A trans review of 2017: the year of transgender moral panic
Meg-John Barker of The Open University looks back on a tough year for transgender equality.
Three years ago, 2014 was hailed as “the transgender tipping point” – a year when trans people bA trans review of 2017: the year of transgender moral panicecame more visible and better understood. Sadly, looking back on 2017, it seems it was the year of a transgender moral panic.
In the first half of the year, every few weeks seemed to bring another news story invoking public concern about trans issues. A documentary about the treatment of trans and gender questioning kids in Canada kicked off public debates which continued all year. Legal tussles over transgender bathroom rights in the US prompted anxiety and a return to stereotypes of trans people as perpetrators of violence, rather than more commonly victims of it.
In August,the US president, Donald Trump, attempted to ban trans people from serving in the US military – though the move was blocked by a federal judge in October. In the UK, there was furore over trans women’s identities, gender-neutral children’s clothing, the existence of non-binary people, and more. Campaign groups such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans were constantly fire-fighting the latest wave of media myths and misinformation.
It became an even tougher time to be trans in the final few months of 2017. Since October, an anti-trans article has appeared in the UK press virtually every day – two or three on some days. Several commentators have documented this media onslaught.
In a recent gender training session for an LGBT charity, I asked attendees to come up with all the news stories about trans they could remember from the past month or so. They filled an entire sheet of flipchart paper in minutes, and still came up with more, virtually all of them negative.
A moral panic is the process of arousing social concern over an issue. Moral panics often involve scapegoating a particular group as the “evil” responsible for a range of societal ills.
The current storm around trans people bears all the hallmarks of a moral panic. Trans people are blamed for a number of – often contradictory – harms. In 2017, these included corrupting children, changing the English language and threatening free speech, violence against women and seeking to both dismantle and reinforce problematic gender norms.
The “news” often turns out to be several years old, or based on serious misinterpretation of what somebody said. Stories frequently include factual inaccuracies. For example, a story about the proportion of trans sex offenders was found to be based on false statistics, as were frequent reports about the number of people who “detransition”, or return to identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth.
This current media onslaught bears a striking resemblance to previous moral panics, notably the one against gay men in the 1980s. Like trans people now, gay men then were branded as paedophiles. Any mention of homosexuality was deemed to risk “turning children gay” in the same way that there’s now concern that young people will be “turned trans” if they learn about gender diversity.
There are many complex reasons behind this moral panic. In the UK, much of it followed the announcement of proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act. This will hopefully bring UK legislation in line with other countries and states which allow trans people to self-define their gender, potentially opening this up to include non-binary people. If the revisions go through, people will no longer need to go through a lengthy, bureaucratic, medicalised process. However, it is not clear how long the consultation period on the Gender Recognition Act will take – or what impact the ongoing moral panic will have on the process.
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