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How the Far-Right Uses Transphobia as a Tool for Radicalization

It has been eight months since President Joe Biden assumed office, and American ideological extremism has yet to be deterred. 

A study from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization details the ongoing threat from ideologically motivated (sometimes violent) extremist groups by reflecting on the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The report summarizes the state of domestic extremism in the U.S., examining “the various groups and movements that gained momentum under the administration of former President Donald Trump, the key discourses and motivations of those that were a part of the 6 January insurrection, and how these have evolved in the first 100 days of the Biden administration.” 

Among many harmful narratives perpetuated by these groups, the study highlights transphobia and anti-trans narratives as “one of the most prevalent and common narratives within IMVE (ideologically motivated violent extremist) ecosystems and yet are one of the least studied.” The study suggests that further efforts should be made to dispel transphobic myths and educate both the far-right and general public on the lived realities of various trans experiences.

Research is indicating that homosexuality is becoming more tolerated in some far-right groups while transphobia is trending in the opposite direction, says Blyth Crawford, a PhD candidate at King’s College London specializing in far-right extremism. Crawford is a research fellow at the ICSR and one of the authors of the study.

“We see transphobia emerging as, almost like the new homophobia that they are completely intolerant of,” says Crawford. “I think showing there is a difference in the far-right’s mind between the LGB and the T, and how transphobia is mobilized so specifically and so virulently, was quite important.”

Dr. Jessica White, a policy and practitioner fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, agrees that this issue is understudied.

“I think only really recently, in the last maybe year or two, the conversation has expanded beyond men and women, and masculinity and femininity, to think about trans issues,” she says. “There's acknowledgement in the research going back much further than that, about the way that LGBTQ is used as a tool in the narrative of getting people pulled into these groups.”

Other scholars in this area like Dr. Jennifer Evans, a professor of history at Carleton specializing in contemporary populism and queer sexualities, concurs.

“In terms of trans history and transphobia as part of a far-right ecosystem, scholarly work often benefits from social movements shining a light on inequalities. The greater the public awareness around trans issues, the more important it is to have scholarly research into its many sides,” says Evans in an email.  

When Biden took office, he became the first president to nominate (and have subsequently confirmed) a transgender person – Dr. Rachel Levine – to serve in his cabinet, according to the Washington Post. The ICSR study notes that “while her appointment should be viewed as an important step forward in normalizing the visibility of transgender people, it is a rallying point for far-right groups and narratives.”

Indeed, the study stresses transphobia as “one of the most major and ubiquitous narratives around which the far-right mobilises.” This, they say, should be recognized as a security concern. 

“We suggest that it should be seen as a security threat because it is such a common narrative being used for radicalization with the far-right and that's particularly important,” says Crawford.

With IMVEs purged from mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, groups have found alternative forums willing to host their ideas in the name of free speech. Platforms like Gab, Rumble and Telegram – just to name a few – allow users to isolate, assemble and disseminate their beliefs in an eco-chamber. 

Far-right groups have used these platforms to promote and mainstream extremist ideologies through discourses predicated on gendered logics, says Dr. Ashley Mattheis, a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Trans identity shifts their traditional view of the world order, she says.

Transphobia is predicated on the concept that biology and gender are co-equal things and that norms of heterosexuality make for a perfect society, Mattheis says. Further, they believe people that deviate from this narrative are seen as a threat.

“The problem with transness – even more so than queerness or gayness – is that it destabilizes the gender binary,” she says. “If you equate gender and biology, if femininity and masculinity are equated to genitalia and biology, as an immutable fact, trans people really mess with that. And so, I think that makes it a particularly fruitful weapon in terms of scaring people. Fear is a major part of the propaganda, and that's been said openly by a number of recruiters.”

Transphobia is a major animating fear in these communities, says Mattheis, in part because of more recent strides in trans visibility. 

Indeed, as the ICSR states, “much of this anti-trans rhetoric appears to stem from anxiety that the rigidity of traditional gender roles is threatened by transgender individuals.”

Notwithstanding fears and concerns around gendered logics, most people on the far-right do not understand the nuances of what gender means, argues Dr. Birgit Sauer, a professor of political science at the University of Vienna.

“I think most of the right-wingers do not know what gender means, but they just pick it up, and then there are a lot of meanings attached to gender,” she says. “That's why I call it an empty signifier. You can use it and fill it with meaning re-signified, and that's what the right-wingers do.”

