For a few weeks now, we have been seeing the emergence of positions in the newspapers and on TV that express worry about a “trans epidemic” (in the magazine Valeurs Actuelles), “LGBT propaganda” (Éric Zemmour, the extreme Right candidate for president of France), and the “left-wing” variant that claims to analyze “transactivist ideology” (in the online magazine Marianne). These beacons of transphobia are lighting the way for a surge of rhetoric against all transgender people.
Modern-day transphobia, embodied by the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) movement, emerged across the English Channel. Until now, it has been mostly anecdotal in France, but the rhetorical apparatus they have constructed is beginning to pick up in France by relying on the reactionary situation that France is experiencing.
This is a short guide to survival in a transphobic environment.
An Overview of the TERF Movement in Britain
The TERF movement dates back to the late 1970s, when a handful of radical second-wave feminists coalesced around the book The Transsexual Empire (1979) by Janice Raymond,1Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979). an American author who claimed to be a radical feminist. The book still serves today as a major theoretical basis for the English-speaking transphobic movements. Among the ideas Raymond put forward are that transgender people reinforce patriarchal gender stereotypes; that transgender women would transition in order to be able to invade women’s spaces, which is perhaps the most central TERF obsession; and even that the simple fact of transitioning would, for a trans woman, in and of itself constitute rape. Ultimately, Raymond advocated that what she called “transsexualism” should be morally ostracized until it disappears.
Raymond’s theses are easily found in contemporary transphobic rhetoric; a (minority) fringe of radical feminist lesbian activists have perpetuated her ideas. This is a legacy that blends seamlessly with the logic of the far Right, which also defends an essentialist vision of women centered on a biological norm, the aim of which is to protect “good morals” — that is, the straitjacket of roles assigned to women by patriarchal society and the nuclear family. While transphobia has remained latent and present in Britain, it began a resurgence around 2018 when a “Self-Identification” law was proposed that would have made it easier for trans people to change their gender status legally. This reignited the TERF presence and the movement’s ideas in the media. A number of well-funded groups have sprung up across the British Isles (Fair Play for Women, WoLF, For Women Scotland, etc.), mostly with media presences exclusively and very little mobilization in the form of demonstrations.
Between 2018 and 2021, TERFs easily found a home in the press, whether the tabloids (Times, Sun, Mirror) or the broadsheets (Guardian, Telegraph). There are hundreds of transphobic editorials, written under the guise of feminism, expressing concern about “the erosion of women’s rights” — reminding us of the articles that have been appearing in France in recent months. Indeed, one of the central arguments of the TERFs is that the rights of transgender people are at odds with the rights of cisgender (non-trans) women and that accepting trans women in women-only spaces would be a threat to cis women. They use the same rhetoric over and over: transgender people are invading women’s restrooms, sports competitions, and prisons. It all echoes the fearmongering of Janice Raymond.
Acting as an accelerator, the Internet maternity forum Mumsnet has grown over the years to become a hub for British transphobia. Many stay-at-home mothers have become convinced there of the danger that “transgender ideology” poses to their children. Indeed, similar to the homophobia of the 1970s and 1980s, children are at the rhetorical forefront of transphobic arguments. Transgender children are presented as victims of pharmaceutical lobbies (around the issue of puberty blockers, a safe treatment to delay puberty that allows children time to question their gender and make decisions about transitioning) and of unscrupulous doctors authorizing surgeries on children assigned as girls at birth. On this point, transgender men are portrayed by TERFs as “lost lesbians” who have internalized the misogyny of patriarchy to the point of refusing to be women.
In Britain, all of this has been fermenting under high pressure since 2018. However, it is important to keep in mind that the TERF movement is above all an online movement. The few demonstrations or occupations of public space attempted by transphobic groups have mobilized very few people. The movement counts on an over-representation of TERF views in the British tabloid press, which is only too happy to fill its pages with scandalous headlines in order to divert attention from the Conservative government’s post-Brexit austerity policies. The TERF movement is an artificial movement that occupies space through a galaxy of Twitter accounts and shadow organizations representing very few real-life activists.
It is also essential to understand that the British transphobic movement is unique in that it covers itself with a progressive veneer. TERFs insist on their “feminist” credentials in order to convey their essentialist, and ultimately patriarchal, view of gender. Most prominent British transphobes also identify with the Labour Party. Similarly, some of the many shadow TERF organizations disguise themselves as gay and lesbian groups, such as the LGB Alliance, whose very name expresses its desire to divide and isolate transgender people from other struggles by separating them from the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. Thus, transphobic rhetoric is not only coming from the Right and Far Right, but also from within the ranks of the organizations claiming to be left-wing and progressive. It is notable that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter saga, and who is known to have given millions of dollars to the Labour Party, has become an unofficial spokesperson for this transphobic wave.
