From Gender Critical to QAnon: Anti-Trans Politics and the Laundering of Conspiracy

Stated disavowal of their own bias doesn’t account for how liberals rhetorically shelter political violence

after Bridget Riley, Measure for Measure, 2017

1. Saeed Jones, “The Republican War Against Trans Kids,” GQ, May 5, 2021.
2. Jesse Singal, “A Brief Statement About Chase Strangio, Deputy Director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project,” Twitter, May 5, 2021.
This past May, ACLU lawyer and trans advocate Chase Strangio gave an interview to Saeed Jones for GQ in which he reflected on the “loud voices who feel so empowered and emboldened to speak out with just utter hatred for trans people,” citing the journalists, pundits, and lawyers Abigail Shrier, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and Jesse Singal as examples.1 Singal immediately released a statement on Twitter objecting strenuously but apparently uniquely to Strangio’s use of the word “disgusting” in the interview, writing: “I have never, in my life, in public or private, ever said or written anything indicating that transgender people are ‘disgusting,’ because this is not a view I hold. I believe Strangio’s claim to be intentionally defamatory.”2

This is a now-familiar form of strained objection to trans activists. Several months earlier, Shrier and Weiss objected on Twitter to a piece I had published on my Substack in which I undertook a close reading of Shrier’s testimony before the U.S. Senate on the Equality Act.3 Shrier characterized my close reading for the fantasized elements in her discourse as “prima facie defamation” and Weiss encouraged her to take legal action.4 Greenwald likewise wrote on his Substack of what he characterized as “horrifying” and “censorious” critiques of Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, though he also admitted that he had not read it.5 Sullivan then published on his Substack a proposal for a “truce” in what he called “the trans wars,” an appeal to enlightened centrism to avoid the “dysfunction” of these politics he claimed to abhor.6

The appeal to free speech in anti-trans punditry is hardly novel, but I have become interested in the intensely-avowed emotional attachment to liberalism in this genre of complaint. Singal, Shrier, Weiss, Greenwald, and Sullivan each register their complaints against what they frame as an illiberal trans opponent who has attacked not the truth-value of their work, but more importantly their good reputation. This affective attachment is all the more interesting because it is so frequently accompanied by the suggestion that a lawsuit would be justified to secure their liberty against irrational critics. What strikes me is not so much the appeal itself but its appearance within a much wider illiberal field of anti-trans discourse that these figures claim not to endorse. The emotional attachment to liberalism is an effective method of distancing from what these pundits can then hold proximate to their platforms without being held culpable: a small army of internet accounts that spring into action around them. Though not directed by the person in whose name they act, it is remarkable that these pundits preach discipline, reserve, and reason to trans critics while their self-identified supporters aggressively charge that those critics should be “sued into the dustbin of history7 for their speech; or send them violent messages urging them to commit suicide; or declare with apparent impunity that they are child abusers, pedophiles and groomers; or proclaim that they deserve to be put in jail, raped, or even executed and murdered. Each of these forms of political violence has landed in my inboxes more times than I can count, particularly when my name circulates in relation to these pundits.

7. This is a citation of an actual comment directed at me. I have chosen not to reproduce quotations from the more graphic threats that have been sent to me because I do not wish to recirculate them.
8. Yet even the most cursory glance at the developmental matrix through which trans children are framed by science, medicine, and in this kind of rhetoric makes it clear that preventing children from being trans cannot be disentangled from an eradicatory logic. If childhood is where transness and gender grow, then it is never a neutral ground for intervention, but would bear a eugenic impact that aims to limit or eliminate the existence of transgender people by preventing their development in childhood. I detail the historical context of this logic in my book, Histories of the Transgender Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), particularly in chapters 1 and 5. I attend specifically to Shrier’s argument about age later in this essay.

Why the stubbornly emotional attachment to liberal procedurality for what is clearly a deeply illiberal project in the aggregate? Put differently, how do the faces of the respectable anti-trans punditry tolerate those who practice the very illiberal forms of censorship, deplatforming, and targeted political violence on their behalf that they claim to strenuously oppose—or even portray themselves to be the victims of?

