Why does anyone want to be a parent, with all the stress, exhaustion, and often thankless turmoil it can entail? A simple answer is a very basic instinctive urge implanted in our genes to ensure we procreate and ensure the survival of our species, codified in very powerful and often problematic cultural and social expectations which normally revolve around the nuclear family. In any case, it isn’t universal, or certainly doesn’t have an equally powerful hold over every human, and many individuals — in relationships or not, and regardless of sexuality — have happy and fulfilling lives whether they have children or not.
In my own case, like most people, I took it as read that one day I’d be a parent. The slow adolescent realisation that I was in fact gay was so full of panic because it seemed as though something most people take for granted as an inevitable fact (rightly or wrongly) was never going to happen. This was the late 1990s, when the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed far more people believed homosexuality to be “always wrong” than “not wrong at all” and when several anti-gay laws remained in place: Section 28 (which meant no education about LGBT issues at school, apart from a sex education teacher who warned of the dangers of anal sex), no equal age of consent, no civil partnerships, to right to adopt, and a lack of protection from discrimination. Cultural representation of LGBTQ people was very limited, often reducing gay men to one dimensional clowns or as tragic figures with doomed lives. The shadow of the recent HIV/AIDS crisis loomed large. The main insult thrown around the playground — on a daily basis — was “gay” or some more pejorative derivative.
To be gay, it seemed to this closeted teenager (and countless others, as well as as to our tormenters), meant a lifetime of rejection, being treated differently, loneliness, tragedy, and ultimately dying alone. Unsurprisingly, this context helps lead to far higher levels of mental distress and, with it, self-medication in the form of abusive relationships with alcohol and drugs amongst LGBTQ+ people. As a teenager myself, I was prescribed anti-depressants at the age of 16. TV and film portrayals of straight couples and their families — or friends casually talking about one day having kids — inadvertently felt like cruel taunts about a future denied. One of the most baffling — and terrifying elements — of being gay was that you had no roadmap of any description at all. It all seemed to vindicate the prophecy of Lord Arran, who co-sponsored the 1967 Act partially decriminalising homosexuality in England and Wales, who reassured disturbed heterosexuals: “Lest the opponents of the Bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created, let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity.”
It’s important to clarify here — not least for any young LGBTQ readers — that this is a nonsense. The anti-gay laws have gone, social attitudes have changed, and most gay and bisexual people are much happier when they come out. It would be a deceit, however, not to pretend that there is a very long way to go — or that things are not sliding backwards.
One of the traditional central pillars of homophobia centres on the inability of same-sex couples to reproduce: one, because it makes them threats to the traditional family; and two, because it makes dangers to children. “Since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit, must freshen their ranks,” wrote anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant, who led a homophobic campaign in the 1970s called ‘Save Our Children’ (safeguarding children from predatory gay people was always used to legitimise public homophobic campaigns).
As it so happens, LGBTQ people have always found ways to have families. One approach is co-parenting, in which a mix of parents who are not themselves all in the same relationship raise a child or children together.
Which brings on to this weekend’s Twitter storm. Last week, a brilliant gay journalist I follow called Caspar posted one of those Facebook notifications which reveals a status you wrote on the same day however many years ago. In this case, it was Caspar in 2014 excitedly celebrating his coming fatherhood. Caspar, you see, is a co-parent: he raises children with a lesbian couple. To everyone who knows him, he is a model loving father. Other couples have looked to his family as inspiration before having their own children.
Having followed Caspar for many years, having seen him tweet lovingly about his family and children, and frankly seeing him as the sort of father I’d personally like to be, a jokey exchange followed in which he recommended the same set-up.
Two days later, what can only be described as the anti-trans cult jumped on the exchange. Both Caspar and I were misogynists who wished to rent or steal the wombs of women. Caspar’s co-parents were “reproductive workers” and his children were “human commodities”. The percentage who were deliberately conflating co-parenting with surrogacy — a topic which deserves its own separate conversation — or simply did not understand the difference was beyond me; whether they similarly didn’t understand that “broody” in the context of human beings means a burning desire to have and raise children also remains a mystery. In any case, it escalated dramatically: thousands of largely anonymous accounts raining down abuse, up to and including why this “faggot” should kill himself. Caspar had simply tweeted fondly recalling the moment he became a father with two lesbian co-parents, and now his timeline was brimming with strangers denouncing him and his family.
For the anti-trans cult, this moment was a “gotcha” for one reason above all else. Like all mainstream LGBTQ activists, I support trans rights. Showing an inclination to follow Caspar’s co-parenting family model was therefore hypocrisy: “So now he knows what a woman is! WHY DOESN’T HE TRY AND INSEMINATE A TRANS WOMAN!!!” All of a sudden, in their world, cisgender women who cannot reproduce are no longer women. In any case, many of the tweets descended into mocking the very idea of gay men being fathers at all, and was piled on by alt-right types who at least have the honesty to not pretend not to be bigots.
