Right-wing media have been relentless in their attacks on trans people. In a single three-week window during March and April of this year, Fox News aired over 170 anti-trans segments. And over the past few months and weeks, calling LGBTQ people “groomers” and “pedophiles” has been deemed acceptable by the GOP mainstream, with high-ranking Republicans like Elise Stefanik joining the hateful chorus.
This smear campaign is accompanied by an all-out assault on LGBTQ (but especially trans) rights on the state level in Republican-controlled legislatures, as Religion Dispatches has previously reported. And while American readers might think that the off-the-rails culture war rhetoric, which has actual, devastating consequences for the lives of all LGBTQ people, is relegated to the US, think again: the opposite is true.
In Europe, hate against trans people has been brewing for a while. The UK seems to be the center of this radicalization, which sees so-called “feminists” partnering with right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to spread their bigotry. In fact, anti-trans hatred has been shown to be a pipeline to right-wing radicalization. United by the biological essentialist definition of sex and gender as one and the same, right-wing vocabulary and buzzwords like “gender ideology” have been mainstreamed in centrist and even some leftist circles, often leading those using them to more and more extreme positions.
This rhetoric has consequences. The British attorney general Suella Braverman, for instance, recently claimed that schools have no legal obligation to affirm trans pupils—to address them using their pronouns or their chosen name.
But while the UK is at the forefront of Europe’s anti-trans bigotry—with even some leftist or liberal news outlets like the Guardian or the BBC enabling the effort, the UK is far from the only place in Europe where anti-trans hatred thrives.
Just last week, the well-known conservative, yet still “respectable,” German newspaper, Die Welt, escalated the mainstreaming of right-wing talking points. A number of researchers wrote an op-ed, in which they accused the ARD and ZDF, the independent, state-funded TV news stations (the German version of the BBC) of “indoctrinating” kids with “gender ideology” in order to sexualize and “re-educate” them. The article hits all the right-wing bullet points of a shadowy conspiracy at work: The media, driven by secretive “trans-lobbyists” is pushing the “trans ideology” on innocent, unsuspecting children, in order to indoctrinate them with “gender ideology” and turn them all trans.
The existence of trans people is being framed as a “trend,” while proposed changes to legislation that would free trans people from some of the debasing bureaucratic hurdles to changing their sex legally, are being framed as kids turning up in a doctors office, declaring they’re trans and immediately being operated on. Of course, these are preposterous lies.
And while German newspapers have published anti-trans pieces before, this was a telling escalation with its focus on a made-up shadowy trans cabal targeting and re-educating kids. The authors furthermore claim that they’re supported by the “gay and lesbian interest group ‘LGB Alliance,’” which is actually a UK-based anti-trans, anti-queer organization spreading hate speech against trans and queer people.
The five authors of the article belong to a group of originally 120 journalists, scholars (from various fields) and politicians who signed an open letter that calls for an end to the alleged “fake news distributed by the public broadcasting channels.” Interestingly, when one goes through the list of signatories, similar alliances to those in the US and UK between feminists and right-wing reactionaries can be identified.
Not only is Birgit Kelle, a well-known speaker at German and international Christian Right events, but she also showed up at a recent CPAC event in Hungary to give a speech in opposition to trans rights. She’s also a staunch anti-choice activist. A significant number of the other signatories are members of a right-wing German think tank called, innocently enough, “Netzwerk für Wissenschaftsfreiheit” (Network for the Freedom of Science). This Network peddles reactionary talking points about allegedly “left-wing” universities and “cancel culture” while its website treats “race science” as legitimate scholarly discourse.
The anti-trans movement, not just in the US, but in Europe as well, unites right-wing extremists, conservatives, and like-minded people from the political left and center behind their hatred of trans people. It’s merely the latest “wedge issue” the Right has sought to exploit—so far quite effectively—in order to radicalize people and recruit more to their hateful cause.
Die Welt, owned by the Springer publishing house which recently acquired Politico, faced a fierce backlash and later changed some of the wording of the headline—though claims of a shadowy trans lobby, with its clearly antisemitic undertones referring to a secretive cabal pushing what the writers perceive as sexual deviancy—still stands. Its editor-in-chief, Ulf Poschardt, a right-leaning libertarian, published an op-ed in which he claimed the anti-trans op-ed was wrong, but still frames the debate over trans rights as legitimate political discourse. He calls it a “prelude to a debate that we will conduct broadly and openly.”
Meanwhile, he adopts the anti-trans talking points of the original article on his LinkedIn page to call on the CDU and FDP (Germany’s Christian conservative and liberal/libertarian parties) “to fight for the reform of ARD and ZDF.” Poschardt has previously claimed that Putin doesn’t fear “the West” anymore because its men have grown too soft, and because it has succumbed to debates about gender. The very same talking points have been peddled by the Christian Dominionist Erik Prince on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
It’s also no coincidence that the article’s illustration had previously featured a picture of a cartoon mouse, a well-known German kids’ cartoon. Julian Reichelt, the disgraced former editor-in-chief of “Bild,” Germany’s largest right-leaning tabloid, who was fired after a New York Times investigation found claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual relationships in the work place, had already attacked the cartoon. In what can only be described as an attempt to channel Tucker Carlson’s rants over M&Ms’ clothing and Mr. Potato Head’s genitalia, Reichelt had called the cartoon “Zwangs-Maus” (coercion-mouse) in March, because the kids’ show had aired a piece about trans rights.
These are attempts to amp up the culture war rhetoric in Germany, mirroring some of what we’ve seen and continue to see in US and UK public discourse. But herein lies the danger: The current situation in the US—families of trans kids fleeing Red States, trying to protect them from the onslaught of legislation that potentially endangers their lives—shows us that the road from hateful, conspiracist rhetoric about trans people to enacting that rhetoric as law can be a shockingly short one. The International Right has picked their next issue: the dehumanization and demonization of trans people, which is being used as a wedge issue to fight democracy itself. And so far, it’s working.