Anti-Gender Conspiracism Revisited
Groupthink and institutional inertia are freezing out reasonable alternative viewpoints
In November this year it was revealed that the Ministry of Justice LGBT network distributed a document for “transgender awareness week” informing staff how to “recognise transphobic coded language”. There were many egregious claims in the document itself, one of which was that “same-sex attracted” is a coded and bigoted term connected to the “anti-gender” movement:
This phrase is deemed “bigoted” because it reinforces sexual orientation on the basis of sex, and not gender - which of course is intolerable for those straight men who wish to “change gender” and be recognised as lesbians. Given that “same-sex attracted” is so self-evidently clear and inoffensive a term, that so straightforwardly punctures this desire, it must be explained why it is bigotry - and that explanation includes the claim that the term is in fact “coded language”, smuggled in by nefarious “anti-gender” organisations to fool the unwary.
This claim did not come from nowhere. If you follow the citations, you quickly find yourself lost in a labyrinth of grants and foundations and NGOs that are supposed to provide the basis for these activist claims.
So in this case the MoJ document cites a 2020 report from the Global Philanthropy Project (here) which charts the money spent by US-based right-wing religious organisations abroad. The report frames this as part of an international “anti-gender” movement - but the MoJ document substitutes the phrase “gender critical”, which is a quite different set of people.
United States organizations associated with the anti-gender movement have funneled more than $1 billion into countries across the globe, according to an analysis in our report that builds and expands on the investigative research of openDemocracy.
In the 2019 report, openDemocracy’s laudable aim seemed to be to track the influence of the US religious right’s clandestine attempts to roll back women’s and LGB rights globally - research built on later by GPP.
Global Philanthropy Project’s 22 member organisations are listed here. Several of these are directly represented on the report’s executive committee, including Astraea, Baring, OSF and Wellspring. Astraea are comparatively tiny, but by far their biggest donor appears to be Arcus Foundation, who are another of the GPP members.
The openDemocracy investigations are part of openDemocracy’s 50:50 “Tracking the Backlash” project, which lists its 2021 funders as:
Three of those - Oak, Luminate and OSF - are GPP members. Other past openDemocracy supporters who are also GPP members include Ford Foundation, Baring and Wellspring.
This is all quite a tightly related set of progressive donors and foundations, working together to combat the threat of a similarly well-financed network of right-wing donors and foundations. But we also see a shift in the way this research has been interpreted over the past few years:
An openDemocracy report financed by wealthy progressive foundations reveals how politically opposed wealthy foundations are peddling influence globally
This is then built on in a separate report aimed at policymakers, produced by some of the same wealthy foundations
This is then cited in a document targeting the Ministry of Justice to justify warning staff that “same-sex attraction” is coded bigotry spread by a secretly funded network of “gender critical” groups
This final step has somehow added a leap. The reports are no longer considered simply about a threat from the religious right - they are about a wider set of individuals and grassroots organisations who share only a belief that sex is real and important.
Perhaps it is a mistake, that “anti-gender” and “gender critical” are only accidentally being considered the same thing, and the over-eager authors of the MoJ document have misunderstood that there is a difference between far right or religious right bigotry, and legitimate disagreement from elsewhere in the political spectrum. It could be argued that this is an isolated example, or that such reports are not intended to produce this confusion.
Unfortunately, this is part of a wider pattern.
In 2020, the Trades Union Congress was cautioning about the rising influence of right-wing “dark money”, citing the same openDemocracy report:
The dynamics of financial globalisation have also facilitated increased flows of ‘dark money’ – that is, the use of non-profits and opaque company structures by rich donors to finance right-wing groups and push radical right-wing ideas into the mainstream. This is not a novel development, but it is one that is having a growing influence on the far right internationally. Researchers at openDemocracy have established that US Christian right groups, some of which are linked to personnel in Trump’s administration, have spent at least $280 million overseas since 2007. Much of this money has gone into campaigns against the rights of women and LGBT+ groups […]
Then, in 2022 the TUC LGBT+ Conference passed a motion noting a “worrying rise in transphobic discourse” and “networks of anti-LGBT+ organisations”. Which, if you’re talking about disinformation from the US religious right, would represent concerns I share.
