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Why are anti-vaxxers all anti-trans now?
The anti-vax coalition was adrift for a moment after Covid measures were dropped - but now it’s galvanised around genitals.
I’ve been absolutely wrecked by strep throat this week — more specifically, Strep A. I had a fever, could barely move, and some tiny cuts on my hand suddenly became infected overnight. My whole body turned on me. Truly disgusting, I thought I might die. The doctor said, “Er this is bad” and I’m now on the strongest antibiotics known to humankind and am already feeling much, much better.
As you may have noticed by now, Webworm isn’t any one particular thing, but a lot of things. I follow things that I am interested in, and things that I think are important.
It started during the pandemic when I started looking at conspiracy theory culture and why so many people appeared to be losing their fucking marbles. From there I shifted onto other issues — including things like abusive megachurches, MLM scams, and Zuru’s threats to sue former workers who’d written shitty reviews on the internet.
How can a man who is over 7 feet tall — and regularly appears on television — be so hard to find? Lawyers trying to sue basketball star Shaquille O’Neal for promoting the now-bankrupt FTX crypto exchange have tried to serve him at least 20 times. The NBA champion-turned-DJ has eluded every attempt.
I will never stop writing about alleged ponzi schemes, conspiratorial rabbit holes, corrupt church leaders, and insufferably rich kiwi toy makers who want to terrify former employees. As well as cat and dog photos.
But I am always looking to explore other idiocy that’s going on, and why it’s going on.
And right now I am both fascinated and repulsed (two emotions I often feel) by this whole anti-trans thing; this phenomenon that burst out of the UK and has now infected places like America and New Zealand.
And, yes, it ties back into conspiracy land that Webworm keeps touching on — those old, ancient fears that crop up again and again (see also: The Never-Ending Legacy of the Satanic Panic).
So today, I am very happy to bring you an essay from Webworm regular Hayden Donnell about what the hell is going on. He’s been talking to experts and — God forbid, trans people — to bring you this essay.
I am going to throw it over to him.
The new anti-vax movement: Why the anti-vaxxers are all anti-trans now
by Hayden Donnell.
I was sitting at my local pub trying to enjoy a Sunday lunch recently when people started murmuring and pointing to the sky. A plane was buzzing overhead with a sign in tow. It was emblazoned with a frightening message for me: ‘Reality Check Radio – RIP Woke Media’.
I immediately started screaming and throwing up at the news of my impending doom:
But as it turned out, I’d accidentally ordered chips below the flight path of one part of the marketing campaign for New Zealand’s most cooked new media venture.
Reality Check Radio is an online radio station backed by Voices For Freedom, which spent the last few years leaflet dropping vaccine misinformation to just about everyone in New Zealand, illegally camping out on parliament’s lawn, and fronting video interviews with the guy who wants to do ‘Nuremberg 2’.
It’s staffed in large part by people too weird, extreme, and obsessed with vaccines for The Platform; another online talk venture run by Sean Plunket, who you might remember from his role in ‘publicly posting suppressed Family Court information’ and ‘generally being annoying to David Farrier’.
Given the rich bounty of brainworms involved, you’d think the station would be wall-to-wall anti-vax tirades. But reporters listening in to its first week found the hosts far more preoccupied with another topic: trans people.
Here’s Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell on morning host Paul Brennan’s debut show:
In one of his first interviews, Brennan spoke to former NZ Herald columnist Rachel Stewart about drag queen story time events.
During the interview, Brennan pondered if they were “an effort to sexualise children early” and whether there was something “ritualistic” about trans people who have surgery. Referring to a trans person who regretted their transition, Brennan described it as “kind of evil”.
Reality Check Radio is a microcosm of the wider conspiracy mediasphere.
All across the most fact-averse corners of the internet, commentators have switched seamlessly from screaming hysterically about vaccines to screaming hysterically about genitals.
It’s spilling over into the offline world. Republicans in the US have written hundreds of anti-trans bills. After the school shooting carried out by Audrey Hale in Nashville, commentators tried to make out trans people are waging war on Christians when in reality they’re less likely than cis people to commit mass killings.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post ran a front page fearmongering about a “transgender killer”. It hasn’t run a similar front page warning about white male killers following the mass shooting in Louisville, and has never once used the phrase ‘cisgender killer’.
Right now, the entire American right is in the fourth week of a meltdown over the fact that a transgender influencer posted a single paid promotion for a beer on TikTok.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher for The Disinformation Project, says he’s seen an escalation in dehumanising rhetoric about trans people in the online channels he monitors in New Zealand, especially since anti-trans activist Posie Parker’s aborted Auckland rally on March 25. He’s worried things will turn violent. “If you imagine it like a Himalayan range, and you think of the discourse like base camp, what you saw on March 25 was an immediate escalation to Everest.”
