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A trans review of 2017: the year of transgender moral panic

Trans issues hit the headlines in 2017. David Cheskin/PA Wire

Three years ago, 2014 was hailed as “the transgender tipping point” – a year when trans people became 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.

Moral panic

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.

Myths about trans people have persisted in debates on transgender bathrooms. via

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.

Norms changing

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.

A more insidious reason for moral panics and scapegoating is that they enable us to attack a specific group for problems we’re all implicated in – in this case blaming trans people for the rigid system of gender norms which hurts us all.

This would explain why there’s so little protest about the non-consensual, often medically unnecessary and damaging surgeries routinely carried out on intersex babies, but loud outcry against the consensual, often life-enhancing, surgeries undertaken by some trans adults. The former bring people’s bodies in line with current gender norms, while the latter challenge the cultural assumption that people always remain in the gender they were assigned at birth.

Hopes for 2018

I’d love to see the gender conversation change in 2018 to one acknowledging the negative impact of rigid binary gender norms on everybody.

There was much evidence in 2017 that the current gender system is bad for us all. We only need to reflect, for example, on continued gender pay inequalities or the link between how boys are raised and high suicide rates among men. Toxic gender roles are also involved in the normalising of sexual harassment and violence that the #MeToo campaign highlighted in 2017.

The BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls demonstrated how far these gender norms permeate society. The main life goal of the seven-year-old girls on the show remained to “be pretty”. Boys struggled to express – or even find words for – emotions other than anger. All the kids agreed that boys were simply “better” than girls.

Along with legal changes in the UK that will enable people to self-define their gender, I hope to see an end to the trans moral panic which targets a group of people who already suffer frighteningly high levels of bullying, discrimination, violence and suicide. In its place I’d love to see a return to the kind of celebration of the strength, courage, and talent of trans people that we had back in 2014.

Read more: Almost half of trans pupils have attempted suicide — schools must do more to challenge gender stereotypes

I’d also love to see the media focusing on the ways cultural norms of gender affect all of us, whether we’re trans or cisgender; women, men, or non-binary. Instead of the current sensationalist focus on trans bodies, the media could document the changes – social, physical and otherwise – that we all make to experience, identify and express our gender in ways which are a more comfortable fit.

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