Transphobia, Eugenics, and the Nation State in Britain

Op/Ed #1

By Kaileigh La Belle

Activists march in solidarity with trans people at London Pride, 2010, reclaiming the image of the pink triangle, once used as a symbol of persecution for queer and trans individuals under the fascist and eugenic mission of the Nazis.

“An imported culture war,” decry critics in response to Drag Queen Story Hour UK. Despite the organization’s commitment to inclusivity and literacy, British conservatives, TERFS, and the Far-Right see it as an attempt to “indoctrinate” the youth into foreign “woke” principles. For them, trans inclusion is not only antithetical to the British nation but a threat to the nation’s future, represented here by children. This Far-Right vocabulary is becoming increasingly popular with anti-trans groups across the political and social spectrum, as a recent study by Global Action for Trans Equality [GATE] found. As GATE sees it, the decrease in popular support for trans rights in Britain is driven by mainly Far-Right actors “enmeshing” the two ideologies. However, this perspective fails to account for the innate historical connection between transphobia and the Far-Right. This connection, often surrounding eugenic talking points on ‘moral’ health and reproduction, negotiates the place of transphobia in alarmist, nationalist claims, one that breeds an incredibly fascistic potential. 

Recent queer histories reveal that transphobia, as we know it today, was unfortunately born not long after trans identities were named in western culture and science. Much of this early transphobia was (and continues to be) centred around the western, Christian gender binary; grounded in the biblical dichotomy of pure versus sinful, anything outside of that, particularly non-Christian, non-White gender-sexual constructs, was quickly labelled as “deviant.” In the fascist worldview, trans people remained “deviants” who signalled the moral decay of the nation and represented an “ideology” imposed by ‘liberal elites’ in universities, medicine, politics, etc. It was, and is, in this climate of hate that fascists attacked trans people and systemically destroyed trans culture in the name of ‘tradition’ and ‘morality’. 

Today, anti-trans movements in Britain continue to propagate the image of the “sexual deviant.” When polled, the British public remained divided on many trans issues. In particular, there was less support for the presence of trans women in women’s bathrooms and other ‘women’s only spaces.’ As in earlier Far-Right ideas about trans womanhood, many transphobes present trans women and the trans rights movements as granting “male-bodied people” access to women and girls in ‘intimate’ spaces; they imply that trans women would harm cis women and girls morally or physically. This rhetoric, in presenting trans women as naturally deviant and dangerous, also biologizes vulnerability for cis women. Furthermore, children are often seen as being corrupted by the supposed ‘inherently’ sexual nature of trans inclusion and education. Not only does this present an overt moralist image of imperilled innocence around which people can rally, but it again assumes passivity in children, subtly evoking the fascist image of the paternalistic family. These assumptions ultimately uphold the gendered fascist status quo, as they have done historically. 

Historically, the conflation of trans identity with ‘moral deviancy’ justified the idea that being trans was an “illness” and one that could “contaminate” the nation, which underpins eugenic anxieties about race, reproduction, and the nation. Today these ideas play out in the recent Far-Right obsession with “de-transition” narratives—stories posited by transphobes about young people regretting transitioning and professing the supposed harms that it caused to their bodies. One of the most popular pieces of anti-trans literature, Irreversible Damage: Teenage Girls and Transgender Craze, posits (falsely) that the world has seen an increase in white middle-class teen girls seeking gender affirmation surgery due to “mental illness” and being “groomed” into “thinking” they’re trans. Much like Irreversible Damage, the de-transition narratives that circulate widely in these transphobic circles emphasize the loss of “natural womanhood”, that is reproductive organs like the uterus. In centring the reproductive capabilities of middle-class white girls, these narratives continue the fascist trend of designating women as “walking wombs”. Presenting young trans men as ‘groomed’ by outsider ‘sexual deviants’ and weakening the ability of (white, middle-class) “women” to reproduce, these narratives also prop up white supremacist anxieties about race “replacement.”

Bringing the nation once again into the picture is the eugenic policy enabled by this continuation of historically fascist rhetoric on trans people and reproduction. While past fascist regimes have been more overt in their attacks on trans people, modern Britain practices passive eugenics, namely the denial of safe medical care and preventing immigration. In 2021, one in seven trans individuals in Britain reported being denied medical care; conversion therapy remained legal for trans youth longer than it did for their gay counterparts; the use of puberty blockers, a life-saving procedure in many cases, was banned for minors; trans refugees are routinely denied entry. These systemic policies, not including the numerous attacks and harassment received by trans individuals every day, are dependent on the belief that trans identity is an ‘illness’ that deviates from the “healthy norm” (that is, in their eyes, cis heterosexuality) and poses a threat to the reproductive capabilities of (as they see it, predominately middle-class, white) girls and young women. As such these actions are passed off as ‘protecting’ the nation’s youth, health, women, tradition, future, etc. 

Unfortunately, transphobia is an ideology that is growing, mobilizing alongside its historical companion, the Far-Right. While identifying these historical continuities is not to say that Britain is now fascist or will rapidly become fascist, they make us aware of our blind spots in anti-fascist work. If anything, this perspective emphasizes why we must see supporting trans-inclusive initiatives and the trans community as a distinctly anti-fascist action.