Counter-realities: The practice of denialism in transphobia

If you’ve been following Gender Analysis for any length of time, you might have noticed a common theme: We address and refute arguments for transphobic positions. Almost universally, this is not very challenging at all, and it mostly just involves pointing out the obvious at length. It’s nearly always the case that these are simply not good arguments – they reliably feature both overt and subtle misrepresentations of reality, omissions of relevant facts, logical flaws, tricks of language and definitions, deceptive rhetoric, and so on. I’ve sometimes found myself wondering: Where are transphobia’s good arguments, arguments based on sound interpretations of consistent evidence? And what would those arguments even look like?

In considering this, it can be helpful to play a game I call “How Would the World Look Different If”. This is an exercise in thinking about counterfactuals – potential states of the world that could hypothetically be the case, even if in reality they are not. When examining the components of a given argument, we can treat certain parts like axes that we can move back and forth along to see where we end up, or a set of knobs that can be dialed to different settings to change what result is produced from the combination. By exploring what is not – this space of possible arguments and possible realities – we can often gain a clearer understanding of the narrower space of what is, the space of what is a good argument that connects to what is actual reality.

If there were good arguments for transphobia, then transphobes would just make those arguments. And there could exist various states of the world where it is possible to make strong, compelling arguments for transphobic positions. This requires a bit of creative imagination in working outward from that starting point. For instance, let’s take the claim that transition treatments don’t help to improve the lives of trans people. What would we expect to see in a world where that is true? It would probably be the case that various measurements of their psychological well-being, general functioning, and quality of life would remain low, or even worsen, throughout the course of transitioning. But this is not what we see. Instead, we observe that trans people do better on these measures after transition. We can imagine that it’s possible for there to be a world where this isn’t the case – but we don’t live in that world.

We can also consider the claim that cisgender children are being coerced en masse into pursuing inappropriate treatment with puberty blockers, eventually going on to transition when they don’t really need to. What would we see if cis children were wrongly transitioning? We might observe that among trans people who transitioned as adolescents, a large number express regret and feel that they should not have received this treatment. Do we see this in reality? No – rates of post-transition regret among trans youth are almost nonexistent. Again, there could be a world where misdiagnosis and regret are tragically routine, but it isn’t our world.

This exercise, of searching outward from a given state of the world in order to map the many tendrils of its implications, can be a very efficient way of detecting errors, distortions, or outright nonsense. If you have an idea, does that idea imply anything about reality, or concretely connect to the world in any way? At which points does it come in contact with reality? Does it make testable predictions? Can it be disproven, and what would disprove it? What elements of the world changing would affect the validity of this idea?

The facts of the world generally don’t support transphobic arguments, and transphobes don’t really have the option of making robust arguments based on an honest assessment of the current state of our knowledge. They know this – they make use of this same technique of pondering counterfactuals. The difference is that they work backwards to fabricate an entirely new counter-reality, tailored to support their positions and vast enough that it can substitute for reality itself in a person’s mind. It’s called denialism: an entire ideological support system made to preserve a desired belief by rejecting the overwhelming evidence that would threaten this belief.

Denialism is wrongness with an infrastructure – ignorance with an armored shell, a whole fake world weaponized against the real world. Denialism can be observed in the various forms of “scientific” creationism, where facts of evolutionary biology and earth science contradicting certain readings of the Bible are targeted for incompetent rebuttal by non-experts working for various conservative Christian “institutes” of “creation research”, which is not a real field. It can be seen in climate change denialism, where the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming is discarded in favor of fringe nitpicking, oversimplified misunderstandings of the science, and so very many conspiracy theories.

