A long-running, dangerous conspiracy theory that baselessly likens members of the LGBTQ+ community to paedophiles now zeros in on transgender people.
By Esther Chan
Warning: this article contains strong language.
The old trope that falsely portrays members of the LGBTQ+ community as paedophiles was popularised by the US conservative mainstream and online influencers around 2020. More than two years later, it is gaining momentum in Australia.
CrossCheck tracks and analyses the emergence and development of online trends and sentiments, focusing on harmful narratives that target marginalised groups and communities.
This time, we found the lens is turned on the transgender community.
Historically, gay men have been mischaracterised as paedophiles. As Joseph J. Fischel, associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University noted, this has been “deployed to criminalize gays... retract their rights... or to neutralize their political aspirations.”
More recently, this has been adopted to stigmatise LGBTQ+ people. In 2017, a study reported half of all transgender prisoners in England and Wales were “either sex offenders and/or highly dangerous prisoners”. While British newspaper The Independent had found the study to be conducted “based upon lack of data, pure guess-work and fear mongering”, the misconception has added to the ingrained prejudices and inspired similar claims. In the leadup to Australia’s 2022 federal election, the Liberal Party’s candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, copped backlash for reportedly making the claim that “half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders”.
The question remains: Is the stigma against LGBTQ+ people as sexual predators, paedophiles or child sex offenders backed by crime statistics?
Despite a lack of data on LGBTQ+ people on sex offender registers, the answer is: unlikely.
While Australia has yet to establish a national sex offender registry (Western Australia is the only state that has a sex offender registry in place, and convicted child sex offenders are automatically placed on it); countries that have one, such as the US and the UK, do not include information about the registrants’ gender identity and sexual orientation.
Partly driven by an attempt to demonstrate how LGBTQ persons are “disproportionately incarcerated in prisons and jails in the United States”, in 2020 University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) law school’s Williams Institute surveyed more than 900 people who self-identified as being on the US’ sex offence registries. Around 20 percent of the respondents identified as LGBTQ persons, and the remaining 80 percent identified as straight cisgender i.e. people whose gender identity aligns with their biological sex, and who are emotionally or sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex or gender.
The survey found there was no significant difference in the number of respondents between the two groups who were convicted over the following sex offences: child pornography (distributing, manufacturing, or possessing), child molestation, sexual contact with a person below the age of consent (statutory rape), and soliciting or enticing a child (including online solicitation) (see Table 2 in P16 and 17 of the report).
In spite of a lack of statistics supporting the misleading conflation of the LGBTQ+ community with paedophiles or child sex offenders, intensified hatred against the group was noted on social media around this year’s WorldPride in Sydney in February and March.
Artwork that celebrates the occasion, including the murals of “dick wings” (angel wings formed by penises) and a bondaged Russian bear — supposed to mock Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s record of LGBTQ+ crackdown — were slammed as pornographic images endorsed by “child groomers”.
Australian rapper Spanian, who is followed by nearly 280,000 users on Instagram alone, said paedophiles were among parade-goers in a now-unavailable Instagram video posted just before the Mardi Gras parade. He said some participants of the gay pride were paedophiles in disguise, targeting kids “just like Balenciaga”.
This refers to the backlash against the luxury fashion label in late 2022, when it was accused of promoting child abuse in several of its campaigns showing teddy bears in fishnet, chains and leather straps. Critics said the ad campaigns included elements that could be associated with BDSM gear.
Another anti-trans claim circulating in Australia-based Telegram groups and channels around Sydney’s Mardi Gras also falsely stated that the white, blue and pink on the trans flag are “paedophile pride colours”.
The false accusation that trans people are dangerous to children continued to spread in Australia following WorldPride.
Ahead of the New South Wales (NSW) state election on March 25, Mark Latham, the NSW leader of the right-wing populist political party One Nation, went on a last-ditch campaign to garner support from conservative voters. One of his policies for school education proposed the abolition of gender fluidity teaching, which he said is “a form of child abuse”.
Latham’s appearance at a Catholic church in Sydney’s southwest to speak about religious freedom and parental rights just before the state election was protested by a group of LGBTQ+ activists. The protest ended in clashes between the activists and hundreds of counter protesters after a crucifix was broken, The Daily Telegraph quoted a spokesperson for the parish of St Michael The Archangel at Belfield as saying.
While news reports pointed to the group Christian Lives Matters as being behind the counter protest, group founder Charlie Bakhos said he had organised a prayer meeting on church grounds in the same evening, but that as many as 80 percent of the counter protesters were not known to him.
