How to Spot and Disarm a Dogwhistle
Content Warning: racism, antisemitism, misogyny, transphobia, queerphobia, mentions of paedophillia, suicide, mental health, abuse.
This document seeks to be a shorthand reference for when encountering transphobic and queerphobic dogwhistles, and how to identify them and engage with them. In this context, ‘disarm’ refers to removing the power to hurt.
The document is broken down into 4 parts:
- what is a dogwhistle,
- examples of transphobic and queerphobic dogwhistles and how to engage,
- and a recap.
Transgender/Trans: To align/identifies with a gender (or non) that you were not assigned to at birth. This applies to non-binary people.
Cis: the opposite of trans; to identify with the gender you were assigned as.
Trans woman: someone assigned male at birth who identifies as a woman.
Trans man: someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a man.
Non-Binary/Enby: someone who's gender does not align with the binary conception of gender as 'man and woman'.
Transphobia: the hatred, irrational fear, aversion or dislike of, or discrimination of a transgender or non-binary person on account of their gender, of trans and non-binary people. Transphobia is both systemic and non-systemic, as are many other bigotries.
Gender Critical: someone who believes that sex is the only factor to consider regarding if someone is a man or woman, not gender. Many Gender Critical people do not believe enbies are actually enby. The term Gender Critical is often used by transphobes to disguise their bigotry as merely ‘sex essentialism’, not unlike those who use the term ‘Race Realist’ to disguise their racism.
Conversion Therapy: the process of using intrusive (physically and/or mentally) procedures to 'convert' someone from being LGB to Straight, or in making someone trans into cis.
Detransition: when someone who was trans, for whatever reason(s) decides to stop their transition.
AGAB: Assigned Gender at Birth. This can be male (AMAB) or female (AFAB).
2: What is a Dogwhistle?
Simply put a ‘dogwhistle’ is a subtle way of communicating political points which, initially, can only be understood by the demographic it’s aimed towards, and by the demographic the political point is about.
Examples are helpful to demonstrate this. One of the most famous examples would be that of ‘states’ rights’ when used by conservative Southern US politicians. Here, ‘states’ rights’ is aimed towards white Southern US voters, and ‘states’ rights’ is about black people (or more specifically, the Southern US’s right on a state level to treat black people as non-citizens). This phrase of ‘states’ rights’, which has a history going back to the start of the USA, but was popularised during the 1960s and 70s in the aftermath of desegregation and the Black Civil Rights movement, is charged with meaning, even if strictly speaking it’s a phrase regarding a federal constitution. Phrases have meaning which are contextual: the federal government was seen as a threat to the state’s right to segregate people on the basis of race. So ‘states’ rights’ became a way of communicating one's opposition to the federal or progressive forces, without saying out loud ‘I support the segregation of races’.
Indeed, the subtlety is the point. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech, for instance, isn’t subtle; it was blatantly racist when it was first delivered in the 60s. However, the Conservative Party policy on immigration at the time was subtle. It was the explicitness and tone of Powell that got him fired from the Conservative frontbench, not the content of what he said. Therefore, subtlety is used to avoid accusations of bigotry and hate in bad faith by seeming to replace the actual topic with a more abstract tone, like ‘states rights’.
Thankfully, dogwhistles can be rendered ineffective by sharing understanding and raising awareness. ‘States’ Rights’ has become so synonymous with what it meant to hide that using the term is often challenged, and even acknowledged publicly by conservatives. As well, awareness of the phrase’s meaning became more widespread after a book which had an interview with Republican strategist Lee Atwater had Atwater explaining what States' Rights meant. While no one writing this is thankfully Atwater, it is hoped that this explanation of what various dogwhistles mean helps allies who are now unaware of that, and how to challenge them.
3: A List of Commonly Used Transphobic and Queerphobic Dogwhistles.
Below are some commonly used transphobic dogwhistles. You'll find out what they actually mean and how you can disarm them.
- 'The Trans/Gay Agenda'
What it means: 'Trans Agenda' is the attempt to suggest that transitioning (especially medically transitioning), trans awareness and trans equality are all being pushed by ominous figures in the 'Establishment'. The 'Establishment' here includes 'big pharma (major multinational pharmaceutical companies collectively as a sector of industry.)' and 'globalists' (a rightist term describe 'unpatriotic' capitalists), e.g George Soros (a Jewish Billionaire who often supports progressive leaning projects around the world), and often ties in with antisemitic tropes of Jewish plots to undermine white patriarchy.
How to disarm: Ask the person, if in a small group or 1-1, what evidence they have and who their sources are.
- 'What about detransition rates?!'
What it means: Talk of detransition narratives and regret are often used to delegitimise the competency of those seeking or who have sought transition (mainly medical). This has also been used to justify trans exclusion from the Conversion Therapy ban, as if people need to be 'tested' (read: tortured) regarding their gender. As well, Bell v Tavistock news coverage often centred the regret of Kiera Bell as a way to suggest clinics were 'pushing' being trans.