However, at the same TUC conference a separate motion called to condemn LGB Alliance and remove their charitable status:
This conference believes messages of hate are diametrically opposed to charitable work and therefore instructs the TUC LGBT+ Committee to use its sphere of influence, in addition to working with affiliates, to lobby MP’s and campaign against charity status for any anti-trans organisation.
The ILGA-Europe 2022 standings and report were given as background to these motions, noting that we have seen “Britain plummet from 1st in 2015 to 14th out of 49 countries in Europe”. I have previously written about how ILGA-Europe have used artificially skewed leaderboards targeted at policymakers to advance policy aims. In addition though, the 2022 report specifically condemned LGB Alliance:
Civil society is alarmed that the Charity Commission approved the registration of the ‘LGB Alliance’ as a public charity, despite several NGOs and politicians having called it an anti-trans “hate group”. Mermaids, with support from other CSOs, filed an appeal.
It is absolutely clear that people in positions of influence are consistently reading across from concerns about well-funded right-wing influence on “trans” issues and seeing no distinction between that and any legitimate objections.
In fact, ILGA-Europe have now brought out a set of guidelines for journalists filled with helpful warnings and “facts”, such as:
Don’t “include trans-exclusionary voices”
There are not “two balanced sides of a debate”
That “all medical care trans children may receive is reversible”
And so on. These new guidelines credit the organisation Global Action on Trans Equality (GATE) among others, and point journalists at other resources, such as ILGA-Europe and GATE’s “mythbusting report” which is a litany of partisan responses offered up as thought-terminating responses to questions, all framed as fake talking points from the far right or “so-called ‘sex-based rights’ activists”. These are all very similar to the lines taken in the document circulated in the Ministry of Justice.
ILGA are in receipt of millions in grants from large, wealthy foundations. Unlike the “dark money” of the US religious right, such grants are far more public and theoretically accountable. This report gives a breakdown of the largest donors to LGBTI issues globally, the overwhelming majority of which would seem to be entirely worthy. It is worth noting though that in 2019-20 this specifically included $1.3 million on “Responding to Anti-Gender Ideology”.
Even if it is unlikely to be a comprehensive accounting, this is not a vast sum - but it is far more than tiny grassroots LGB and feminist organisations in the UK can dream of. It is also around half what openDemocracy’s “Tracking The Backlash” project seems to have received in 2021, so either the earlier figure is an underestimate, or this is an area of rapidly growing investment. If part of the response this is financing includes smearing absolutely everyone who doesn’t follow the exact ideological line that these foundations deem to be the “correct” one as part of an “anti-gender” movement, then this is an incredibly worrying trend.
Earlier this year, Arcus Foundation promoted a survey by the organisation GATE collecting data on the “anti-gender” movement, which includes the following question:
This explicitly conflates gender-critical and radical feminist viewpoints not only with each other, but with far right extremism, all while employing the TERF slur for good measure. Not only that, but the scare quotes around “feminist” demonstrate the arrogant perception that the authors of this survey believe they are able to discern “true” feminism, and those with “wrong opinions” are mere fakes.
The output of GATE’s latest survey is intended to be used for lobbying, for shaping public opinion, and absolutely everything that comes out the other end will contain this presumption that opposition to transactivist demands is equivalent to racism, homophobia and antisemitism. Insisting on this connection to the far-right is extremely powerful and persuasive to undecided members of the public, so it is absolutely in the interests of activists not to differentiate, whether this is a cynical tactic or a genuine belief. Fighting the far right is deemed the correct, moral thing to do, and anyone who is even vaguely in opposition, no matter what they actually say, must be part of that or fuelling it.
This survey is a follow on from GATE’s previous “anti-gender” report that - again - conflated all opposition to transactivist demands to a right-wing, anti-gender movement, while grossly misrepresenting and dismissing contrary opinions as in any way valid. And who is paying for this?
