Right-wing media are inciting violence against transgender people

Their actions amount to stochastic terrorism -- public demonization of a group through mass media that incites unpredictable violence

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Hate crimes against transgender people have been rising in both the United States and the U.K., and 2017 saw the first federal conviction of a hate crime against a transgender person in the U.S. Meanwhile, members of extreme anti-LGBTQ groups have had regular access to the White House -- and to mainstream media outlets, where they are often uncritically presented as simply offering one side of the debate, rather than as pushing a bigoted and hateful message.  

Of late, these extremist groups have deliberately shifted their focus toward transgender people and have increased the use of false rhetoric depicting transgender people as sexual predators, claiming they are a danger to not only women and children but also U.S. national security. At the same time, they sometimes hint that violence is an appropriate response to encountering transgender people in public.

These actions, and their effects, amount to a form of stochastic terrorism.

The concept of stochastic terrorism is not new; it is the public demonization of a person or group via mass media that incites a violent act that is “statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” It can be difficult to ascertain the intention behind such rhetoric, making the subject even more complex. When centrist media outlets give uncritical airtime to extreme anti-LGBTQ groups as an effort to present “both sides,” they are either unaware that they are contributing to the promotion of violence, or they do not care if they do. Right-wing outlets in the U.S. and the U.K., meanwhile, routinely publish or air inflammatory material meant to demonize transgender people as dangerous, mentally ill sexual perverts who prey on women and children.

Such content can incite real-world acts of violence. One of the best-known examples of stochastic terrorism is “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory that flourished on message boards 4chan and Reddit alleging that Hillary Clinton and her 2016 campaign chairman, John Podesta, were raping and murdering children as part of a satanic child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. It was promoted most prominently by Alex Jones of Infowars and Jack Posobiec, now a correspondent for the ultra-conservative One America News Network. Acting on these false rumors, a gunman went to the pizza shop with an AR-15 and a revolver and fired multiple shots into a locked door after panicked customers and employees fled for their lives.

Additionally, the suspect who allegedly mailed bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump was similarly radicalized by online media. He believed and spread conspiracy theories, such as the claim that a Parkland school shooting survivor was a paid protester hired by philanthropist George Soros and that there is “100% proof” that Obama is the “Antichrist.” His former boss described him as “anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Jews.”

There’s little we can do to mitigate speech designed to incite violence except to call it out for what it is. Within the U.S., such speech generally cannot be punished by law due to the 1969 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio. Clarence Charles Brandenburg was a Ku Klux Klan leader who attacked Black and Jewish people at a televised rally where weapons were present and said the Klan might have to take “revengeance” (sic) against the federal government if it “continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race.” The Supreme Court ruled that since the speech itself was not likely to incite “imminent lawless action,” Brandenburg’s right to free speech protected him from Ohio’s criminal syndicalism statutes. It is telling that the court ruling that would now protect the people targeting the transgender community was first applied to a Klansman.

In 2015, after it became clear that the cultural and legal fight to prevent same-sex marriage was all but lost, religious conservatives deliberately pivoted to a strategy of fearmongering about transgender people in bathrooms. Using the thoroughly debunked “bathroom predator” myth as justification, leaders of extreme anti-LGBTQ groups have been willing to step up to the same line that Clarence Brandenburg did, this time publicly stoking violence against transgender people.

After Target publicly announced its policy of welcoming employees and customers in its stores to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, Anita Staver, president of the influential anti-LGBTQ law firm Liberty Counsel, tagged Target in a tweet saying that she would carry a pistol to the ladies room because “it identifies as my bodyguard.” James Dobson, who helped found extremist anti-LGBTQ organizations Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, wrote in 2016: “If you are a dad, I pray you will protect your little girls from men who walk in unannounced, unzip their pants and urinate in front of them. If this had happened 100 years ago, someone might have been shot. Where is today’s manhood? God help us!”

Some Republicans and law enforcement personnel have picked up on this message as well. During his (successful) 2016 campaign for sheriff in Denton County, TX, Tracy Murphree posted on Facebook, “If my little girl is in a public women’s restroom and a man, regardless of how he may identify, goes into the bathroom, he will then identify as a John Doe until he wakes up in whatever hospital he may be taken to.” Todd Kincannon, the former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, tweeted this past fall that transgender people should “all be put in a camp.” (Kincannon was charged in August for stabbing his mother’s dog to death.) Chuck Wright, sheriff of Spartanburg County in South Carolina, told a meeting of a local Republican women’s group, “If you are a guy and you go into bathroom with my wife, … I’m gonna whip your tail.”

Trans people are impacted by such rhetoric. A Minnesota teen was harassed in a school restroom, while a congressional candidate in California filmed herself confronting an unidentified individual using a Denny’s restroom, and a gender-fluid person was maced for using a women’s bathroom. There have also been several high-profile cases of cisgender women who have been mistakenly identified as transgender and harassed for using the bathroom.

Public attacks on transgender people have also extended to parents of transgender children, their supporters, and even the children themselves.

The conservative tabloid the Daily Mail in the U.K. recently introduced a new line of attack against transgender youth based on an anonymous “whistleblower” teacher who claimed that older transgender students at an unnamed British school “groomed” young autistic students to trick them into believing they are transgender. This narrative of contagion, “grooming,” and recruitment is exactly the same approach used for decades to stir up suspicion and hatred of gay men. For instance, Helen Joyce, the finance editor at The Economist, recently wrote an article at Quillette baselessly asserting that the transgender movement has advanced the interests of pedophiles.

These messages trickle down to the base. Stories of communities banding together to abuse and discriminate against transgender children have been in the media for years. Last year, parents in Achille, OK, communicating in a Facebook group for students’ parents suggested telling their children to beat a 12-year-old transgender girl and threatened to castrate her. As a result, the girl’s family made plans to leave town.

Transgender students are being physically assaulted in school for their gender identity as well. The FBI reported that in 2017, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose for the third consecutive year. The number of recorded hate crimes is likely a dramatic undercount, given that many, if not most, hate crimes go unreported. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one in 10 transgender people report being physically assaulted in the past year for being transgender, and almost half reported verbal harassment. Seventy-five percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school, according to another 2015 survey. The proportion has likely grown since then.

Murders of transgender people have been increasing for years, and stochastic terrorism is likely part of the problem. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 2017 was the deadliest year for LGBTQ people since it began reporting on hate crime violence against LGBTQ people in 1996. Fifty-two LGBTQ people were killed in hate-related violence, representing an 86 percent increase over 2016. Twenty-seven of those 52 victims were transgender, even though transgender people represent a much smaller portion of the LGBTQ community.

In 2012, legal scholar Tobias Wolff predicted in his paper “Civil Rights Reform and the Body” that transgender people would become a target and that many of the attacks would center on fear and disgust directed at transgender bodies. He correctly noted that this directed angst would manifest itself as labeling transgender people as sexual predators.

Wolff also drew direct parallels to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when fear of Black bodies was channeled into calls to protect white women and children from sexual predation at swimming pools. Violence directed at Black people during that period was undeniably a direct result of this stochastic terrorism and prejudice. Today, we are seeing the same tactics toward transgender people, used to similar effect, and they are protected by the same case law.

Brynn Tannehill is a guest contributor to Media Matters. She is a former naval aviator who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Salon, USA Today, HuffPost, The Advocate, and other outlets. She is the author of the recently released book “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).”