How the anti-trans discourse unites populist forces in Europe

While trans rights are coming to the forefront of LGBT+ human rights campaigns, opponents are gaining momentum spreading anti-trans discourses. Right-wing populist anti-gender movements have already been campaigning against LGBT+ rights in Europe for the past decade. But gender-critical feminist initiatives also strongly criticize reforms to gender recognition procedures. Trans people and their political allies are portrayed by both movements as a dangerous threat to women and/or families, and as trying to impose some anti-scientific “(trans)gender ideology” on societies. I examine the actors promoting these anti-trans discourses applying the ideational approach of populism by Mudde and Kaltwasser (2017). Thus, anti-trans discourses follow a populist logic of reasoning “gender ideology” is used as an empty signifier shaping an imagined elite that wants to promote “gender ideology”. Consequently, the anti-trans discourse creates a transnational “meta-populism” that unites different political groups against a common enemy (fiction). This meta-populism is used to legitimize harmful, exclusionary policies against trans people.

by Matteo Scheuringer, Universität Leipzig — for OPUS Initiative for Young Scholars on Populism.

Right-wing populist parties such as FIDESZ or AFD in Europe play an important role in undermining trans rights. For the last decade, they have been mobilizing with their anti-gender campaigns against “gender ideology”(Butler, 2021; Dietze & Roth, 2020; Graff & Korolczuk, 2021; Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). “Gender ideology” is used as meta-language which does not describe gender studies as an academic field, but is a created discourse to discredit LGBT+ activism and gender studies as “totalitarian ideology” that aims to eliminate innate gender differences and to destroy families (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017, pp. 5–6). Yet, right-wing (populist) actors are not the only ones spreading anti-trans discourses. Announced reforms to gender recognition procedures by the UK government have caused protests by a wide alliance of gender critical feminist movements and led the government to only introduce minor reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (TGEU, 2020). The gender critical feminists’ emphasis is on protecting sex-based rights for women, protecting single-sex spaces, and protecting young trans people from medical choices they might regret. Their argumentation is based on the idea that differences between men and women are based on unchangeable biological sex differences which lead to a more vulnerable position in society based on societal gender roles (Vincent et al., 2020). In which ways do these anti-trans discourses follow a populist logic of reasoning?

The populist logic of anti-trans discourses

Mudde & Kaltwasser (2017) define populism as: a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. (pp. 5)

It is striking how right-wing populists and gender critical feminists as actors with opposing ideological positions unite against trans rights. To form this wide alliance of ideologically diverse groups the idea of “gender ideology” as something to be opposed serves as common ground. Mayer and Sauer (2017) explain that gender functions as an “empty signifier” quoting Laclau (2005). Gender as an empty signifier allows a variety of political ideas to be associated with the term “gender ideology” based on normative assumptions about gender that each actor can individually project onto the term (Mayer & Sauer, 2017; Sauer, 2017). The anti-trans discourse thus follows a thin ideology that allows people from different political backgrounds to unite against this vague idea.

Furthermore, the anti-trans discourse implies the notion of the “common people” in gendered terms. In this sense one strategy of populist actors is to frame “the people” as the ones feeling culturally inferior, having lost their cultural hegemony in regard to their ideas of gender (Dietze & Roth, 2020). For them, sex is biologically determined, binary, and unchangeable. While the issue of transgender rights becomes more prominent in daily politics, populist actors highlight that this idea of gender is “elitist” whereas their idea of sex as biologically determined is reasonable because it is the opinion of the “common people” (Sauer, 2017).

Moreover, the right-wing anti-gender movement and the gender critical feminists oppose “trans(gender) activists” and liberal, queer-friendly parties as morally corrupt elites who are trying to impose their anti-scientific “gender ideology” on the people (Gunnarsson Payne & Tornhill, 2021; Serano, 2018; Vincent et al., 2020). By opposing the same enemy (fiction) both movements create a “chain of equivalence” (Laclau, 2005), a notion of shared identity. Why do these different political actors take on this chain of equivalence? In what way do they even use it to achieve the higher goal of international mobilization?

The anti-trans discourse as means of transnational populist organizing

Moffitt (2017) argues that as globalization continues to progress, transnational populist movements will be spreading. The crucial element for a transnational populist movement is that it constructs “the people-as underdog as a political subject that supersedes the boundaries of the nation-state” (De Cleen, 2017, p. 19). But when examining the international alliances between right-wing populists and gender critical feminists using anti-trans rhetoric, can we speak of a transnational populist movement?

I argue that the anti-trans discourse serves as an example to show how right-wing populist parties construct “the people” transnationally. Right-wing populist parties construct “the people-as-underdog” in cultural terms as “common families” opposing “cultural elites” trying to impose their “(trans)gender ideology” on them. Essentializing the people in gendered terms as the ones valuing the biological differences between men and women and therefore valuing heteronormative families does not contradict their nationalist logic (Butler, 2021; Sauer, 2017). Yet, constructing “the common people” as heterosexual families creates a political subject that goes beyond the nation-state in the sense of De Cleen’s (2017) concept of transnational populism. But which role play gender critical feminists in this transnational populist anti-gender movement?

In opposing trans rights, right-wing populist parties cooperate with “gender-critical” feminists internationally (Tannehill, 2021; Vincent et al., 2020; Women’s eNews, 2019). Gender critical feminists argue that cooperating with right-wing populist parties does not make their movement a right-wing one (Emma, 2022). However, trans people are portrayed by both populist movements as internationally acting foreign elites. Thus in using the same enemy fiction they forge an international anti-trans alliance characterized as “meta-populism” (De Cleen, 2017).

Conclusion: Anti-trans alliance as exclusionary meta-populism

Mouffe (2018) argues for a new left populism to combat the inequalities exacerbated by neoliberalism. She emphasizes the need for left-wing movements to forge broader alliances by building chains of equivalence. They should consider framing the economic elite as common enemy to build a common identity in the struggle against injustice. However, after examining the anti-trans discourse, the dangers of populist identity construction become even more apparent. In the case of the anti-trans alliance building, this meta-populism fighting trans rights has rather served the cause of building a transnational right-wing populist movement than serving a feminist cause. In fact, the anti-trans discourse may have led to a shifting political climate towards trans people (Stone, 2019). Organizations monitoring violence against LGBT+ people report rising numbers of violent attacks against trans people (Belltower.News, 2022). Framing trans people as morally corrupt elite promoting anti-scientific “gender ideology” may be doing its part to legitimize this violence.


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OPUS - Young Scholars Initiative on Populism

OPUS - Young Scholars Initiative on Populism

OPUS is a platform inaugurated by Team Populism for young and emerging scholars on populism.