Some forms of transphobia have grown so well-organized that they, too, now constitute an instance of denialism. Diethelm and McKee (2009) describe five core themes of the phenomenon of denialism:

  1. Allegations of conspiracy are used as grounds to dismiss a well-established and consistent body of science. Are doctors and researchers truly working to help make trans people’s lives better and discovering that transitioning consistently benefits us? Or is it all just a conspiracy by clinics and “Big Pharma” to get rich off of selling us $8 bottles of generic estrogen tablets? It’s common to see the latter claim among transphobes, without any supporting evidence. Do medical experts really believe that trans people should be supported in their genders? Or have they fallen under the influence of some all-powerful transgender conspiracy? Again, transphobes often opt for the latter choice.
  2. Fake experts are presented to lend apparent authority to denialist claims. Because the public is typically not equipped to evaluate the clashing claims of experts, the fake experts of denialism introduce an element of presumed credibility and trustworthiness – a plausible justification for taking the denialist position. Organized transphobia notably makes use of Paul McHugh, the former chief psychiatrist of Johns Hopkins who now presents bad science and blatant distortions of transgender health research in any outlet that will host him. The American College of Pediatricians is a conservative Christian front group of about 200 individuals, producing various anti-trans and anti-gay position papers that supposedly represent the stances of pediatricians. Once again, an uninformed public struggles to tell the difference between an organization of religious homophobes like the American College of Pediatricians, and a legitimate organization of professionals like the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  3. Denialists will be extremely selective when it comes to the evidence and facts that they accept as valid. For instance, transphobes choose to believe Paul McHugh’s decades-old claims over the sound findings of countless contemporary researchers. They choose to believe the American College of Pediatricians over the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and many other mainstream professional groups with tens of thousands of members. They dig up a single case report from 1996 and present this as “evidence” that gender dysphoria can be curatively treated with antipsychotic drugs. Pointing out that these stances are utterly marginal only seems to reinforce their validity in the minds of denialists – the lack of supporting material is typically attributed to a (mysteriously very trans-supportive) conspiracy.
  4. Standards for scientific findings are shifted in order to be practically impossible to meet. As lax as denialists are in their standards for their own evidence, they’re just as strict in their standards for opposing evidence. For instance, transphobes might claim that the evidence for the efficacy of transition treatment is insufficient because no randomized controlled trials have taken place. What they don’t mention is that it would be considered unethical to withhold this treatment from a group of trans people as part of an experiment, precisely because of how effective and medically necessary this treatment is known to be. Or they might argue that because gender dysphoria cannot be physically tested for via blood, genetics, or brain scans, then it must be “not real” and “all in our heads”. They’ve realized that they can dismiss the entire body of clinical evidence on the proper diagnosis of gender dysphoria by declaring across the board that this is not good enough – because for a denialist, that reality is indeed not good enough.
  5. Shoddy arguments, fallacies, and deliberate misrepresentations are deployed to mislead the public. Denialist transphobes are not averse to playing dirty in order to defend the position they’ve staked out. Outright lying – once again, to a public that generally cannot discern the truth in these areas – is commonplace. We repeatedly hear of the supposed outrage that children are being “allowed to make permanent changes to their bodies”, even though no such thing is happening anywhere. Absurd and irresponsible parallels to “child abuse” fly freely even as denialists openly advocate depriving trans and gender-nonconforming children of the care they need. The empty appeal to “let kids be kids” is used to justify refusing to let a trans child be the kid they are. Other personal attacks invoking traditional values or nebulous concepts like “perversion” and “degeneracy” are a consistent feature.

In these ways, denialism creates a shallow mimic of the real world by cloaking itself in the trappings of science, offering up fool’s-gold versions of “research”, “evidence”, and “expertise”. The difference, of course, is that the core of denialism is denial: every element of it is shaped around the need to maintain this denial at all costs. If it admitted of contrary evidence – if it could be proven wrong – it wouldn’t be denialism.

This exit from reality is meant to subsume observable reality into a superstructure of relativism, where all positions are ultimately just competing opinions. Even when denialism isn’t directly persuasive, it remains toxic to everything around it. It’s an established method of hurling enough static into the discourse that people will find it even more difficult to separate fact from myth. The public becomes so accustomed to being tricked and lied to that they start to distrust even the truth. If lies can’t take hold, then they’ll at least make sure that facts can’t take hold either. Transphobes can’t make good arguments – and that’s why they’re doing their best to make sure nobody knows what a good argument is. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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