Transphobia is gaining ground in the United States
Amanda Jetté Knox doesn’t know who tried to throw a bottle at them from a vehicle as she walked home in Ottawa last month, but recalls how she felt like she was barely missing her head.
« [It] hit my bangs as they go,” said Jetté Knox, who identifies as non-binary and uses she/they pronouns.[They] called me a fucking freak and left. »
It was the first time Jetté Knox had experienced something so violent, but the proud activist and author has endured many hateful comments since he went public with his family’s story several years ago. One of Jetté Knox’s four children is non-binary and came out in 2014; the following year, Jetté Knox’s wife came out as a transgender woman.
Now they’re keeping a close eye on the anti-LGBTQ hate that’s surging in the United States, where diversity and gender expression have become popular targets for Republican politicians, far-right groups and online trolls.
Jetté Knox and other advocates and pundits see it spreading in Canada as well.
Threatening phone calls recently led to the cancellation of a family drag show at Cafe Victoria, while other storytime drag queen events public library elsewhere in Canada have also been subject to intimidation. Pride flags were torn down and/or destroyed in London, Ont., Delta, BCand Ottawa. In early June, a 17-year-old youth was arrested in Mississauga, Ontario, for allegedly threatening to commit a mass shooting at a Pride celebration in West Palm Beach, Florida.
« It feels like it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing more of it in our own backyards, » Jetté Knox told CBC News.
« I’m a pretty positive person, but I’m worried right now. »
Hate « overflows beyond the border », says the prof
Anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ hatred is something that is still simmering, including in Canada, said Professor Barbara Perry, director of the Center on Hate, Bias and Extremism based at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa .
A survey released by Statistics Canada in 2020 found that transgender people were more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than non-transgender people in Canada. They were also more likely to experience « inappropriate behaviours » in public, at work and online, which Statistics Canada defined as acts that « put people at risk or make people feel uncomfortable » and impact sustainable mental and physical health.
But it seems far-right groups here have become more emboldened by what Perry describes as the « horrific stories and shifts in policy » seen in the United States.
So far this year, the US-based Human Rights Campaign has documented more than 300 bills, introduced in 36 states, that directly target transgender rights, diversity and gender expression. These include attempts to investigate families helping to affirm their child’s gender identity to outright limiting education and conversation about LGBTQ people, preventing transgender children from participating in sports and even going going so far as to try to ban children from attending drag shows.
« It’s obviously spilling over the border, obviously, into the Canadian narrative as well, and informing the far right here, » Perry told CBC News.
Lawyers accused of ‘grooming’ children
Harmful language aimed at smearing transgender people and those who support them for attacking or indoctrinating children is regularly used online and in right-wing media – specifically, “grooming” or “grooming”.
It’s a trope that’s long been used to denigrate LGBTQ people who are seeing a surge in online usage.
Jetté Knox said they are called online groomers « almost every day » because of their gender identity, because they are raising non-binary children, or because of their transgender rights activism.
It also happened in person. They were recently traveling in the United States and attended a Virginia school board meeting, with friends and their children, to mark Pride month. Protesters hurled insults at them.
« Pretty horrible things were said, » Jetté Knox recalled. « We were told that we were indoctrinating children. »
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network documented this narrative appearing in far-right political discourse in this country.
WATCH | A human rights campaign montage of the language used against transgender people:
Cancer. Terrorist. Problem.
These are the ways anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers nationwide describe the people they serve. pic.twitter.com/NrS2LlgRZq
It’s actually far-right groups that are « grooming » people, Perry said, slowly attracting new followers to their ideologies by clinging to their concerns and uncertainties.
Some far-right, religious and other groups have described gender-affirming care for transgender youth as « child abuseand pushing to restrict access to health care such as hormones to delay puberty and promote development compatible with a child’s gender identity.
Various medical groups, including the American Medical Associationsay such policies are “dangerous” and that “foregoing gender-affirming care can have tragic health consequences.”
It’s a way to « credibility and legitimize » extreme views, Perry explained, as they are presented as « protecting the vulnerable. »
Transphobia, a « gateway » to far-right ideology
Focusing on transgender and gender-diverse youth is one way to gain public approval for broader acceptance of anti-transgender policies and attitudes, said Florence Ashley, a doctoral candidate at the law school and the Joint Center for Bioethics at the University of Toronto, whose work revolves around trans rights.
« Transphobia often tends to be kind of a doorway to the far right, » said Ashley, who uses the pronouns them/them.
They noted how social media algorithms also play a role in this. The American non-profit organization Media Matters For America, for example, examined how anti-trans content on TikTok served as a gateway to far-right and white supremacist content, conspiracy theories and even calls for violence.
Ashley also pointed to the similarities between the current climate of transphobia and the so-called « great replacement » conspiracy theory being circulated by far-right and white nationalist movements, and in some conservative media. It is a racist assertion that white people are systematically replaced by immigrants.
The feeling of « losing power in society, » they explained, makes it easier to blame people you perceive as « trying to replace you. »
It’s something that happens « in times of crisis and great anxiety, as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, » Perry said. « We are always looking for scapegoats, looking for a place to direct our anger, our fears or our anxieties. »
The balance of political power can change in an instant
While gender identity and expression are protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, Jetté Knox is troubled by the emergence of « more far-right parties », some of which have candidates who are critical of diversity and gender expression.
They worry that voters will keep such a close eye on these candidates’ comments and promises on gender diversity issues because it doesn’t affect their lives the way it affects Jetté Knox’s LGBTQ family.
Ashley warned that all it takes is « a shift in political power for groups to really start asserting their will over a population » and that’s why Canadians should be watching what’s happening in the United States closely.
They noted how the recent U.S. Supreme Court, filled with conservative justices during Donald Trump’s single term, overturned Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old decision that enshrined the right to access abortion. The ruling could set a precedent to overturn rulings on same-sex marriage and same-sex intimacy for consenting adults, which Judge Clarence Thomas alluded to in his concurring opinion on the Roe v. Wade.
Jetté Knox urged those who care about the rights and freedoms of people of diverse gender identities to vote.
“Seeing these rights under attack elsewhere scares me because it means they can also be under attack in Canada,” they said. « I think those things will be challenged and I think we have to prepare for that. »
Create a positive online space for trans people
Despite the apparent increase in online slurs and hate against LGBTQ people, transgender youth like Vancouver’s Noah Yang are helping to keep positivity alive in online spaces and educating others about transgender experiences.
Yang, who uses the pronouns him and him, shares her gender affirmation journey on Instagram. He said he was lucky to have only experienced negativity « a few times » and received plenty of encouragement.
« It was unexpected that showing the physical scars and the physical changes would inspire people and, you know, open people’s eyes to… what can really be going on throughout someone’s transition. »
He recognizes that not everyone has the ability to quell negativity directed at people of diverse genders. But, for Yang, the importance of visibility outweighs any hatred.
« I think it’s beneficial because I think, you know, it’s not just trans people who see the page, » he said.