In 2018, then-PM Theresa May published an LGBT action plan that included the protection and expansion of transgender rights. “We can be proud that the UK is a world leader in advancing LGBT rights,” she said, as she promised to make the gender recognition process less intrusive, acknowledged the existence of non-binary people and condemned transphobic bullying in schools. “Everyone in this country should feel safe and happy to be who they are,” added Penny Mordaunt, the equalities minister at the time, “and to love who they love, without judgement or fear.”
Just four years later, their action plan reads like something from a parallel universe. Hate crime against trans people is up dramatically and public attitudes have hardened against trans rights. This rising tide of hate has not occurred in a vacuum. Increasingly, politicians have, at worst, used trans people as scapegoats and, at best, chosen to look the other way as the mainstream media has churned out a metric tonne of stories opposing trans rights.
Anti-trans hate crime was already high when May’s plan was published, with 1,700 cases reported in 2018. But since then its skyrocketed, increasing by an eyewatering 156% in four years to hit 4,300 in 2022.
Hate crime has been on the up across the board in the last decade, with the total number of reported cases rising from 44k in 2012 to 119k in 2022 (+271%). But trans people have fared by far the worst, with cases rising from 300 in 2012 to over 4,300 in 2022. That’s an increase of nearly 1300%.
This rise in hate has gone hand in hand with a shift in attitudes. In 2018, voters were relatively relaxed about trans women accessing women’s spaces. By a clear margin, they said that trans women posed no genuine risk to cisgender women. More now believe the opposite.
In order to understand what we can do to shift views back in the other direction, it’s worth considering who has turned against trans people and what might have driven this.
One survey in 2022 showed that two-thirds of Brits simply don’t pay any attention to trans issues, with only 35% actually showing any interest. Those who show more interest in trans issues are far more likely to hold favourable views of trans people. Meanwhile, those who pay no attention more often hold negative views. It seems clear, therefore, that the hardening in public opinion against trans rights has been driven almost entirely by people with no real knowledge or interest in trans issues.
As with so many issues, the split is also stratified by age. Among older voters, only 24% actually pay attention to trans rights; among younger voters, this figure is as high as 50%.
We know that older people are far more likely to get their news from newspapers and broadcast media. Their opinions, therefore, are more likely to be influenced by the mainstream media than by, say, personal experience or social media.
Research by trans rights activist MimmyMum suggests that UK media has published an average of 154 articles on trans issues every single month over the past seven years. That’s a total of 13,500 articles focusing on a minority group that makes up just 0.1% of the population.
Britain’s most-read newspaper, the Daily Mail, has certainly dramatically increased its coverage over the past few years. Comparing the first month of each year shows a rise from six articles in January 2013 to a jaw-dropping 115 articles in January 2023 (+1817%).
It’s not just the volume of coverage that has affected the national mood towards trans rights, however – it’s the negative slant of the articles. While neutral and positive coverage has remained largely flat since 2013, the Mail and others have begun to publish a large number of critical pieces. Of the 115 Mail articles on trans issues in January 2023, 100 of them (87%) could reasonably be categorised as negative, in comparison to zero negative articles in January 2013.
Negative articles published by the Mail last month include: “Now Aretha Franklin’s song Natural Woman is deemed OFFENSIVE to trans women”, “Labour again in hock to extreme ideology” and “Show sense on gender”. With a press this opposed to trans rights, it isn’t really surprising that the general public is turning against trans people.
So how do we reverse hardening attitudes and growing hate crime? As a driving force behind the problem, the media must also be part of any solution. Making the mainstream media listen often feels impossible, but trans allies in the US have generated headlines this week with a powerful, coordinated demand from hundreds of New York Times contributors that the paper improves its coverage of trans people. Staff at the Guardian have tried to do the same in the past. Perhaps now is the time to try again?
Something must give, that much is clear. When I wrote about attitudes to trans people in 2021, there was still some evidence that the public was inclusive towards trans people despite their poor political leaders – this is no longer the case. Public opinion has become far more sceptical of trans rights, hate crime is rising exponentially, and even notionally supportive politicians are now generally hesitant to stand up for trans people. Without a doubt, we are now living on TERF Island.