Singal, Sullivan, Weiss, Greenwald and Shrier are careful not to oppose themselves in an outright eradicatory sense to trans life. They instead frequently draw a line around age, declaring that trans children are not really trans and, so, can be targeted to limit the overall numbers of trans people in the world.8 Yet I am less concerned here with the content of their speech than I am with its skillful function in laundering extremism. If each of these public figures avoids endorsing, but benefits from, the activities of extremist anti-trans actors, their rhetoric of reasonable innocence reveals a strategic significance. Rather than opposing these “gender-critical” pundits to their paranoid, authoritarian and ethnonationalist allies who draw more on QAnon than defamation law, we can grasp the very process through which the ostensible difference permits the former to grant access to the latter. This process works all the better precisely because it traffics in the alibi that neither Singal, nor Shrier, Sullivan, Weiss, or Greenwald need ever believe, let alone express, that they are doing as much.

In the outcome, we can grasp the key mechanics of the growing relation of gender-critical punditry to QAnon, an overlooked process structuring this year’s unprecedented legislative assault on trans children. This symbiotic relationship between liberal anti-transness and extremist conspiracy theory bears serious repercussions for organizing effectively against the growing ubiquity of anti-trans platforms in authoritarianism. Anti-trans movements demonstrate that conspiracy and disinformation are not outside of, but rather are central to, liberal political institutions. Indeed, anti-trans speech is increasingly the very means by which to launder extremism and conspiracy theory into democratic institutions, with disastrous results.

QAnon Goes to Washington

In February, House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), already under fire for her endorsement of conspiracy theories and alleged connections to the January 6th Capitol attack, made headlines for placing a sign outside her Hill office reading “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. ‘Trust the Science!’” The sign was apparently put up as retaliation against her neighbor, Representative Marie Newman (D-IL), who has a transgender daughter.9

In Greene it seems that not just QAnon but also its newly important anti-trans platform have made it to Washington.10 QAnon is a network of mostly recycled conspiracy theories claiming that the Democratic Party, as emblems of a worldwide Jewish cabal, are Satanic, pedophilic torturers that sexually abuse and cannibalize infants. With roots in the “Pizzagate” conspiracy that led to the arrest of a man armed with an assault rifle at a Washington, D.C. pizza shop in 2016,11 QAnon’s eponymous leader ostensibly posted cryptic messages beginning in 2017 on a now-defunct website frequented by white supremacists. What remains today is a much larger network of social media pundits on YouTube and Facebook who study the cryptic messages and guide followers to prepare for Donald Trump’s eventual exposure of the secret cabal, the arrest of its members, and their public execution.12

In recent months, as QAnon’s followers and their growing Republican party supporters have had to confront Trump’s loss of the presidency, critics have noted an escalation of transphobia within their ranks that likely began as an attempt to skirt social media regulation by utilizing child trafficking rhetoric and hashtags. Investigative reporting by Health Liberation Now! has detailed growing traffic across anti-trans “gender-critical” and QAnon online forums that has even spilled offline.13 After a “Gender Offenders Map” listing trans-affirming medical providers was published online earlier this year, at least one anti-abortion clinic style protests has taken place with the goal of shutting down the clinic.14 Evangelical and white supremacist groups that are increasingly affiliating openly with the Republican party have also pivoted some of their rallying cries to anti-trans rhetoric alongside opposition to mask mandates and Covid-19 vaccines, including the extremist Proud Boys organization.15

Interestingly, the adoption of anti-trans rhetoric has not involved much in the way of new conspiracy. Much like Greene, the anti-trans wing of QAnon seems to borrow most of its rhetoric from existing gender-critical organizations like the U.K.-based Mumsnet, or the kind of punditry practiced by Shrier. This has led to a range of strange bedfellows-type situations, as when Mumsnet—a discussion board website ostensibly for anxious mothers—and its associated social media personalities have been criticized for platforming well-known white supremacists.16

