How far will UK Right go to weaponise anti-gay and trans sentiment?

Importing tactics from the hard-right in the US, a dangerous anti-gay and trans rhetoric is emerging, peddled by extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Right-Wing Watch

The rainbow flags are flying high as more than a million people are expected to hit the streets of London today to celebrate the annual Pride Parade. But as the festivities get underway for the 51st Pride march in the capital, there is a dark and ominous cloud descending on Britain’s LGBTQ+ scene that is determined to dampen its spirits.

Importing tactics from the hard-right in the US, a dangerous anti-gay and trans rhetoric is emerging, peddled by extremists and conspiracy theorists. This hate-driven movement is framing drag as ‘trans ideology,’ as it seeks to mobilise against this form of gender expression under the guise of protecting children.

It makes you wonder how far the trolls will go to weaponise the rising tide of negative attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity. Will Britain see the same weaponisation of public policy as seen the US, where, driven by extremist groups, more than 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislations in 2023. And we’re only six months into the year.

new report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think-tank that specialises in research and policy advice on hate, extremism, and disinformation, reveals a similar grim reality of rising anti-LGBTQ+ extremism in Britain.

The key target of such fanaticism is family drag shows. The report identifies 57 anti-drag protests that have taken place in the UK since June 2022. The protests are often organised by far-right groups including white nationalists and anti-vaxxers. Under particular pursuit is Drag Queen Story Hour. These family-friendly events involve a drag performer telling stories and reading books to audiences made up of children. Throughout the year, Drag Queen Story occasions have been taking place in libraries and sometimes schools. 

Cross-dressing and drag have been part of cultural expression in Britain since the 18th century, even earlier when you consider the cross-dressed characters Shakespeare deploys to drive his plots. And as for pantomime – all those dames and pantomime ‘boys’!  Despite its long and lustrous history, this form of gender expression is being threatened by a coordinated campaign to silence it.

“Drag performers are framed as ideological indoctrinators, seeking to ‘groom’ children into LGBTQ+ identities, particularly trans identities,” states the ISD report.

“They are also framed as predatory, with some people, such as Turning Point UK activist and GB News presenter Calvin Robinson asking the rhetorical question, ‘Why [are] drag queens so keen to spend time with your children?’”

Schools in Britain that are embracing inclusivity and trans identity are finding themselves bearing the brunt of this bigoted and deliberately indoctrinating way of thinking.  

The high school my children attend, recently found itself the focus of the negative trans framing the ISD report speaks of. In early June, the small community school in rural Derbyshire was subjected to an intense media storm for attempting to show it welcomes a gender-expansive and inclusive environment.

The school had planned a Pride event, which was to feature the award-winning LGBTQ+ children’s author Aida H Dee, who runs Drag Queen Story. The author was going to explore issues around homophobia and mental health in literacy for the school’s Year 9 and 10 students. Following a self-righteous uproar peddled by the right-wing media, which even saw the story the focus of a ‘Kids in Drag?’ panel debate on GB News, the school cancelled the event, leaving many of the students, parents, staff, and LGBTQ+ community disappointed.

A week later, our school was back under right-wing media scrutinyThe Sun and the Express derogatorily labelled the school as ‘woke’ for issuing an admission form that asked children to choose from a list of pronouns. Again, the deliberately provocative reporting failed to acknowledge that not everyone was incensed by the decision to use a gender inclusive form and some parents, and pupils, welcomed it. Fox News even leapt on the storyclaiming parents were ‘baffled’ by the dozens of pronouns. In its online report, the Republican news channel seized the chance to attach a video of Vice-President Kamala Harris introducing herself with ‘she/her’ pronouns and a description of her outfit at a roundtable on the overturning of Roe v. Wade and its effects on the disabled. 

The ISD’s research shows that incidents like these involving anti-drag, anti-gender identity fury in Britain have been lifted from ideas in the US, where anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and attacks are widespread. Even in supposedly liberal California, where gay communities have fought for decades for equal rights and where 10 percent of state legislature identifies as LGBTQ+, right-wing attacks on gay communities have soared in recent years. Recently, a violent demonstration took place at a school board meeting over a planned Pride assembly. At a different school, a transgender teacher’s Pride flag was set on fire. Meanwhile, in decidedly less liberal Florida, such is the anti-gay sentiment that just this week Kamala Harris described the consequences of the state’s controversial ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law as “outrageous.”

