Sun, 26 June 2022, 5:00 pm
Kyle Chu was sitting in a public library in the San Francisco Bay Area, singing a welcome song to a group of children for a Pride Month book reading, when the fascists walked in.
There were eight to ten of them, recalled Chu, who was in his drag persona as Panda Dulce, shouting “groomer” and”who brought the tr****?”; one man wore a shirt depicting an AK-47 and the slogan “kill your local pedophile”.
“More than two days later, I still feel like I’m in that room,” Chu told Teen Vogue afterwards. “I’ve had trouble sleeping. Everyone’s asking if I’m okay and the answer is I’m not.”
That confrontation on 11 June, which police suspect was organised by the neo-fascist Proud Boys, was only the latest in a spate of attacks, alleged plots, and harassment incidents targeting LGBT+ people in the US over the past few months.
In Idaho, 31 members of the white supremacist Patriot Front militia were charged with conspiring to riot at a Pride event. In Wisconsin, a school investigation into students misgendering a non-binary peer sparked bomb threats that forced the whole school system to close.
In Vermont, a man was arrested after allegedly threatening to murder someone if his daughter encountered a transgender person or a drag queen at her school. In Baltimore, police are investigating an arson that put three people in hospital as a possible anti-LGBT+ hate crime. In Arizona, an anti-mask activist suggested he would “hunt LGBT supporters”, telling followers: “If you support the LGBT agenda, you’re not safe.”
Meanwhile, prominent conservative pundits and a Republican congressman spread hoax claims that the Uvalde school shooter was a trans woman, while the alleged perpetrator of the Buffalo supermarket attack claimed in his manifesto that gender transition was being promoted by Jews to ruin the white race.
These incidents follow months of increasingly heated Republican rhetoric about the alleged threat posed to children by LGBT+ culture, including calls for pro-LGBTQ teachers and parents to be executed. According to the non-profit Trans Formations Project, at least 271 anti-transgender bills have been introduced to state legislatures since the beginning of 2021.
Yet for at least a year beforehand, obsessive hatred for trans and gender non-conforming people has been brewing in the dark online underworld of QAnon, along with numerous other extremist communities connected by similar beliefs and shared social circles.
Experts who monitor anti-trans extremism say the roots of this panic go back further, to a fall-out among radical environmentalist groups in the early 2010s, the rise of “gender critical” feminism in the UK, and a strategic shift by US evangelical Christian groups in the wake of gay marriage – a “perfect storm” of factors that has put outrage about trans rights at the heart of the modern far right.
“I’ve been watching this come together since my starting point of 2017, and even I’m astounded at how quickly things have gotten to this point in the past two years,” says Lee Leveille, a trans researcher and health activist who has extensively documented the origins of what he calls TAnon.
“I imagine that it’s just going to keep escalating, and I’m not sure when exactly we’re going to hit the next phase, because it’s just going too fast… a lot of us are seeing the writing on the wall, and honestly, it’s terrifying.”
‘Every time I think it couldn’t get worse, it does’
The Independent first observed trans issues bubbling up through QAnon and other conspiratorial far-right communities in the first half of 2021, following the movement’s failure to stop the inauguration of President Joe Biden by storming the US Capitol.
As Donald Trump and his most extreme supporters were purged from mainstream social networks, many turned to the private messaging app Telegram, where numerous new channels sprung up for the varied and often fractious cloud of movements and subcultures that adopted Trump as their mascot.
“A man cutting off his genitals and pretending to be a woman is about as satanic as it gets,” said one commenter during an extended discussion about trans rights in a conspiracy-peddling Telegram channel last January.
“Sooooo many elites were trans and we had no idea,” said a QAnon channel in May, alongside a video falsely claiming that influential figures including feminist author Betty Friedan, philosopher Susan Sontag, and Queen Margrethe of Denmark were all “tr*****s”.
These were difficult times for QAnon, a cult-like millenarian movement born on the internet message board 4chan in 2017, which has been linked to numerous violent acts and plots. Believing that the world is ruled by a Satanist paedophile cabal, its followers trawled through the internet for signs of this purported mass child abuse, and organised protests cloaked by the innocuous-sounding slogan “save the children”.
Yet the movement’s anonymous prophet, “Q”, had promised that Trump would soon defeat the cabal in a military coup known as the “storm”, which would see leading Democrats arrested and executed. When the prophecy failed, QAnon splintered, and “Q” didn’t post again for 18 months.
Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies the history of how society treats trans children, and who argued last year that QAnon has had an unacknowledged influence on other anti-trans activism, links the movement’s transphobia boom to the cloud of competing influencers and pundits who inherited its legacy after Q’s disappearance.