It is worth noting that the term “fascists” have been used by both Mark Latham and the LGBTQ+ activists around the incident. Following the confrontation, Latham said the LGBTQ+ protesters were supporters of the “new Rainbow Fascism”, while the latter called Christian Lives Matter a “violent fascistic hate group supported by One Nation and Mark Latham”.
In early 2023, confrontations that either targeted or were sparked by hostility against the transgender community were also reported elsewhere in Australia and across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand.
A concerning presence of neo-Nazis was reported in Melbourne as trans rights activists and those against them clashed during a “Let Women Speak” event, organised by the UK women’s rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, aka Posie Parker.
Following the event, dozens of people who appeared to have ties to a neo-Nazi group were seen performing the Nazi salute outside Victoria’s Parliament. The group also posted a Telegram video of its members at the event, saying it was a protest against “transvestite paedophiles” and vowed to “destroy paedo freaks”. The video included the unfounded accusation that transgender people are promoting the sexual grooming of children.
The sighting of the Nazi salute prompted a proposed ban on the gesture by Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ administration. This came after Victoria banned the public display of the Nazi swastika last year — the first jurisdiction in Australia to do so.
In response to the Victorian government’s proposed ban on the Nazi salute, a far-right activist posted on Telegram saying that there is a reason the premier cares more about “paedophiles and faggots” than the rest of the state’s population. “Pic related: Dan Andrews and his wife”, the post says, pushing the lie that Andrews’ wife Catherine is a transgender person.
UK women’s rights activist Posie Parker had said she was not associated with the neo-Nazis who showed up at her Melbourne event. She then moved onto Auckland, New Zealand, for another “Let Women Speak” gathering.
However, her campaigning on the groundless allegation that trans people are dangerous to women, or that they would impede women’s rights had infuriated the transgender community and their supporters in Auckland. More than 2,000 counter protesters booed, heckled and surrounded Parker, who subsequently cancelled an event planned in Wellington.
A still from a video taken during the Auckland event, which has been viewed millions of times in a tweet by British author J. K. Rowling, shows a rectangular object pressed against a person’s neck, which is also held by a hand on the other side.
The pink t-shirt seen in the image resembles the one Posie Parker wore at the Auckland event, as seen in a photo taken by a visual journalist at Stuff.co.nz:
Rowling, who has been criticised for her views that transgender people could compromise women’s rights, wrote in the tweet that the photo shows “male violence against women”. Other similar claims added that a knife was held to Posie Parker’s throat by “trans thugs”.
However, these claims are false; a frame-by-frame analysis of a NZ Herald video from the scene found that the object is in fact a mobile phone attached to a selfie stick held by a person standing next to Posie Parker.
Below is a collage of stills from the NZ Herald video showing the same scene (top left), the selfie stick attached to the phone (top right) and the person holding the phone and the stick next to Posie Parker (bottom):
While a visual analysis found that Parker was not held at knifepoint, the out-of-context image circulating online had already caused damage. It has been used to disregard trans women, who are portrayed as simply men who wish to silence women.
Posie Parker, who said in the past she would not accept the presence of trans women in women’s changing room, sticks to her narrative that what she experienced was an attack on women who speak up for themselves. Others, including J. K. Rowling, said trans rights protesters are in fact “men’s rights activists”, and that Posie Parker was “assaulted” by men.
This claim rejects trans women’s chosen gender identity by putting the focus on the fact that they were born biological male.
These examples from Australia and New Zealand show the line between viral online disinformation and physical actions has blurred. Untruths such as that trans people are child sexual predators have made them a target of abuse and physical violence.
The trend has aggravated further globally after the assailant in the March 27 deadly school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, was identified as a transgender person.
As police continue to investigate the shooter’s motive, the attack feeds into the erroneous narrative that trans people target children, especially Christians and their children. This stems from the speculation that the shooter, who used the pronouns he/him in their social media profile, could be harbouring resentment against their former school — a Christian one.
Referring to the shooter, conservative commentator Rogan O’Handley, who goes by DC Draino, said “It seems her message was ‘if you don’t let us groom & mutilate your children, we’ll end them’.” O’Handley is followed by nearly 790,000 users on Twitter at the time of publication.
Other conservative pundits shared the harmful narrative that trans people are violent and that the Nashville shooting was a terror attack. A meme shared by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who has more than 4.5 million followers on Twitter, described the shooter as a trans killer.
