50.50: Opinion

We founded Stonewall amid a moral panic. History is repeating itself

The attacks directed at trans people have strong echoes of the abuse my gay friends and I received decades ago

Lisa Power
18 July 2023, 2.11pm

Lisa Power, lesbian activist, campaigner and Stonewall co-founder


Courtesy of Lisa Power

It’s a common story: people tweet something nasty about a perfectly nice person, whose life then gets turned upside down. But over the last fortnight, as I’ve watched climate campaigner Mika Minio face a barrage of transphobic hate just because she’s a mum, I’ve noticed strong echoes of the abuse I and my gay friends got in the 1980s, when media and political hatred led to us founding Stonewall.

The social media testimony from people who have known her for years is that Minio is an “incredible friend”, “one of the biggest-hearted humans I know” and an “inspirational campaigner” for justice. She’s good at translating campaigns into everyday experience. So it’s hardly surprising that when ITV interviewed her about Thames Water – an interview about water supplies, for goodness’ sake – one of the points she made was that soaring water bills will be especially tough for mothers.

But Mika is trans and so, when they heard her mention mothers, some of the worst people on the internet leapt on it. They built and fed a controversy by exploiting personal posts that Mika had previously made about breastfeeding her child.

Can a trans woman “really breastfeed a baby?” demanded the literal front page of the Daily Mail. The article, spread over two pages inside the paper, could have ended after a single sentence because, yes, we all have milk-producing glands, meaning trans women can use the same procedure to stimulate lactation as any other mums do who didn’t give birth to their child; it’s not unusual. This didn’t stop a Tory MP claiming in Parliament that he was “extremely concerned for the welfare” of Mika’s child. Online trolls bombarded the NSPCC with demands for a safeguarding investigation – which could have resulted, if the NSPCC hadn’t recognised it for the scaremongering that it was, in a child being ripped away from its loving parents.

This was the bit that really reminded me of the 1980s.

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As someone who went through Section 28, I know when I see a moral panic being whipped up by the mainstream media. People who hated us in the 1980s characterised lesbians and gays as paedophiles who wanted to convert children – the so-called “gay agenda”. And that claim is back, with news stories today about “the trans agenda” and trans people.

I also see other similar tactics being used: exaggerating things, taking single incidents as though they indicate widespread issues, or even just making things up. In the 1980s, it was false stories about nursery rhymes being banned; today it’s entirely made-up claims that kids are identifying as cats.

The reasons behind these constructed panics are the same, too. In the 1980s, we had become more visible and were an easy target for a third-term government, and its sympathetic media, desperate to distract the public from its failings and inertia on social reform. In the same way, scare stories about trans people today are a classic distraction tactic. Scaremonger about breastfeeding and it diverts attention from the cost-of-living debate, or the profits for water company shareholders as they poison our rivers and coastline. And behind all of that, there’s massive funding from the US evangelical right-wing, whose leaders have said publicly that they see trans rights as a ‘wedge’ issue to split our communities before they go on to tackle gay – and women’s – rights.

As someone who went through Section 28, I know when I see a moral panic being whipped up by the mainstream media

Ironically, people scream about “biological reality” but are determined to ignore the facts – some trans women can and do breastfeed, just as not all cis women can or do. There’s no biology-based definition of women that doesn’t exclude some cisgender women – not all of us have wombs, or children, or the classic set of chromosomes and genitalia. And I don’t know why you’d want to ban trans women from being able to breastfeed anyway – if more people can breastfeed, that’s a burden taken off those who’ve given birth. If you did ban the procedure, you’d also hit adoptive mums, because they use exactly the same technique for stimulating lactation.

If children are hurt by what’s going on currently, it won’t be by a bit of breastfeeding – it will be because they were bullied in school for being gender nonconforming in some way, because their trans parents were targeted with hateful abuse and it impacted their family life, or because their school felt the need to inform their transphobic or homophobic parents that they were questioning their sexuality or gender.

Support from our friends and families is how many of us survived the hateful ’80s; the same is needed now for our friends who are trans. Twenty years ago, nobody turned a hair about trans people – they won Big Brother, they were much loved characters in soaps and even trashy documentaries were supportive. Everybody needs to challenge this sudden onset moral panic, whether it’s by marching or just standing up politely to ignorance. You don’t have to be a mouthy madam like me, or wear your heart on a T-shirt like David Tennant – but just letting trans people know you’ve got their back is a big help.

In the long run, attempting to silence us backfired terribly in the 1980s, exposing injustice and bigotry, making more of us come out and stand up for our rights, and bringing us allies. It is backfiring on the anti-trans lobby too. More people are learning about trans people and realising they’re talking about their own friends and relatives. More trans people and allies like me are speaking out.

However absurd and cruel the British and US anti-trans bullies are, the global political momentum is in the other direction. Most countries are improving their trans rights and many are puzzled or concerned by the petty hatred in the UK. They have learned one of the things we learned about lesbians and gays after the hysteria of the ’80s: letting people who are doing no harm to others be themselves improves not only their lives but also society.

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