Far-Right Co-Option of the Transgender Rights Issue
As political leaders are asked if it is transphobic to say that only women have a cervix, Sian Norris investigates how far-right and religious-right groups are using ‘gender-critical’ arguments to further their anti-LGBTIQ agenda
There’s something about a Zoom call that feels like it is taking place in a dusty conference hall. People forget to mute their microphones, creating echoes and interruptions. The group is mixed sex, older, mostly white. The group leader invites us to pray before the event starts.
It’s January 2021, days after the attack on the US Capitol, and this is a meeting convened by the Marriage, Sex and Culture group. The fringe organisation is focused on promoting a “vision of the created order” through heterosexual marriage and the “family” while railing against so-called ‘cultural Marxism’ – a term that has been much-criticised as antisemitic.
One of the sessions focused on conversion therapy. The group claims to support people who feel “unwanted same-sex attraction” and offers a resource that challenges the “born this way” narrative promoted by “sexual pervert” Alfred Kinsey.
But, before that session began, the leader of the Christian People’s Alliance, Sid Cordle, shared conspiracy theories claiming that the Capitol insurrection was an “antifa” false flag, and mentioned how “transsexualism is killing women’s sports”.
Why was a fringe, religious-right organisation, steeped in pro-Donald Trump conspiracy and anti-abortion, concerned about whether or not women could play in sports competitions?
These are not groups that are pro-women’s rights. But they have declared themselves in favour of protecting women’s sports, as part of the co-option of the transgender issue by the religious and far-right, in order to oppose and undermine LGBTIQ and women’s rights.
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According to statistics collected by the charity Stonewall, one in four trans people have experienced discrimination at work and 27% of young trans people have attempted to take their own life. Waiting lists for treatment for trans people are worryingly long – some people are forced to wait four years for their first consultation.
In the past four years, transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled.
That timescale correlates with the decision in 2017 by the Conservative Party to reform the Gender Recognition Act, when the row over trans rights was thrust into the spotlight. The Act had long been considered as a burdensome and often offensive process that placed too many barriers on trans people to get legal recognition.
The Government launched a consultation on whether to allow people to “self-identify” as their gender, relieving some of the legal and medical burden on trans people. However, some “gender critical” feminists raised concerns that self-ID could lead to predatory men using it as a loophole to access single-sex spaces, such as refuges and prisons which are protected in the Equality Act 2010.
The Government dropped any plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act in 2020. However, the need to ease the burden of legal transition, while ensuring that vulnerable women’s need for single-sex spaces continued and evolved to encompass discussions around the difference between sex and gender, biology, and inclusive language. Clunky attempts at the latter include the recent Lancet journal cover which called cis women, trans men and assigned females at birth non-binary people “bodies with vaginas”.
The Conservative Party has increasingly used the issue of trans rights as another weapon in its ‘culture war’. Meanwhile, the right-wing press started to focus more and more on the trans issue, often with a hostile slant. The conversation shifted away from amending the Gender Recognition Act and guaranteeing protections in the Equality Act, to one that questioned the validity of trans identities at all.
The result was a growing opposition to trans rights across two groups: from gender-critical feminists, and the far and religious-right.
In the US, those two groups started to form an unlikely alliance.
Back in 2016, the radical feminist organisation, the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), accepted a $15,000 donation from the religious freedom giant, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Its European branch is known as ADF International and has an office in London.
ADF has worked on a range of cases attacking women’s reproductive rights. These included helping to ban ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics, claiming that they forced protestors to shout at women attending reproductive healthcare appointments. It had also acted in favour of a ban on so-called ‘partial-birth abortions’ and supported the Hobby Lobby franchise in its legal bid not to cover women’s contraception in its employee healthcare plan. This is not an organisation with a track record of allying to radical feminist causes. And yet, here it was, giving $15,000 of its vast resources to support the ‘Women’s Liberation Front’.
