TW: Transphobia, Misgendering, Sexual Abuse, Misogyny
Social media, as many of us can attest, is one of the very best and worst things that has ever happened to music fandom. It can be a place for hyper-niche memes and news updates, a place to find new friends and forge feelings of shared identity and belonging. At times when it feels like nobody “gets” you, being online can be one of the easiest ways to feel part of something, to feel that there are other people out there just like you. But when that feeling of community is spliced into fractions, it can also serve more insidious ends, fostering division, polarity and culture-war combativeness. At its worst, social media harbours and amplifies some extremely dangerous views, targeting minority communities who, for the most part, are merely trying to exist amidst a barrage of social injustice.
Here in Britain, transphobia has flared into a particular social sickness, a fixation that sadly isn’t going away. Though it infiltrates every aspect of our society, the way in which trans-femme and non-binary musicians are discussed online — Sam Smith, to give just one recent example — is frequently abhorrent, reducing them to down to sick caricatures or willful misunderstandings. Despite making up an estimated less than one per cent of the UK population, trans people have become the scapegoats of a moral panic, accused of indoctrinating our children and normalising sexual ‘perversion’.
Transphobia reared its head once again in music this week via Louise Redknapp, member of the nineties group Eternal. Alongside bandmate Kéllé Byran, Louise reportedly refused to be part of a reunion after fellow members Easther and Vernie Bennett stated that they would not consent to playing any Pride-based festivals as part of their tour. Though it is not explicitly clear what caused the Bennett sisters to make this decision, Vernie has been vocal on social media about her concerns that Pride has been ‘hijacked’ by the trans agenda, and so Louise’s actions were broadly read as an act of trans allyship, drawing great swathes of online abuse from people who accused her of throwing her bandmates under the ‘cancel culture’ bus.
Elsewhere, further TERFs — or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, if you prefer — got hold of a scan of an interview that Brighton band Lambrini Girls did with Kerrang! Magazine. Describing (amongst other things) their EP and its myriad themes of social injustice, Lambrini Girls covered catcalling, lad culture, music industry sexual misconduct and transphobia. In speaking about their desire to fight back against the latter, one phrase of lead singer Phoebe Lunny’s quote was boldly splashed across the copy: “I will scrap any TERF, any day, in person, with my fists”. It was this quote which seemingly sent gender critics into overdrive, sending violently abusive posts to Lambrini Girls, to writer Emma Wilkes and to the magazine accounts itself, accusing them of pandering to a ‘woke’ agenda and violently letting down ‘real’ women. Seemingly, musician Louise Distras was at the helm, posting the scan and describing Kerrang! as “the mein kampf of the music biz full of female chauvinist pigs inciting violence against women”.
Mirroring the abuse that was aimed at The Guardian journalist Laura Snapes when she (quite fairly) pointed out that some fans were having a hard time getting on with Róisín Murphy’s new album (in light of Murphy’s dissenting posts about the use of puberty blockers for young people, and subsequent refusal to apologise to her large LGBTQ+following), Distras and her followers seemed to be concerned that rock media had gone to the dogs, pandering to the masses instead of upholding the ‘punk’ mentality of questioning authority. This would all be well and good, were it not for the fact that the ‘authority’ is also hellbent on demonising the LGBTQIA+ community — just this week, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed that gay discrimination is not enough of a reason to seek asylum in the UK, even despite growing global hostilities.
Certainly, you might agree that advocating violence against TERFs is a bit of a fight-fire-with-fire response, unlikely to find any common ground. You might say that album reviews should focus only on the content of the album, or that pop performers and critics should stay out of politics. But the Lambrini Girls quote isn’t really what gender critics are mad about. Nor is it the idea that might not get to see Louise in an Eternal reunion, or that they even care about the metrics through which The Guardian attributes its five stars. In reality, they’re mad that more and more cisgender artists and journalists are speaking up as allies, and that their relentless criticisms of the trans community aren’t going unchallenged.
