A Rebuttal to Hate

If this world has taught me anything, it’s that things don’t always unfold the way we expect.

And hate doesn’t just go away, even when we think it’s been beat and buried.

The year I was born was the same year that the AIDS epidemic began, a health crisis for which there was little immediate government action—because it was a crisis that mainly affected gay men. The Reagan administration’s response was, for years, one of denial and apathy as thousands of North Americans died. In no uncertain terms, the “gay plague” was seen by many as a form of punishment from God. In 1983, the front page of an evangelical newspaper featured a family wearing surgical masks with a headline that read, “Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families.” The hate was real, and it spanned generations as real lives were lost. The discrimination and marginalization experienced by the queer community took a toll then much greater than it had before. But I wasn’t fully aware of the hate until my adolescence, when it reared its head in new ways: in the cancellation of Ellen’s primetime sitcom, in ongoing debates over the U.S. military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, and in the various celebrity outings in the media that were met with shock and dismay, as if the veil of public denial of queer people was finally being lifted (but only because it was still being challenged).

In every one of these displays of hate, there was fear. Hate and bigotry are always fueled by fear, no matter the target or source in question. Fear makes us turn inward, such that we become defensive and closed off to the world around us (and to people who are different). Across a number of psychological studies, the tendency for fear to give way to conservatism, discrimination, and xenophobia are well documented. Fear even leads to authoritarianism, as it makes people adhere more strongly to convention and authority and view outsiders with contempt. For those who seek to gain power and influence—to which fear is a common path—the queer community is a convenient target because it already defies convention. Fear is stoked quickly, and it spreads far and wide, because people hate what they fear and fear what they don’t know…

As early as the 1970s, fears over gay people in public spaces were being stoked. Much like we see directed at the trans community today, attempts were being made to ban gay and lesbian people from sports and locker-rooms, and these continued well into the 90s. (Here’s one such newspaper clipping from the 90s, and here’s another.) In 1974, the Florida government issued a warning that gay men were “lurking” in the stalls of public bathrooms. Back then, fears of gay people “recruiting” and “indoctrinating” children were common as attempts were being made to further segregate the queer community, particularly in the United States, where the fear and hate were being stoked by religious conservatism.

Sound familiar?

It’s the same hate today, in slightly different form. And it’s the same unfounded fear.

The trans community has endured much of the recent hate, as lies have been spread about trans people which are enabled in part by a lack of familiarity with this demographic. (People who identify as trans are estimated to make up less than 1% of the population.) Many who direct their hate towards the trans community believe that trans people pose real threats to the safety of women and girls in public bathrooms, for instance. Yet there is no evidence to support such claims. A rigorous American study found no correlation between criminal incidents in restrooms, changing rooms, or locker-rooms and laws that allow access to these spaces according to one’s gender identity. Others have similarly concluded that such incidents have been extremely rare and remain extremely rare, and those that do occur are statistically unrelated to the passing of trans-inclusive laws and protections. As numerous experts in sexual violence have said, if men wanted to enter women’s spaces in order to violate or assault them, they could do so regardless of equal access laws. (Last time I checked, bathrooms aren’t heavily policed spaces.) In reality, what is being endured by the trans community today is just recycled disinformation from decades past. What was once used to stoke fears about gay and lesbian people is now being used to stoke fears about trans and non-binary individuals.

I find it especially disconcerting when those who claim to defend science and data are able to dismiss science and data on this matter. Too often have I met science-defending liberals who decide that on trans-related issues, science denialism is an appropriate stance. (Hypocrisy is possible on either side of the political spectrum, I suppose.) But none of us should be permitted to make up fears, nor should such fabrications be used to guide legislation. If a threat is real, there will be data and statistics to support it. Otherwise, it’s just a lie (or misconception at best), and, more likely than not, one intended to sow division. (Imagine the state of society if laws were based on perceived threats alone, with no need for evidence?)