“I don’t think the QAnon conspiracy theory had to drift very much to become anti-trans,” she tells The Independent. “This fantasy of a particularly ridiculous idea of widespread child abuse – not the actual kinds of institutional child abuse in our society, but the fantasy – that’s very easily transferable to trans people and to trans youth…
“In a moment when those groups are hyper-visible in the culture, but no one really knows that much about them, it’s not especially surprising to me that QAnon latched there, because it really needed something new.”
By June 2021, trans discussions had become common, appearing in channels for die-hard neo-Nazis, anti-lockdown activists, and British sovereign citizens. One user even claimed to have heard that then British health secretary Matt Hancock “is a trans man, and his missus is a tr****”. Another declared: “Trans agenda is actually social engineering and medical-industrial complex, changing language and biogenetics for transhumanist agenda.”
The fixation has only grown, with transphobic outrage now inescapable across a broad range of Telegram channels. One white supremacist, who regularly inveighs against black people, Jews, and Muslims, has posted the slur “tr****” just as many times as “n*****” since 2020, and the word “transgender” twice as many.
When the far-right MAGA influencer Jack Posobiec shared a positive story about a trans child last week, it drew furious comments accusing the parents of child abuse or calling for them to be arrested.
“Every time I think it couldn’t possibly get any worse, it does,” says Sara Aniano, a disinformation analyst who has been studying the far right on Instagram and Telegram since 2020.
“Anti-trans discourse has always been present in far-right spaces. Back in 2020, a lot of the discussion was based on paranoia that prominent female figures or celebrities were actually ‘men in disguise’, from Michelle Obama to Victoria’s Secret Angels…
“But recently, far-right groups shifted the conversation to outright demonisation, painting trans individuals as ‘groomers, ‘paedophiles’, or ‘mentally ill’. It is increasingly pervasive.”
Mallory Moore, a researcher with the UK-based Trans Safety Network, says the tendency towards conspiracy theories is now common in British anti-trans movements, from the far-right Family Defence League (styled after the English Defence League) to various “Save the Children” groups to anti-vaccine mothers’ groups.
“I can’t overstate how much far right interest in transphobia has stepped up in the last year,” she added on Twitter on Monday. “The far right have always been transphobic, but it’s not necessarily been a top propaganda priority. Right now it very much is.”
‘Transgenderism is a bridge to making superhumans’
For Lee Leveille, all of this hit close to home, because she had long feared that rising far right interest in trans issues could lead to violence.
Leveille, who uses both male and female pronouns, helped found the Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network (GCCAN) in 2019 to campaign for people who had detransitioned, who often face prejudice and struggle to get proper medical care.
Yet in 2020 he quit GCCAN in protest against its growing overtures to the gender critical (GC) feminist movement, which sees trans rights as a danger to cis women. Leveille’s fear was that detransitioners’ stories were being coopted in order to reduce access to transition healthcare, and in turn by conservatives who share that goal.
Over the past five years, Leveille argues, these causes have increasingly coalesced, with gender critical material serving as ammunition for conservatives, QAnon, and the far right, as well as vice versa.
“Some of the people that I end up monitoring now, who have become major actors in the TAnon sense… I’ve literally met them,” says Leveille, who has since formed a new advocacy group called Health Liberation Now. “Ever since then I’ve been just trying to understand what on Earth has been happening – how I got to this point, how other people I know got to this point, how on Earth it’s scrambled our brains.”
Leveille starts her TAnon timeline in the early 2010s, when many environmentalists in the US Pacific Northwest cut ties with a radical group called Deep Green Resistance (DGR) for excluding trans people. The fallout prompted one DGR associate, Jennifer Bilek, to suspect that dark forces were at work behind the trans rights movement.
“What the hell [was] going on here?” Bilek recalled in an interview with the British radical feminist Janice Williams last February. “Who has the power to get everybody censored around this issue?”
Drawing on previous claims by radical feminists, Bilek concluded that “transgenderism” was a “manufactured medical issue” masquerading as a civil rights movement, funded by big medical and drug companies to “expanding [the] market for changing the human body”.
She named the trans billionaires Jennifer Pritzker, who helped fund a children’s gender clinic in Chicago and other trans programmes, and Martine Rothblatt, an avowed transhumanist who advocates using technology to transcend the limits of the human species – as well as George Soros, and Jon Stryker.
While all have donated money to support trans rights, much of that went to general LGBT+ organisations rather than trans-specific ones. Many trans rights supporters dispute the idea that these figures have been central to the movement, which stretches back decades.
