How the information sausage is made
In a previous post, I wrote about semantic gentrification, the process whereby existing terms are taken over with newer, morally righteous meaning that crowds out old usage. The conclusion of that piece focused on the way this is currently unfolding with the politically charged debate over bans on “conversion therapy”.
Where most people would understand conversion therapy to mean abhorrent practices aimed at trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, trans-focused activists have over the past few years directed this label at any therapeutic process that does not straightforwardly affirm an individual’s stated “gender identity”. As I noted in that piece:
The World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) issued a statement calling “exploratory therapy” tantamount to “conversion”.
This conflict has resulted in the UK Council of Psychotherapy having to release a statement to the contrary:
exploratory therapy must not be conflated with conversion therapy
Ultimately though, if pro-affirmation activists are successful in reframing every approach other than their own preferred model as “conversion therapy”, then any bans will end up making their approach mandatory.
In February 2020, in response to one tweet, a fictitious form of therapy called “gender-critical therapy” was invented by pro-affirmation activists, who decried its alleged practitioners as advocating “conversion therapy”. This term was spread like a moral panic via a handful of weak, partisan media reports, and then laundered into respectability through reports and guides for policymakers, each layer of citation obscuring the fictional, anonymous origins of the phrase.
Use of this invented term was short-lived, and has since been overtaken by the more direct attacks on “exploratory therapy”, but the creation and dissemination of this term is a useful case study in how these fabrications and smear campaigns are spread, and the wider attacks on other language that is taking place.
The rest of this piece is a timeline of the creation and spread of this myth, showing how weak claims - or outright lies - can be very effectively laundered through several layers of citation, taking on the appearance of greater reliability at each level, with the ultimate aim of shaping policy.
In February 2020, psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, as part of an exchange with comedy writer Graham Linehan, tweeted the following:
I hate the phrase gender critical but I am making a list! A large number of people contact me seeking help and I don't know enough Irish therapists who can provide compassionate and nuanced therapy.
“Gender-critical” here being a phrase with a complex, muddy history, and meaning in this context simply “a person who understands that sex is real, immutable, and not to be confused with notions of self-declared gender identity”, which describes the vast majority of people on the planet. O’Malley was clearly hoping to collect a list of therapists, who would take an exploratory - rather than an affirmative - approach to psychotherapy with transgender youth.
To which several anonymous Twitter accounts with a transgender flags in their names said things like:
On February 5th, GCN published a piece titled “Graham Linehan calls for list of Irish 'gender critical' therapists for trans children” based on this Twitter furore, quoting the above tweet as follows:
O’Malley’s Tweet has been met with numerous comments calling out the cruel practice of ‘conversion therapy’. One person stated, “Gender critical therapy is conversion therapy. Say it as it is.”
O’Malley never mentioned “gender-critical therapy” and no therapist claimed to offer “gender-critical therapy”. The only source for the claim that “gender-critical therapy” exists and is, in reality, conversion therapy is tweets such as this one.
On February 16th, The Independent published an opinion piece by the male transactivist Gemma Stone titled “Gender critical mental health professionals are trans conversion therapists by another name”. This described the incident as follows:
Prominent trans people on social media spoke out in droves, warning of the dangers of legitimising “gender critical therapy”.
Here in early 2020, what we see is an attempt to associate the phrase “gender-critical” with “conversion therapy” by using the invented term “gender-critical therapy”.
I repeat: no therapist seems to have offered any such thing, and the call in the original tweet was for compassionate, nuanced therapists who would take an exploratory approach.
On February 26th, ILGA World published a report titled “Curbing deception - A world survey of legal restrictions of so-called ‘conversion therapies’ .” This report featured the following entry in the glossary:
5. “Gender critical therapy”
Activists and survivors have pointed out that the term “gender critical therapy” is a term used to refer to a form of “conversion therapy” practiced on trans youth: both notions “rely on the same ideas and want the same end results”.