Some also believe that trans women should be banned from elite sports, yet this too is unsupported by scienceA recent review of the scientific literature found no evidence of a reliable physical advantage of trans women athletes over their cisgender counterparts. As it was noted in said report, the use of testosterone blockers in trans women can result in physical disadvantages and even compromise health. (Never mind the fact that there already exists significant within-sex variability in hormone levels.) Perhaps most problematically, banning trans women from elite sports would require the further policing of women’s bodies—a misogynistic act which has persisted in professional sports in some form for decades. In the early 20th century (soon after women were allowed in sports), those whose athletic ability was on par with their male counterparts or whose physique was too “manly” were disqualified from competition. Today, it remains unclear how assigned sex at birth would be verified in sports, or what measure of sex would be used given that no single component of biology is an entirely reliable indicator (hormones alone are insufficient). The lack of outrage about trans men competing also suggests that such exclusionary sentiments are the manifestations of deep-seeded misogyny, which many argue is the root cause of most transphobic and trans exclusionary motives. Indeed, trans women are more often the targets of hate than trans men. (The misogyny and femmephobia that underlie hegemonic and toxic forms of masculinity are further reasons for the disproportionate amount of hate experienced by trans women, I believe.)

In reality, of course, the individuals who suffer the most from laws and policies intended to exclude trans people are trans people. Transgender and non-binary teenagers, for example, are at a higher risk of sexual assault when they’re prohibited from using bathrooms and locker-rooms consistent with their gender identity. Across age groups, trans people are over four times more likely to be the victims of violence than cisgender people. And it is discrimination and exclusion on the basis of gender-nonconformity that fuel the epidemic of suicide in this population. (Trans people in North America are over twenty times more likely to attempt suicide.) The real consequence of such discrimination is thus the ongoing marginalization of the group in question. But this is usually the case, because it’s the same pattern repeating: when fears are stoked and disinformation allowed to run rampant, circumstances are made worse for those who are subjected to the hate that follows.

In the last couple of years, the hate directed at the queer community has intensified tenfold, such that it can only be described as extreme. And it is not limited to trans people alone. We see queer educators, parents of LGBTQIA+ kids, and even drag queens targeted in what are often framed as efforts to “protect children” and “support parents’ rights.” The word “grooming” is being widely (and inaccurately) used to describe efforts to create safe and accepting spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth, despite a complete lack of evidence that either LGBTQIA+ people or drag queens are more likely to be sexual predators (another old, recycled stereotype), AND in spite of actual evidence that such grooming behaviour has been committed by thousands of Catholic priests and other clergy members for decades, to which the same critics are able to turn a blind eye. (Even Russell Brand got a free pass for his charges of grooming and sexual assault—by the same right-wing pundits who have accused drag queens of grooming, no less.) And the pride flag is now viewed by many as a vehicle for indoctrination. All of this unfolds as disinformation about the queer community is spread widely on social media, and it is surely the case that these lies and falsehoods are to blame (if only in part) for the current resurgence of hate. Fear is stoked more quickly, and it spreads farther and wider, because people hate what they fear and fear what they don’t know…

Recently, the “1 Million March for Children” took place across Canada. They are one of the organizations advocating for “parents’ rights,” insisting that teachers should inform parents if their children engage in gender nonconforming behaviour at school (including the use of pronouns that don’t align with their assigned sex). Their ultimate goal, as declared on the group’s website, is “the elimination of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) curriculum, pronouns, gender ideology and mixed bathrooms in schools.”

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but there is no indoctrination of such “ideology” in Canadian schools. Most of the early curriculum related to sex revolves around topics like bullying and consent. In most provinces, children do not learn about gender identity specifically until Grade 8. And as one of my teacher friends has informed me, children are sent home with parental notices prior to any sex education in the classroom (which amounts to no more than a few hours a year), allowing children to stay home on those days should their parents prefer. (If this is “indoctrination” on the part of the public school system, it’s a poor attempt at best.) And in the United States, classes that address gender identity are still the exception. But there’s a more pressing issue here, which is that the public school system should not, under any circumstances, engage in the denial of reality in its curriculum. The reality (as unfortunate as it may be to some) is that LGBTQIA+ people do exist. People who identify with a gender that does not align with their assigned sex exist. People who identify as neither a woman nor a man exist. People who are born with sexual anatomy that cannot be classified as either female or male exist. And people with sexual orientations other than heterosexual exist. (Indeed, there has been no evidence offered to suggest that such individuals do NOT exist, and I would question anyone who claims to know the inner workings of another’s mind better than the person to whom said mind belongs.)

The reality is that we have always existed and we always will exist, no matter how hard anyone tries to push us down, or deny us rights, or ban us from public spaces. Excluding information relevant to LGBTQIA+ people, and not validating their existence in the process, is the only agenda afoot. (Where is the so-called “ideology,” if not among those advocating for the denial of truth? Where is the indoctrination if not among those attempting to ban the teaching of ideas that disagree with their own?) Just as school curriculum should not engage in science denialism, it similarly must not engage in the denial of the existence of queer people, youth included.