These claims took off. As documented by Christa Peterson, a philosophy PhD student who researches and opposes the gender critical movement, Bilek’s work was widely shared and cited by leading GC feminists, including in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The names of Rothblatt, Pritzker, Stryker, Soros, and “transhumanism” – a separate movement to trans rights – became common in gender critical arguments. Janice Williams even described Bilek as having “personally and single-handedly revolutionised the way we see gender identity”.
“[Bilek] is a really important figure to understand all this,” says Ari Drennen, director of the LGBT+ programme at Media Matters for America, which monitors anti-LGBT+ hate movements. She says Bilek’s rhetoric has been widely adopted on the right, including by conservative activist Charlie Kirk and conspiracy-mongering shock jock Alex Jones.
Bilek has leaned into the idea of a vast conspiracy promoting “transgenderism” to bring about a new world order. “They control the media, our institutions, our politicians, the indoctrination of our children, the laws being passed, all of it,” she tweeted in 2019.
In her interview with Williams last year, she said: “Transgenderism has nothing to do with human rights. It’s an ad campaign. Big pharma, and the entire medical-industrial complex… this is the groundwork for augmenting human beings.
“You can’t just take our societies as we know them and loop them right into transhuman, like ‘oh! We’re gonna be robots now!’ You gotta build a bridge, so transgenderism is the bridge. They’re planning on making superhumans.”
These ideas proved attractive to white supremacists, who extensively shared Bilek’s writing while drawing attention to the fact that Pritzker, Rothblatt, Soros and Stryker are all Jewish. One publication simply copied one of Bilek’s articles while replacing every instance of the word “white” with “Jewish”.
Throughout 2019 and 2020 QAnon tweets branding the “transgender agenda” as a Satanist paedophile conspiracy, using the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, became more prevalent.
There is no suggestion that feminists who have shared Bilek’s work endorse antisemitism, nor QAnon. But Leveille believes that their embrace of conspiratorial claims about shadowy philanthropists “inevitably opened the door for fusion with QAnon, as we are seeing now”.
Indeed, other conspiracy theories – such as the idea that trans rights are a Trojan horse for paedophilia, or that the trans rights movement has been infiltrated by paedophiles seeking easier access to children – are now routine among more extreme GC supporters.
For her part, Bilek later approvingly shared an article by Keith Woods, an avowed antisemite, that built on her work. “Keith Woods takes this a step further and discusses the intersection of these phenomena with Judaism,” she said. “Don’t miss it. I believe he is onto something!”
Corinna Cohn, one of GCCAN’s board members, confirmed Leveille’s departure to The Independent and indicated that she disagrees with Bilek’s ideas (Bilek has previously denounced GCCAN). “Both Leveille and Bilek are good at gathering facts, but neither is especially strong at assembling those facts into cogent explanations of how the world works,” Cohn said.
Bilek did not respond to a request for comment.
A ‘perfect storm’ of Christians, fascists, and feminists
Throughout this time, evangelical Christians were also mobilising. Their movement had suffered a blow when the Supreme Court declared gay marriage to be guaranteed by the constitution in 2015, and again when a high-profile Republican “bathroom bill” failed in North Carolina in 2016.
State bill HB2, which banned trans people from using public toilets for their gender unless they had changed their birth certificates, triggered protests and corporate boycotts that cost the state economy an estimated $400 million, and was largely repealed the following year.
“The Christian right, which is the largest perpetuator of the legal side of transphobia… tried so many things in 2016, 2017, and 2018,” says Heron Greenesmith, a senior research analyst specialising in anti-LGBT activism at Political Research Associates, which monitors hate movements for left-leaning non-profits. “They tried with [trans high school student] Gavin Grimm and the bathrooms, and that worked a little bit, but there was such a backlash.”
However, Greenesmith adds, the evangelical right is “big enough to continually be trying a tonne of different strategies – and when something works, nimble enough and well-funded enough to push their resources behind that successful strategy.”
Hence, in 2017, a Virginia conservative named Meg Kilgannon gave a speech at a major activist conference arguing that social conservatives needed to “focus on gender identity to divide and conquer”. She said that the LGBT+ coalition is “actually fragile”, and that trans people could be split off from the larger cause.
Instead of attacking trans people, or using religious and moralistic language, Kilgannon advocated focusing on policies and ideology – particularly the provision of puberty blockers and hormones to under-18s. She also proposed working across the aisle with feminists.
