When I first started asking about the connection between anti-trans politics and the American right wing, my concerns were simple. I’d covered abortion for several years, and some of the tactics being used by organized transphobes—noisy “protests” outside clinics, or doxing and harassing doctors—were similar enough to the “pro-life” movement’s that I expected some groups were working together.
I was right; there was a connection, which I’ve covered already for Xtra and other outlets. What I did not expect was that asking researchers to situate anti-trans activists in the context of the broader right would turn out to be one of the scariest questions I’d ever ask. Every researcher I spoke to told me that the situation on the ground was far worse than I thought. Anti-trans activists had not hitched their wagons to the American right wing. The far right was using transphobia to advance their larger agenda, and that agenda was both more violent and a lot more successful than I knew.
What follows is an attempt to summarize that agenda—although the full picture, comprised as it is of activist splinter groups, bizarre conspiracy theories, social-media hate campaigns and titanic global funding initiatives, is both too complex and too weird to ever fully summarize. It’s a story in which “eco-fascists” infiltrating lesbian folk festivals bump up against anti-Semitic conspiracy bloggers and Vladimir Putin’s global dark money operations; strange enough that it’s hard to take seriously, but very serious, and increasingly dangerous to us all. This is how trans-eliminationist thought became mainstream politics, and it has grave implications, not just for trans people, but for democracy itself.
Thus far, I’ve avoided using the fatal acronym: TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The reason is that “TERF” no longer means the same thing it did 20 or even 10 years ago. It still indicates a person, probably a white cis woman, whose politics are defined by obsessive transphobia, but the content of that hatred is very different now.
The original TERFs hailed from a specific strain of trans-hostile radical feminism—the kind espoused by certain feminist authors from the 1970s and ’80s, like Janice Raymond, whose 1979 book The Transsexual Empire notoriously called for “morally mandating [trans people] out of existence.” Their political battles were focused on things like condemning strap-ons as a symbol of male dominance or keeping trans women out of the lesbian folk festival MichFest. They were widely mocked, highly unpopular and, even at their peak in the 1980s, exercised almost no political power.
So how did TERFs become a global threat? The answer, according to researcher Ky Schevers, is that they’re not the same people. In the mid-2010s, a small group of activists with fascist sympathies—most of them hailing from the environmentalist group Deep Green Resistance (DGR)—infiltrated the older movement and dragged it to the right, over the objections of some members.
“I was hanging out with these transphobic radical feminists when the right-wing creep happened,” Schevers says. “I know that there’s a whole lot of them that actually feel completely fucked-over.”
Schevers researches TERFs because she used to be one. She’s written extensively about being sucked into a cult-like “detransition” movement which convinced young transmasculine people that their dysphoria was caused by misogyny and could only be cured by radical feminism. She has been my most patient guide through the world of organized transphobia, having previously spoken to me about the rise of anti-trans activism targeting doctors and gender clinics; every conversation is a whirlwind of names, dates, times and bizarre blog posts from TERF havens, illuminating the underbelly of an obsessive and increasingly dangerous movement.
TERFs were always “terrible people,” Schevers told me, but the groups she first encountered did have some familiarity with feminist thought—and most thought of themselves as progressive or leftist. Then came DGR, with a whole different set of prior assumptions.
DGR members were what Schevers calls “eco-fascists”; they argued for violent action that would cause a mass die-off of humanity in order to save the environment. They initially recruited from anarchist and environmental groups. According to a timeline put together by researcher Lee Leveille, DGR fractured in 2012 due to a series of controversies involving the transphobia of its founders, Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen. In 2013, Earth First! joined with DGR co-founder Aric McBay in denouncing them.
It was also in 2013 that Keith founded the “radical feminist” organization Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF.
“Lierre Keith began to turn her attention more towards old-school TERFs,” Schevers says. “[She] had people at the last MichFest trying to recruit people. WoLF had their own little camp set up. So they started recruiting among transphobic feminists and lesbians, and then once Trump got elected, and the Christian Right and all these other groups got more powerful and more bold, that’s when they started making the [right-wing] alliances.”