17. Zara Abrams, “What do we know about conspiracy theories?” American Psychological Association, November 18, 2020; J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 58, no. 4 (2014): 952-966.
18. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s, 1964; Lynne Huffer, Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) 1.
While there are a few stray conspiracy theories in these online spaces claiming the trans people are a product of for-profit “Big Pharma,” the fact that QAnon has not needed to generate successful new conspiracies to adopt anti-trans politics tells us much about the interface between conspiracy and liberalism. The psychological and political science literature on disinformation and conspiracy theory, by contrast, has proven incredibly weak in the face of rising authoritarian and anti-democratic movements, clinging mostly to vague claims that the human brain is designed to see patterns where none exist, or bizarre recourse to dated anthropology on “the primitive mind” and supernatural beliefs.17 Despite Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” being over a half century old, the prevailing social scientific literature still runs aground on what Michel Foucault frames as the uncrossable chasm built between reason and unreason in the modern Western world.18 In short, because the liberal political imaginary pledges allegiance to a Western Enlightenment model of rational actors, it has no account of libidinal investments in power. As a result, it has no explanation for why some people choose conspiracy over, say, paranoid left modes of systemic critique.

19. Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1999).
20. Melley, Empire of Conspiracy, 6.
As Greene’s election to the House of Representatives shows, however, the inability to understand conspiracy theory as proximate to the functioning of liberal democracy leaves us with precious little understanding of authoritarianism, disinformation, and political violence. In Empire of Conspiracy, Timothy Melley helpfully explains that the American tradition of paranoia made famous by Hofstadter has intensified since the Second World War, largely due to the Cold War and anticommunism.19 This intensification turns principally on a fear of the growing loss of individual agency, a fantasy that leads certain people towards conspiracy instead of, say, paranoid but critical analysis of governmentality. Particularly for white Americans with Evangelical worldviews, the drive to maintain a sense of individual agency and the corresponding structures of racial capital that benefit them have generated vast attachments to conspiracy theories. QAnon fits this tradition well, in which the individual ascribes intentionality to abstract structures bearing down on him, rather than seeing them as impersonally oppressive to general populations. In a framework where the secret agents of a world cabal, communists, aliens, or even networked technologies of communication are read as intentionally aiming to subdue the righteous individual, the conspiracy theorist’s goal is to neutralize that intentionality, not dismantle the system. This, explains Melley, is why conspiracy is a question of form, not content.20 The goalposts of QAnon, for instance, can change and even openly contradict themselves, without endangering the appeal of the theory or the beliefs of its adherents.

The question, in other words, is not so much whether a conspiracy theory is true or false, but what it aims to accomplish. And in this light the new anchor of anti-trans politics on the extremist right plays a crucial but overlooked role.

The Internet Makes Kids Trans

21. Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (Washington, DC: Regenery Publishing, 2020 epub edition), 11.
22. Shrier, Irreversible Damage, 15.
Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage is, despite its incendiary title, rhetorically dedicated to its own reasonableness. Her anti-trans proposals are always met with caveats that style them as the product of reflection and a kind of compromise. She does not think trans youth should be allowed to transition, for instance; but she also makes it clear from the outset that she considers transgender adults “kind, thoughtful, and decent” and so harbors no wish to restrict their access to transition, as if they were separable.21 Shrier is also a freelance journalist and the book includes a long bibliography in addition to being formed out of interviews with over one hundred people, distinguishing it greatly from conspiracy theory texts. Only its rhetorical form begins to cast light on its strategy. Most of Shrier’s strongest claims are quickly hedged, right from the opening chapter of the book, where she explains that she relies on parental views of their trans children, not what those children themselves think and say, because parents “are in the best position to know” whether or not their children are actually transgender. Yet the very next sentence backtracks to admit that “parents cannot entirely be trusted to know how their adolescents feel about their transgender identities.”22 The repetition of this form of claim and partial retraction allows for unprovable or weak ideas to hide in plain sight alongside their technical disavowal.