The ILGA report gives three citations for this, which turn out to be the pieces in GCN, the Independent, and a random blog rant that adds nothing whatsoever, posted anonymously to Medium on 12 February 2020.
Within 22 days of Stella O’Malley not tweeting the phrase “gender critical therapy”, and 11 days of Gemma Stone’s biased opinion piece appearing in The Independent, the urban myth of “gender-critical therapy” had been laundered into a flagship report by one of the largest and most influential trans-rights organisations in the world.
The general public are not the target of such reports - they are aimed squarely at policymakers, and this report was welcomed immediately by the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on LGBT issues. In just over three weeks, confected Twitter drama had been sanitised, obfuscated, and presented straight to key influencers in the UK parliament as fact.
In June 2020, Teen Vogue published an article by Heron Greenesmith, of the Transgender Law Centre. The thrust of this article was that parents of trans-identifying youth were at the time using an online forum called the “gender critical support board” to post messages such as:
“I need a therapist for my male-identified daughter who won’t just affirm without any questions. We are desperate. Thank you.”
What Greenesmith was specifically critical of was parents apparently making lists of therapists who take an exploratory approach:
Some parents on the Gender Critical Support Board may be seeking what many would view as conversion therapists for their children — licensed mental-health-care workers who, in the parents’ words “won’t just affirm [their gender identity] without any questions.” These parents don’t view “non-affirming therapists” as conversion therapists, but the connections are clear: “gender-critical therapy” is the newest cover of a song that’s been playing for the past 50 years.
As with O’Malley’s tweet, “gender-critical therapy” again is seemingly not something actually on offer from any therapist, but simply Greenesmith’s own description of the kind of therapy that might be offered by therapists who are “gender-critical”. Therapists who are suspected of not being affirming enough are labelled as practitioners of this invented “gender-critical therapy”, again portrayed as a new euphemism for “conversion therapy”, even though no therapist is shown to be using it as such. Note also the weasel words “many would view”, justifying strong unsubstantiated claims of conversion therapy with Trumpian handwaving.
Creating this link between “gender-critical” and “conversion therapy” was the whole point of this article, as signposted by Greenesmith before it was even written, in April 2020.
On October 2nd 2020, the phrase appeared in a piece about conversion therapy on Pink News, with reference to a now-defunct Canadian campaign group called “We The Females:
We The Females propose that trans youth should be subjected to “gender-critical therapy”, to deter or prevent them from transitioning.
Note that although it is in quotation marks and has the appearance of a direct quote, it is not, and the author also presents “conversion therapy” in exactly the same way in quotes earlier in the piece. I could find no reference to the phrase in archives of their site or in any of their submitted material to Canadian legislative consultations. This claim appears to be entirely invented and the phrase “gender critical therapy” is not actually attributed to We The Females, but is the author’s personal interpretation.
Five days later, on October 7th 2020, the phrase appeared on a page about conversion therapy on dictionary.com:
As awareness has been raised for the harms associated with conversion therapy, the same discredited practice has once again rebranded, this time using the language of gender-critical therapy
The citation here is the Heron Greenesmith piece in Teen Vogue.
The Trevor Project is an influential US-based nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. Starting in 2019 The Trevor Project ran a campaign against conversion therapy. Sometime between November 24th 2020 and December 31st 2020, this page was modified to add:
“Conversion therapy” can come in many forms and is sometimes known by other names, including: “gender critical therapy”
No source is given for this. It doesn’t come from any of the citations for research on conversion therapy they provide, and it doesn’t appear in any of their subsequent publications. The campaign no longer exists on their site. They seem to have simply invented the claim sometime in late 2020 and then forgotten about it.
Given the close associations and even some shared directorships between Transgender Law Centre, The Trevor Project and WPATH, it is unsurprising that they all share the same view of conversion therapy, and when Greenesmith’s Teen Vogue piece came out, she specifically thanked The Trevor Project’s Director of Law & Policy, Casey Pick for the input into the article. The sudden emergence of this specific phrase in a prominent campaign, at that particular time, without any source justifying it, is notable.
