the staffers on why they were engaging in this behaviour, they scurried away to avoid answering.

The Ford government is pulling strategies out of the far-right playbook to engage in authoritarian practices in our Provincial political institutions. As Ford Nation becomes more comfortable flexing its muscles, the dangers of utilizing online surveillance systems radically increase.

The more state-sponsored, punitive surveillance practices become normalized in our wider social practices, the more we feed a chilly climate informed by deep fears and anxieties. In other words, it feeds into a wider culture of surveillance where, as sociologist David Lyon has observed, “[surveillance is] no longer merely something external that impinges on our lives. It is something that everyday citizens comply with — willingly and unwittingly, or not — negotiate, resist, engage with, and, in novel ways, even initiate and desire”. As surveillance culture becomes more entrenched in our everyday lives, we become increasingly comfortable with invasive forms of watching and policing.

The Ford snitch site relies on the ability for parents to issue complaints about the pedagogical strategies of teachers in the relative anonymity of the Government’s servers. As I found in my yet-to-be-published research on social behaviour in anonymous communities, the use folks ire as a form of disciplinary practice will likely only lead to false accusations, over-exaggerations, shit slinging, and a communicative environment punctuated with vitriol and bigotry. All the while it sets a climate of fear for teachers just trying to do their job and now having to do it under the omnipresent pretext of hostile parents snitching on them and putting their employment at risk.

When Ford won the Ontario provincial election with a majority government, it set in place a nightmare scenario for LGBTQ+ folks as the “Overton window” shifted to the political right. Ford’s landslide victory in Ontario politics broadcasted that homophobia and transphobia were once again supported by social and political institutions. This anti-queer mentality, coupled with the chilly climate of a wider surveillance culture, is threatening to send our communities back into hiding. We must not let that happen.

There is hope for resistance

The Ford governments quick and decisive actions to strike at the curriculum have left many, including myself, feeling hopeless in the face of an a right-wing partisan crusade against teaching children about consent, safer sex, and sexual and gender diversity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate hostile publics to resist public displays of discrimination and oppression that seek to lash out first and foremost at queer children and youth.

However, there has been an uplifting surge of resistance from folks in Ontario.

Not surprisingly, the sex-ed repeal will likely violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it directly discriminates against LGBTQ+ students by removing mentions of their existence from the curriculum. Following Ford’s decision to roll out the repeal in time for coming fall semester of school, there have been a handful of legal challenges. Earlier in August, six families led an effort to file complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to challenge the negative impacts the repeal will have on queer children. In the forefront of this legal challenge is an 11-year-old transgender student who is bravely standing up to the anti-queer political entities that seek to erase her identity and thus, stigmatize her existence. And more recently, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have moved to sue the Ford government, accusing the their efforts as being a “ham-fisted dog whistle of bigotry, of homophobia, dressed up in a consultation fix”.

And this is on top of active resistance from school boards and teachers across the province condemning the Ford government for playing politics with children and ignoring educational experts in favor of the social conservative, Ford Nation platform. More recently, teacher unions have come on the public record to declare that they will do what they can to protect teachers who defy the sex-ed repeal in the coming fall semester.

If you are as enraged by all of this as I am, there is something that you can do to actively resist the increasingly chilly climate set up by the Ford snitch site. Follow this link to the snitch site and lodge a complaint against the Ford administration using their own surveillance strategies against them. Either send a message of critique, your thoughts on why a robust sex-ed curriculum is widely beneficial to our youth, or straight up spam their systems so their punitive tactics will be rendered unmanageable.

We can protect educators in this province and their acts of resistance to the discriminatory imposition of fossilized, socially conservative pedagogical methods by flooding their servers with criticism. If enough of us send in complaints, they will be unable to process punitive action against teachers who defy their bigotry. And in doing this, we can support the LGBTQ+ children who will be most affected by this.

Share the snitch site with your friends across social media and encourage them to complain as well.

Also, happy pride week ❤


References

Lyon, David. 2017. “Surveillance culture: Engagement, exposure, and ethics in digital modernity,” International Journal of Communication, volume 11, pp. 813–831, at http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5527.