After Donald Trump’s election, WoLF pivoted hard to the right. Co-founder Kara Dansky appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to rail against the trans agenda, and in 2017, the organization filed a joint amicus brief with the conservative Family Policy Alliance to “[oppose] the effort to open girls’ locker rooms and showers to boys who say they identify as girls—and vice versa.” These new alliances effectively brought the TERFs into the American right wing. It also brought them into power.
“When you look at who’s calling themselves a ‘GC feminist’ [gender critical feminist] these days, their version of ‘radical feminism’ is WoLF’s,” Schevers says. “They’re not really reading a lot of Janice Raymond.”
One need not weep for the original-flavour TERFs, whose intentions towards trans women, in particular, were always genocidal; Raymond, explicitly, said that her goal was for trans people to no longer exist. Yet, in 1979, that hatred was much less potent than it is today. TERFism was one pocket of a relatively powerless movement which did not have the reach nor backing of the broader right wing. Yet, as a pre-existing hate group “on the left,” TERFs were incredibly easy for fascists to infiltrate and absorb.
A 2020 article from Radix Journal, a far-right publication founded by the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, lays out a strategy for doing just that. In the article, entitled “The TERF to Dissident Right Pipeline,” author Kat S. notes that TERFs’ insistence on “biological sex” as an immutable binary—all “men” depraved and violent, all “women” fragile victims—may make it easier to convince them of other biological hierarchies. Their insistence on seeing trans women as “violent men,” in particular, can be weaponized against men of colour and turned into overt white supremacy. “It doesn’t take any thinking woman long to see exactly which men are committing violent crime and the majority of partner violence, and race realism is a natural next step.”
Ultimately, the article reasons, it should be easy to convince TERFs that supporting the rights of “biological women” means rejecting “the mid-to-late 20th century Jewish-led feminist theory,” particularly the “corporate slavery” of work outside the home, in favour of accepting their biologically ordained role as wives and mothers. “A pro family, pro natalist movement requires some degree of female participation,” Kat S. writes, “and reframing the patriarchy paradigm is essential.” Ultimately, TERFs must be led to see patriarchy as “a system where men’s urges and strengths are allowed to flourish and channeled into healthy outlets, and women are protected and respected for their material reality and the gifts our unique biology affords.”
It’s a grim irony that, by insisting on a “feminism” without any trans women in it, TERFs have wound up constructing the tool by which fascists aim to destroy feminism altogether. Still, it’s not news that online Nazis have crazy ideas. Could this actually work? To talk about that, we have to pull back and look at the global picture.
TERFs and organized anti-trans groups are only one part of the global right-wing struggle against so-called “gender ideology”: roughly, the confluence of abortion rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, with trans people seeming to inspire particular fury.
That struggle is well-organized, well-funded and global. A 2021 report from the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) found that, between 2009 and 2018, Europe had received USD$707.2 million in “anti-gender funding.” (Again, this comprises initiatives against abortion and LGBTQ2S+ rights more broadly, as well as anti-trans funding; to the opponents of “gender ideology,” they’re all the same thing.) Outside of Europe itself, there were two countries pouring money into the campaign: the United States and Russia.
American anti-gender funding comes largely from the Christian right: the EPF report lists donors like the Heritage Foundation, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom, who are also highly active in anti-abortion and anti-trans politics at home. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for instance, has been credited with creating the legislative templates to inundate U.S. state legislatures with a barrage of transphobic sports bans.
Russian involvement is harder to figure out, not least because that money is often run through “laundromats” intended to disguise its associations. The EPF argues that, for Putin, anti-LGBTQ+ measures are not only desirable in themselves (Russia’s treatment of queers is famously horrific) but also as a means to destabilize the globe. Specifically, Russia has a habit of boosting “far-right, populist political parties with an explicitly disruptive agenda.” If otherwise functioning democracies can be torn apart over civil rights, that creates chaos, which ultimately benefits Russia. Certainly, the United States was weakened by the Trump years, arguably the most successful example of this strategy.