Between them, Arcus and OSF have funded GATE to the tune of around $3 million so far. There are now numerous projects that all have the superficial appearance of independence that are all funded by the same group of wealthy foundations, all citing each other and repeating each other’s talking points and all pushing the same view of gender identity and portraying any opposition as bigotry.
And their targets now include left-wing, socialist, trades unionist women who have entirely legitimate perspectives.
The film “Adult Human Female” features interviews with many such women who have been absolutely vilified for stepping out of line on the issue of gender identity, and insisting that sex is real, immutable and important:
As far as ILGA-Europe, GATE, their funders, and the downstream institutions like the TUC are concerned, these are hateful bigots who shouldn’t be listened to - and if you do listen to them and can’t hear the bigotry, you should refer to the handy decoder they happen to have produced that tells you how innocuous phrases like “sex-based rights” are actually a front for hate.
Below is a graph of the subject matter of stories produced by openDemocracy’s 50:50 project since early 2017.
Since 2019 there has been an increasing focus on trans issues, and the “anti-gender” right wing backlash - hardly a surprise, given that the backlash centres on trans issues, and tracking it is the aim of the project. However their output has on several occasions sought to conflate reasonable opinions with bigotry, is happy to denigrate women as “TERFs”, and collapses any distinction between feminist or LGB campaigners and the religious right or even the far right. For example here and, most recently and explicitly here, outright dismissing legitimate opposition as akin to Nazi propaganda:
So who is deploying mirror propaganda? Global Action for Trans Equality recently produced an analysis of organised transphobia in Britain. What’s most striking is how the connections between well-funded right-wing evangelical organisations, ‘gender-critical’ groups and mainstream media are so numerous that they appear almost indistinguishable from each other.
The analysis referenced is of course, the same highly conspiracist GATE report I’ve mentioned already in this piece. It is no coincidence that the author of this piece has previous form for orchestrating a smear campaign against academics who believed sex is real, immutable and important.
OpenDemocracy’s output is now riven with hyperbole and paranoid talk of extremism and organised transphobia. They have published crude attempts to discredit LGB Alliance, eg. by misrepresenting testimony from their recent tribunal. After Maya Forstater’s win at her employment tribunal, they quoted a random, anonymous fantasist on Twitter to spin the result as allowing “transphobes, racists, homophobes and others with ‘profoundly distressing’ views to justify their hate”.
It is not right to dismiss openDemocracy simply because they have received funding from huge, wealthy foundations - but they are overtly advancing a specific agenda, and this is no less insidious than the actions of the US right-wing. Where the reactionary right use “trans” as a wedge to divide opposition and aim to reverse gains on LGB and women’s rights, the “progressive” opposition use the threat of that wedge to demand solidarity. To insist that LGB & T always go together, that women’s rights must be trans-inclusive, and that anyone who says different must be disbelieved.
To hold the line on this, openDemocracy has become a mouthpiece for delusional conspiracism and propaganda, caught up in an increasing fear of the influence of far-right disinformation, demonising anyone and everyone who doesn’t fall in line with transactivist demands. By failing to draw any distinction between actual right-wing “anti-gender” actors, and feminist or LGB activists with, frankly, mild and wholly legitimate points of view, openDemocracy is further adding to the polarisation of an already toxic political issue.