By othering transgender people, along with Jews and Muslims, individuals on the far-right ideological spectrum have found what works to attract and mobilize their base, Sauer says. 

But, as Evans points out, transphobia as a tool for radicalization is not exclusive to the far-right.

“Transphobia, of course, is not solely the domain of the far-right given the intense backlash in the current moment from mainstream and radical feminists, who see trans bodies, rights, and lives as somehow challenging the gains made by women and lesbians these last decades,” she says. “What unites so-called TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and the conservative and far-right is the belief that hormonal and medical intervention somehow disrupts the natural order of things.” 

Far-right ideologies and TERF ideologies are all extreme, says Matt, a genderqueer college student living in Minnesota who goes by the pronouns they/them. Matt joined the subreddit group ReQovery, which is “a forum for ex-QAnon believers to vent, receive emotional support, and share news and commentary about QAnon,” according to the forum description, because of their fascination for these types of groups. Matt also joined to reflect and address their personal experience falling down the pipeline, they say.

“I've never really felt very strongly about gender. I've never really felt a strong pull one way or the other. And I'm 22 now,” they say, noting that they learned about non-binary gender identities as a young teenager. “And that, combined with my own feelings of inadequacy – I was a really quiet child, I didn't have a lot of close friends, I spent most of my time online – I already felt pretty ostracized, and othered.”

It was internalized transphobia and a lot of internalized self-hatred that led Matt to start joining TERF communities on Tumblr, Twitter, and the like, they say.

“[TERF discourses] was the first thing I saw and then it also fit with my view of  ‘well, if I don't really feel strongly about gender, I must still be a woman,’” they say. “But ‘it must not be that complex of a thing to the point where you have neo-pronouns and all these different things, because if all that is true, then I'm probably one of them. And that's really scary to think about.’”

There has been recent work exploring how leftist TERF communities are melding with the far-right, argues Crawford. 

“They're playing off each other. I think understanding: A. how that's happening and B. treating it as a threat to people's personal safety and as a security threat is quite important at the moment.”

Matt grew up in a liberal household in a major urban centre and is now in college, majoring in interior design. They know they were not exposed to extremely far-right notions, but were still influenced by what they saw online, they say.

“Looking back on it, I could definitely see it happening with the way I thought about gender as a concept. And the difference between men and women, and quickly falling into… the harmful ideologies behind that,” Matt says. They started wondering if sexism in the workplace or the wage gap was even a real thing, they say. “I was so young…I didn't have a lot of people to talk to about this. So, I'm just going off of what I'm seeing online.”

Speaking as a genderqueer person who struggled with internalized transphobia and was exposed to anti-trans rhetoric, Matt recognizes that bigotry is unfortunately an easy way to radicalize people.

“I think it's an easy way in, in the way that homophobia and AIDS was easy in the 80s,” they say. “It's still such a thing where if you don't experience it, it can be really foreign at first, the idea of wanting to change your body or being so viscerally uncomfortable with how you're referred to. It can feel really foreign.”

Matt still sees transphobic discourse every day from extremists and non-extremists alike, describing it as rampant and prevalent. ICSR attributes this as a particularly acute threat “because often it constitutes a more extreme reflection of narratives already common within more mainstream Conservative movements, and which are likely to be utilized by the far right to recruit more followers.”

“If that's not your day-to-day experience then it gives you an easy target, like a scapegoat to put all the problems on — PC culture, or woke culture,” Matt says.

Nowadays, Matt has come into their own and has left behind the ideologically extreme online forums they used to frequent. In the last year, they have come out as genderqueer and tackled their past affiliations as well as grappling with how their younger self would feel about their present self.

“I was in two really bad abusive relationships back-to-back,” they said. “And once I finally broke free of that cycle, I had a lot more time to look at myself, and care about myself, and kind of delve into who I am really when I wasn't trying to perform for somebody else. I just have the space and the capacity, finally, to unpack all of it,” Matt says, “It’s a lot to process and accept.”

Belle is in her fourth and final year studying Journalism and Humanities at Carleton University. She is president and chapter coordinator for HC Carleton and is so excited to publish some incredible content this year along with the rest of the team and writers. When she isn't writing or managing things for the chapter, you can probably find her out for a run, in for a nap or watching the latest true crime doc on Netflix.
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