The donation, described by WoLF as “pretty darn phenomenal” in a leaked email to supporters, was to help challenge a US schools policy that allowed transgender pupils to use the bathroom of the gender they identified with. WoLF responded by supporting a legal challenge from a New Mexico student concerned that it would lead to girls having to share bathrooms with transgender pupils. ADF’s $15,000 donation was in support of the legal suit.
As well as ADF, WoLF forged alliances with other religious-right, anti-abortion groups – putting aside apparent political differences to challenge ‘gender ideology’. The term originated in the Vatican in the 1990s and was historically used to describe feminism, LGBTIQ rights and abortion rights. It now is mainly used to discuss trans rights.
Partnerships included WoLF co-authoring a ‘Gender Resource Guide‘ with the Family Policy Alliance and Heritage Foundation, designed to “respond to the unscientific and dangerous craze of ‘gender affirmation therapy’”. The Family Policy Alliance was formerly known as Focus on the Family Action – the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family. Between 1999 and 2001, the DeVos Foundation, the charitable foundation of Trump’s former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, donated $275,000 to Focus on the Family.
In response to another legal challenge over LGBTIQ rights, WoLF co-organised a rally with the religious-right group, Concerned Women for America. The rally was in response to the case of Harris Funeral Homes v Aimee Stephens, about a woman who lost her job at the funeral home after she informed it that she was trans. Harris was represented by ADF.
Concerned Women for America was founded by Beverly LaHaye, wife of Tim LaHaye, who launched the Council for National Policy (CNP) in 1981. This shadowy conservative organisation’s membership included Trump advisors Steve Bannon, Betsy DeVos, and Kellyanne Conway. Trump’s former security advisor Mike Flynn has an “undisclosed role” with the organisation. This makes the CNP a who’s who of the US radical and religious right – with representatives from ADF, the Liberty Counsel, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and the late anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly.
WoLF isn’t the only radical feminist organisation allying with the extreme right against transgender rights.
In 2017, the activists Miriam Ben-Shalom and Kaeley Triller-Haver spoke at the Heritage Foundation – an anti-abortion, pro-fossil fuel think tank linked to various UK Conservative politicians. Ben-Shalom is a lesbian feminist activist, while Triller-Haver has compared abortion to the Holocaust. Both allied to found Hands Across the Aisle – a group bringing radical feminists and conservative women together to protest trans rights.
In a Facebook post, Ben-Shalom wrote that working with conservative women was an opportunity to “demystify” lesbians to the right. Her conservative sisters have never “called me names, threatened me, or otherwise been nasty”, she added.
Christian conservative groups lobbying against trans rights may not be ‘nasty’ but they have stripped women of their rights. For example, the law firm of Jonathan Mitchell, the man who drafted the recent abortion ban law in Texas, is linked to ADF.
Anti-Trans Activism in the UK
Hands Across the Aisle has members in the UK too, including Kelly-Jay Keen-Minshull, otherwise known as Posie Parker. The activist became notorious for posting billboards with “women = adult human female” written across them.
Keen-Minshull has appeared on a far-right podcast although later confirmed that she did not realise that the host was a white nationalist and said that “white supremacy and the racism that fuels it has no place in a civilised society, I abhor those views and the people that hold them”. She has been accused of suggesting that men openly carry guns in women’s toilets to protect women, and of making controversial comments about Islam. During a visit to the US in January 2019, she was accused of harassing human rights activist Sarah McBride, who later became the first transgender woman to be elected as a state senator.
Much of the religious-right’s opposition to trans rights in the UK focuses on inclusive Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), including from groups such as Marriage, Sex and Culture – as well as Christian Concern, Voice for Justice UK, and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). The three teamed up to create Parent Power – a group campaigning against “LGBT dogma” being taught in schools. Christian Concern, meanwhile, writes regularly about “trans indoctrination”.
Disgust at LGBTIQ-inclusive education was also shared by the far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known as ‘Tommy Robinson’) who posted the #SuperStraight meme on his Telegram channel while railing against those who “indoctrinate young kids to become gay or trans” – language used by groups such as Christian Concern and Parent Power. #SuperStraight is a so-called “new sexual orientation” meaning heterosexuality directed towards cisgender (not trans) women only.
