Many transphobic remarks have been made recently by figures associated with the fundamentalist right. Bezalel Smotrich, Yinon Magal, Shimon Riklin and Erel Segal have expressed and shared transphobic content; so have Moriah Kor, in Israel Hayom, and Rabbi Dror Aryeh, on the Hebrew website 24/6. The remarks were accompanied by choruses of hate on social media.
It’s not a coincidence that the transphobic attack, which focused on a 9-year-old transgender girl, developed at the same time as news reports claiming that two Israeli soccer players had sex with underage girls. Riklin, for example, asked why it was “prohibited to sleep with a 15-year-old girl but permitted to trust the judgment of a 9-year-old boy.” Other right-wingers echoed his remarks.
There’s nothing new about the transphobia of the fundamentalist right; what’s new is the instrumental use of transphobic messages to drum up widespread support. Transgender identity undermines ideas about gender and sexuality that are considered the bedrock of reality. It frightens many people, particularly those whose thought is characterized by adhesion to a traditional model of family and gender roles, an authoritarian right-wing approach and suspicion of change and deviation from norms. Transphobia is therefore a very powerful recruitment tool.
In fact, transphobia plays a central role in the populist right’s attraction to hegemonic masculinity and its contempt for women and femininity. Presidents Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are among the most prominent champions of this attitude, but misogyny, the glorification of toxic, hegemonic masculinity, transphobia and homophobia are the pillars of the worldview of the populist right throughout the world. Its agents speak out against what they call “gender ideology,” a veiled reference to transgender people. The right-wing website Hashiloach, which appeals to an educated audience, often echoes transphobic messages from American conservative writers and think tanks.
In times of general instability, hatred of transgender people facilitates the manipulation of anxiety over challenges to the familiar order; it fits into the right’s populist strategy of pitting groups against each other and provoking hatred of the weak. Thus the rise of transphobia in populist right-wing regimes around the world should not be a surprise.
In May, Hungary’s parliament passed a government-sponsored bill erasing the state’s recognition of the identity of transgender people. Trump’s anti-transgender policy is well-known: His administration reversed the policies of President Barack Obama regarding access to public bathrooms for transgender people, removed protections in the education system for transgender students, introduced restrictions on transgender people in the military and revoked protections against discrimination in health care for transgender people. In Brazil, Minister of Women and Family Damares Alves declared that “Girls will be princesses, and boys will be princes.” The country’s Education Minister Ricardo Velez Rodriguez shut down a section of his ministry that was dedicated to diversity and human rights and announced that he opposes gender studies in schools. Right-wing legislators in Brazil tried unsuccessfully a number of times to revoke the achievements of the transgender community regarding official recognition of changes to names and gender identity.
An example of the instrumental use of transphobia by the conservative right is the campaign against guaranteeing access to public bathrooms. This campaign gained new force in 2015, after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry throughout the United States. The verdict deprived the conservative right of one of its principal scare tactics: the threat to the institution of the family. This was the stage at which the “transgender demon” entered the picture. Conservative propaganda began warning of the dangers of “transgender predators” who supposedly try to ambush women in public bathrooms.
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The message is composed of a number of propositions: 1. Transgender identity is neither genuine nor valid. 2. Transgender people using public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity is liable to harm cisgender people, that is, people who are not transgender. 3. Transgender people using public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity will violate the privacy of cisgender people and expose children to risk. 4. Respecting transgender identity is a violation of freedom of religion.
As early as 2013, bills were submitted in a number of U.S. states to restrict transgender access to facilities that align with their gender identity, but in 2015 the trend took off: Conservative lawmakers in nine states filed so-called bathroom bills, aimed at excluding transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth. In 2016, that number jumped to 19 states. Only in North Carolina did a bathroom bill pass, and it was partially repealed in 2017.
The politicization of transphobia fits in very well with the anti-liberal positions of the populist right abroad. Riklin, Magal, Smotrich and their partners are not alone. Will they follow in the footsteps of their ideological partners overseas? Time will tell.
Nora Greenberg provides therapy, counseling and support to transgender and gender-questioning people and their families. She is active in the transgender equality movement.