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.
4. Abigail Shrier, “Why I Testified Before the U.S. Senate,” The Truth Fairy, March 22, 2021.
5. Glenn Greenwald, “The Ongoing Death of Free Speech: Prominent ACLU Lawyer Cheers Suppression of a New Book,” Glenn Greenwald, November 15, 2020.
6. Andrew Sullivan, “A Truce Proposal in the Trans Wars,” The Weekly Dish, April 9, 2021.
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.
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
11. Kate Samuelson, “What to Know About Pizzagate, the Fake News Story With Real Consequences,” TIME, December 5, 2016.
12. Kevin Roose, “What is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” The New York Times, March 4, 2021.
14. Criticalthinker (@ThinkingIsHere), “@ethical_care #wakeupamerica #LosAngeles ! SHUT DOWN JOHANNA OLSON-KENNEDY!!! @latime @KTLAnewsdesk @11thBlog @Muttmere1 @Megalodon_16 @MomRogd @mum_still @NothernReader1 @NoXY_USA @TerryStock8 @Transgendertrd @validvalor @womansworld65 @WomanFromAfrica @Belstaffie,” Twitter, March 14, 2021.
15. “At a major GOP rally in Dallas—MassResistance speaks out on transgender ‘sex change’ treatments being done on children!” MassResistance, December 11, 2020.
16. “Andrew Dymock: Accused said Hitler was ‘greatest feminist,’” BBC, May 12, 2021; Vic Parsons, “Gender-critical feminist Posie Parker in video with white nationalist YouTuber—and a lot of Mumsnet users are fine with it,” Pink News, October 15, 2019.
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
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.
20. Melley, Empire of Conspiracy, 6.
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
22. Shrier, Irreversible Damage, 15.
24.Joerg Heber, “Correcting the scientific record on gender incongruence—and an apology,” PLOS ONE, March 19 2019.
25. Lisa Littman, “Parent reports of adolescent and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE, August 16, 2018 (corrected March 19, 2019).
26. Shrier, Irreversible Damage, 39.
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:
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
29. Shrier, Irreversible Damage, 24.
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
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.
36. S.B. No. 1646, “A Bill to be Entitled An Act Relating to the Definition of Abuse of a Child,” Texas Senate, filed March 11, 2021.
37. Megan Munce, “Gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender kids would be considered child abuse under Texas Senate bill,” Texas Tribune, April 27, 2021.
39. Melley, Empire of Conspiracy, 27.
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.