The Nashville shooter used the pronouns he/him in their social media profile, which led to the question of whether, if they were, taking testosterone — part of a masculinising hormone therapy that those who wish to transition from female to male may take but not everyone chooses to do so — could make a person more aggressive, or even capable of “mass violence”.
Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene said it was not guns, but testosterone and medications for mental illness that should be blamed for the shooting. Others believed gender dysphoria is a “disorder” or mental illness, and that since trans people may be on hormone therapy, “big pharmas” should be held accountable over shootings.
Newsweek looked into several studies about the impact of hormone-replacement therapy on trans people. Referencing a peer-reviewed article published in the British Medical Journal in 2020, it states that “aggression may increase during initiation of testosterone treatment, but will return to baseline during long-term testosterone treatment.” The news magazine concluded that the sample sizes of these studies were small and more data and research is needed to determine the relationship between testosterone for trans men and violence.
On the other hand, posts that have been misinterpreted as being supportive of the deadly shooting, or that consider the shooting as a transgender person fighting back have also emerged on social media.
Josselyn Berry, then press secretary of Arizona’s Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs, tweeted in the evening of the shooting: “Us when we see transphobes” along with a GIF of a woman holding two guns. Concerned users tagged the FBI in the reply section, others called her a “Christphobe” who should resign.
The tweet has been deleted and Berry has turned her account private. She has since resigned from her job.
A Trans Day of Vengeance protest, originally organised by the group Trans Radical Activist Network (TRAN) in Washington DC on April 1, has been misleadingly described as a show of support for the shooter.
However, the event, which was cancelled following the Nashville shooting, had been promoted online since at least February. It was not created as an activity to celebrate the school shooting or the shooter.
Even though TRAN’s proposed rally was not related to the school shooting, a promotional poster featuring the hashtag #StopTransGenocide has been removed by Twitter following the shooting. The platform’s Trust and Safety Vice President Ella Irwin said more than 5,000 tweets and retweets sharing it have been removed for inciting violence. “’Vengeance’ does not imply peaceful protest,” Irwin added.
Other Twitter accounts that had tweeted dangerous content related to or celebratory of the Nashville shooting had also been suspended.
The uncorrelation between a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation and whether they are “child groomers” is obvious, but perpetrators of this conspiracy theory are not trying to prove the causal relationship. They seek to evoke visceral fears about children’s safety and create moral panic about potential harm trans people would do to children.
Some of those who promote the dangerous trans grooming conspiracy theory are genuinely against equal rights for transgender people, others could be doing this to boost their followership and establish their brand — at the expense of a community of people who are at greater risks of mental health issues, physical attacks and sexual assaults.
A small number of religious people who consider the trans community a threat, meanwhile, could have been influenced by a skewed belief developed over decades. In 1970s, Christian and singer-turned-anti-gay-rights-activist Anita Bryant spearheaded the idea that members of the LGBTQ+ community would target children because they cannot reproduce and need to ”recruit the youth of America”. She later launched the Save Our Children campaign (not to be confused with the NGO Save the Children), which led to a series of political face-offs between gay rights and anti-gay conservatives.
The Nashville shooting came just weeks after Tennessee voted to ban gender-affirming treatments for transgender children and implement restrictions on drag performances. In fact, in the current legislative session, dozens of US states have introduced bills which propose measures that, if passed, would deny transgender people rights such as using bathrooms and changing rooms that align with their gender identity. Other proposed laws suggest that staff or students at a public school cannot be asked to refer to a person using pronouns that do not correspond with their sex.
The proposed laws risk reaffirming existing beliefs that transgender people should not enjoy equal rights and are lesser humans. These dangerous ideologies are often exacerbated by commentators and influencers online, who may, as discussed above, have ulterior motives, such as to promote their brand and monetise their content.
To avoid further agitation against transgender people from happening in Australia — where there are currently no anti-trans bills — Monash University’s Professor Paula Gerber and Senior Lecturer Ronli Sifris proposed laws that embrace the transgender community.
Instead of dismissing trans people, they say laws should be strengthened proactively to acknowledge their human rights, protect them against hate speech and allow them to express their gender identity on their birth certificate without having to undergo gender-affirming procedure.
Education in school — as opposed to making gender fluidity a taboo subject — should teach students the importance of respecting the rights of all people regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex characteristics, religion, race and disability, Professor Gerber and Dr. Sifris said. They added that public awareness campaigns should also be encouraged so transgender people are better understood and accepted by the wider society.
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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.