Trying to follow these connections lands you in a human-centipede chain wherein Russian oligarchs dump dark money into U.S. evangelical think tanks and the evangelicals send that money back over the Atlantic to fund TERFs. A law banning teachers from mentioning homosexuality in the classroom appears first in Hungary then in Florida. Youth transition is banned in the U.K. (then restored) and then banned in Idaho. Vladimir Putin defends his invasion of Ukraine, comparing the cancellation of J.K. Rowling to that of Russia. The same regressive ideas swirl back and forth between continents like ocean currents, and with or without conscious coordination, we all end up living in the same mess. Even the most extreme and implausible right-wing ideas have reach and institutional backing they might not otherwise have had, and a global slide into fascism goes from unthinkable to likely.
This is where things get weird.
The Deep Green Resistance member who’s had the biggest influence on the “gender critical” movement is a woman named Jennifer Bilek, whose author biography calls her an “investigative journalist, artist and concerned citizen” (read: blogger), and whose 2018 article for the Federalist, “Who Are the Rich, White Men Institutionalizing Transgender Ideology?,” tilted organized transphobia firmly into the realm of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
In that article, Bilek puts forth the basics of her staggeringly bizarre worldview: a cabal of “transhumanist billionaires”—wealthy individuals supposedly devoted to helping humanity transcend its status as an organic species, like hedge fund tycoon George Soros, philanthropists Warren and Peter Buffett and wealthy trans women Martine Rothblatt and Jennifer Pritzker (yes, this paragraph gets crazier as you go)—has infiltrated the gay community and taken over the “medical industrial complex,” creating a predatory gender industry that convinces cis people they need to transition, with the ultimate goal of normalizing “body dissociation” and extreme body modifications, putting Google chips in our heads and (I swear to God) enslaving the human race by merging man with machine.
Bilek’s theories inspire mockery whenever someone coughs them up on social media—and they should; they’re incredibly silly—but the trope of a sinister moneyed elite plotting the destruction of humanity from the shadows is a familiar from Nazi propaganda. Nearly all of the billionaires on Bilek’s list are, as Schevers points out, “Jewish, transfeminine or gay.”
“One thing that it’s crucial to understand about the far right, the extreme right, the Nazi guys, is the way that they obsessively see absolutely fucking everything as a Jewish plot,” says author and hate researcher Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. “And the existence of trans people is a huge one.”
Lavin cites the 1933 burning of Magnus Hirschfeld’s archives: Hirschfeld, a German Jewish doctor, was a groundbreaking and remarkably sympathetic researcher of transgender identity; his was the first clinic in the world to provide gender-affirming surgery. Then the Nazis burned his work, leaving a hole in history.
To trans people, this looks like proof of erasure. But to a Nazi, Lavin says, it means something different: the presence of a Jewish doctor indicates that “[the] existence of trans people was invented by people like Hirschfeld in order to undermine white masculinity and destroy the white family.”
I spoke to researchers in multiple countries for this piece and all of them agreed that anti-trans activists were becoming increasingly comfortable with presenting their arguments in a white supremacist framework, presenting transition care as an attack on white fertility and white birth rates specifically. Sometimes, this is subtle: Irreversible Damage, a 2020 book in which author Abigail Shrier portrays youth transition as an imminent threat to the fertility of “our daughters,” infamously uses a cover illustration of a young white girl with her uterus scooped out of her body. At the extremes, things get more overt. Alix Aharon, the “GenderMapper” organizer who has led the charge against Planned Parenthood as the “apex of the trans lobby,” also insists transition is only a threat to white children; “Black youth are not transitioning,” she writes.
This obsessive focus on white fertility is of a piece with fascist propaganda about being overrun or replaced by people of colour. “There is a growing body of propaganda about ‘white genocide,’” says Mallory Moore of the U.K.-based Trans Safety Network. “We queer and trans people, and feminists for that matter, are refusing to do our national duty to breed.”