In Summer 2021, an NYC University Law Review piece on the right to sue for gender-affirming care included the text from the Trevor Project campaign site in a footnote, including the unevidenced claim about “gender-critical therapy”.
As part of ongoing attempts to legislate against both sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy, the Government Equalities Office commissioned research into the extent and nature of conversion therapy in the UK. This research was conducted by Coventry University, and published on October 29th, 2021. This includes the following claim in a footnote:
[…] the grey literature suggests that other forms of conversion therapy may be more specific to transgender people. For instance there have been reports of people sharing lists online of therapists for parents of transgender children seeking non-affirming therapists (Greenesmith, 2020; ILGA, 2020)
This makes the contentious assumption - one refuted by the Cass Review, current NHS service specifications, and the UKCP statement at the top of this article - that a “non-affirming therapist” equates to conversion therapy. The more important thing here though is the two direct citations for this claim are, again, the ILGA report, and Heron Greenesmith’s Teen Vogue piece1.
Although it does not directly repeat the phrase “gender-critical therapy”, it does accept and legitimise the framing that in asking for “compassionate and nuanced therapy”, O’Malley was in some way promoting conversion.
The phrase appeared once again in a 2022 UNDP Handbook For Parliamentarians:
Conversion therapy: An umbrella expression to refer to any sustained effort to modify a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Other terms include: “reparative therapy”, “gay cure”, “ex-gay therapy”, “gender critical therapy” and Sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression change efforts (SOGIECE) (ILGA).
The citation here is the 2020 ILGA report. So again, this traces back to O’Malley’s tweet, via the original activist misrepresentations in GCN and The Independent, laundered through ILGA, and into a UN handbook created specifically for informing policymakers.
“gender exploratory therapy,” previously known as “gender critical therapy”,
The citation for this claim is once again O’Malley’s deleted tweet, which does not - I repeat - say anything about “gender-critical therapy”.
By this point, no doubt aware that “gender-critical therapy” wasn’t really catching on, activists were claiming that “gender exploratory therapy” was its new name, without acknowledging that they are the only ones that ever used the term.
The phrase appears in a report from a Polish transactivist lobbying group released in 2023, once again derived from ILGA:
Another term mentioned in the ILGA report is gender critical therapy. It relates to “conversion therapy” practiced on transgender youths
Its main proponents are people associated with SEGM and Genspect organisations,
The term “gender critical therapy” is generally used by persons who had, at one point, identified with feminism to some degree, such as Stella O’Malley.
No source is given for these claims and there is absolutely no evidence of any of the named individuals or organisations using the phrase “gender-critical therapy”. The claim that Stella O’Malley used the term “gender-critical therapy” goes all the way back - via ILGA - to that 2020 tweet where she explicitly did not say that.
Though they don’t cite them directly, this report does make reference to Health Liberation Now, and repeat many of the same allegations in other areas. Specifically, again they claim a shift in language from practitioners:
Others, like Marcus and Susan Evans, use the term “exploratory therapy”, even though such a term is not mentioned in the ILGA report due to it being fairly new (Spiladis 2019). In recent years, however, the term has become very popular in circles of “conversion therapists”, superseding previously used terms.
Once more, activists alleged that “exploratory therapy” is a new term employed by “conversion therapists”, superseding the previous term “gender-critical therapy”.
Yet no-one outside of these pro-affirmation activists ever seem to have used this term, so claims of it being “superseded” don’t stack up. The excuse given for ILGA not having mentioned “exploratory therapy” before was that it was “fairly new”. This also doesn’t make sense, since the 2019 Spiladis paper cited here precedes the Twitter-based nonsense ILGA actually dumped into their report by a full seven months.