The denial of queer people—gay, bi, trans, or otherwise—is a denial of reality itself. Fears embolden this denial, such as the fear that teachers are encouraging children to become trans or the fear that making children aware of the existence of same-sex couples is a form of “sexualization.” (How, exactly, is that true?) But however rampant such fears may be, they too are unfounded. (They’re always unfounded.)

The demand that teachers start outing queer youth to their parents is one of the more heinous proposals from those whose goal is to “protect” children. (It is a truly disturbing perversion of the concept of safety.) As a gay man, let me explain: Being outed by someone else, whether you’re gay or trans or non-binary (and no matter your age) is one of the worst things that can happen to you as a queer person. Although being outed without one’s consent can be difficult at any age, it is far more difficult in one’s youth, and this is true regardless of how supportive one’s family and friends may be. No one should be outed by another person, not even by a teacher to a parent. The social stigma attached to being queer is still so great that such conversations should only be had when the individual in question is ready and willing (so that they may, perhaps, be afforded some control in a world that otherwise goes to great lengths to inhibit their agency). Furthermore, for many queer youth, coming out can result in verbal and physical abuse at the hands of family and friends—an all-too-common reality that is supported by statistics and very much incongruent with the concept of safety. Yet regardless of the circumstances, who I came out to and when I did so were integral parts of my own (very personal) journey as I wrestled with my identity, and no one had a right to take that from me, not even my parents. Straight and cisgender people do not go through a similar “coming out” experience (such is the privilege of those who belong to the status quo), and for this reason, often minimize the challenges and difficulties involved in the process. But the emotional burden and torment of coming out, and the genuine fears over the possibility of being ridiculed and disowned by those you love, are great, and they underscore further the need for queer youth to have mentors and teachers on whom they can rely for support. If I were a parent, I would take great comfort in knowing that my child had a teacher or mentor in whom they could confide. And I would want my child to share their feelings with me only when they were ready to do so. (Perhaps it needs to be said that children are people who have rights, too.)

In application, the goals of the “1 Million March for Children” and similar social movements would result in the loss of safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth. And they would mean the very denial of the existence of queer people broadly. There are certain predictable consequences of such proposed actions, including the further stigmatization and marginalization of queer youth and the continued assault on their mental health and well-being. Based on everything that we know as researchers and psychologists, the consequences would include an elevated risk of suicide for the youth in question. (Doesn’t that matter?)

Just as fears over trans people in sports and bathrooms are unfounded, there is no objectively identifiable risk for non-queer youth associated with increased awareness of LGBTQIA+ people and issues. And nowhere is there evidence of indoctrination. I grew up in a world that told me, over and over again, that the only acceptable life to live was one in which I was straight. It was a message that I encountered at every turn, in every movie I watched and every book I read; in every couple I saw and every family I met; in (literally) every single person I knew growing up. And this message was delivered alongside another: that the alternative—being gay—was not acceptable, but rather a source of stigma and shame. And yet, in spite of all of this, I still turned out gay. And as I hope any reasonably intelligent person understands in this so-called modern world, being gay or trans is a matter largely determined by one’s genes, as it has been confirmed in multiple scientific studies. In fact, each of these things—sexual orientation and gender identity—are roughly as heritable as personality, which is to say that they are largely the result of the biology with which we have been endowed.

But trying to explain this to people who believe that standard gender-affirming care in children involves surgery (which it does not) may be a lost cause. (It is worth noting, however, that there is a wealth of science demonstrating the health benefits of gender-affirming care for trans youth and adults.) Consider the more extreme narrative that schools are keeping litter boxes in their classrooms to support children who identify as cats or “furries,” a falsehood designed to ridicule and undermine the need for safe spaces for trans youth. It started in 2021 in Prince Edward Island, but quickly spread throughout Canada and the United States as it was shared by right-wing politicians, Joe Rogan, and the like. (Rogan later admitted that he had no evidence to back up his claims.) Its reach became so great that many school boards and government officials were forced to make public statements discrediting the story. But I still hear people bring up litter boxes in classrooms as if the story is true, and in every instance, the sentiment is the same: that nowadays, schools are so progressive that they are allowing children to identify as anything they want. And underlying that sentiment is another: that protections for gender diversity are themselves ridiculous and extreme, despite decades of science and research supporting the importance of care and support for gender-diverse people (youth included). The problem is, the real goal isn’t truth. As Norbert Carpenter, Director of the PEI Public Schools Branch said in his statement, “this is rooted in hate and transphobia.” And these things are rooted in fear, not truth.

