“I didn’t know where the next punch was going to come from,” said one trans woman. Photo: PA/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Trans people in the UK have faced a “deluge of hatred” and an increasingly “hostile environment” online, say LGBTQ+ rights activists. Social media platforms including Twitter and YouTube have policies intended to prevent discriminatory and hateful content, but activists say they’re not working.
“If I said I was transgender or supportive of transgender people on Twitter, I would just be pounced on”, said Claire Birkenshaw, a university lecturer and LGBTQ+ rights activist in Leeds, describing this “hostile environment”.
Adrian Harrop, an NHS doctor and LGBTQ+ activist, said that frequent, sweeping claims that present trans people as “sexual deviants and predatory criminals” appear to be “radicalising” others against trans rights online.
“I didn’t know where the next punch was going to come from and in the end I had a nervous breakdown”, said Sarah Brown, a former Cambridge city councillor, describing “psychologically exhausting and intimidating” abuse.
“I didn’t know where the next punch was going to come from”
Brown said there’s been a “deluge of hatred against trans women” in the UK over the last year amid potential reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which would make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender.
“The change in public acceptability of transphobia has moved radically within the last six months”, added Ms X, a feminist who requested anonymity amid fears of such abuse and to protect the identity of her trans child.
Chiara Capraro, women’s human rights programme manager at the NGO Amnesty International UK, said rising transphobia has been fuelled by “misinformation and false statements spreading”.
Common forms of transphobic abuse include intentionally misgendering trans people or “deadnaming” them, said Capraro, while false statements include those that present trans women as abusive men.
Social media platforms have policies against ‘hateful content’ that targets people based on characteristics including gender identity. But they’re not working, said Brown. “It’s almost like they think the only thing that is transphobic is standing in the street shooting trans people”.
“You get a bunch of people abusing a trans woman, saying she’s a pervy man – pretty much the textbook definition of transphobia”, she said, “and the reports come back saying it doesn’t violate policies”.
“It’s almost like they think the only thing that is transphobic is standing in the street shooting trans people”
“Twitter lends itself very readily to people being bullied off”, said Harrop. He described one tactic called ‘dog-piling’, in which “networks of people… will go onto a post to hurl abuse and try to silence” someone.
It’s not unusual for harassers to protect their own identities with anonymised accounts, Harrop said, nor is it uncommon for them to “come back in another incarnation” if they’re ever suspended for their comments.
Brown meanwhile described a “proliferation of fake accounts” over the last year, apparently set up specifically to target trans people, echoing “the American far-right and the tactics in the Trump election”.
Critics say Twitter’s words aren’t met by action. Photo: screenshot of one of Twitter’s own accounts posting: #TransRightsAreHumanRights.
Like other platforms, Twitter has a policy against ‘hateful conduct’ that targets people based on characteristics including gender identity. It also does “not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories”.
A spokesperson said it “believes in freedom of expression, open dialogue and healthy conversation. That means respecting and protecting the voice of every user, regardless of background, sexual orientation or status”.
But Brown said this is poorly enforced. She described trying to report Twitter accounts for transphobia as “like playing whack-a-mole”.
When they happen, suspensions from social media platforms are often temporary. It’s also easy to return with different account names or email addresses – and it’s possible to be suspended from one platform but not others, despite posting similar things on all.
‘Like playing whack-a-mole’
“I don’t really give credence to the word transphobia,” says one woman, Lisa Muggeridge, in a recent YouTube video. In others, she compares trans women to narcissists who construct fake identities and names specific trans women calling them “mad as fuck they can’t be allowed near children”.
Muggeridge, who’s previously written about British politics for publications including Newsweek, the Telegraph, and the Guardian, is now known among trans rights and anti-trans activists for her outspoken opposition to the proposed gender recognition reforms and ‘aggression’ on social media.
“I don’t really give credence to the word transphobia”
In June, she said her plural “Twitter accounts have been suspended”. She appears to have joined and re-joined this platform several times including with slightly different usernames. @lisamuggeridge9 appeared in August.
Last month, this account was suspended after tweeting that “prominent trans activists”, tagging specific individuals, are “deeply mentally unwell males” and that “all cause celebres are peadophiles, violent males, murderers”.
Muggeridge told me this account “wasn’t me, although I looked at [it] occasionally and tweeted from it. In the few months it was up it was subject to constant mass reporting”, by users saying tweets violated Twitter policies.
Others have been able to continue sharing her views on the platform. A clip of one of her videos, shared on Twitter, was watched 10,000 times. One user responded: “I find her aggression and baseless sanctimony scary. It’s awful seeing her make these videos attacking trans people every week”.
Users who repeatedly violate YouTube’s community guidelines can have their accounts terminated. A spokesperson said its “strict policies… prohibit hate speech against someone based on their gender identity”.
But, like other platforms, it relies on users to report content that violates its rules. "We care deeply about the LGBT community on YouTube”, they said. “We remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users".