What this all lays bare is that partisan activists seized upon a new term of their own invention (“gender-critical therapy”), talked about it for a couple of years and then moved on to new talking points, while inventing a narrative that it was their opponents who shifted language, to disguise their true, “conversion” aims. In the logic of conspiracists, all new contradictory information actually becomes evidence of just how deep the conspiracy goes, how devious their opponents are in concealing their motives behind “reasonable” language. QAnon standards of evidence and reasoning laundered into respectability, and tenuous hearsay origins obfuscated via handbooks for policymakers.
We have gone from:
Baseless abuse responding to one deleted tweet, to:
Partisan coverage in supposedly journalistic outputs with no regard for balance, fact-checking or the consequences of putting out abject drivel, to:
Biased laundering of these opinion pieces into respectability by ILGA, to:
Citation in a GEO-sponsored piece of research whose purpose is to inform policy on a hotly contested political issue, and inclusion in a handbook for parliamentarians, produced by the UN Development Programme.
And that’s how Twitter drama and biased pieces in laughably irrelevant publications like Teen Vogue end up shaping global policy.
For the icing on the cake, if you google “gender-critical therapy” you may be fortunate enough to receive something like the following featured snippet:
Why? Because the absolute nonsense in response to one deleted tweet in 2020 has been effectively laundered through so many layers of irresponsible or outright partisan publication with no fact-checking or repercussions, that it can finally be dumped in a Wikipedia page where it may potentially sit forever at the top of search results. Thanks to the toxic editorial dynamics on any page that touches sex and gender, such material cannot be removed without reliable sources that say otherwise - and no-one is going to create those sources, because no-one is watching this steady pollution of information and providing any sort of oversight. There are no functioning checks and balances, and no incentive to create them. Indeed, the only counterpoints are usually equally partisan, unreliable, conspiracist nonsense, coming from the opposite political pole.
Nobody is going to bother writing a serious journalistic piece about how the glossary in a 2020 ILGA report and a 2022 UNDP handbook are based on nothing whatsoever, or about how one misrepresented, deleted tweet seems to be the whole basis of a short-lived moral panic about completely non-existent “gender-critical therapy”.
There is failure at every step of this process.
Where are the editorial standards at GCN, The Independent, even Teen Vogue? Where is the comeback and oversight for inventing terms out of whole cloth or simply repeating the content of anonymous tweets?
Where is the oversight and accountability of ILGA taking horribly biased articles and a random anonymous Medium post and laundering them into an authoritative looking “glossary”?
Where is the oversight and accountability of UNDP adding another layer of indirection by taking ILGA’s report as gospel without checking their sources? Do they even care?
Where is the oversight and accountability of the Trevor Project simply repeating claims with no evidence or citations, and then deleting it afterwards?
Where is the oversight and accountability of government-sponsored research legitimising such terrible sources in reports designed to inform policymakers?
Where is the oversight and accountability of Wikipedia, whose outsize influence and social composition has made it a prime target for spreading partisan political viewpoints?
Where is the oversight and accountability of Google, who simply serve up the contents of a Wikipedia page as if it was true, with no regard for how any of this information got there, because it is “good enough”?
It is impossible to make sense of political disagreements in the middle of this crisis of misinformation, and every step of the process that is supposed to inform politics is broken, with no checks and balances, and no means of correction. Instead, the very organisations responsible for laundering misinformation into the political sphere with no oversight and no comeback are being placed in charge of gatekeeping what is or is not acceptable opinion.
I’m sure a flash-in-the-pan manufactured controversy gets some consequence-free clicks and views for outlets like The Independent, with no thought for what happens down the line, but these utterly irresponsible and biased publications have resulted in baseless smears against a handful of individuals years down the line being fed directly to policymakers via persuasive and influential reports. These errors don’t correct themselves in aggregate, they accumulate. There is no mechanism by which gossip and exaggeration and urban myths like this can be retracted, no process that withdraws false information from the sum of human knowledge, and even if there were, no-one we can trust to take charge of it.
There is a third, more indirect citation, given as a “see also”: (Ashley 2019) but that is beyond the scope of this piece.