Byron C Clark, a researcher of the far-right, has noted the same trend. “There's definitely a vibe shift,” he says. The majority of the most virulent anti-trans rhetoric he sees is from the far right.
These researchers’ conclusions align with people’s anecdotal experience of the internet. If you want to host a summit for every misogynist in the country at short notice, tweet something nice about trans people. Upon hitting send, every man who spent the last six years posting sexist memes of Jacinda Ardern will materialise in your mentions blathering about how you’re a woman hater.
Ross Palethorpe, a trans man who works in mental health, has received death threats since Parker’s brief stopover in Aotearoa. He’s started locking his Twitter account. “I’ve never once regretted my transition. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to step into the world as your authentic self,” he says. “But lately I’ve felt less safe. I’ve had to make some difficult decisions around my visibility.”
Farrier, publisher of the blog ‘Webworm’, recently had to mute Twitter for the first time after posting a sarcastic reply to one of Posie Parker’s tweets. “I’d liken it to a pack of wild raccoons finding something in the trash,” he says. “Once one raccoon sniffs out a snack, they tell their friends, and it’s all on. There’s a video that went around the internet a few years ago where someone opens a trash skip and there are just 50 glowing raccoon eyes scaring back. For three days my Twitter experience was that. An entire weekend, just people screaming about genitals.”
It feels like seconds ago that much of this army of angry tweeters was posting about an imminent wave of vaccine-induced mass death, and it’s pretty strange they’re now mainly preoccupied with making sure all the doodles and vaginas are in their preferred locations ahead of the apocalypse.
But there are plausible reasons why these far-right, conspiracy and ‘gender critical’ groups have coalesced into one huge brigade of the penis police. Clear parallels exist between anti-vax and anti-trans beliefs, including how adherents like Parker or Stewart think their opponents are in on a conspiracy run by Big Pharma or billionaires like George Soros.
True disciples of the gender critical movement are as relentless as they are utterly humourless, their entire lives apparently spent experiencing hallucinations of rapists getting sex changes in order to thwart the small picture of a lady in a dress that would normally stop them entering a toilet.
Clark thinks the far right and conspiracist movements have switched their focus to transphobia in part because of the alignment between ‘gender critical’ catch cries about children supposedly being exploited and some key themes of the anti-vax and QAnon movements. “The reason it’s migrated to this is probably because it’s a topical issue, a relatively socially acceptable prejudice, and allows for the concern for children that motivated a lot of anti-vax stuff,” he says.
Paul Wilson, a psychotherapist and friend of Webworm, sees other potential psychological hangups at play as well. Many people are feeling untethered as they endure a simultaneous climate crisis, war in Ukraine, and global recession, and some take out their existential anxiety on people they see as deviating from the norm, he says. “The idea that sexuality and gender are more fluid and diverse and not the stable binaries that human societies have pretended they are seems to really freak some people out. That people have different preferred pronouns and they have to learn them and will likely make a few mistakes, seems more than some can bear.”
Maybe another reason is simply the grift. None of the leading lights of transphobia have solutions for the big problems Wilson cites. If a figure like Michael Knowles was in charge, he’d likely just let BP turn poor people into sludge to power the nation’s SUVs. When you’re out of ideas on how to deal with actual issues, it’s better to focus on a culture war. Before it was vaccines. Now with mandates dropped, and no mass death event incoming, it’s trans people.
None of their arguments hold water. Multiple studies have shown low levels of regret associated with transition. None of the US states with protections for trans people have reported any issues with letting them use the toilet associated with their gender. In New Zealand, Women’s Refuge chief executive Ang Jury says trans people have been using its facilities for years without issue.
Despite that, it suits parts of our commentariat and political system to keep having this spurious debate. When confronted with an economic system that impoverishes and degrades the many to benefit the few, their best solution is to ban the most vulnerable people in society from going to the toilet.
It would be easy to write it off as just a distraction if it wasn’t so deadly serious for those on the receiving end of the vitriol. The Lemkin Institute, named after the Polish lawyer who coined the term genocide, sees the gender critical movement as genocidal in nature. “This is how fascism works and has done for time immemorial,” Palethorpe says. “You find a vulnerable community. You place them outside the cultural narrative. You say that they’re an other.”
It’s no coincidence that the far-right and conspiracy movements have started focusing on cosying up to transphobia. There may be a void at the centre of our loudest ‘gender critical’ commentators’ politics.
But inside it, you can hear the sound of jackboots on the march.
You can share this if you want. I think it’s important, and I think Hayden hit on what’s really bubbling away under all of this. The URL is www.webworm.co/p/screaminghysterically
David here again.
Goes without saying, but remember the Webworm House Rules when commenting (or, more likely from the anti-trans brigade, emailing me long diatribes) and making my day worse. I have Strep A — I already feel bad enough.
I went and found that raccoon video I told Hayden about, btw.
I still love it.
See you in the comments,