Of course, I support trans rights, but I just think that a rigid definition of gender is how we all must live, and I support legal efforts to make that happen. We must think about the children.
Of course, I support gay people, but you've been loud and mean in asserting your basic humanity, and while I abhor "these new laws," you really should have been a tad nicer. It's your fault, really.
Of course, I think kink, polyamory, and all of that weird "stuff" is fine inside a theoretical bedroom, but must you talk about it? Must you expose potential hypothetical children to the idea that there are other healthy possibilities to monogamy?
These are the justifications I hear a lot. And before we go further, yes, even from self-identified queer people who have internalized the message that they must not take up space in order to remain unharmed by straight society (see You're Delusional if You Think Queer People Are Responsible for This Moral Panic). There are lots of people who are pushing for anti-queerness while at the same time providing themselves with rhetorical cover against accusations of anti-queerness, and I wanted to discuss this tension.
I support queer people, but I think queerness is disgusting
This rhetorical dance is standard both online and off. Again, someone will caveat their statement by saying that they support queerness and then add a but followed by a string of the vilest arguments and justifications. As Maya Forstater argued on the website Crowd Justice:
“I agree that transgender people should not face discrimination and harassment as they live their lives. But I am concerned about the impact of self ID on women and girls, and in particular on single sex spaces and services such as women’s refuges, hostels, prisons, changing rooms and hospital wards, as well as women’s sports.”
Here, we can see a level of cost avoidance going on. Maya Forstater has internalized a bias — in this case, that the act of trans acceptance in public settings will lead to more harassment — but she doesn't want to come out and say that we must not accept trans identity in public life because that would sound awful. There is a social cost for being openly bigoted and calling an entire class of people predators. In multicultural societies such as the US and the UK, it's generally not socially acceptable to say that you want to discriminate against or exterminate a particular group (although that calculus is changing).
We can spend ages trying to understand the psychological reasons for this cost avoidance. Maybe she is playing a political game, hoping to push social conventions toward discrimination and extermination. Maybe she doesn't want to experience the shame and guilt that comes with being open about it. Perhaps she can't even be honest with it herself because doing so would challenge her conception of being a "good person." The answer is unimportant. We can never truly know what is inside someone's heart. Regardless of the justification, this caveat allows her to defer the social and perhaps even psychological costs of trying to strip away a group's social and political rights.
For years, there has been this framing that many people, particularly conservatives, can no longer say certain things. "Nearly 70% of Conservative Students Fear Social Repercussions for Opinions," summarized a recent article from the Young America's Foundation. Many socially regressive people are perfectly aware of the reality that there are things they can't say and have been trying to dance around that reality for a while now. Sometimes, as with this headline, even framing it as oppression.
It's that fear that leads to this sort of rhetorical posturing of faux-acceptance. Anti-queer people might change their rhetoric to be more direct later on, after they have pushed anti-queerness toward more open discrimination and extermination (that's partially what the recent Groomer rhetoric is for), but initially, this caveat can serve as a bridge to lay over untested waters. The "I support X but…" statement and its many derivatives allows advocates to dress up themselves and their discrimination as reasonable to those that may be attracted to the mere language of reasonableness and moderation.
For example, take medium writer Steve QJ's piece Trans Activism's Self-Inflicted Backlash. Steve insists that noted hated speech advocate Matt Walsh is a terrible person — that's his caveat. However, he goes on to say that a deeply flawed documentary Walsh has produced called What Is A Woman? — one that was made quite duplicitously (see You Don't Need To See The Documentary "What is a Woman?") — has some "good points." Steve essentially prefaces his article with the claim that he isn't a bigot and then pivots to not only push anti-trans rhetoric but to place the blame for this latest anti-trans panic onto a narrow set of trans activists.
“For the first time in history, there’s been a decline in LGBT acceptance among young Americans. And it’s hard not to suspect that that decline is being driven by one particular letter. Not because they suddenly hate trans people. Not because they’re “right-wing.” Not because they’re fascists or religious fundamentalists or boomers. But because lesbian, gay and bisexual people aren’t demanding sweeping social and societal changes, all without any debate, under penalty of being hounded out of your school or losing your job or losing your children.”
This argument sounds "reasonable" but ignores that many of the people passing anti-trans legislation never really supported trans people in the first place. Many bigoted activists have consistently tested the waters to see what arguments will turn the public against us (see the 2010 bathroom debates). Steve QJ's view is taking a few edge cases where anti-trans people are fired from their jobs for holding bigoted views (most bigots still aren't) and then claiming that those rare examples (often done by cisgender people reacting to bad publicity) are enough to blame trans people for the discrimination being levied against them.
It also ignores that many queer people have demanded sweeping changes throughout history — yes even the gay and lesbian ones. The grassroots campaign AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was a queer HIV/AIDs movement that capitalized on loud, in-your-face stunts such as "die-ins" that were not well appreciated by the public of the time. In fact, most social justice movements we consider successes now made people deeply uncomfortable. The Black Panthers, now touted for their free school lunch programs and other community services, were often demonized and are still remembered quite poorly. If polling data is to be believed, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s was very unpopular for most of its history.
And, of course, there is the elephant in the room that this rhetoric doesn't always stop at only passive acceptance of bigotry. Steve QJ has rationalized his hatred by claiming that it's not hatred at all. He is shifting the blame from the people passing anti-trans laws to the persecuted minority reacting to that discrimination. It's easy to see this logic being used to justify further radicalization. As laws get worse, trans people respond to that discrimination, and people like Steve point to their “imperfect” reactions as further justification for why they are being harmed. It's the metaphorical equivalent of the "why are you hitting yourself" meme, except instead of an annoying toddler using your arm to hit you in the face, bigots are using your pain and grief to blame you for the suffering they are perpetuating, or at the very least, are comfortable bearing witness to.
I have already argued that the US is pushing toward a trans genocide, so I will not retread those arguments here (check out Surprisingly, This Is What a Trans Genocide Looks Like). What I want to highlight is that before the passage of regressive laws and the rounding up of undesirables, there are rhetorical strategies used to defer social costs so that people can be more confident in their discrimination (see also "It's just a joke"), and the "I support X group, but…" tactic is one of them.
But what do we do about it?
Now again, plenty of people are not using this rhetoric maliciously. Not everyone who is anti-queer is a fascist. However, the foundation for fascism is there. If all it takes to get one to abandon their support for a marginalized group is the mere assuaging of one's shame, then one can be taken to some pretty dark places. It has not been lost on me that people were radicalized against queer people in a rapid amount of time, with the tide turning against issues like children being able to access puberty blockers and trans people being able to use the bathroom of their choice.
And so the natural question becomes, how do you deal with this caveat?
In some ways, I am not sure if you can do this directly. If someone is building up a psychological shield because they don't want to be held accountable for their words and actions, they are likely to meet you with defensiveness rather than meaningful dialogue. The idea that you can "win" against that is a tad naive. All you can do is politely offer resistance (or don’t) and then move on.
From a movement level, the answer to this problem comes from who we decide to prioritize, a fact many people have mentioned before (see The Alt-Right Playbook: The Cost of Doing Business, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, etc.). While deradicalization will always have a niche place, it's our base that we need to expand. Maybe focus more on reaching out to liberals and leftists who are merely misinformed, not moderates and conservatives who don't care about your humanity and are only looking for you to provide them absolution for their shame.
Ultimately, base-building is what is needed to be done. Find the people that don’t need years of work but merely a nudge, and then find a hundred more. That scales much more quickly than arguing with the metaphorical equivalent of a brick wall.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.