A framework for understanding how the anti-trans movement works and how we defeat it.
Trans lives are under attack. In the last four years campaigns to erode our rights, block our access to health care, and exclude us from accessing public facilities and services that align with our genders have escalated rapidly. The UK and large parts of the US are now openly hostile to the trans community with hundreds of anti-trans bills being tabled across states in the US, and the systematic destruction of the institutions and services that support the trans community in the UK.
Often the media, LGBTIQ+ communities, and advocacy organisations discuss these issues as escalating transphobia. But it’s important that activists and allies understand that this wave of attacks is not an accident. It is the result of an organised and orchestrated anti-trans movement that has intentionally fuelled and weaponised anti-trans hate to achieve their social and political goals.
If we are going to defeat the anti-trans movement and win a world where all trans and gender diverse people can live with freedom and equality, we need to have a better understanding of the movement ecosystem so that we can craft more effective strategies and campaigns to undermine and disrupt it.
I developed the framework below as a tool for change makers, activists, and allies in analysing and understanding the anti-trans movement. The framework helps to unpack the key players, their motivations, strategies, and how they collaborate.
What is a Movement?
When multiple campaigns, actors, activists, and organisations come together under a common goal or vision you have a movement. You may be familiar with the land rights, climate justice, or women’s liberation movements. All of these movements are composed of multiple actors, campaigns, strategies and objectives but broadly work towards a common agenda.
Actors and groups in a movement can vary greatly in their perspectives, constituencies, specific demands, and approaches to creating change.
Take for example the climate movement which includes people who work within established institutions and political parties to make change, direct action groups, constituent groups like youth, parents, and farmers, as well as those directly impacted by mining and climate impacts like First Nation communities, climate refugees, and survivors of climate disasters.
The Anti-Trans Movement
The anti-trans movement is made up of three main wings: the far-right, the TERF, and the disinformation and conversion wings. These three wings are highly coordinated and collaborative when it comes to anti-trans politics, sharing research and resources.
These three wings work together to achieve a shared agenda of:
- Greatly restricting or banning gender affirming health care
- Normalising anti-trans conversion practices
- Eliminating the rights, protections, and legal recognition of trans and gender diverse people
It’s important to note that the strategy of the anti-trans movement poses a threat, not just to trans people, but also the broader LGBTQIA+ community, and our democracy. This is because attacks on the trans community are being used as a gateway to attacking the rights of the broader LGBTIQ+ community, reproductive rights, and also risk undermining our democracy through the use of organised disinformation campaigns.
The Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist [TERF] Wing
Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism [TERF] is a reactionary feminist movement particularly prominent within the UK. TERFs believe in the primacy of “sex-based rights”, and that trans people pose an existential threat to the women’s rights movement.
They are ‘trans-exclusionary’ in that they assert that the world should be organised in terms of the sex that people were assigned at birth, rather than peoples gender. They regularly campaign to exclude women who are trans from women-only spaces and work to block access to trans health care.
The primary goal of the TERF wing is to create a legal distinction between trans and cis women that allows cis women to exclude trans women from womens-only spaces, events, and opportunities.
TERFs are bio-essentialist, believing that people “are born with specific, immutable traits by virtue of our sex” and that a person’s physical sex characteristics is the dominant determinant of their propensity towards certain behaviours and attitudes.
For example, TERFs often highlight stories of trans women who commit crimes as being examples of ‘male criminality’ – ignoring the fact that many cis women commit crimes as well. Importantly, TERFs believe that our assigned sex is a far more influential factor than our cultural experiences, our experience of gender, and our upbringing in producing behaviour.
The TERF wing has increasingly aligned itself with fascist politics, opposing bans on conversion practices that include trans people, working with conversion groups and anti-LGBTQIA+ organisations, campaigning against any form of medical affirmation for trans people (such as surgery, puberty blockers, or hormones), and working to decimate the organisations that support the trans community.
- LGB Alliance UK
- Sex Matters
- Women’s Liberation Front (US)
- Save Women’s Sports.
The Far-Right Wing
The term ‘far-right’ is used here to group together culture warriors, right wing think tanks, the religious right, conservatives, and far-right conspiracy groups like QAnon. What unites these groups is a distrust of government, a general opposition towards racial and gender equality, and conservative social values – specifically the belief that sex and gender are fixed and binary.
While TERFs are motivated by a desire to cement the legal supremacy of cisgender women, the far-right are mobilising opposition to trans rights for primarily strategic reasons, hoping to win political and cultural power through waging ‘cultural warfare’.
Cultural warfare is the tactic of campaigning on a polarising issue that draws out key differences in the world view of a group of supporters and their opponents. It has been used to devastating effect in Australia on issues such as climate change, immigration, and First Nations justice.
In this case conservatives are looking to reinforce the dominant patriarchal view of gender to use it as an entry point in justifying escalating their attacks on the broader LGBTQIA+ community.
It is notable that anti-trans politics in the US exploded under the Biden administration, have been a key issue raised by conservatives during the mid-terms, and are now a central part of Trump’s presidential platform.
