Transphobia is gaining ground in the U.S. Gender-diverse people in Canada worry it could happen here
Policies targeting transgender people in U.S. also emboldening far-right in Canada, say advocates
Amanda Jetté Knox doesn't know who tried to throw a bottle at them from a vehicle while walking home in Ottawa last month, but remembers the feeling of it barely missing their head.
"[It] hit my bangs as it went by," said Jetté Knox, who identifies as non-binary and uses she/they pronouns. "[They] called me a f--king freak and drove off."
It was the first time Jetté Knox experienced anything so violent but the proud activist and author has endured plenty of hateful comments since publicly sharing their family's story several years ago. One of Jetté Knox's four children is non-binary and came out in 2014; the next year, Jetté Knox's spouse came out as transgender woman.
Now, they are closely watching the anti-LGBTQ hate billowing in the United States, where gender diversity and gender expression have become popular targets for Republican politicians, far-right groups and online trolls.
Jetté Knox, and other advocates and experts, see it spreading in Canada as well.
Threatening phone calls recently led to a family-friendly drag performance at Victoria café being called off, while other drag-queen storytime events at public libraries elsewhere in Canada have also been subject to intimidation. Pride flags have been ripped down and/or destroyed in London, Ont., Delta, B.C., and Ottawa. In early June, a 17-year-old was arrested in Mississauga, Ont., for allegedly threatening to carry out a mass shooting at a West Palm Beach, Fla., Pride celebration.
"It feels like it's just a matter of time before we start seeing more of this in our own backyard," Jetté Knox told CBC News.
"I'm a pretty positive person, but I'm worried right now."
Hate 'spilling over the border,' says prof
Anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ hatred is something that is always "simmering," including in Canada, said Prof. Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism based at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa.
A survey released by Statistics Canada in 2020 found transgender people had a greater likelihood of experiencing physical or sexual violence than non-transgender people in Canada. They were also more likely to experience "inappropriate behaviours" in public, at work, and online, which Statistics Canada defined as acts that "make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable" and have a lasting impact on mental and physical health.
But it appears far-right groups here have become more emboldened by what Perry describes as the "horrific narratives and policy shifts" seen in the U.S.
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Since the start of this year, the U.S.-based Human Rights Campaign has documented more than 300 proposed bills, introduced in 36 states, that directly target transgender rights, gender diversity and expression. These include attempts to investigate families helping affirm their child's gender identity to outright limiting education and conversation about LGBTQ people, restricting transgender children from participation in sports, and even going so far as to attempt to bar children from attending drag performances.
"That's spilling over the border, obviously, into the Canadian narrative as well, and informing the far-right here," Perry told CBC News.
Advocates accused of 'grooming' children
Harmful language aimed at smearing transgender people, and those who support them, as preying upon or indoctrinating children is routinely used online and in right-wing media — in particular, "grooming" or "groomer."
It's a trope long been used to disparage LGBTQ people that's seeing a steep rise in usage online.
Jetté Knox said they get called a groomer online "almost every day" because of their gender identity, because they're raising a non-binary child, or because of their activism for transgender rights.
It's also happened in person. They were travelling in the United States recently and attended a Virginia school board meeting, with friends and their children, to recognize Pride Month. Protesters hurled insults at them.
"Some pretty awful things were said," Jetté Knox recalled. "We were told we were indoctrinating children."
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has documented that narrative appearing in far-right political discourse in this country.
WATCH | A Human Rights Campaign montage of language used against transgender people:
Cancer. Terrorist. Problem.<br><br>These are the ways anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers nationwide are describing the people they serve. <a href="https://t.co/NrS2LlgRZq">pic.twitter.com/NrS2LlgRZq</a>—@HRC
It's actually far-right groups who are "grooming" people, said Perry, slowly luring new followers to their ideologies by latching onto their concerns and uncertainties.
Some far-right, religious and other groups have portrayed gender-affirming care for transgender youth as "child abuse" and push to restrict access to health care such as hormones to delay puberty and promote development consistent with a child's gender identity.
Various medical groups, including the American Medical Association, say such policies are "dangerous" and "foregoing gender-affirming care can have tragic health consequences."
It's a means of "lending credibility and legitimacy" to extreme views, Perry explained, because they're presented as "protecting the vulnerable."
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Transphobia a 'gateway' to far-right ideology
Focusing on transgender and gender-diverse youth is one way of gaining public approval for broader acceptance of anti-transgender policies and attitudes, said Florence Ashley, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and Joint Centre for Bioethics whose work revolves around trans rights.
"Transphobia tends to oftentimes be the sort of like gateway into the far-right," said Ashley, who uses they/them pronouns.
They noted how social media algorithms also play a role in this. The U.S. non-profit Media Matters For America, for example, examined how anti-trans content on TikTok served as a gateway to far-right and white supremacist content, conspiracy theories and even calls to violence.
Ashley also highlighted similarities the current climate of transphobia has with what's known as the "great replacement" conspiracy theory disseminated by far-right and white nationalist movements, and in some conservative media outlets. It's a racist claim that white people are being systematically replaced by immigrants.
The feeling of "losing power in society," they explained, makes it easier to blame the people you perceive as "trying to replace you."
It's something that happens "in times of crisis and high anxiety as we've seen over the last couple of years," said Perry. "We're always looking for scapegoats, looking for somewhere to direct our anger or fears or anxieties."
Political power balance can change in an instant
While gender identity and expression are protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code, Jetté Knox is unnerved by the emergence of "more far-right parties," some of which have candidates who criticize gender diversity and expression.
They worry voters may not be keeping as close an eye on the comments and promises such candidates make about gender diversity issues because it doesn't an affect their lives the way it impacts Jetté Knox's LGBTQ family.
Ashley warned it only takes a "shift in political power for groups to really start asserting their will on a population" and that's why people in Canada should be closely watching what's happening in the U.S.
They noted how the recent U.S. Supreme Court, stacked with conservative justices during Donald Trump's single term in office, overturned Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old decision that enshrined the right to access abortion. That ruling could set a precedent to reverse decisions on same-sex marriage and same-sex intimacy for consenting adults, something Justice Clarence Thomas alluded to in his concurring opinion on the Roe v. Wade ruling.
Jetté Knox urged those who care about the rights and freedoms of gender-diverse people to vote.
"Watching those rights being attacked elsewhere puts a lot of fear in me because it means that they can be attacked in Canada, too," they said. "I think that those things will be challenged and I think that we have to get ready for it."
Creating a positive online space for trans people
Despite the apparent rise of online slurs and hate against LGBTQ people, young transgender people like Vancouver's Noah Yang are helping maintain positivity in online spaces and inform others about transgender experiences.
Yang, who uses the pronouns he and him, shares his gender-affirmation journey on Instagram. He said he's fortunate to have only experienced negativity "a handful of times" and has largely received encouragement.
"It was unexpected that showing the physical scars and the physical changes would inspire people and, you know, open people's eyes up to … what can really happen throughout someone's transition."
He acknowledges not everyone has the ability to drown out the negativity being directed at gender-diverse people. But, for Yang, the importance of visibility outweighs any hate.
"I do think it is beneficial because I feel that, you know, it's not just trans folks who see the page," he said.