The Council of Europe
This past week the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe published a report on her visit to the UK this Summer. As part of this she noted:
International bodies have also observed that trans persons in the UK face increasingly hostile and toxic political and public discourse. This discourse has involved the calling into question of the notion of gender identity and the legitimacy of trans peoples’ identity
The commissioner sees no distinction between toxic discourse and questioning “the notion of gender identity”. The “international bodies” referenced notes that in January 2022, the CoE parliamentary assembly passed a motion condemning “gender-critical” narratives:
The Assembly condemns the highly prejudicial anti-gender, gender-critical and anti-trans narratives which reduce the struggle for the equality of LGBTI people to what these movements deliberately mis-characterise as “gender ideology” or “LGBTI ideology”. Such narratives deny the very existence of LGBTI people, dehumanise them and often falsely portray their rights as being in conflict with women’s and children’s rights
This motion insists that a conflict of rights between women and men who say they are women is impossible. This motion sees no distinction between “anti-gender” and “gender-critical”. In fact, it goes on to directly claim that the two are equivalent:
Anti-gender and gender-critical movements, which are well-funded and share common patterns, strategies and language
This claim cites the 2021 European Parliamentary Forum report “The Tip Of The Iceberg” as its basis, but nowhere in this report does the phrase “gender critical” appear. Additionally, this report builds upon the same 2020 openDemocracy report on US “dark money” in Europe that I mentioned at the start of this piece.
The idea that “anti-gender” and “gender-critical” are the same thing just appears to have become received wisdom, with no actual basis given.
This unevidenced claim - that the right-wing “anti-gender” movement, and left-wing objection to the concept of “gender identity” are the same thing, the same hatred, the same unacceptable opinion - is being expressed without challenge at the highest levels of transnational bodies.
A few days ago, Julie Bindel and Helen Joyce had a measured and informative debate about whether feminists should work with the right. I cannot embed the video here because two women discussing feminist politics is something YouTube deems necessary to age restrict, so the link is here. The discussion generally focused on what constitutes political pragmatism, when can you make common cause with eg. moderate conservatives without being used by bad faith actors with more extreme opinions, and so on. While interesting, it is to my mind asking the wrong question.
Which is: institutions across the world have been convinced at the very highest levels that anyone who questions “gender identity” is already a tool of the religious right, so what are you going to do about it?
Moreover, how are you going to put forward your case when all the people you need to persuade have been convinced that every possible form of your argument is hateful and dangerous to listen to? When the most basic words you wish to use have been taken off the table?
Anyone who thinks the “trans” issue is all about “the far left” is, simply, wrong. This goes way beyond left and right, and is just accepted as fact throughout institutions. When people are casually demonised by their own trade unions, or LGB civil servants are left worried for their job by internal communications that their “same-sex attraction” is coded bigotry, this is having an impact at every level of society, and the idea that that’s because “the far left” are in power is simply ludicrous. The unthinking combination of sexual orientation and gender identity into “SOGI” or “LGBT” has made it absolutely impossible to talk about clashes between these two concepts. Conflicts are simply not permitted to exist, and the possibility of any having legitimacy must be denied lest institutions fall prey to a nefarious divide-and-conquer strategy from “the right”. Reasonable language is increasingly picked apart for “true” meaning and deemed unsayable in order to maintain the denial of any possible conflict. A steady stream of “reports” and “research” are now being produced to ensure that institutions simply reject any other perspective at all for fear of accidentally hearing “wrong” opinions and being tricked by their apparent reasonableness.
I have absolutely no doubt that well-funded US-based right-wing organisations are pouring money into disinformation and attempting to enact policies I would consider to be regressive, as part of a broader antifeminist and anti-LGB movement. I also have no doubt - and have written before - that they are indeed leveraging controversy over expansion of “trans rights” to that end.
But what also seems to be quite clear is that some well-funded philanthropic organisations are doing the exact same thing in the opposite direction, using the fear of the religious right to steamroll legitimate objections and smearing anyone who stands in the way.
The result is a range of incredibly biased reports targeting institutions, journalists, policymakers and the wider public. Their aims have moved beyond charting the influence of the religious right into providing the justification for dismissing the legitimate concerns of a far wider group of people as coded bigotry, in service of discrediting any opposition to - specifically - transgender policy aims.
I am convinced that the vast majority of people involved in the commissioning and production of these reports - and the accompanying lobbying targeted at institutions - believe themselves to be on the side of social justice, and that this isn’t some grand conspiracy but simply groupthink and institutional inertia.
However, propaganda in service of “the greater good” is still propaganda.