UP EXPERT OPINION: Trans visibility and the ‘anti-gender movement’

Posted on March 31, 2023

The International Transgender Day of Visibility is observed on 31 March, and is dedicated to recognising the resilience and accomplishments of the trans community.

Rachel Crandall, a US-based trans activist, founded this day in 2009 not only to raise awareness of the burden of discrimination that the trans community faces in multiple settings, but also to celebrate trans lives and stories.

To be “visible”, it can be argued, is to make a personal and political statement that one’s existence is a reality, and that survival requires society, literally, to “see” trans people. What is visible cannot be ignored or wished away. If state and non-state actors concede that trans people exist then, in theory, their needs should be met. This could be needs for education, health and employment; partnering and family making; the need to have legal identity documents; and the need to thrive and take a rightful place in political, civic and social life.    

Ironically, what is a strategy for survival by trans people has been taken as a provocation by what is now being called the “anti-gender movement” (AGM).

According to Global Action for Trans Equality, the AGM is an international movement that opposes what it refers to as “gender ideology, gender theory or genderism” – that is, progressive ideas on gender.

The AGM sees “gender ideology” as an attempt to instil a global order that is anti-social, anti-family, unnatural, irreligious and harmful, especially to young people who must be “protected” from ideas which challenge notions that sex is unproblematically binary and promote the belief that gender identity can differ from one’s sex assigned at birth.

It is ironic that the AGM positions itself as wanting to “protect” young people. In the South African context, there is mobilising and organising under the broad umbrella of the AGM to “protect” learners from Comprehensive Sexualities Education (CSE) and to prevent the implementation of draft school guidelines of the national Department of Basic Education on gender. These guidelines aim to make schools more inclusive – for example, they acknowledge gender diversity among young people and suggest that schools make provision for bathrooms for gender-diverse youth.

AGM proponents in South Africa have argued that these measures will make schools unsafe for young people, citing unproven ideas that attacks in bathrooms will be inevitable.

In fact, the opposite is true. Attacks on trans and gender-diverse young people in schools (and indeed on lesbian and gay youth) are much more commonplace, yet their needs are completely ignored. Harms directed at them are “invisible” to the AGM.

And across the globe, trans, gender-diverse and intersex (TGDI) people are being targeted at all levels by multiple forces. These movements are trying to restrict or deny access to human rights, including autonomy and self-determination, depathologisation, mental and bodily integrity, legal gender recognition and gender-affirming healthcare, informed consent, sanitation, and freedom from discrimination and torture. Yes, TGDI people are subjected to torture in some parts of the world.

Intersex and trans activist Mauro Cabral Grinspan describes the AGM as a “hydra”, in effect, a multi-headed creature that takes many forms, is politically diverse, has global reach, and mobilises moral and sexual panics.

Opposition to gender diversity (and indeed sex diversity as evidenced in the spectrum of intersex identities and configurations) is being weaponised everywhere. In the US, it has become a pillar of Republican politicking – and lawmaking, as demonstrated by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, who has proposed laws to prevent any teaching on gender diversity in schools and to limit interventions for trans youth. In South Africa, it has become integral to the anti-CSE movement.

To challenge this, we need a multi-pronged effort. One small contribution to rebutting the AGM is UP’s Trans Protocol, which sets out a clear commitment to recognising and valuing trans and gender-diverse people (and people who identify as intersex). It renders TGDI people visible, reminds us that gender and sex diversity are real, and that we have much more work to do to achieve genuine inclusivity.

- Author Pierre Brouard, Acting Director of the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at the University of Pretoria (UP)

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