On the 6th of August, Felix Fern – a disabled trans man and activist – was speaking to the crowd gathering outside Downing Street, calling on the government to safeguard trans people and LGBTQ+ rights. Fern was one of the organisers for the protest, attended by hundreds of people, and wore a Jigglypuff shirt that clashed delightfully with his ginger facial hair and pastel overalls adorned with colourful badges.
“Light, colourful clothing for me is important, because I was in a 10-year abusive relationship where I felt judged for everything I wore, and as a result I was very restricted to dull, neutral colours and masculine-presenting clothing,” Fern explains to VICE. “I refuse to be restricted by the expectations of boring people ever again.”
That day, Fern was accused on social media of being a “paedophile, sexual predator and unsafe to be around children, simply because I enjoy colourful clothing and am not cishet”, he says. One tweet by the Canadian outpost of LGB Alliance – the controversial charity that claims to advocate solely for the rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals – zeroed in on a badge that said “Slut”, designed by Fern’s friend in support of the SlutWalk movement. Fern was branded an “adult baby” with a “sexual paraphilia”.
The abuse only escalated when far-right commentator Andy Ngo began tweeting images and video from the protest to his 906,500 followers – images that were then shared by Debbie Hayton, a British trans woman and trade unionist who has become notorious for her gender critical views. “It was when people started to share that I was one of the organisers that people started to pinpoint my Twitter account and share the details,” Fern says, “so in the next day or so I was flooded with hundreds of notifications.”
Sophie, another trans activist who spoke at the event, was targeted online too. It was a windy day, and during their speech the hem of their dress rose up slightly to reveal their anti-chafing shorts. Online trolls began obsessively commenting on a short video of this, calling them a freak and mentally ill, remarking on their genitals (they wore bike shorts under the dress) and comparing them unfavourably with Marilyn Monroe. “Sharing just that clip with the intention of humiliating me is sexual harassment – it’s upskirting,” Sophie says.
“I'd say the biggest and most direct effect that it had on me is making me feel unsafe in the place that I live. A lot of people travelled in for the protest – I live in London – it's horrible to think that people who work directly with fascists can just walk right up to you and take pictures of you to circulate with people who would be happy to do you bodily harm.” Sophie tried to get Twitter to take down the video, but the platform refused.
Fern says that the harassment left him shaken. “A few days after the protest I went out by myself and ended up breaking down with a panic attack in the middle of town, with the worry that now anyone could recognise me and all they would know from what they had seen online is ‘this is a bad person, they are a threat.’ They wouldn’t really know who I am, they’d just know the comments they’d seen, and that thought was terrifying.”
This isn’t the first time that gender critical (GC) activists and right-wing US figures like Ngo have spread false narratives about activists or campaign groups. Trans people and civil rights organisations now spend an increasing amount of energy and time dealing with harassment, countering lies and fighting to hold on to our limited rights and avenues of support.
Misinformation – defined as any verifiably false information that is spread, regardless of whether the person sharing it knows that it is false or intends to mislead anyone – travels far and wide in the anti-trans GC movement, tacking on to existing conspiracy theories and driving new ones. And as anybody who has ever tried to counter antivaxx views online knows, it is hard to moderate these falsehoods out of existence.
Let’s skip back to April. At the Alba Party’s Women’s Conference, Scottish parliamentary candidate Margaret Lynch stated and later doubled down on a baseless claim that Stonewall, the UK LGBTQ+ charity, are campaigning to lower the age of consent to ten years old. This is full-blown conspiracy theory has been tracked by the Trans Safety Network – a UK-based group that monitors anti-trans hate – to a statement by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC).
Formed in 2019, the UK-based group wants to eliminate the Gender Recognition Act, which allows for the legal recognition of trans people’s gender. In a March 2021 media release, the WHRC claimed that the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) – an umbrella group that brings together LGBTQ+ groups all over the world, including Stonewall – were campaigning to “lower the age of consent”.
The ILGA rigorously denied the claims, but the damage was already done. Before Lynch gave credence to the conspiracy theory, it was tweeted by Conservatives for Women, an organisation of Tory members and supporters, the anti-trans lobby group Safe Schools Alliance UK, and the anti-trans board on Mumsnet, where it had expanded in blame to ensnare not only the ILGA and Stonewall, but even the trade union Unite.
Another flashpoint came during the protests outside Wi Spa in Los Angeles, organised in the wake of an alleged incident of indecent exposure at the Korean spa. As suspected Proud Boy associates, far-right activists and anti-trans activists clashed with antifascist counterprotesters, Andy Ngo and Antifa Watch, a platform that claims to “track antifa and far left associates”, tweeted edited video footage in which antifa appeared to be confronting a gender-critical female protester. This was then shared by high-profile GC feminist Julie Bindel, LGB Alliance founder Malcolm Clark and Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman.
When a different demonstrator was slashed with a knife at the protest, users on Ovarit – a forum set up by trans exclusionary radical feminists after the subreddit r/GenderCritical was deleted – immediately blamed trans rights activists. A tweet parroting the claim received over 360 retweets. Later footage published by independent journalist Vishal P. Singh revealed that the woman appeared to have been stabbed by someone who was seen fighting alongside suspected Proud Boy affiliates.
All these incidents, as is often the case, had a seed of plausible or even true information at the core of the story. This makes it easy to create doubt in the minds of people who are less invested in the issues, particularly when false accounts are shared by high status individuals and groups.
“From our research, GC networks on social media are really tight-knit and can accelerate salacious narratives and distorted factoids from fringes connecting with alt right or partisan sources through to members of the GC movement with a lot more credibility quite quickly,” a spokesperson for the Trans Safety Network says. “Along the way, these narratives gain creative adaptations to work for the target audience and credibility from institutional/media connections of higher profile GC figures who pick them up.”
Jillian C. York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that the problem with dangerous misinformation isn’t the lack of content moderation or platform regulation – it boils down to people and power.
“While there are always risks to expression when we let corporations determine what is or isn’t disinformation,” she says, “that needs to be weighed against the fact that GCs/TERFs are an organised, funded movement that is spreading propaganda that could truly cause harm, especially to folks questioning their identities.”
But the consistency, transparency and accountability that many demand from social media companies just don’t exist. Politicians, journalists and high-profile social media users are rarely held responsible for spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation, and platforms hosting content hostile to trans people, like Substack, Kiwi Farms and Ovarit, are not meaningfully moderated anyway.
Fern sees the harassment as inevitable: “If you speak up about trans rights online, you get shit. It is completely unavoidable. Now the shit just sometimes comes in a ‘lol adult baby slut’ flavour.”
Both Fern and Sophie say that they intend to keep protesting so that the actual concerns of trans people – healthcare, housing, a liveable income, freedom from harassment and discrimination – can be heard. “I had to block hundreds upon hundreds of accounts, delete Twitter from my phone, and try to focus on all of the good things because the protest itself was an amazing success,” Fern says. “I refuse to stand down because of the actions of bigots, but they are still able to cause me pain.”
On their part, Sophie is taking strength from how “multiple people in my audience have drawn really beautiful fan art of me giving my speech” and is choosing to ignore the “angry weirdos”.
“I just think, ‘Why are you so angry?’” they say. “Grow up.”
VICE has granted this writer anonymity due to security concerns.