Indeed, Shrier’s argument for why it is necessary to stop children from being trans follows the same structure: she does not believe that teenagers are actually transgender. The first part of this argument takes the clinical literature of transgender medicine since the 1960s at oddly superficial face value, ignoring decades of its critique, to underline the idea that gender dysphoria “typically begins in early childhood.”23 Therefore, according to Shrier, any transgender child who first expresses their dysphoria to parents during adolescence is not really trans, but instead must be influenced into an identification. Because there is no accepted scientific literature supporting for this interpretive leap, for Shrier it hinges primarily on an embattled study on so-called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD) published by Lisa Littman in 2018. Littman’s study, which was retitled and annotated with a correction and apology from the journal that published it after it received an avalanche of scientific critique, details the anxiety and paranoia of parents when they learn that their child is trans without having previously suspected it.24 Littman proposes that the “suddenness” of these trans youth’s desire to transition is not explainable by the obvious inference that a parent might be only just learning about something their child has been figuring out internally for years, but rather is a product of the “peer contagion,” which she infers from “parental reports (on social media) of friend clusters exhibiting signs of gender dysphoria.”25 In other words, these parents, whom Littman found through anti-trans websites, report that their children seemed to have many trans friends online, which is apparently why they decided to be trans. Or, as Shrier puts it, “many of the adolescent girls suddenly identifying as transgender seemed to be caught in a ‘craze’—a cultural enthusiasm that spreads like a virus.”26

What is the cause of this “craze”? And why is Shrier’s book relevant to conspiracy theory? Her answer to the first question is strikingly similar to the genre of American paranoia described by Melley. Shrier offers that a “mass enthusiasm” has resulted in more openly identified trans youth today than in the past:

27. Shrier, Irreversible Damage, 15.

America has become fertile ground for this mass enthusiasm for reasons that have everything to do with our cultural frailty: parents are undermined; experts are over-relied upon; dissenters in science and medicine are intimidated; free speech truckles under renewed attack; government healthcare laws harbor hidden consequences; and an intersectional era has arisen in which the desire to escape a dominant identity encourages individuals to take cover in victim groups.27

In other words, for Shrier, there are abstract (unnamed) but intentional forces undermining the American family, the bastion of agentive individualism, subverting it for dangerous but also hidden ends (which are likewise unnamed). Other gender-critical writers have taken this line of thinking decidedly more literally, with a recent article published on the website Quillette proposing that watching Japanese anime might cause curious and thoughtful young people to become trans.28 At one point in Irreversible Damage Shrier also underlines that one trans boy whose mother she interviewed had spent a lot of time on the user-generated art website DeviantArt, which Shrier claims contains “a lot of gender ideology in its comments section.”29

30. See James Kincaid, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).
While it might be tempting to blow past the notion that the internet, or watching animated television somehow make young people trans (there is a century’s-old history of moral panics around technology and childhood sexual innocence, from dime novels to rock n’ roll30), it is important to note the slide from Shrier’s respectable genre of punditry to this even more paranoid realm of theories about media influence, which include full-blown conspiracies about child endangerment that return us to QAnon territory. ROGD is one of the signal vehicles for laundering such conspiracies and their attendant politics into mainstream institutions, and not merely in Irreversible Damage. The onslaught of over one hundred anti-trans bills tabled in state legislatures this year targeting children reveals the important cross-pollination across these more and less rational domains of anti-trans rhetoric, with very real material harms in the outcome.

From Arkansas to Texas

31. Vanessa Romo, “Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson On Transgender Health Care Bill” ‘Step Way Too Far’,” NPR, April 6, 2021.
32. Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, March 9, 2021, timestamp 4:14:30.
33. Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, timestamp 4:16:27.
34. Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, timestamp 4:20:50.
Arkansas became the first state in April to ban pediatric transgender healthcare outright, overriding the veto of its conservative governor.31 During the state House’s committee hearing on the bill, the state Senator who introduced the legislation testified only that it “prohibits sex change procedures on children,” which conjures something that has never happened, before citing United Nations condemnation of “female genital mutilation” as somehow clarifying the intent and scope of the bill, which of course has nothing to do with the it and does not appear in the text of the bill, either.32 Joseph Backholm, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, then characterized Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria as the rationale for the bill, explaining that “the concept of transgenderism . . . is now much more than a medical condition. It is also a social and political phenomenon.”33 He also used the phrase “irreversible damage” in his testimony, no doubt a nod to Shrier’s book.34