“QAnoners are largely evangelicals,” says Greenesmith. “There is enough overlap between Proud Boys and 4chan and evangelical young men that when a strategy becomes successful in one area, it will carry over… as transphobia percolates and becomes essential to one community, it will percolate to the others.”
Greenesmith says the momentum appears to have been buoyed by Christian parents who oppose their children’s transitions, who have flocked to online support groups seeking advice or recommendations for conversion therapists.
By the first half of 2021, Leveille was seeing repeated “crossover” between these movements. Neo-fascists and QAnon supporters regularly boosted gender critical writing, while Christian groups wielded disputed research claiming that many trans children actually suffer from a socially transmitted condition called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD), based on reports by parents recruited from three GC websites.
Conservative campaigners also joined GC activists at a wave of trans health clinics, some of which appear to have been organised by an administrator of Bilek’s Facebook group. In July, gender criticals, Proud Boys, Trump supporters and people with QAnon signs all attended a major demonstration in Los Angeles.
That winter, a Twitter account called Libs of TikTok began to go viral. Founded in April 2021, and rising to prominence throughout the winter, it retweets video clips of LGBT+ people, particularly teachers, often with commentary suggesting they are “grooming” children or enabling child abuse.
In April, The Washington Post unmasked its author as Chaya Raichik, a pro-Trump former real estate agent, reportedly funded by the conservative satirist Seth Dillon and with ties to a Republican Party operative.
Christina Pushaw, the press secretary to Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, said Raichik “opened her eyes” and has interacted with the account at least 138 times. The account has been heavily promoted by Fox News, which Drennen accuses of using Libs of TikTok as a “wire service to generate content”. Bilek has also retweeted the account.
Teachers targeted by Raichik suffer a stream of angry messages and verbal abuse, which she has sometimes explicitly encouraged. She has repeatedly published false news, and reportedly boasted about getting teachers fired. According to Media Matters, the drag events allegedly targeted by the Proud Boys and Patriot Front were both featured on Libs of TikToks beforehand.
Yet just as Trump often took his cues from QAnon, rather than the other way round, Drennen suspects that Fox and Pushaw are only responding to the wider panic now bubbling up through the Republican base.
“In a lot of cases, these conversations are happening, and Fox News is jumping on them because they’re looking for an audience,” she says. “As we saw over and over again through the Trump era, social media makes it possible for the most radical voices to be heard, and rewards that.”
Both Greenesmith and Gill-Peterson see social media as playing a crucial role, allowing lurid ideas to spread rapidly between very different communities. Influencers are under constant pressure to find new content that will electrify their audience, and transphobia has proved extraordinarily electric.
“I think of it is a sort of perfect storm; there’s no single author behind it,” says Gill-Peterson. “A lot of things converged that had been simmering for a while.”
Why trans rights inspire such intense emotions
Why trans people? What is it that makes transgender conspiracies such catnip to so many different movements?
Drennen, Gill-Peterson, and Leveille all emphasised that TAnon draws on anti-LGBT+ themes that stretch back decades or centuries. “Save our children” was the slogan of anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, while Britain once banned teachers from discussing homosexuality in a positive light for fear that children would be recruited.
“There are immense energy reserves in Western culture to target people who transgress gender boundaries, and sexualise them, and on that basis justify violence against them,” says Gill-Peterson. “QAnon can only exist in the social media era… but it certainly didn’t invent the animus, didn’t invent the hatred.”
A study in 2018 found evidence that people with a high “need for closure” – meaning that they dislike ambiguity and instinctively prefer “order and predictability” – were both more likely to support traditional gender roles and more likely to have transphobic attitudes.
Beyond that, Drennen links TAnon to the large number of closeted trans people who came out during the pandemic. Although it’s hard to know whether there has been any numerical increase, many trans people report that the isolation of lockdown or the prospect of death helped spur them to accept their identity – a phenomenon that some in the community have dubbed “quarantrans”.
“I think we’re seeing something similar to the panic about the number of gay people increasing a few generations back,” says Drennen. “It’s the same type of anxiety, where a community finally feels safe coming out of the shadows, and because of that is misperceived as dramatically increasing in number. People see that dramatic increase and think, incorrectly, that it must be because they’re recruiting children.”
Greenesmith believes that trans paranoia plays on cis people’s own gender issues, which many are taught to suppress and minimise. “Cis people are not awoken to it as much, but we all have gender, and we all feel something about our gender,” they say. “We are all activated all of the time by ‘how do I navigate this to reflect my gender? How do I assert my gender right now? Why does my gender feel bad right now?’”
