As much as I despise the cultish Christian-nationalist evangelical movement, at least they don’t claim to be feminists. They’re patriarchal and proud of it. The same goes for right-wing bloviators (or outright dictators) like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Rhonda Santis Ron DeSantis, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, and Vladimir Putin.
The genteel transphobes, on the other hand, cloak their authoritarian gender normativity in rhetoric about feminism and “fair play for women.” They’re often in their forties or fifties, typically younger than the fulminating family-values crowd, but still old enough to have grown up in a society where gay sex was often illegal and trans people were nowhere to be seen outside parodic figures. And this is why they get so much traction, especially in the UK, where sticking out too much is Not The Done Thing, unless you’re doing it in a vaguely ironic way like a panto character. Even lefty, ostensibly progressive and socialist publications like The Guardian, The New Statesman and The Morning Star have a history of publishing transphobic content. The BBC constantly tries to play both sides, publishing both pro- and anti-trans content, as though opposition to a minority group’s rights is as valid as that minority group’s right to exist. (This also happens with homophobes and anti-abortion conservatives. Would they do this with antiracist activists and white nationalists? Sexism, including homophobia and transphobia, seems to slip through in ways that racism does not, at least in the respectable press.)
As bad as “TERF Island” is, it’s not the only source of virulent transphobia masquerading as concern for children or right-on feminism. The UK is arguably the birthplace of genteel transphobia, but it has become much more widespread in American discourse, too, especially in upmarket publications like the New York Times (home of the obsessive transphobe Pamela Paul) and The Atlantic (which often publishes Helen Lewis’s TERFy screeds). Anti-trans activists in red states aren’t pulling out the Jesus card any more, since they know it won’t work in 2023 the way it did twenty years ago. Instead, they’re referring to fairness in sports, equal chances for women, women’s safety, irreversible damage. Of course, many of those activists are evangelical conservatives. But they’ve honed their playbook over the years to try to pull moderates onto their side. And since trans people are a small and marginalised minority, it’s hard for them to fight back when they’re being portrayed as freaks and predators rather than normal people. (It probably doesn’t help that transphobic laws are being passed in the kinds of places that trans people leave after they come of age because they’re isolated and homogeneous. There are few or no people left who can push back, so the DeSantis types can push through all kinds of regressive legislation.)
Genteel transphobes’ prattle about “sex-based rights” is a smokescreen for the same regressive agenda that evangelicals promote. Unfortunately, many self-styled feminists believe it because they have been conditioned to see trans people as a threat for a variety of reasons—it could be because they simply don’t understand gender dysphoria and are susceptible to conservative arguments, they’ve had the fallacious “groomer” argument drummed into them (even if they know it’s bullshit for gay people, they’ve fallen for the same warmed-over propaganda about trans people), they have underlying patriarchal ideas that remain unquestioned, they have authoritarian-follower personality traits, or they are simply bigoted bullies. Or many other reasons, all of which are wrong because they rest on the idea that there are some people who aren’t real people worth listening to through no fault of their own.
Genteel transphobes are sneaky and dangerous. And I’ve had enough of them.