“You look at Florida, the Don’t Say Gay bill and what this has meant for LGBTQ+ teachers who are now afraid,” Harris said

The controversial legislation that bans ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ issues from classrooms – dubbed by critics as the Don’t Say Gay bill – was signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in May. It was one of four bills that the ‘anti-woke’ governor signed restricting LGBTQ+ rights. He also signed a bill that will ban trans people from using the public facilities that align with their gender identities and another that will restrict ‘adult’ performances in front of minors. The latter measure was intended to limit drag performances; DeSantis admitted.

This is the man who is, of course, challenging Donald Trump in the race for the 2024 Republican White House nomination. This is also the man who just this week released a blueprint of his hardline immigration agenda, including ending birthright citizenship.

Instead of steering clear of these inciting, smearing and divisive policies being pushed out by right-wing Republicans in the US, similar tactics are being emulated by certain politicians in Britain. The importation of conspiracy theories and anti-gay and drag sentiment from the US, is, dangerously, being pursued by members of the Conservative government. The ISD’s report singled out Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson for his comments on culture wars and their impact on escalating anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. When promoted to the high-ranking position within the party as part of Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle in February, the Ashfield MP said Tories will fight the next election on ‘trans debate and culture wars.’

Then there is Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch. Labelled by right-wingers as the ‘anti-woke darling of the Right,’ Badenoch met with her, as the Express worded it, ‘political love match’ Ron DeSantis in London in April. And the Business Secretary hasn’t earned her ‘anti-woke’ badge without reason. Just this week, she rebuked the British embassy in Finland for inviting a trans activist, who, according to the Telegraph’s gushing report, has claimed that ‘Terfs’ – trans-exclusionary radical feminists – are racist.  

Julian Honkasalo is a Finnish scholar of trans history. He had been invited to speak to staff and the British ambassador Theresa Bubbear about “the varied, contradictory and well-funded group of actors that make up the anti-gender movement.” In its deliberately provocative article, the Telegraph claims that Dr Honkasalo, who describes himself as gender non-conforming, attacked “Terfs”, for parroting “white feminism” in a research article only two months earlier. The same report relished informing readers that a source close to anti-woke Badenoch has said ‘much greater care should be taken over who they [the Finnish embassy] choose to invite to speak.’

While we might expect this dangerous discourse to be promoted by the Right of the Tory party, it isn’t restricted to Conservatives. Earlier this year, a cross-party alliance was formed that caused concern for the LGBTQ+ community. Evangelical Christian Tory MP Miriam Cates teamed up with Labour MP Rosie Duffield, to fight against trans rights.

In an interview with the Express, the pair said they want to prevent women’s rights being “wiped out by stealth” by a “small group of extremist activists” [trans people] who want to “shut up” women.

Despite warnings by lawyers about how barring trans from single-sex spaces would be unlawful, Duffield insisted that access to “single-sex-only spaces is crucial.”

Miriam Cates meanwhile is, of course, well-known for anti-trans rhetoric. In an interview with the Telegraph in May, the Tory MP was described as ‘desperate’ for school reforms around sex education and gender guidance to be ‘done and dusted.’

If we thought that such anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment will not translate into anti-inclusive laws in Britain as it is doing in the US, where a litany of gay legislation has been passed this year alone, we should perhaps think again.

In January, the UK government blocked Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform bill, citing concerns over ‘single sex’ spaces and ‘equal pay’ restrictions. The legislation would have made it easier for trans people to gain legal recognition of their gender identity. Miriam Cates was at the forefront of opposition to the bill, linking trans people to predators in a House of Common speech about the legislation. Cates claimed the bill would make it “vastly easier for a predator to gain access to children” and alleged it would have a “chilling effect” on single-sex spaces. She also alleged that she had had several experiences with trans people in toilets, stating that “women are far less powerful than men … we can’t defend ourselves”. 