Leveille, drawing on his history of disability advocacy, adds that TAnon may tap into a deep fear of bodily failure or sickness, similar to conspiracy theories about Covid vaccines containing microchips or rendering people infertile. “People want there to be some degree of inherent healthiness or wealthiness [about our bodies],” she says. “Having any degree of need for outside care or intervention, any form of dependency on a medical system, is inherently viewed as something that needs to be eradicated.”
Gill-Peterson adds that anxiety about trans children may owe less to gender issues than to society’s ideas about childhood. She argues that the idea that children are incapable of making their own decisions and are effectively the property of their parents, justified by the idea that they are inherently “innocent” and incomplete beings, is a recent and specifically Western invention that forces children into a state of artificial dependence and makes them vulnerable to abuse.
“Unfortunately the truth is that Western culture treats children horrifically,” says Gill-Peterson. “And of course, everyone knows it, but it’s a really disturbing thing to know… that’s where some of these conspiracy theories become so bizarre.
“Not simply because they’re untrue and over-the-top, but because there are actual, real, widespread forms of suffering and harm that children endure every day, which do not elicit that kind of response: the mass incarceration of black and brown children, the impunity with which police murder black children, or the institutionalised sexual assault and abuse of children that happens in places like churches and schools and sports teams, or in the institution of the family itself.”
That, she contends, is also how parents who oppose their children’s transitions can justify sending them to conversion therapists, or how Texas politicians can order that trans children should be taken away from parents who support their transitions.
“[It’s like], ‘I’ll harm my real child to save an imaginary version of them from an imaginary version of harm’,” says Gill-Peterson. “‘I can act on a fantasy of who I think you may become instead of who you really are.’”
What happens next?
Last week, the global conflict tracking non-profit ACLED released data suggesting that anti-LGBT+ mobilisation in the US, including protests and violent attacks, quadrupled between 2020 and 2021, with 2022 on track to be the worst year so far.
“Incidents of political violence targeting the LGBT+ community this year have already exceeded the total number of attacks reported last year,” said ACLED’s report. “So far, at least 22 anti-LGBT+ demonstrations have been reported… however, mobilization is increasingly shifting away from demonstration toward outright political violence.”
Right-wing rhetoric against trans people has grown more violent, with one Republican candidate recently calling for supporters of trans rights to be tried and executed or treason. A conservative pastor said LGBT+ people should be “lined up against the wall and shot in the back of the head”.
Nor is the problem confined to the US, with populist and authoritarian movements from Hungary and Poland to Brazil and Colombia claiming to oppose “gender ideology”. In New Zealand, a building housing a support service for young trans people burned down in a suspicious fire, while in Norway two people were killed and more than a dozen injured outside a gay bar in what authorities are investigating as a terrorist attack.
This is exactly what trans researchers have been afraid of. “For several months now I’ve been getting on the phone with reporters and saying that if right wing media and influencers do not turn down the pressure on all this rhetoric, we will see the LGBT+ version of Pizzagate,” says Drennen, referring to the QAnon precursor theory that in 2016 drew a gunman to raid a Washington, DC pizza joint in search of captive children.
“I think we’re past that now. We’re already at Pizzagate. So the question is, what happens next? This is something that I’m very worried is going to continue spreading, and I’m extremely worried is going to lead to LGBTQ people getting murdered.”
Leveille, as a Jewish trans person who lost ancestors in the Holocaust, likewise says: “I am increasingly seeing the signs of targeted acts of eradication. We are already beginning to see signs of pogroms.”
He does not necessarily expect mass killings, but fears trans adults could be systematically forced back into the closet, while trans children could be channelled en masse into conversion therapy. Like many trans people, Leveille would consider that a form of cultural genocide.
In those early discussions on Telegram last year, The Independent found two voices of moderation. One account, now deleted, argued there were “a lot of nice, kind trans people” and urged others not to judge all trans people as one, although she stressed that transition healthcare should never be funded by taxes and that allowing trans people to use their gender’s toilets would “open the door for child molesters”.
That was not extreme enough for others. One person suggested transition care should be banned outright, while another said: “‘Trans men’ don’t exist. They should be referred [to] as ‘mentally diseased subhumans’, because that’s genuinely what they are.”
The second pro-trans Telegram user, in a separate conversation in another channel, asked: “Why is it bad for trans people to use bathrooms in public spaces? I’ve personally have had many experiences where trans women have been in the same bathroom as I and I’ve never felt threatened….
“Another person living their truth doesn’t harm anyone as long as they don’t cause direct physical and emotional harm.”
Nobody else agreed, and that person did not respond to a request for comment.
The Independent is the official publishing partner of Pride in London 2022 and a proud sponsor of NYC Pride