While a first round of anti-trans bills like Arkansas’ cited a range of easily falsifiable and unprovable claims, not to mention ignored egregious misinterpretations of medical and social scientific data, they largely followed Shrier’s ROGD playbook. It was a second wave of bills to be tabled in the wake of Arkansas where the laundering of extremism through anti-transness began to show its true colors. Several new bills tabled after Arkansas’s was passed mandated far more extreme modes of state power, including a North Carolina bill that would require teachers to out any students displaying gender nonconforming behavior to their parents, and a Florida bill that would require genital inspections of children to enforce sex segregation in sport.35 But a Texas bill, S.B. 1646, cashed in on these precedents to openly legislate through the specifically conspiratorial language of the QAnon anti-trans platform. S.B. 1646 bill not only banned gender affirming healthcare for children, but explicitly defined providing or merely consenting to a trans teenager’s medical transition as criminal child abuse, placing it on an equal footing under the law with mental and physical abuse of children, sexual abuse and rape of children, child trafficking, producing child pornography, and giving hard drugs to children.36 As critics pointed out, this bill would allow the state of Texas to forcibly remove transgender children from their homes and place them in the foster care system, presumably to be housed with guardians who would not recognize their gender (since that would be illegal).37

38. See, for example, Lisa Farley and RM Kennedy, “Transgender Embodiment as an Appeal to Thought: A Psychoanalytic Critique of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality vol. 21, no. 3 (2020): 155-172; Florence Ashley, “A Critical Commentary on ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria’,” The Sociological Review, August 10, 2020.
39. Melley, Empire of Conspiracy, 27.
The slide from the Arkansas bill to the Texas bill illustrates the process through which conspiracy theories and their extremist fantasies about neutralizing the intentionality ascribed to “social contagion” theory are being laundered by respectable pundits so as to enable their eventual codification under the law as a form of revanchist police power. While ROGD is a fairly easy concept to debunk for the poor methodology and explicit bias in the construction of Littman’s study,38 I am more interested in its paranoid reading of the social, where “contagion” appears like a kind of intentional force corrupting otherwise non-trans children. This fear of intentionality in impersonal social media platforms produces what Melley incisively calls a “crisis of interpretation,”39 where any number of otherwise illogical equivalences and analogies between being trans and things like anorexia, peer pressure, brainwashing, and cutting can be made by pundits preaching their emotional attachment to reason. But this rhetorical strategy that embeds paranoid thinking also contributes openly to a slide towards outright fabrications and conspiracies, as with the Texas bill’s adoption of QAnon’s child abuse rhetoric in a bill that quite literally would mandate that the state abuse trans children. I am arguing, in other words, that this extreme contradiction can only be made to work and ratify conspiracy theory because it has been so thoroughly laundered in advance by people like Shrier, Littman, and conservative groups like the Family Research Council.

What further troubles me is the lack of recognition on the left that this process is entirely derivative of American liberal political culture, rather than a symptom of its collapse. In a recent article in the Atlantic on the growing ranks of “Q curious” Republicans after the 2020 election, Peter Wehner concludes that extremists and conspiracy theorists need to be recuperated into Enlightenment reason to secure democracy:

Many of those who are part of MAGA world are post-truth, subordinating reality to partisanship and ideology, but they are not, strictly speaking, relativists. Or to be more precise: They don’t believe they’re relativists; in fact, they would argue to their dying breath that they’re defending the truth. The problem is that the information sources on which they’re relying, and that they seek out, are built on falsehoods and lies. Many Trump supporters aren’t aware of this, and for complicated reasons many of them are, for now at least, content to live in a world detached from objective facts, from reality, from the way things really and truly are. And without agreement on what constitutes reality, we’re lost.”40

The problem with recuperation as remedy is that it doubles down on the fantasy that conspiracy theory, disinformation, and authoritarianism are simple errors of fact or reality, rather than complex, libidinally invested political positions central to American political and social life—something Wehner almost grasps in pointing out that “many of them are, for not at least, content to live in a world detached from objective facts.” Anti-trans political movements, in their vast and loosely aligned coalitions joining respectable journalists to internet trolls, online Moms to Proud Boys, and QAnon to GOP state legislators, are a strong case study in the abject failure of the liberal recuperative project.

If anti-trans rhetoric, movements, and punditry are mechanisms for laundering extremism and paranoid thinking into actual legislation that is being tabled and passed in over half the states, it would seem that the defensive posture being taken on the trans-affirmative and pro-democracy left is one that arrives far too late for what imagines to preserve. Trans children are already the casualties of this process, left to be openly abused in states like Arkansas and Texas. It remains to be seen just how many more will be sacrificed at the altar of liberalism.