Muggeridge said she’s “not a political activist or a public figure” and has been targeted for her comments online, with Twitter “complicit in my abuse”.
“There is nothing in my videos which is hateful content”, she added. Unlike Twitter, she said, “YouTube don’t seem to have the same issues or same need to censor... but it may be I haven’t come to anyone’s attention”.
"There is nothing in my videos which is hateful content"
Another British woman, Venice Allan, is currently facing a private prosecution for posting a video online in which campaigner Linda Bellos (also named in the same court case) threatens to “thump” trans women.
Allan has also been suspended from Twitter; she told me her @DrRadFem account was permanently suspended, along with two others. She said she was “never given any reason” for this and had only “one tweet that I was asked to remove and a 12-hour ban months before I was suspended”.
Her video was not taken down from YouTube, however, where she still has a channel under the Dr RadFem name. “I’ve never had any content removed from YouTube despite being currently involved in a private prosecution by a trans activist… for the content of one of my videos”, said Allan.
She added: “That video is also on Facebook and I have not been asked to remove it. I’ve had numerous temporary bans from Facebook but they don’t seem to permanently suspend users [as] commonly as Twitter”.
On Facebook, Allan has an account under her name and another under Offred Cohen (now Rose Allan). In one post, she asks followers if they’d “take on” trans rights activist Roz Kaveney, due to give a public talk.
Several responded with aggressive comments. One said: “Roz is so fucking vile. I hate him with so much fervour. Venice, fart on or near him please”.
“I’ve had numerous temporary bans from Facebook but they don’t seem to permanently suspend users [as] commonly as Twitter”
More than 700 leaked screenshots from a ‘secret’ Facebook group called Campaign Against the Takeover (CATT) also feature transphobic posts including some ridiculing specific trans individuals.
One CATT post says members should recruit more users of Mumsnet, the UK’s largest parenting website, to join their group. Another shares tips on how to re-join Mumsnet after being suspended under its moderation policy.
“Just managed to get back onto Mumsnet under yet another fake email addy, tunnelbear to hide [my] ISP and another username”, it said.
Facebook’s Community Standards defines hate speech as attacks, including “violent or dehumanising speech” and “calls for exclusion or segregation”, towards people based on characteristics including gender identity.
“There is no place for hate speech on Facebook” a spokesperson told us. “When people break our rules, including in secret groups, we move quickly and take appropriate action. We are investigating the content brought to our attention by openDemocracy”, they added.
“A breeding ground for overt transphobia”
Mumsnet is “the paramount example in the online community of a breeding ground for overt transphobia”, according to Harrop.
Earlier this year, one Mumsnet user said there’s been an almost 12-fold increase since 2016 in the number of people entering the site through the ‘feminist chat’ forum, which is dominated by anti-trans messages.
Recently, some of its users posted about campaigning to stop the BBC Children in Need fundraising programme from supporting trans children.
“The way [Mumsnet users] highlight specific individuals and target them for abuse on other social media platforms and in real life is utterly disgraceful”, added Harrop, who says he has faced this personally.
He described threads where “hundreds of Mumsnet users” seem to “congratulate and cheer each other on” while uncovering and publishing personal details including his home address and workplace.
“This all happens under the watch of the moderators of Mumsnet”, Harrop said, pointing to a former local Labour party women’s officer and LGBTQ+ rights activist Lily Madigan as likely “the biggest victim”.
Frequent posts, he said, “make horrendous personal comments about her appearance and style of dress... essentially sexually objectifying her”.
“At the moment we’re being ignored”
Unlike other platforms, Mumsnet has a specific moderation policy on trans rights, which it introduced in June.
It says the website hosts “intelligent and different opinions” and “civilised discussion”, and doesn’t want to feel “inherently hostile to any group”, including ‘gender-critical feminists’ that oppose trans rights reforms.
In a statement, Mumsnet’s CEO Justine Roberts explained that its moderators are “likely to delete misgendering, the term 'trans-identified male'”, and “sweeping negative generalisations about trans people”.
But it doesn’t have “hard and fast rules” or “a definitive list of banned terms”. It’s also possible to be “banned elsewhere but… [not] on Mumsnet”, Roberts said, as “we can only moderate on our own site, to our own guidelines”.
For Ms X, the mother of a trans child, this is not good enough. She said Mumsnet and other online platforms are shirking their responsibilities.
These platforms must accept that they are “accountable,” she said, “for the individuals who are currently using their platform to mobilise activity to the obvious detriment of a vulnerable minority”.
Brown, the former Cambridge city councillor, added that social media companies need to urgently train moderators on trans rights.
“You have to actually engage with trans communities, find out what our concerns are, why we’re unable to speak, why we’re being driven off these platforms”, she told me. “At the moment we’re being ignored”.
* 50.50 is tracking the backlash against trans rights as part of the ongoing series tracking the backlash against women’s and LGBT rights.