The Transphobic Firestorm in the United States
Since Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, conservatives in the United States have redoubled their efforts to saturate the media space with moral panic in the true tradition of Ronald Reagan. The rights of transgender people have been caught up in this maelstrom, coming under attack through more than 200 proposed laws in as many as 33 states in the space of only a few weeks. These bills aim to restrict young transgender people’s access to gender-appropriate sports teams and gender-appropriate restrooms, or to increase the administrative burden of the legal transition process. Similarly, legislation has been passed at the federal level to ban access to hormone treatments and puberty blockers for transgender minors.
The most recent example of this transphobic legislative onslaught occurred in Texas just a few weeks after an anti-abortion law was passed banning the procedure beyond six weeks of pregnancy. A bill banning trans children from playing sports on teams that match their gender identity was signed into law by Texas governor Gregg Abbott — making it the first of hundreds of newly proposed laws to come into effect. Only a few weeks earlier, students in a Texas high school had mobilized against this very type of measure, rallying around the slogan “Trans Lives Matter” and demanding an end to the transphobic and trans-misogynous treatment of one of their classmates.
It is important to consider the speed of this transphobic conflagration in the United States at the beginning of 2020. It became a central topic in the conservative media for a few weeks before giving way to a new moral uproar, while remaining a part of the agendas of Republican elected officials. One reason it spread so quickly is that the work had already been done in Britain; it only needed to be captured and bottled for a U.S. context.
There are strong, albeit hidden, links between British transphobic “feminists” and conservative evangelical think tanks in the United States. There is real intercontinental transphobic solidarity. While the U.S. legal system allows for anonymous donations to these organizations, transgender rights activists have managed to uncover some examples of where the funding comes from for powerful U.S. think tanks and legal groups that have been very active in filing anti-LGBT civil lawsuits. And some virulent TERF activists have been invited to participate in panels at the Heritage Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank.
The links forged between “radical feminists” and reactionary religious organizations, with all their media propaganda, has create a criminal alliance responsible for a large-scale increase in transphobic and trans-misogynous violence. This alliance ultimately benefits the extreme Right. In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center (a U.S. nonprofit legal advocacy organization that specializes in civil rights and tracks right-wing domestic terrorism), reported that transphobia was becoming a favorite theme of the Far Right:
For far-right extremists, the increased visibility of transgender people is a sign of the growing “degeneracy” of the nation, wrought by “cultural Marxists,” leftists, and Jews as part of an assault on white, Christian families and strict gender roles.
A report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London states:
Transphobia should be recognized as one of the major and most ubiquitous narratives around which the far right as a broad movement, recruits, mobilizes, and organizes.
What we need to remember about this transphobic onslaught in the United States is that the moral uproar over trans rights is the product of opportunistic politics from the Far Right and the traditional religious right as much as from the so-called progressive liberal Left. It could catch fire at any time in France, as elsewhere, at the whim of the bourgeois media and politicians. That is why we need to arm ourselves against such an offensive.
A Wave of Institutional and Media Transphobia in Response to the Radicalization of Feminist and LGBTQ+ Youth
While TERF figures in France have not yet achieved the same breakthrough as in Britain, some of them have managed to emerge even while being repudiated by a part of the French feminist and LGBTQ+ movement. Marguerite Stern, initiator of the feminist collages,2Translator’s note: The feminist collages are collective art works protesting femicide that first appeared in early 2019 in Marseille, France. The movement spread to other French cities and then worldwide beginning in August of that year. is a notable example; but she was quickly sidelined from the movement she created after revealing her transphobia, among her many other reactionary positions. More recently, the last pride marches in Paris and Bordeaux included a few dozen TERF activists marching with signs with clearly transphobic slogans, including “ “mastectomy = misogyny” and “lesbian transitions = patriarchal mutilations.” Sasha Yaropolskaya, an activist, journalist, and co-founder of the transfeminist XY Media website, confronted these marchers about their hate speech and was verbally abused by them before being dragged away by the cops.
It is in the media and political circles, though, that the main sources of transphobic stench are found. Take Marianne, for instance — an online magazine that has already made a name for itself with its Islamophobic positions. “Transactivist ideology,” writes its editorial board, leads “not only to the exclusion of women from demonstrations and spaces dedicated to them, but also incites physical and verbal violence against them.” This claim makes clear the true nature of the cause these self-proclaimed “feminist militants” defend.
