Misinformation and moral panics: U.K. politicians single out trans people ahead of election

By: naledi mashishi&
June 26 2024

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Misinformation and moral panics: U.K. politicians single out trans people ahead of election

(Source: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto)

In recent years, trans rights have become a contested political issue in the United Kingdom and have featured in the general election campaign ahead of the polls on July 4. Recent data indicates that public sentiment on trans people has regressed since former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May declared, "Being trans is not an illness, and it should not be treated as such" in 2017. 

Both major parties – the Conservatives and Labour – along with Reform, have proposals in their manifestos that would affect the trans community. Labour leader Keir Starmer has faced criticism for previously stating "99.9 percent of women don't have a penis" in reference to trans women. At the same time, the Conservatives have vowed that if they are re-elected, they will change the Equality Act to refer to biological sex, allowing trans people to be banned from single-sex spaces. 

Experts say that popular narratives on trans issues have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. Logically Facts takes a closer look at the facts around trans people in the U.K. and the associated narratives that have been a feature of the campaign trail ahead of the election. 

The trans moral panic 

There is no robust data on the number of trans people living in the U.K. In 2021, a government census found that around 0.5 percent of the population of England and Wales, or 262,000 people, indicated their gender identity is different from the one assigned at birth. 

According to Google Trends, which analyzes searches for a topic over a certain period, interest in transgender issues has surged over the last five years. And a 2022 article by public opinion and data company YouGov found that in the U.K., social acceptance of trans people has gradually eroded since 2018. In particular, around 50 percent of Britons oppose measures to make it easier for people to change their gender, and 68 percent oppose allowing young people access to hormone treatment. 

The findings also show, however, that despite all the coverage, two-thirds of people in the U.K. pay little or no attention to the debate in the media, and almost half believe discrimination against transgender people is either a major or significant problem. 

A Google Trends graph showing the growing interest in 'transgender' searches over the last five years (source: Google/screenshot)

Malin Kulseth, a podcast host, freelance journalist, and soon-to-be-published author on transgender issues, told Logically Facts that the public discourse on trans people fits the same pattern as earlier moral panics. Moral panics often involve scapegoating a particular group as being responsible for numerous social ills, depending on misinformation to do so. 

"Today's discourse around trans people invokes a fear around children and gender-affirming treatment, and teaching about gender identity in school," she explained. 

She pointed out that much of the public discourse on trans people is centered on a theory called "social contagion," which argues that exposure to any trans people or concepts of gender identity causes kids to identify as trans to be more popular among their peers. 

This theory has been popularized in recent years, most notably by a now-retracted 2023 study, which concluded that children were suddenly identifying as trans with no prior evidence of gender dysphoria. The study's findings were based on surveys of parents recruited from anti-trans forums. Multiple prominent accounts on social media sites like X have also repeated the theory. However, a 2022 study found no evidence to support it. 

"The fear of the rise in teens seeking gender-affirming treatment, and possible future regret and detransitioners has been evoked to restrict gender-affirming treatment for people under 25 in many countries, among them Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the U.K.," Kulseth added. 

Mallory Moore is a researcher at Trans Safety Network, a research collective advocating against institutional harms faced by the trans community in the U.K. Their research on the growth in transphobic hate speech in the U.K. points to Christian evangelical and far-right hate groups with strong links to similar groups in the U.S. as being the main drivers. 

"They've managed to influence newspapers, they have a lot of power and influence. And they have the cash to set up offices often right in the middle of Westminster, so they're able to entertain and meet up with MPs," they explained. "There's quite a big connected, religious authoritarian thing going on, and it's not really reported on very much."

Ordinary trans people are paying the price. Stonewall, a U.K.-based charity advocating for the LGBT+ community, published research in 2018 that found that trans people reported facing stigma, discrimination, and abuse. Approximately 41 percent of trans respondents reported facing a hate crime on the basis of their gender identity within the past 12 months. 

Hate crimes against trans people have been rising, with Home Office statistics showing a 186 percent increase in transphobic hate crimes reported in England and Wales between 2018 and 2022. Two teens were recently convicted of murdering trans schoolgirl Brianna Ghey, in part because of her trans identity. 

Anti-trans misinformation spread by the media and politicians 

Both social media and traditional media have focused on the trans community. CNN reported that in 2020, U.K. outlet The Times published over 300 articles about trans people that year, all of which were negative. A recent report by the Human Rights Campaign found that inflammatory content equating trans people with sexual groomers – people who build relationships with children to exploit them sexually – has surged by 400 percent across social media platforms.  

Media organizations have published op-eds claiming that gender-neutral language is "erasing" womanhood. A June 2022 Daily Mail article reported that using gender-neutral language could have potentially "deadly consequences," while The Telegraph published an article with the headline, "Trans activists are erasing women from motherhood." 

This narrative has seeped into the Conservative Party manifesto, which states, "We will not allow the word 'woman' to be erased by health services. Words such as 'breastfeeding' and 'mother' will not be replaced by 'chestfeeding' and 'birthing parent.'"  

