This blog came out of a conversation with an ally about when and how to engage with anti-trans campaigners. Here are my top tips for how cis allies can be helpful in the fight against transphobic hate.
Do not boost the signal
Many transphobes do what they do in order to get attention and social media hits. Every time you hate share a transphobic article, the person who wrote it is winning, no matter how outraged you are. Do not assume that sharing an article and commenting how bad it is does damage to the writer.
If the writer or poster’s goal is simply to get good media coverage, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Social media algorithms make being outrageous and controversial online lucrative. People piling in on them will only help raise their profile and make them look like a plucky hero to those who share their hateful views.
In addition, arguments gain traction the more they are heard, even if they are being refuted.
Example: the people who still believe climate change isn’t real have almost all heard good evidence that it is, but the controversial climate change sceptic arguments still have traction exactly because they are controversial, and therefore get a lot of attention in the media in the way a well thought out argument just will not. It doesn’t hurt that, like transphobia, the right-wing media likes to signal boost those arguments.
Another example of the success of being controversial is anti-vaxxers, who use an approach called fire-hosing. According to Lucky Tran in the Guardian:
“Firehosing inundates us with so many wild opinions that it becomes exhausting to continually disprove them. In this scenario, reality is reduced to positioning and who can sell their position best.”
Transphobes are particularly good at this tactic, and the allies and trans people quickly become exhausted by the process of continually providing evidence that refutes their claims. Because the media still uncritically shares false information about trans people, the propaganda gains a similar veneer of truth to climate change skepticism. It doesn’t matter that there is a near consensus about the genuineness of trans experiences and the importance of granting them safety and civil rights. It doesn’t matter that there is zero evidence that trans civil rights endanger cis women in any way. It only matters which voices get signal boosted, just as the climate skepticism angle has been signal boosted despite a near consensus from scientists about climate change.
When you share or comment on an anti-trans article, you are unfortunately helping signal boost that article. If you create discussion beneath an article a friend shares on Facebook, you are also signal boosting that article.
Just don’t, okay?
Consider the impact on your trans friends
Transphobes, and that includes self-styled “gender critical” feminists, terrify a lot of us. Many of us have been genuinely traumatised by the hatred and vitriol that these groups target us with. I personally experience PTSD symptoms whenever I witness the hate of gender critical feminists on or offline, due to previous, awful experiences that have accumulated over a couple of decades. When it is vicious and transparently hateful it is bad. When it is polite, clever and manipulative, with undertones of gaslighting and dog whistling, it is far worse.
There is nothing worse than an abuser who is attacking you in plain sight whilst others look on and do not realise you are being attacked. The most toxic are people who share quite “reasonable concerns” that are in fact clever and false arguments that undermine our civil rights and incite others to enact violence and abuse against us. The ones that play for sympathy towards the transphobe and paint the trans person asking for civil rights as an aggressor or worse, a predator. The ones that manage to convince others that they are being victimised even by us pointing out their transphobia.
Abusers are very good at getting people on their side by in turns being charming and playing the victim. They are even better at driving their victims up the wall until they break and lash out.
When our friends treat these individuals as reasonable and engage in debate with them they are offering social inclusion to transphobes in a way that is often unwittingly socially excluding towards us. Here is a space our friend may well be holding or curating, is certainly participating in, where whether or not I should have civil rights is seen as a suitable topic for debate, rather than a given. Things are being said there that may activate my PTSD symptoms, while the cis folk in that space have no concept of the impact of this discourse. If I dare to participate at all, it’s at the risk that I may become upset or rattled, and be told by my supposed ally that I am “not helping my cause” because I haven’t been sufficiently polite to the person who is enacting structural violence on me oh, so subtly but devastatingly.
Because there is a small but vocal left wing and feminist contingent of transphobes, we are much more likely to encounter these people during activism or amongst our friends. When cis allies tag us to draw us into a discussion, or comment on a public post that then appears in our timeline, or share their experiences or an article where we can see it, they contribute to our trauma. They may think that they are demonstrating their allyship, they may think that our input would be useful to counter what has been said, but in reality they may simply be adding to our distress whilst signal boosting hate.
If arguing with transphobes is not helpful, what then can we do to counter hate? Well, one thing we can do is impose sanctions. Hold people to account for their behaviour. There is a reason why hate- mongers insist so often on their “right to free speech” – they want to be able to do what they like without consequences, and use the “free speech” argument to shut down anybody who tries to impose sanctions against them.
That’s because sanctions work.