How to disarm: Noting that there is no one reason for detransition, and that detransition rates are incredibly low, is helpful.Only around 0.4-2% of those who medically transition, detransition and considering the small size of the trans population, this is a very small number of people - the actual number is unknown due to poor data collection. Indeed, the main reason, for around a quarter of cases, for detransition is actually social pressure and societal resentment.
Special Note: Detrans people should not be pushed away by us and plenty of them are allies. Read this article for more information.
- 'Biological Sex' & 'Sex Matters/ Sex Essentialism'
What it means: This is to effectively say that gender identity is irrelevant, and that sex is what defines what a 'man' or 'woman' is. Non-binary and gender diverse people (enbies) get put into one of these categories as a result. This is used often in discussions on sport, public toilets and also in pregnancy (often over trans men and assigned female at birth (AFAB) enbies). The term ‘sex matters’, that relates to the concept of ‘sex essntialism’, is used to justify a set of policies that takes the imagery of ‘common sense’ to a constructed mainstream audience (which is mostly white and middle class) which would lead to the policing of the bodies of all (cis and trans) woman by a misogynistic police force, and for all AFAB trans people a healthcare system that is even more humiliating than it already is. Then, sex essentialism is dangerous and hurts gender non-conforming people especially.
How to disarm: Pointing out that sex isn't a binary is part of disarming: intersex people exist, and people’s chromosomes aren’t always XX or XY - there’s also more to sex than chromosomes! As well, making it clear that gender identity and all its variations in time and place has a role too in the oppression non-cis men face. While genitals of course do play a role in how society 'genders' people from birth, and are part of how cis women (and AFAB people generally) are oppressed, the point gender criticals make downplays how gender expression plays a role in oppression, and how our cis-patriarchal, white supremacist society punishes those who don't conform to white cis masculinity.
- References to the Trans Suicide Rate and mental health
What it means: Gender critical people use this argument to suggest trans people are 'mentally disturbed' and 'sick'; therefore, unable to have competency over defining what their gender, or lack thereof, is. Intersectionally, this is both transphobic and ableist.
How to disarm: When trans suicides occur, it's generally as a result of untreated mental illness and health issues that are a result of a transphobic society and unequal health service, or because of intense bullying campaigns.
- 'Protecting Children'
What this means: This is about suggesting that trans and queer people generally are a threat to children's safety, implying paedophilia among a whole group.
How to disarm: Challenge the presumption by asking the person what they mean, and following that with asking what their evidence is can be helpful if you have the facts already about the rate at which this actually happens (which is negligable) and if it's among a small group or 1-1. If it's in a fast paced area, like a conference debate, using your point of information or inclusion card could be a good way to stop their flow and counter their dogwhistle.
- 'Let kids be kids'
What it means: Kids are apparently being overloaded by ideas like 'gender' and 'sexuality' which is ‘transitioning’ them. This is nonsense. This links back to the idea of the 'trans/gay agenda' (1). It also links to the idea of ‘social cognition’- especially as kids are seen as more prone to ‘trends’ like queerness, as if being queer or trans is a fashion statement. As well there is the idea of forced transition, where an authority figure like parents are forcing their kids to be trans for clout. This is harmful rhetoric which endangers children, especially trans children and young people, which leads to a Section 28 style culture in education.
How to disarm: If this person generally sees themselves as progressive, ask them if they think being taught gayness existing at an early age is wrong. Otherwise, question why they think it's wrong. Why is it a safeguarding risk? Why is it intrinsically wrong to teach queerness? This should expose their ideas. As well, note that when something becomes more socially accepted, that thing increases in people identifying with it, from left handed writing to accepting they’re gay or bi. The same is happening with the wider queer identities now.
- 'What is a woman?'
What it means: This question is usually asked in bad faith. The answer it demands from queer people is an answer that can easily be construed as 'big burly (cis) men with penises' in order to 'discredit' self ID as a safeguarding risk, similar to (5), by presenting the real threat of male violence as one of a fictional 'trans violence'. This is in spite of the evidence from countries like the Republic of Ireland.
How to disarm: Pointing out that the question is flawed in how it seeks to reduce women to their genitals can work, but can backfire by seeming to avoid the question. If you go for a self ID answer, know the facts: say with certainty that cis men abusing this doesn't actually happen.
- Using 'they' to describe a trans woman/ trans man repeatedly
What it means: This can be a casualisation of pronouns to deny the gender identity of a trans man or trans woman by refusing to use he/him / she/her respectively.
How to disarm: In response, you're speaking about a particular trans person or persons, assert the right pronoun first and foremost in your speech.
- 'Protecting Women'
What it means: Like (5), the suggestion is that queer people are inherently dangerous to women. At the moment, this applies more so with trans women and NBies who present femme. However, this dogwhistle has been used historically towards lesbians (particularly in the 1910s to 1930s and in the 1990s), and to this day also targets 'butch' and more masc presenting lesbians, cis or trans.
