Anti-LGBTQ media and figures regularly use stories about trans athletes as fodder to earn social engagement and build outrage; this tactic has been successful in dominating the right-wing social conversation around trans rights and obfuscating other issues that affect the trans community such as violence and discrimination.
A recent example involves right-wing stories about a transgender athlete winning a cycling competition that earned high engagement on Facebook during the week of October 21, capped off by Fox's Tucker Carlson hosting an anti-trans activist on his show.
Right-wing stories about a trans athlete went viral
On October 21, New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose noted that three of the top 10 performing Facebook news stories of the day were from right-wing outlets posting about a transgender cyclist, Rachel McKinnon, who won a world championship. The three stories came from major right-wing outlets -- The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, and Breitbart -- and earned almost 785,000 Facebook interactions in total.
The Daily Wire's article earned almost 276,000 Facebook interactions, no doubt thanks to the website’s rule-breaking Facebook dissemination network. As Popular Information’s Judd Legum has noted, Daily Wire has “fantastically successful” Facebook content that breaks the platform’s content sharing rules by using a “clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purport to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.”
These pages publish Daily Wire content “at the same time, with the same text,” as they did with the October 21 anti-trans piece. An analysis using the CrowdTangle Google Chrome Extension shows that every one of those 14 pages shared the Daily Wire article. Additionally, several high profile anti-trans pundits from the website, including founder Ben Shapiro, podcaster Michael Knowles, and writer Matt Walsh, also shared it on their pages with similar language at similar times.
Additionally, on Twitter, Donald Trump Jr. shared the Daily Caller post of the article, claiming, “This BS will destroy women’s sports and everything so many amazing female athletes have worked their entire lives to achieve. I couldn’t care less how you identify, but this isn’t right.”
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson capitalized on the online outrage
Following the story’s high online social engagement, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson aired a segment about the race on his show. In it, Carlson and his guest, Kara Dansky of the trans-exclusionary radical feminist organization the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), demeaned trans athletes and misgendered McKinnon. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are vehemently anti-trans activists who self-identify as feminists but are widely rejected by intersectional feminists and LGBTQ advocates. WoLF has forged relationships with national anti-LGBTQ groups to oppose trans-inclusive policies, working with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Family Policy Alliance, and The Heritage Foundation.
During the October 23 segment, Dansky complained that mainstream media outlets refuse to feature her and other TERFs; Carlson responded that she is “always welcome” on his show.
Right-wing media provoke rage over trans athletes while ignoring serious issues for the community
As right-wing outlets drum up misplaced outrage about trans athletes, they distract from life and death issues prioritized by transgender Americans, such as the ability to work openly without being fired, access economic opportunity, and live without the threat of violence.
About half of LGBTQ Americans live in states where they can be fired for being open about their gender identity or sexual orientation, and the Supreme Court is weighing whether they would be protected under existing federal civil rights law. A 2018 report by the Movement Advancement Project and National LGBTQ Workers Center wrote that “25% of LGBT people report experiencing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year,” and “27% of transgender workers reported being fired, not hired, or denied promotion in 2016-2017.”
According to the 2015 National Transgender Survey, 29% of respondents reported living in poverty, and 15% reported being unemployed, compared to the U.S. averages of 12% and 5%, respectively. Furthermore, according to the Trans Women of Color Collective, “the average Black trans person earns less than $10,000 a year.”
Trans folks, particularly Black trans woman, also live with a constant threat of violence. The Human Rights Campaign reports that at least 21 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been violently killed so far in 2019, and at least 26 were killed in 2018.
Despite these issues, the conversation on the right is dominated by demeaning discussions about trans athletes, effectively stoking polarization in regards to trans equality. This push for bigotry against the trans community is only likely to further discrimination and violence.