How can we get others to see the truth when truth is not really the goal? How can we get others to consider science and data when there is such mistrust in these things to begin with? Maybe that’s the problem—that what we’re up against is not simply the denial of reality but also that of science and expertise in general, as the views of scientists, doctors, and psychologists are being readily dismissed in favour of false narratives and propaganda. We are living in the midst of a decades-long attack on science and truth that is made worse by the ease with which misinformation and disinformation spread online. And accompanying all of this is the growing need for everyone to be right at the expense of others; and the misguided belief that one’s own freedom and safety are somehow threatened by the freedom and safety of others.

It’s the same unfounded fear. And it’s the same hate, whether it’s directed at LGBTQIA+ people or any other minority. (And ignoring the pattern is just another form of denial.)

In the early days of Nazi Germany, one of the first targets of the Third Reich was the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, a progressive medical centre which advocated for the acceptance of sexual and gender diversity in the population while supporting the health of sexual and gender minorities (including but not limited to the provision of gender-affirming care). In 1933, the institute was raided by supporters of the Nazi party; the building was ransacked, clinical records were destroyed, and books were burned, all in an effort to suppress what was deemed “un-German” by the Nazis and their supporters. Fast-forward almost a century, and laws are being passed by conservative and far-right politicians throughout the United States in a similar attempt to deny and suppress the natural expressions of sexual and gender diversity that exist in the population. Throughout the psychological literature, we see clear evidence that exclusionary and discriminatory attitudes like these align with such socially problematic proclivities as ultra-conservatismtoxic masculinityauthoritarianism, and far-right politics. And these things are further correlated with anti-vaccine attitudesconspiratorial thinking, and climate change denialism. (Yes, we even see homophobia and transphobia correlated with these things, as we do misogyny and xenophobia.) Homophobia and transphobia are two features of a cluster of psychological traits that tend to co-occur within individuals and groups.

And so, it may be worth asking, should you find yourself adopting an exclusionary mindset: Are you comfortable with the knowledge that your beliefs align with those of Nazis? What about white nationalists, who dominate far-right politics today, and who fuel much of the current anti-trans hate?

What company do you keep in your views of others?

As the trans community is concerned, it is possible to find exclusionary attitudes among some liberals, too. (There are no rules to human behaviour, only patterns.) But if history has taught us anything, it’s that exclusion is never the answer. It’s never been the answer and it never will be, especially as matters of individuality and identity are concerned; and especially when the source of exclusion is an inherent, biologically-determined trait like gender identity (as the science tells us it is). When exclusionary sentiments are displayed by those with privilege, said exclusion is a way of further supporting the very power that enabled it. But it’s still a manifestation of power and privilege. And it’s still bigotry, no matter the ways in which it is presented (and even when it is wrapped in feminist packaging). As far as I can tell, any justification offered for the exclusion of trans people (or queer people in general) is based on unfounded fears and requires the denial of science and data to be defended. But this is how fear tends to unfold. (This is the pattern.)

Conservative attitudes and values have been known to increase in the population following events like terrorist attacks and pandemics, in what have been referred to as “conservative shifts.” And they appear to affect everyone, including liberals, such that both conservatives and liberals display more conservative values and attitudes (even if their political endorsement does not change). Such increases in conservatism are believed to result from the reduced sense of control and heightened closed-mindedness that are triggered by fear. Closed-mindedness can be understood as a sort of short-term adaptive response to perceived threat—a survival mechanism of sorts—in so much that it motivates people to protect themselves and everything that they know. For similar reasons, people who have experienced significant loss or trauma often adhere more strongly to their worldviews and beliefs following a tragic event. In a recent study of North Americans, both liberals and conservatives reported conforming more strongly to traditional gender roles and believing more strongly in gender stereotypes than they did before the pandemic. In other words, in matters of gender, they became more conservative in response to the threat of COVID-19. Not only does this confirm the role of fear in conservative values, it offers us a possible explanation for the recent spike in anti-trans hate specifically. Among the many possible (and likely) causes of this resurgence, fear stoked by the recent pandemic may have played a role.