No platforming, deleting comments from our timeline or groups, telling people we’re not prepared to stay in their presence if they continue with their hate, calling for somebody to be fired, banning them from their social media platform, unfriending them or blocking them for their views, asking people to boycott their event, are all actions that transphobes will complain very loudly about. That’s because they’re effective. Responses need to be proportionate, but often our responses take into account the heat that will fall on us for our actions more than the magnitude of the offence. Transphobes often get away with their behavior because they’re natural bullies and people are afraid to square up to them, remaining bystanders to their bullying behavior.
They will call the consequences of their actions censorship (it isn’t) and shout about an “all powerful trans lobby”, but nevertheless we must persist in making sure that people are materially and socially accountable for their actions. We should not be afraid of harnessing social power or gaining enough power to have an equal place in society. The only goal here is to gain civil rights and to shut down arguments that have been disproven over and over again to those who’ve bothered to do their homework. We have to make hate speech something that has consequences for the person making it rather than the people experiencing it.
When a friend says something transphobic, start by sending them a private message. Ask them if they knew that what they shared or said was transphobic and ask them to take it down. If they come back and disagree that it is transphobic, ask them if they would be willing to take part in an accountability process to explore this. Tell them that it is not for them to decide whether something is transphobic, that it is trans people who get to decide that. Remind them they are unlikely to know as much about trans peoples’ experiences and civil rights as trans people do. Remind them that there is a concerted anti-trans campaign going on at the moment and they might well have fallen victim to this campaign of misinformation, but the facts in favour of trans people’s civil rights are friendly.
If the person refuses to reconsider their actions, consider unfriending them and, if their hatred is entrenched and they are an active campaigner against trans civil rights, consider letting mutual friends know about the situation. When we publicly risk our own standing by siding with the bullied rather than the bully, it can be frightening, but it also signals to our fellow humans, who are, after all, pack animals, that maybe it’s time to stop the bullying.
Sanctions must be proportionate to the crime, but the impact of campaigning against trans rights and legitimacy should not be underestimated. Hate speech is the foundation of escalating violence against marginalised groups and needs a zero tolerance response.
Educate yourself and others, and speak up
Although trans-positive articles will never have the reach of those negative articles that get hate-shared everywhere, you can inform yourself and others by following and sharing the work of knowledgeable trans people on social media – random names off the top of my head include CN Lester, Munroe Bergdorf, Tavis Alabanza, Alok Vaid-Menon, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Ben Vincent, Ruth Pearce, Christine Burns, Natacha Kennedy, Kat Gupta, Paris Lees (me!!) . . .
Make sure you know a hell of a lot before wading in on an argument – gender critical feminists are wiley, and can have folks believing up is down. Poor arguments make the situation much, much worse. Maybe 9/10 times I see a cis person arguing with transphobes, they actually don’t know enough not to get badly tripped up.
Here are some stock phrases to help you out rather than getting tangled in an in-depth “debate”
“Trans lives, identities and civil rights should not be up for debate.”
“Trans civil rights hurt no-one, anyone who says differently is peddling misinformation”.
“The pervasive idea that trans women pose a threat to cis women is a fiction that de-centres the very real violence trans women experience.”
“De-legitimising trans experiences and undermining their civil rights is an act of structural violence”.
If you’re a cis man, and you’re arguing with a cis woman about women’s safety and feminism, please also consider that you might not be helping at all just by virtue of being a man. Engaging in an online argument only serves to reinforce the pretense of victimhood of transphobic women who claim that trans rights is some sort of trojan horse for men to impose themselves on women. It’s not, of course, but when it comes to the finer points of feminism and navigating feminists discourse, very few cis men know enough to do this well, and I do not want my trans-positive activism to come with a side-order of accidental misogyny or the optics of a cis dude brow-beating women and telling them what’s good for them. Just as the likes of Graham Lineham haven’t been overly helpful to the gender critical cause when he browbeats trans inclusive feminist women online and tells them how they should do feminism properly.
Better still, share positive, trans inclusive feminist articles (such as the ones I share on my Facebook Page) in spaces where they’ll have impact and simply delete any anti-trans comments. Don’t forget that if you block someone, they can no longer reply to a thread you started in a group, so consider blocking people who make hateful comments if you don’t have admin rights to delete their comments. Respond briefly and firmly, report them to admins, and block them.
Consider having a policy on your own groups and timeline that does not allow speech that opposes marginalised people’s civil rights, and learn why those toxic, pervasive but sometimes innocent-sounding “whatabouts” do just that. Learn about the links between supposedly feminist/leftist transphobes and the far right, and examine the ways in which their arguments overlap.
As long as whether or not trans people should have civil rights is still considered a matter for debate in polite, socially aware circles, trans people will continue to suffer and die under the weight of this structural violence. Dehumanising speech is the underpinning mechanism for the rise in hate crime and alarming suicide statistics. It needs to stop.