Over the last four years there has been a rapid escalation in legislative attacks on the trans community in the US. In 2022 there were over 150 anti-trans bills tabled across the country, but in 2023 we have already seen over 300 anti-trans bills introduced by mid-February. This is already the worst year on record for legislative attacks on trans rights.
The wave of anti-trans legislation sweeping across the red states in the US, is largely being led by the far-right. In states where conservatives are in power, they are using that power to attack the trans community with bans on participation in sport, accessing health care, and attempting to ban any discussion of gender and sexual diversity schools.
- Heritage Foundation,
- Alliance Defending Freedom,
- Australian Christian Lobby,
- the Republican Party (US),
A person wearing a Make America Great Again hat firebombing a donut shop after the venue had hosted a drag event.
The Disinformation and Conversion Wing
Anti-trans disinformation groups include any organisation whose main purpose is the development or promotion of information that willfully misrepresents research, supports pseudoscientific or debunked theories, or otherwise produces media with the purpose of undermining support for gender affirming care.
Conversion groups are organisations that support or defend the use of any practice which aims to repress or “cure” a person’s gender identity or sexuality.
Organisations can be both disinformation and conversion groups.
Since 2021 there has been a proliferation of anti-trans disinformation groups like Science for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine, and a re-focusing of previously ‘ex-gay’ organisations towards anti-trans disinformation.
These organisations promote a range of discredited and poor quality medical research, as well as supporting pseudoscientific theories like ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ and ‘autogynephilia’.
The bunk ‘science’ from these organisations is now being used as the basis for the legislative attacks in the US that are banning access to gender affirming care for children and adults. Additionally, groups like Genspect have played a large role in opposing bans on anti-trans conversion practices in New Zealand, Canada, and the UK.
The primary motivation of this wing is to undermine the consensus on trans health care and prevent trans people, particularly trans young people, from accessing any form of medical gender affirmation. Depending on the group this can be for ideological, political, or religious reasons.
Organised disinformation is a tactic that has been used to great effect in fuelling opposition to climate action and public responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine,
- Alliance Defending Freedom.
How the Anti-Trans Movement Collaborates
The far-right and TERF wings function as mouthpieces for disinformation groups like Genspect. This can be seen in Australia by how the conservative press is largely the only news services that will regularly platform anti-trans views and TERF spokespeople. Unfortunately, due to the lack of familiarity the general public has with trans people and issues, journalists and viewers are highly susceptible to disinformation campaigns.
Many prominent TERF or anti-trans figures are also involved in the disinformation wing as advisors. For example, Abigail Shier, author of the anti-trans and widely discredited book ‘Irreversible Damage: the Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters’, is an advisor to Genspect.
TERF organisations have been funded by far right think tanks. For example the organisation WoLF received funding from the Alliance Defending Freedom (an organisation that supports conversion practices) and has spoken at conferences organised by the Heritage Foundation and far-right religious groups.
Additionally, it was recently exposed that the LGB Alliance UK shares an office space with a number of far-right think tanks.
The reason why these partnerships are forged is because it advantages the far-right to use supposedly ‘progressive’ voices to give their arguments greater political legitimacy and power by cutting across traditional political lines and confusing debate.
The far-right wing works collaboratively with the disinformation and conversion wing, using them as the scientific basis for their attacks. Yale school of medicine recently released an article debunking the evidence provided by the Texas Governor to support his claim that gender affirming care was child abuse, a claim that he justified using SEGM as a reference.
In the past far-right organisations have had a role in funding and erecting disinformation organisations. It seems that a similar strategy is being employed here to fund groups that utilise and promote disinformation. This is the strategy that fossil fuel companies and right wing think tanks employed in the early days of the climate movement, bankrolling climate denialism to obscure the truth about fossil fuels and delay action.
At the date of publishing over 2600 emails from anti-trans organisations in the US have been leaked to the public giving insight as to how these groups have collaborated on anti-trans legislation. What it shows is that TERF groups, far-right think tanks, anti-LGBTIQ+ organisations, conversion groups, and known actors in the disinformation wing were collaborating on messaging and political strategy regarding bills to outlaw gender affirming care for minors at least as far back as 2019.
Prompts to Consider
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-trans movement?
- Who does the anti-trans movement hurt? Who does it benefit?
- What commonly held social values does this movement violate in its campaigning?
- If you were to imagine a ‘trans justice movement’, what might be the three wings of our movement?
- What role could you personally, or your organisation, play in responding to the anti-trans movement and supporting the trans community?
About the Author
Jackie Turner (she/her) is the director of the Trans Justice Project. She is passionate about community power, developing the leadership of LGBTQIA+ people, and building movements that can win. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
The Trans Justice Project is a trans-led organisation whose mission is to connect, coordinate, train, and build a powerful movement standing up for justice, freedom, and equality for all trans and gender diverse people. Contribute to the Trans Justice Project crowdfunder.
- Supporting Transgender and Gender Diverse People in the Workplace
- Supporting Transgender and Gender Diverse People in Organising and Campaigning
- Jackie Turner – ChangeMaker Chat – Trans Movement
- Dealing with Far-Right Interventions in Left-Wing and Progressive Movements
- How To Identify Dangerous Anti-Trans Disinformation
- Movements_Campaigns - LGBTIQA+_Transgender_Trans rights
- Transgender people