How to disarm: Pointing out that trans women/femme enbies are often the targets of violence and hate crime like cis women is important. Reframing the dogwhistle to be about how protecting not cis men from the violence cis men can produce can be useful.
- 'Protecting Lesbians'
What it means: An attempt to divide our community, the dogwhistle of 'protecting lesbians', and relatedly 'protecting lesbians from being forced to have sex with trans femmes', is invoked to suggest the false inherent 'predatory nature' of trans women towards cis women, to suggest an individual with a penis can't be a woman, and that sexuality is dependent on genital preference.
How to disarm: The fact that the vast majority of lesbians actually don't feel threatened, on the contrary are supportive of, trans women should be noted. The idea that potentially penetrative sex for a queer person with a vagina invalidates their sexuality is an incredibly reductive view and also seeks to invalidate bi people as well as lesbians who have sex with people with penises. As well, the notion of 'protecting lesbians' from often straight individuals is infantilising.
- 'Women's sports is being infiltrated'
What it means: Verges onto explicit at times, this dogwhistle is the call for trans femme exclusion from women's sports, and by extension trans masc exclusion from men's sports on the grounds of 'fairness' and/or 'safety'. This can force trans athletes into dysphoric situations and can lead to intense safeguarding issues for trans athletes.
How to disarm: It's a fact that recent 'sex based' qualification checks relying on testosterone levels have disqualified cis women of colour. Pointing out how these kinds of tests lead to results that are in practice racist is important.
- 'Genital Preferences are obviously transphobic'
What it means: The idea here is to suggest trans people existing forces cis people of any sexuality, though usually lesbians (10), to 'accept' a 'genital preference' that is far from the wishes of the latter. Though genital preferences can be a thing, to say they're transphobic 100% of the time is not nuanced. The point transphobes are making is that trans people are unreasonable and forcing others to accommodate them sexually.
How to disarm: Argue that very few trans people actually think that, if any, and most are concerned about healthcare and hate crime. As well, reducing sexuality to genital preferences is a disservice to every queer person and our shared culture that is so much more than genitals.
- Kink and Other Derogatory Sexual Implications
What it means: That trans identities are simply about sexual gratification and or fetishism, usually as in trans femme people are doing this as a sexual kink. This also applies to gender nonconforming people, and notably towards Drag Queens who are doing Drag Queen Story Times, which links back to point 5.
How to disarm: Pointing out that the pseudo psychology behind this theory is disproven and homophobic is helpful. As well, noting how this language is that of the far right is also effective.
- ‘Real Man/Woman’ and ‘Biological Fact’
What it means: A common one that even people who are well meaning but not as knowledgeable will make by accident, the assertion of ‘real’ (read: cis) women or men is one used actively by Gender Critical people to assert that trans identities are not valid, and therefore by implication are not as deserving of rights and protections.
How to disarm: If a genuine mistake, correct them politely and explain what cis means and how it isn’t a slur. If deliberate, ask why they think that and if they could explain how sex works then, considering how it isn’t a clear binary, as well as noting that reducing womanhood to biology is in the face of lived experience and is potentially racist and ableist.
We hope this has been helpful. The key takeaways are:
- Dogwhistles are meant to be subtle. They're meant to sound 'reasonable'.
- Questioning the person to explain what they mean undercuts the effectiveness of dogwhistles.
- Dogwhistles intersect with other bigotries.
As seen in later examples, dogwhistles can be used to fetishise trans and queer bodies, as well as to associate a 'negative hyper masculinity' to trans women and a gendered 'vulnerability' to certain queer cis women to 1) institute a manufactured binary division and 2) create a cishet temporarily socially acceptable version of queerness that relies on protection from cishet patriarchy. The fetishisation generally is to associate all trans and queer bodies with degeneracy, violation, and threat. This is something seeped into our culture (helped by basic understandings of gender and sexuality), from Hollywood films to satirical magazines.
The fact that transphobic and queerphobic dogwhistles often intersect with antisemitism and racism is not a coincidence. Especially today, anti trans narratives are used as the thin edge of racist and antisemitic ideas like the 'Great Replacement Theory' (a theory that white people are being 'displaced' and 'overtaken' by PoC at the direction of a 'powerful Jewish elite'), where transness is associated with 'weakening' white masculinity and encouraging straight interracial relationships. The 'theory' is inconsistent, but that's not the issue. Its purpose is justification for authoritarian social and economic policy, i.e fascism. Dogwhistles are ultimately the socially acceptable wedge of this ideology. Not everyone who uses a dogwhistle is a fascist but using them has normalised harmful ideas.
An important thing to remember is that dogwhistles can be used in ignorance. They're designed to be innocuous. That's why they're effective. The tone you use will depend on who you are speaking to. Nothing is worse in optics for our liberation than cis and/or het male allies engaging people aggressively, often cis women harmed by cis men but caught in the trans/queerphobic web: they live in an oppressive society and have had an oppressed experience. People are caught because they feel they have concerns which are legitimate. They aren't founded in reality. But aggressive counter assertion is counterproductive.
We hope this is helpful.