The comments were, thankfully, recognised for what they were and were condemned as ‘disgusting.’ Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle said the speech was “probably one of the worst transphobic, dog whistle speeches” he’s heard in a “long time”. 

As anti-gay rhetoric makes ground in Britain promoted by culture war stoking politicians, the number of hate crimes recorded against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is also on the rise. In the 12 months to last March, hate crimes based on sexual orientation rose to 26,152 a 40 percent increase.

On June 24, Turning Point UK, a British offshoot of the US Trump-aligned, right-wing group set up to promote right-wing politics in UK schools, colleges and universities, launched a fifth protest at the Honor Oak Pub in south east London for hosting a Drag Queen Story event. Following the protest, Trans Safety Network, which monitors organised harm against trans people in the UK, informed Pink News that a trans activist had been attacked with ‘multiple punches’ and left bloodied by an anti-drag protestor.

Decades of progress on LGBTQ+ rights have been made in Britain, as it has in many countries. But despite this, we cannot ignore that there is a dangerous undercurrent simmering, employed by a range of right-wing and authoritarian leaders desperate to shore up political power. They claim that LGBTQ+ ideology poses a threat to traditional notions of the family and to national identity, as a means of mobilising support.

Whether voters will ‘buy into’ this way of thinking remains to be seen. Polling suggests the public is broadly sympathetic to trans rights and, most simply, don’t regard the issue as a priority. But that doesn’t stop right-wing forces ramping up politicised backlashes against sexual and gender minorities. And for those in the firing line, the repercussions can be grave and damaging.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Right-Wing press in meltdown over Lords’ blocking of the boats bill and Rwanda ‘blow’

It’s been another bad week for the Tories. Even before the Appeal Court ruling that the Rwanda policy was unlawful, on June 28, key parts of Rishi Sunak’s stop the boats bill were shredded by the House of Lords. Conservative peers were among those who voted to stop plans to deport trafficking victims to Rwanda and other countries. The peers also moved to force the Illegal Immigration Bill to narrow its scope and comply with international law.

As you can imagine, the right-wing media, which is well-known for its aggressive reporting on immigration, didn’t take the government’s small boats bill defeat too kindly.

‘Peers ‘wrecked’ small boats Bill by voting to allow asylum seekers to stay in UK,’ was the headline in the Telegraph. The newspaper decided to frame its reportage of this week’s Illegal Migration Bill defeat around the comments of Lord Murray, who said the amendments will ‘profoundly undermine’ attempts to stop the small boats. The article proceeds to cite the views of Tory vice chairman, Lee Anderson and MP Jonathan Gullis, both of whom are fervent anti-immigration voices in the Tory party. Gullis has previously called for asylum seekers to be housed in “portacabins or tents,” while Anderson has claimed that Calais refugee charities are ‘just as bad as people smugglers.’

In response to this week’s spanner in the government’s controversial Rwanda plan, Gullis told the Telegraph: “If the judgement goes the way of the government – as I expect it to – and if we do not need to go to the Supreme Court, I would like to see a flight take off as soon as possible.

“If judges in Strasbourg try to meddle once again, we should simply delete the email as rule 39 injunctions are not legally binding and get the planes off the ground.”

Equally as outraged was the Daily Mail. ‘House of Lords delivers blow to Sunak’s bid to stop small boats migrants by forcing through major changes to the Illegal Migration Bill,’ was the Mail’s headline. The article quotes a Conservative spokesperson, who said: ‘Today’s vote proves what we already knew – the Labour Party cannot be trusted to stop the boats and the gangs that profit.’

This attack on Labour comes despite Tories being among those who opposed the plans to deport trafficking victims to Rwanda. Conservative peer Lord Cormack said the bill would “undermine an international achievement [the 2015 Modern Slavery Act] of far-reaching importance.”

Meanwhile, the Daily Express devoted its entire front page to warnings to House of Lords peers that they will face a ‘showdown’ if they attempt to block new laws stopping small boats.

‘Don’t you dare block boats bill,’ read the menacing headline.