My first interaction with the anti-trans cult was back in February 2015, when I wrote my first column about trans rights, specifically in support of Stonewall’s heroic then-CEO Ruth Hunt making the charity trans inclusive for the first time. My Twitter account was dog-piled for weeks and they have never let me go since. As it happens, I’ve written very few columns in support of trans rights — the last was December 2017 — and have never gone on to TV or radio to discuss it, because I’m cisgender and didn’t feel it was my place to do so. I have consistently supported trans rights on social media because as a high profile LGBTQ columnist, I feel an obvious responsibility to support trans siblings who are going through the same experiences gay people have always endured — demonised as sexual predators and brainwashers of children, lambasted for denying biological reality, forcing the majority to redefine themselves for the benefit of a tiny minority, as well as being weird or creepy fetishes or simply defined by mental illness. Because so few media commentators support trans rights in the UK, this cult have decided I’m one of the Big Bad Bosses of the evil trans rights’ movement who needs to be ceaselessly targeted as such, leaving people like Caspar collateral damage.
At this point it’s important to clarify I’m not their victim — trans people are — and this is simply to illustrate what these people are and how they operate. Transphobic hate crimes quadruped in a half decade; a quarter of trans people have experienced homelessness and one in eight trans employees were physically attacked by a colleague or customer in a 12 month period: and then there’s the discrimination at work, the fear of leaving the house in case of abuse on the streets, the fear even of using a public toilet. Throw in a never-ending media campaign against trans people — which is far from confined to the dominant right-wing press; the government’s use of trans people as a culture war prop; the Labour party’s failure to clamp down transphobia; and the relentless targeting and victimising of any trans person in public life (of whom there are very few indeed), and it is more than understandable that most trans people I know tell me they are looking to leave the country. A British trans woman has already been given refuge in New Zealand because of the climate here.
When I say they’re a “cult”, I mean it in every sense. Having been on their receiving end — the non-stop dogpiling on social media, sending emails pretending to be my dead father, spamming anyone who mentions me on Twitter, constantly trying to get me fired — I’m more than aware they’re obsessive. They’re monomaniacal — their twitter feeds are often full of thousands of tweets about trans people and nothing else; profoundly conspiratorial in outlook; convinced that there is a coming Day of Judgement, when everything they obsessively oppose will collapse like a house of cards, and everyone associated with the evil of trans rights will be condemned; and they despise perceived traitors more than almost anyone. Women who support trans rights are labelled as ‘handmaidens’. When The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood started speaking out in support of trans rights, many of them denounced her as a ‘handmaiden’, too. [EDIT: Many of them also post about how their friends and loved ones have turned their backs on them as they radicalise ever further on trans rights, a hallmark of every cult].
What is abundantly clear is that the anti-trans cult is a case study in online radicalisation: it is a story, in large part, of vulnerable people with an internet connection who have fallen down one too many rabbit holes. It is not to excuse the behaviour of fallen comedy writer Graham Linehan — banned from Twitter last year — to point out that a man spending every hour of every day, including 3am in the morning or on Christmas Day tweeting about trans people was having some sort of crisis. Yet even as his life was clearly falling apart, the cult kept cheering him on.
They claim to speak on behalf of women, even though every poll shows that women are far more supportive of trans rights than men. They are keenly aware that progressive younger people see trans rights as an article of faith. What sustains them is that unlike the US — where there is a consensus ranging from “centrists” and liberals to the left in support of trans rights — in Britain transphobia is perfectly respectable and mainstream. Indeed, amongst much of the British commentariat, transphobia has not only become acceptable, it has become an identifying hallmark of respectability and moderation. Whatever their failings, while US President Joe Biden’s administration introduces trans rights legislation (which led, in Britain, to #BidenErasesWomen becoming the top trend, itself revealing of how bad things are here) while Vice-President Kamala Harris puts her pronouns in her bio, in Britain support for trans rights is often portrayed as a sign of radicalism and indeed extremism.
Which leads us to homophobia. Transphobia is an evil in its own right, but where else was it going to end? It was obvious when anti-trans organisations allied with Tory MPs like David Davies, whose voting record is anti-abortion as well as anti-gay. It was obvious when prominent UK “anti-trans feminists” hooked up with the Heritage Foundation with its long history of agitating against LGBTQ rights. It was obvious when gay supporters of trans rights, like myself, were constantly attacked on social media as threats to children. And it’s very obvious when a queer father co-parenting with a lesbian couple and myself are dog-piled by a cult which is obsessive and it is hateful. The gruesome truth is this: in 2021, in the here and now, there are all too many who simply do not think that LGBTQ people should be parents at all.