Another day on social media, another friend writes: “A crowd of nasty jeering bigots showed up at the library in Lincolnwood IL tonight to try to ban LGBTQ books. One ‘concerned dad’ told a library defender that being gay was a mental illness.”
Let’s put the story in some context. 2021 was the worst year for freedom of opinion in America since the days of Joe McCarthy and the House un-American Activities Committee. 2,532 books were banned. (A roughly 15-fold increase compared to 2000). The people pushing for bans were the very people who go on social media calling themselves the “free speech” right. Of the banned books, the main thing they had in common (41% of titles) was the presence of pro-LGBT themes.
This year, first in America and then in Britain, a main focus of far-right campaigning has been the attempt to ban drag queen story hours: event in which adults take over a library for an hour and read stories to children.
Some points which are worth noting: these events aren’t new. While they have only been going under the name Drag Queen Story Hour since 2015, drag readings were common in London libraries a decade ago. And if you wanted to know how far back pantomime dames go, as a form of children’s entertainment – the answer’s more than 200 years.
In Britain, the main group who have been pushing this campaign over the summer have been the neo-Nazis of Patriotic Alternative – PA called or joined protests in Crewe, Cheshire, Bexleyheath and Norwich, where their banner dominated the square (until anti-fascist and trans people surrounded it). In August, they were joined by the far-right anti-vax campaigner, Piers Corbyn, for an anti-drag event in Brighton. And by far-right campaigner Posie Parker.
At least initially, the involvement of far-right campaigners was welcome by a surprising number of people in the mainstream, centre-left, “gender critical” campaign against trans rights. Helen Joyce for example said that if the far-right were allying with the gender criticals well, then, obviously, that was the fault of the left for disagreeing with her. (This is my best summary of what she wrote, if you can make more sense of it, then good luck to you).
Anti-trans artist Claudia Clare wrote that any drag queens “with an ounce of sense of decency” would accept “they are NOT for young children.”
The same newspapers, which have amplified gender critical activists spent the summer whitewashing the far right campaign. In the Telegraph, what was going on was not a political campaign by far-right activists here emulating their US counterparts but a mere “backlash from parents“. The Daily Mail’s approach was the same.
In fairness, some people pushed back: Harvey Jeni wrote that she was fed up with the far right live streaming anti-trans events: “I can never, ever be part of any movement that sits on the same side of a police line with fascists”. Even Julie Bindel was willing to notice that neo-Nazis shouting anti-LGBT slogans might be a problem: “I wonder if it is laziness, or if some of the anti-drag queen protesters are actually anti lesbian/gay. As I say, I am no fan of drag, and I REALLY hate the sexualised version, but have a think about what you are saying and how you are saying it?”
But what no-one seemed willing to admit was that the three previous months wasn’t something new but the culmination of a longer process in which anti-trans activists have been pushing back at all the myriad forms of trans and allied experience. Helen Joyce first started calling drag queens “an open door to paedophiles” as long ago as spring 2021.
Moreover, key gender critical activists have long been open to an alliance with the far right (just so long as they weren’t seen to be in alliance): from Julie Burchill agreeing to a publishing deal with publishing house Stirling Press which was run by a member of Patriotic Alternative (in fairness to her, she cancelled the deal after opinions of her publisher were pointed out), to Julie Bindel attacking Mermaids using the exact same language of child safety as the library protesters.
The gender critical feminists play a role within the women’s movement in which they pull their supporters towards right-wing positions. But it is essential to their self-presentation that they are of the left not the right, champions of women’s equality, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual causes if only the latter could somehow be purged of all gender non-conforming behaviour except for a tiny narrow sliver of non-confirming behaviour that confirms to patterns worked out in the 1980s and repeated ever since. Gender critical feminists keep on telling anyone who will listen that they want the Equality Act to survive, and they obtain prestige and profile from their association with the left.
But this is just the moment that we’re in. Whether it’s in Boris Johnson’s choice of advisors, or who he nominated for life peers, or the identity of the people working or Liz Truss’s favourite thinktank, quite large parts of the present right-wing advance depend on people who started off on the left and can give you the most plausible explanations for why they’re now somewhere else.