Such heated reportage on the latest blow to the government is unsurprising really coming from a press which was found to have had the most aggressive reporting on Europe’s migrant ‘crisis’. Research conducted by the Conversation found that in most countries, newspapers, whether left or right-wing, tended to report on immigration matters using the same sources. They also featured the same kind of themes and provided similar explanations and solutions to the crisis.

But the press in the UK was different. While the Guardian and, to a lesser extent, the Daily Mirror, featured a number of different humanitarian themes and sources who were sympathetic to the plight of refugees, the right-wing press consistently endorsed a hardline anti-refugee and migrant, ‘Fortress Europe approach.’

Separate analysis reveals that the Daily Express and the Daily Mail lead the way in negative coverage of refuges, immigrants, and asylum seekers.

And just take a look at the raft of ‘trending Rwanda news’ reports published in the Mail this week. Yes, these drivers of anti-immigration attitudes designed to fuel fear that those escaping persecution will have a negative impact our way of living, are certainly living up to their reputation.  

Woke bashing of the week – School children identifying as cats story found to be fake in right-wing bid to legitimise hate

School children identifying as cats. Is it real, or isn’t it? If the mainstream conservative media and right-wing ‘identitarian’ groups have their way, of course it’s real. And is proof that teachers’ authority over their pupils is ‘long gone,’ – as Katharine Birbalsingh, Britain’s ‘toughest headteacher,’ and rent a quote for the right-wing press, recently declared in the Daily Mail.

Those who recognise the right-wing media forces for what they really are, won’t be surprised to hear the latest furry animal led moral panic pushed out by virtually every right-wing source with a voice, has been identified for what is really is – a fake story that was considered too good to check by journalists and editors obviously desperate to create a stir.

To cut a long story short, a school in Rye became the focus of a political and media storm last month after TikTok footage of teenage students debating whether a person could identify as a cat went viral. A pupil describes the idea of another pupil identifying as a cow or cat as ‘crazy.’ A teacher is heard telling the student their views are ‘despicable’ and saying: ‘If you don’t like it, you need to go to a different school.’

What predictably transpired was a full-blown political and media panic both sides of the Atlantic.

‘School that allowed child to identify as cat faces government investigation,’ shrieked the Telegraph.

‘Parents at ‘cat gender’ row school slams teachers for ‘focusing on ‘woke’ issues over education,’ gushed the Mail.

The PM even got involved, at least his spokesperson did, telling reporters: “Teachers … should also not be teaching contested opinions as fact or shutting down valid discussions and debates.”

Like with many of these anti-woke, gender identity-stoking stories, the facts, or wider context, were deliberately ignored for the simple reason that if they were included, the story wouldn’t be as striking and the hate-fuelled message less effective. 

In this case, as journalists from more measured, liberal, and truth-ascertaining news sources identified, the teacher in question never actually mentioned cats.

“At no point did the teacher refer to any child identifying as a cat. Yes, there was a very heated debate about gender identity – but the only people to mention cats (and possibly a cow) were the girls who had made the illicit recording,” wrote Otto English for Byline Times. When Otto made his observations public on Twitter, he too became the focus of irate online trolling, with the likes of GB News’ host Josh Howie demanding that the ‘false and fake news tweet’ was deleted.

Similarly, concerns about such controversies risk creating a dangerous climate in schools for both pupils and teachers, were conveniently absent from the sensationalist reports.

“I feel like it’s been blown totally out proportion,” said Natasha Devon, a campaigner and broadcaster who was the DfE’s first “mental health champion,” adding, “… it’s definitely not a trend in the way that it has been presented. And this is very much about trying to delegitimise those young people who are trans.”

Sadly, the Rye school outrage, like the Derbyshire school drag and pronouns media furore, just adds to the tonnage of hate already being thrown at the transgender and wider LGBTQ+ community.

Like all of this outrage, the ‘schools encouraging children to identify as animals’ story had come straight from the US, where, as in Britain, it’s not even true. But the speed at which such ideas become mainstream illustrates how effective the righteous, anti-woke mob can be when it gets to work.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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