But, what the media organizations and manifesto omit is that these terms are available as an option for trans men and nonbinary people who are capable of giving birth but do not identify as women. They are not replacing "woman," "mother," or "breastfeeding" altogether. 

Much attention in both traditional media and social media has been paid to detransitioners - those who transition back to the gender they were assigned at birth - and regret rates for gender-affirming surgery. These have included U.K. outlets reporting on stories sourced from the U.S., including a woman who had a mastectomy at 14 years old after being convinced she was trans, and articles equating transitioning with gay conversion therapy.

However, trans people in the U.K. must be 18 years old to access surgical transition, and many have reported facing years-long waiting times to access gender-affirming treatment. And while detransitioners are real, available evidence indicates that only around 1 percent of trans people regret gender-affirming surgery. This is far lower than regret rates for similar surgeries, which are 14.4 percent

On social media, inaccurate, fear-mongering information about puberty blockers has been shared. Puberty blockers are drugs that temporarily block the release of sex hormones, pausing puberty until the drugs stop being used. Social media users have labeled these "experimental drugs."

Puberty blockers tweets

Examples of posts on X spreading misinformation on puberty blockers (source: X/screenshots)

But this is inaccurate. Puberty blockers have been used in young children who experience early puberty since the 1980s. They are overall safe in this use case, with known risks of bone health potentially being affected if used long-term. There is currently limited evidence of their effectiveness in treating gender dysphoria.

Finally, media reportage on single-sex public toilets has focused predominantly on framing trans women as a risk to women and girls' safety. This has included wide reportage on an incident at a school in Essex in which a male pupil (who did not identify as trans) allegedly assaulted four female students, with three assaults taking place in a gender-neutral toilet. 

However, available evidence indicates that while isolated incidents have been reported, gender-neutral toilets have not been associated with higher risks of violence. For example, a 2018 study found no link between allowing trans people to use the toilets of their choice and increases in criminal activity. Another found that trans people were over four times more likely to be assaulted in single-sex public toilets. 

Yet the narrative persists through politicians. Examples include Conservative MP Miriam Cates saying, "Gender-neutral facilities are a threat to the safety of women and girls because they create a private space hidden from the public view where assaults cannot be witnessed."

Trans youth and the Cass Review 

The Cass Review has been the latest linchpin in the trans debate. It is a systematic review of available research published in April 2024 that lists recommendations for medical services aimed at trans youth. The report found there was little quality data to support gender-affirming care for trans youth. The recommendations include exercising "extreme caution" in prescribing hormones to trans youth under 16 years.  

But the Cass Review has been widely criticized by medical specialists and trans activists alike. These concerns are echoed by a preprint paper that suggested systematic biases in how the Cass Review was conducted – since the Cass report was published in April, peer-reviewed publications will take some time to appear, given the academic review process. The biases alleged in the paper included biases in the studies selected for inclusion, unsupported claims about an "exponential increase" in trans patients referred for treatment, and misrepresented quotes from participants. 

Further, earlier studies have consistently found that giving gender-affirming care to trans youth has led to improvements in depression, suicidality, and general well-being.

Despite these misgivings, both Labour and Conservative manifestos promise to "fully implement" the review. The Conservative government has already implemented restrictions on trans youths' ability to access hormone treatments. On May 29, 2024, the government announced that it was placing an emergency ban on prescribing puberty blockers to "address risks to safety."

The Gender Identity Development Service (Gids), a specialist clinic providing gender identity services to children, was shut down in March 2024 amid reports of children being "rushed" into treatment. Worth noting, however, is that Gids internal data reported that in 2019, only around 16 percent of trans children seen were referred for hormone treatment.

The Conservative Party's manifesto vows to take these restrictions a step further by legislating "to permanently prevent [the] private prescription and supply" of puberty blockers to trans youth. Both the Conservatives and Reform have committed to banning teachings about gender identity and trans people in schools, in line with the social contagion false narrative. Reform has further promised to ban trans children from using the pronouns and names of their choice in schools. This directly contradicts studies that have found that allowing children to use their chosen name reduces their risk of depression and suicidal ideation. And just this week, Labour leader Starmer said he was not in favor of "gender ideology" being taught in schools. 

Scottish Conservative candidate Richard Nelson recently posted on Facebook that the Cass Review found teaching school children about trans people can cause "serious long-term and lasting effects." But the Cass Review found no such thing. It focused on NHS services, and its recommendations on education were related to staff members being given specialist training. 

Moore says that these measures echo Section 28, also known as "don't say gay laws," introduced by the Conservative government in the 1980s, which banned local authorities and schools from discussing LGBT+ issues. Moore, who was a trans youth in the 90s, said that such laws made it more difficult for LGBT+ youth to access appropriate support and protections from discrimination. 

"It's not going to make trans youth stop existing, but it will make it impossible for teachers to acknowledge it or to accept that it's okay," they told Logically Facts. "It will expose young trans people to greater risk of unnecessary and inappropriate institutional interventions, and it will withhold access to necessary support when young trans people get into trouble of some kind because they don't stop being trans just because people want to wish it away."

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