Schevers says that the conspiratorial thinking that dominates TERF circles easily extends to incorporate other civil rights movements—whereas trans people might be framed as a plan to weaken the white race through “sexual degeneracy,” movements like Black Lives Matter are suspected of being unwitting tools of the trans.
“They’re talking about Black Lives Matter [being] co-opted by the trans lobby,” she says. “Again, it’s very similar to Nazi propaganda. ‘This Jewish elite has captured this Black civil rights movement and it’s actually just an attack on white people.’”
At this point, “transphobia” no longer seems like an adequate description of the problem. “Transphobia” implies hating trans people. Believing that the existence of trans people is a Jewish plot to destroy the white race by lowering white AFAB people’s fertility is, to be crude, a whole new level of fucked up.
Yet these ideas are reaching the mainstream, laundered through a sympathetic commentariat that scrubs off their far-right associations. For instance, as researcher Christa Peterson has documented, Helen Joyce’s recent book Trans repeats Bilek’s “Jewish billionaires” theory without citing her by name. Joyce was then reviewed by anti-trans commentator Jesse Singal in the New York Times, and Singal—while calling Joyce’s book “an intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight”—neglected to mention Jewish billionaires at all. Dig two inches down, and you’ll find the Nazis, but on the surface, it looks like reasonable “debate.”
It’s a debate that trans people are losing. Which brings us to the grimmest part of all this: how fascist plans for eliminating trans people have become part of the American mainstream.
It’s no coincidence that much of this story revolves around the election of Donald Trump. The Trump administration emboldened fascist and far-right groups across the board, and it also brought them closer to mainstream political power than ever before—witness the growing number of Nazis and QAnon conspiracy theorists in American legislatures.
The far-right takeover of the Republican party has not been painless; #NeverTrump conservatives feel that overt white supremacists make them look bad, and hate group members think that “moderate” conservatives are sell-outs. Still, transphobia has provided a point of penetration where the far right and mainstream conservatives are united. Rhetoric that was once the exclusive province of the far right has come to dominate mainstream U.S. debates around anti-trans or anti-LGBTQ2S+ legislation. Witness how fertility rates and questions of “sterilizing” children come to dominate any discussion of youth transition. In Florida, the state’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill was framed by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokesperson as an “anti-grooming bill,” and all opponents were cast as pedophiles.
“When they say ‘pedophile,’ they mean someone who shouldn’t be allowed to live,” Lavin says. “The quote-unquote ‘deep state’ of QAnon is engaged in pedophilia. The Democratic Party is engaged in mass pedophilia. The default rhetorical move for [the far right] is ‘everyone is a pedophile and pedophiles should be killed.’”
Slowly but surely, the idea that trans people are inherently a predatory threat to (white) children gains traction—and the will to dispose of the threat follows.
“That’s what I mean when I say ‘annihilatory rhetoric,’” Lavin says. “Like, ‘this is to protect parents and children.’ As if queer people, trans people, aren’t ‘parents’ and ‘children.’ They fall outside the remit of the Volk.”
Here is where I pull back, dizzied, and admit something that sounds paranoid even as I say it: this agenda is, clearly, already genocidal where trans people are concerned, but it also seems likely to escalate and find new targets. “Anti-gender” activism already includes attacks on abortion, women’s rights and the rights of cis queer people, all of which are being rolled back in the United States. The seething hatred of non-white and Jewish people which provides the subtext for these movements must, sooner or later, become their text. I’m frightened for myself, but I’m more frightened because the longer I look at this, the more I concur with gender theorist Judith Butler that trans people might not be the point of anti-trans fascism at all; we are simply the most popular means by which facists “concoct a world of multiple imminent threats to make the case for authoritarian rule and censorship.”
I keep going back to my conversation with Lavin about the Hirschfeld archives. Burning them was one of the first things the Nazis did, but it certainly isn’t what we remember them for. The fact that trans people make an easy first target doesn’t mean we will be the last or even the most important ones. The longer I look at all this, the more information I assemble, the more my mind drifts back to that long-ago fire.
The thing is, fire always spreads. Look around you and see what’s already burning.