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Sunday 4 June 2023 Dublin: 8°C
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Opinion Trans rights issues are being used as a right-wing recruitment tool
Aoife Gallagher argues that anti-trans campaigners do not have science on their side no matter how hard they try.

AS SOMEONE WHO researches extremism, misinformation and the most feral parts of the internet, I’m often tagged in tweets from people who tell me that I, and the work I do, epitomise all things wrong with the world.

On Wednesday, after commenting on some of the woeful media coverage of the Enoch Burke contempt of court case, I was tagged in the following from a leading figure of a fringe Irish political party that regularly campaigns against LGBTQ+ issues: “Trans ideology is a [sic] very dangerous nonsense. It’s [sic] basic tenets contradict biology, can be proven false and can only be imposed by bullying with a culture of threat and fear. Trans activists want to mutilate children and bully women.”

Like many trends among the radical right-wing, campaigns to denigrate the trans community began bubbling up in the early 2010s deep in the sewage swamps of online message boards where users dedicate non-insignificant chunks of their lives to harassment and abuse, with trans people often the targets.

From there, it joined forces with the evangelical Christian right in the US, who, in 2017, kick-started a campaign to frame the fight for trans civil rights as a threat to women, children and gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

Defending the rights of women and LGB people is, of course, an ironic position for fundamentalist Christians, and a telling sign that their true motives were to initiate an all-out assault on any efforts to create a more inclusive world for trans people.

Arguably, this assault has been successful.

In the years since, trans people have become the butt of jokes among comedians who enjoy ‘punching down’ as a means to generate laughs. Seemingly respectable news organisations have written and broadcast at length about the supposed dangers that trans inclusion poses to women, or children, or LGB people.

Celebrities have also hopped on board. In the US, dozens of pieces of legislation have been signed into law specifically targeting trans people and children.

As is often the case, the culture wars that have gripped countries like the US and UK take some time to reach Irish shores, but a number of incidents this year have made it clear that these efforts are gaining traction here and homegrown anti-LGBTQ rights campaigners are rising to the occasion.

Since the beginning of the year, a number of transgender people have been targeted in assaults. Dublin Pride pulled its partnership with RTÉ after Joe Duffy’s Liveline platformed known anti-trans campaigners.

The news in the last week has been dominated by the media spectacle over Enoch Burke’s court appearances, and in Northern Ireland, a transgender activist was doxed (her personal information leaked online) after she fled to the country from Canada following a relentless harassment campaign against her from users of a notoriously vile online message board.

You may be reading this and thinking, ‘It’s not a radical or extreme view to believe that men are men and women and women.’ Or you may think, ‘Teaching children that gender is a spectrum is damaging and confusing for them.’

You may go as far as to say that, ‘People who believe they are trans are actually just mentally unwell.’

If you do think like this, I urge you to keep reading before deeming me a woke, looney liberal propagandist hell bent on destroying the world.

Dispelling the traditional ideas about sex and gender that have been engrained in generations is no easy task. Although trans and non-binary people have existed throughout history, we have been brought up in a world that loves to fit people neatly into just two boxes that encompass both sex and gender – one labelled male, and the other female.

Jumping from one box to the other, or straddling both boxes, or trying to escape boxes altogether is still seen to many people as ‘weird’, or ‘self-indulgent’, or a symptom of a generation that insists on being seen as ‘special’.

As much as certain people will maintain that diverging from these norms ‘contradicts biology’ that is only true if you believe that science is set in stone, which it is not.

Science and our understanding of the world are constantly changing and evolving and in recent years, a growing body of research has provided an evidence basis to dispel our supposedly fixed ideas about sex and gender.

Let’s begin with sex. The majority of people are assigned either male or female sex at birth, based on the presence of certain genitalia.

But approximately 1.7% of the world’s population are born intersex – almost equal to the number of people with red hair. Intersex is a term used to describe people with variations in their reproductive or sexual anatomy which can include variations in genitals, sexual organs or chromosomes. Sometimes these differences are visible at birth, but other times, they don’t become apparent until puberty.

Although often used interchangeably, gender is now agreed to be different to sex and is not just defined by biology. Gender exists along a spectrum, and is linked to social norms and the roles we play in society.

As Dr Jason Rafferty from the American Academy of Pediatrics explained to the Associated Press:

Gender identity is more an inner sense of being male, female or somewhere in between — regardless of physical anatomy … It may be influenced by genetics and other factors, but it’s more about the brain than the sex organs.

Although for many people their biological sex and gender identity align, for many others, they do not and this can cause major distress for them, often referred to as gender dysphoria.

This dysphoria can cause depression and high levels of anxiety, often exacerbated by prejudice and a lack of acceptance of these issues among society.

Research from 2022 showed that more than half of transgender or non-binary youth have contemplated suicide in the last year, with 20% attempting to do so.

Gender nonconformity can also be seen in neurobiology research. Although our brains cannot be neatly divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’, there are certain average differences seen across male and female brains

A number of studies have looked at the brain structure and activity of transgender people and found that they appear to be more in line with the gender they identify with than with their biological sex. 

There is also some evidence that prenatal hormone levels may play a role in gender expression and identity.

The research still has a long way to go, but there is no doubt that there are scientific explanations for the existence of trans and non-binary people.

The internet has also allowed people to gain a deeper understanding of the lives of gender nonconforming people and through this, many have realised that simple things, such as using the correct pronouns, can go a long way towards greater societal acceptance.

But there are many who refuse to make even the tiniest changes in their lives to help others, seeing this instead as an assault on their freedom.

Through the propaganda efforts of the radical right-wing and Christian evangelicals, they have been convinced that this vulnerable, misunderstood and highly marginalised minority of people, who in many places still lack fundamental human rights, are somehow an oppressive force that are ‘forcing’ their ‘beliefs’ onto others.

For the extremists in the midst, this belief is no accident and is tied to a larger campaign against LGBTQ+ people. As my colleague Dr Tim Squirrell has pointed out, the panic over queer identities is explicitly tied to a belief among white identity groups, such as neo-Nazis, that people can be ‘manipulated into becoming gay or trans’.

They believe the very existence of queer people will make other people queer and they see LGBTQ+ people as a sign of ‘degeneracy’ that threatens their ultimate goal – maintaining the white birth rate.

The mainstreaming of this kind of belief has led to a moral panic that children are being ‘groomed’ into becoming queer through LGBTQ+ inclusive teaching in schools.

Online campaigns driven by this kind of rhetoric has also led to bomb threats issued against children’s hospitals in the US that provide gender-affirming care for trans and non-binary youth.

Pride events for children, such as Drag Queen Story Hour, where drag queens read stories to children, are regularly targeted as being a sign of this ‘grooming’ and ‘degeneracy’ despite generations of children watching men dressed as women in pantomimes and coming out unscathed.

One thing that cannot be denied is the diversity of the world. Everyone is different and we’re all different for different reasons.

Believing that people should be squeezed into binary gender roles is simply outdated and harmful and pushing back against these old-fashioned ideas is essential for furthering our understanding of the world and protecting queer communities. 

Aoife Gallagher is a research analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter extremism think-tank working to push back against the rising tide of extremism, polarisation and hate on a global scale. Her first book, Web of Lies, will be published through Gill Books on 6 October.

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