Spiked magazine regularly publishes work by “gender-critical” feminists. Spiked US Inc, the US funding arm of Spiked, has received money from the radical-right Koch Brothers, known for donating to anti-rights and anti-gender causes.
Many UK gender-critical feminist groups have been categoric in their opposition to working with the far-right and religious-right. Organisations such as Women’s Place UK have actively stated their opposition to far-right alliances, while radical feminist Julie Bindel has criticised women who ally with the right, saying that she “despised their tactics”.
There is some cross-pollination however, with religious-right actors working on cases that have won the support of gender-critical feminists, as well as religious-right actors supporting organisations that claim to be about protecting children.
The Bell Case
In a landmark court case about trans children’s rights, the young woman Keira Bell launched a legal challenge against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and its Gender Identity Development Clinic which, she explained, put her on puberty blockers at the age of 16 after three one-hour long appointments.
Bell said that she wasn’t challenged by the clinic “on the proposals or the claims that I was making for myself” and “I think that would have made a big difference as well. If I was just challenged on the things I was saying”.
Bell was put on testosterone and in 2017 had surgery to remove her breasts. She later detransitioned.
The courts initially found in favour of Bell and ruled that teenagers were unlikely to be mature enough to consent to puberty blockers. However, the Court of Appeal overturned the ruling.
Bell’s story is incredibly difficult – a young woman struggling with mental health and identity issues who urgently needed people to listen to and care for her, as her interview in The Times explains.
Her lawyer Paul Conrathe is linked to the Christian right in the UK. He represented the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ Christian Institute in a legal battle over Jerry Springer the Musical. He also worked on numerous anti-abortion cases, including seeking an injunction on behalf of Stephen Hone to force his ex-girlfriend to continue an unwanted pregnancy. Most recently, he argued a legal challenge to Britain’s current abortion laws and, according to the Daily Beast, has “direct links” to ADF.
The involvement of Conrathe in the Bell case, according to gender-critical feminist organisation Women’s Place UK, shows the need for “an autonomous women’s liberation movement to have an independent feminist legal strategy”.
One of the organisations invited to intervene in the Bell case was Transgender Trend, which organises against the “harms of gender ideology for children and young people”. The human rights organisation Association for Women’s Rights in Development explains that this stance is “almost identical to religious fundamentalists”. The group is best known for distributing information in schools, and its materials have been criticised by LGBTIQ-rights organisation Stonewall.
Conrathe represented the Safe Schools Alliance UK in its legal challenge against Oxfordshire County Council’s “trans toolkit” for use in schools around the country. The Alliance says that it works “to ensure that school policies meet the safeguarding needs of all students, and that they do this whilst taking into account the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010”. It argued that the kit “disregarded the privacy and dignity needs of other children, particularly girls. It contained serious safeguarding flaws with regard to its promotion of mixed-sex toilets, changing rooms and overnight accommodation”.
In August 2020, a member of the Safe School Alliance UK appeared on a panel organised by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign. The radical feminist group has recommended repealing the Gender Recognition Act, stating that it “should not be made easier for people to gain gender recognition certificates”. Its co-founder, Dr Sheila Jefferies, has said that trans women “parasitically occupy” women’s bodies.
While it is not evidence of collaboration, religious-right groups such as Marriage, Sex and Culture and Christian Concern share content from organisations such as Transgender Trend and Safe Schools Alliance.
Where crossover does exist, however, is the co-option of arguments that purport to be about women’s rights – such as Cordle discussing the threat to women’s sports – which in fact give cover to the deeper far-right attack on ‘gender ideology’.
The far and religious-right may be claiming to care about single-sex spaces and women’s sports but, the reality is, they are false friends. These are movements dedicated to undermining reproductive and sexual rights, who promote conversion therapy of LGBTIQ people, and who see transgender rights as a way to get mainstream support for their anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ beliefs.