In September, the weekly newsmagazine L’Express published an article suggesting an epidemic of transitions in children, using all the transphobic clichés: gaslighting gender issues; cherry picking language from trans activists to scare the reactionary readership; and reaffirming the supremacy of parental rights. The list of signatories includes Canadian and British TERF groups. Clearly, the transphobes are well organized in an international network, and the language of their rhetorical apparatus — fermented in Britain over the past five years — is ready to use in any country whose ruling class decides to raise the transphobic threat.
It is not insignificant that these arguments are taken up in the media by even by supposedly left-wing newspapers, such as Marianne, or that far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour raises them on his television show, fanning moral panic that “LGBT propaganda” in schools is being used to corrupt young children. Meanwhile, since 2016, a new generation of young people has become politicized to the rhythms of several other movements: “MeToo,” which highlights systemic sexism and sexual violence; the Yellow Vests, which will be an example of radicalism in France for years to come; and the Black Lives Matter movement, which in France has organized around the fight for has organized itself in France around the fight for Truth and Justice for Adama Traoré as well as all victims of police violence.
Both reactionaries and the French bourgeoisie have taken note of this phenomenon, with Marlène Schiappa — currently serving as the Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship in the Macron government — in the lead. Their response is an increasingly blatant manipulation of LGBTQ+ struggles to make them a weapon in the 2022 presidential elections. The new bioethics law is the latest example; it makes medically assisted reproductive technology available to lesbian couples and single women, but excludes trans people and turns a blind eye to the mutilations that intersex people undergo.
In a different vein, there’s the “tolerance” advertising campaign commissioned by Santé Publique France (Public Health France), an organization under the supervision of the Ministry of Health. It featured several people in each other’s arms, with the message, “Yes, my granddaughter is trans.” It’s a superficial policy solution if ever there was one, given that the Ministry of Education delayed releasing a communiqué that would have given transgender children the right to be recognized as such. Finally, and against the advice of the groups that were consulted, being out as trans at school is forbidden without the agreement of both parents, thus subjecting trans kids to transphobia within their own family units. The consequences are dramatic, and there has been a rise in suicides of young trans women. Recent cases include Fouad (also called Luna or Avril), Doona, and Sasha, all three of whom took their own lives.
The Legacy of the LGBTQ+ Movement is Anti-Capitalist and Revolutionary!
Whether in the United States, Colombia, or Myanmar, the LGBTQ+ movement is an integral part of new processes of struggle that no longer adhere to the neoliberal consensus inherited from the 1980s. This is what we must prepare for in France as a fringe of the ruling class, supported by a fringe of self-proclaimed feminist transphobes, uses grandstanding and televised declarations to build an offensive that jeopardizes the dignity and health of trans and non-binary people.
The Far Left, from organizations in the workers’ movement to feminists to anti-racist activists, should see the moral panic raised across the Channel and across the Atlantic as a warning sign against the spread of transphobic poison in France. The history of trans people is one of struggles for gender and sexual self-determination, led by the very people that traditional bourgeois organizations seek to silence for electoral gain.
In contrast to the positions of the Far Right and other reactionary politicians on both the Right and Left who try to capitalize on moral outrage, Révolution Permanente proudly places itself in the tradition of struggle of trans and non-binary women from the Stonewall riots, as well as those who continue to struggle today. It is a struggle waged against the transphobia that the ruling classes do not hesitate to use to distract the public from the rulers’ responsibility for austerity and catastrophic management of the health crisis. All this transphobic talk and the associated policies take the gender debate back several centuries to when bourgeois and colonial biological views determined the roles that men and women took in society. Today’s TERF arguments reinforce these gender stereotypes while providing a theoretical basis for the bourgeoisie to draw on in times of crisis like the present.
In the words of Sasha Yaropolskaya, “The LGBT activist legacy is profoundly against capitalism and against the neoliberal governments that want us dead.” It is this legacy that we reclaim. The struggle for sexual and gender self-determination is impossible without a relentless struggle against the capitalist system, for which exploitation and oppression are the sine qua non for its functioning.
First published in French on December 4 in RP Dimanche.
Translation by Scott Cooper
|↑1||Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).|
|↑2||Translator’s note: The feminist collages are collective art works protesting femicide that first appeared in early 2019 in Marseille, France. The movement spread to other French cities and then worldwide beginning in August of that year.|