But whatever the source or cause, it’s the same hate, and it’s the same unfounded fear…

And though you may not realize it, the same fear and hate affect straight and cisgender people, too. Just a few months ago, there was a story in the news about a woman in New York City who was maced, dragged by her hair, and kicked in the head by a deli cashier who mistakenly believed she was trans. Despite whatever characteristic or mannerism the cashier believed signaled gender nonconformity, she (the victim) was indeed not trans. But she was the victim of transphobia nonetheless. The news is full of stories like this, of people being victimized by anti-trans hate simply because the way they express their gender is perceived to be incongruent with social norms; and of cisgender girls and women being denied access to female-only spaces because they are believed to be either cisgender men or transgender women based on their appearance alone. This is one of the unavoidable problems of said hate: it relies on people’s perceptions of gender conformity, and nothing more. Mere glances and impressions are used to make judgments that lead to exclusion, aggression, and even violence. In the matter of pronouns alone, there are similarly no formal means for individuals in a public setting to verify an individual’s sex (as there shouldn’t be). So, who has the right to determine whether a person is using the “correct” pronouns? What further policing of people’s bodies or violations of their privacy will be required in order to verify accurate pronoun usage, or any other element of gender identity or expression? Should a cisgender woman who is viewed as more masculine by her coworkers not have the right to be referred to as she/her (if that is indeed her preference) despite her perceived masculinity? Or must she endure abuse and bullying at the hands of those who insist on calling her a man? In reality, protections for trans people are protections for gender expression and gender identity broadly, rights and freedoms that we all enjoy even if we’re unaware of them; even if we have the privilege to be seen by others in a way that is congruent with how we see ourselves.

The gender expression of all people must be protected as a function of basic rights and liberties, just as the freedom to practice one’s cultural and religious traditions should be protected, and just as the right to love and marry whom one chooses should be protected. Gender is likewise a fundamental aspect of identity and self-expression (for all of us), and no one else has a right to tell us who we are based on how they see us. (Surely, we can all agree with that.) This is not just a fight for queer rights; it is a fight for the very freedoms of self-expression and individuality that we all hold dear.

The problem, today, is that fear is stoked too quickly, and it spreads too far and wide, because more and more people hate what they fear and fear what they don’t know. Yet we are better than our fears, and wiser than the judgments and prejudices they engender. We are capable of overcoming that which serves to bring us down and divide us. We are capable of knowing the other, so that we may understand them better, and, perhaps, know ourselves better too. The world in which we live is full of fears, and it’s full of people who seek to manipulate those fears for their own gain. We must be diligent with the information we are handed, thoughtful in the narratives we are fed, and more cognizant of the effects on those whose lives appear to be different than our own. We must learn to get along with one another in a way that embraces human differences in the most intimate of ways, such that the other may be our friend, whether they are trans or non-binary, gay or bisexual, or none of the above.

In light of the knowledge that fear makes people more closed-minded, we might ask ourselves, what happens if we make people feel safe rather than scared? Although the research on this question is less robust, findings to date are illuminating nonetheless. Namely, there is evidence that when feelings of safety and security are invoked, people become more open-minded and willing to endorse liberal social policies, even if they were conservative to begin with. The implications of this are far-reaching, I believe. If we consider the state of the world today, and all the division and conflict that ensue, safety may be the key to overcoming the pitfalls of fear. In safety, we find a partial solution to such problematic outcomes as xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and transphobia; a kind of reversal mechanism with which the fear that plagues us is overcome or, perhaps, its long-term consequences averted. At the very least, this research suggests that we would be wise to elect leaders who are capable of fostering a true sense of safety and security, for doing so is a path to acceptance; and, I hope, a way past the hate.

Perhaps it’s a reminder to all of us that there is another way.

In our search for a better (and safer) world, we would be wise to remember the following truths:

that by its very nature, the human race is diverse in sexual orientation and gender identity, just as it is diverse in colour, size, and disposition, and to deny such diversity is to deny reality;

that each of us was born into a set of circumstances that we did not choose, and in the spirit of the pursuit of happiness, we should all be permitted to make the most of the life we’ve been handed;

that to be yourself in this world—a world that is constantly trying to make you into someone else—is no easy task, yet it’s even harder for some;

that one’s own freedom and safety are not threatened by the freedom and safety of others (and to see things otherwise is the likely consequence of propaganda and fear-mongering);

and that exclusion is never the answer—it’s never been the answer, and it never will be.

You can judge us. You can exclude us. You can vilify us. You can out us without our consent. You can pretend we don’t exist at all. But it’s the same hate. And it’s the same recycled, unfounded fear.

We see through it, and we’re not going anywhere. (Indeed, we’ve always been here, despite it all.)

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