If you are going to credibly accuse Lambrini Girls of inciting violence against women, you’d have to recognize that their anger comes from a place of exhaustion. For years, trans people have been treated as subhuman, nefarious invaders of music scenes, somehow usurping the already-paltry rights of ‘real women’. Whether onstage, in attendance at shows or online, trans people are routinely having to defend their lives and safety, purely because they dare to ask for the right to identify as their full selves.
Whether they self-label as a TERF or not, many women will argue that in denouncing the existence or acceptance of transgender people, what they are trying to do is to protect women and girls. When arguing online, they may cite their own experiences of gendered violence, or claim that they are merely concerned about children making ‘big’ decisions that they aren’t emotionally ready for, adopting the language of care.
While a tiny percentage of gender critics may be operating from a position of their own lived experience of regretful transition, the majority seem to be fixated on lifestyles that have very little to do with their own. Rather than recognise the way that trans rights intersect with cisgender women’s rights, TERFs seem to feel that there isn’t enough safety to go around. They argue that trans women are merely men identifying as women, slyly trying to infiltrate gendered spaces to cause harm. Instead of researching just how many financial, emotional and psychological hoops a person has to jump through to access gender-affirming treatment, for example, or reading up on how puberty blockers — also difficult to get hold of — can help to give a child more time for personal exploration rather than irreversibly changing their physicality, or even noting that trans people are at a significantly increased risk of domestic violence, homelessness, and discrimination in higher education, transphobic views become compounded by media fear-mongering, insisting that trans people and their allies are the ones with all the social leverage. Repeatedly, across social media, TV debates, podcasts, book deals and right-wing publications, TERFs complain that they are the ones being silenced, despite ever-growing evidence of transphobic intolerance.
For women who have fought hard for safe representation in the music industry, it is understandable to feel on high alert, to want to make sure that nobody harms you again. In a seemingly endless tirade of sexual violence, there is perhaps even some small comfort in imagining that the world’s ills can all be traced back to one community, a threat that can be ‘contained’. But in a month where women are presented with a key example of a popular male entertainer who absolutely did not have to ‘masquerade’ as a different gender to allegedly groom and attack multiple women, or a seemingly-radicalised teenager who allegedly resorted to murder instead of processing an ex-girlfriend’s rejection, blaming gendered violence on trans people is simply rooted in fallacy, a prejudice which holds us all back from addressing the real issues of our time. In the face of open incel culture, femicide and red-pill misogyny, ‘feminism’ simply cannot afford this unwarranted distraction — there are much, much bigger battles to face.
In an attempt to heal the ills of society, music is important. It’s a space where people go to feel like themselves — to sing about their identities and experiences in the hope that somebody might connect. By genuinely speaking to trans people, respecting them and standing shoulder to shoulder in the face of ongoing abuse, artists like Louise and Lambrini Girls not only pay respect to the LGBTQIA+-heavy audiences who helped to shape their careers, but are wonderfully positioned to show that being trans isn’t about usurping anyone’s position; it’s about working together to create better spaces for all. Whilst of course it is always important to hear directly from trans voices, Louise, Lambrini Girls and a host of other allies — Paramore, Crawlers, Jade Thirlwall, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe — all play part their part in chipping away at the fractions with distract us from true gender equality and education. As do journalists like Emma Wilkes and Laura Snapes, who by staying calm and merely pointing out the facts, do wonders to counteract the scourge of misinformed right-wing criticism which only serves to foster further divides.
Transphobic and gender-critical views are not going to disappear overnight. Much as I have the right to write this article, gender criticalists have every opportunity to produce their own. Ultimately, nobody is forcing them to ‘conform’ to my view. But as social media moderators and TV producers alike would do well to emphasise, there is a difference between ‘free speech’ and the right to broadcast it; a moral difference between ‘having an opinion’ and using that opinion to doggedly, repeatedly harass an already minoritised community into non-existence.
Trans people have always existed, and they will continue to do so. The only issue is how quickly wider society can accept the very basic notion that they be afforded the same rights and respect as everybody else. Much like racism, homophobia and sexism before and alongside it, there is absolutely nothing punk about beating down a minority — the sooner so-called feminists realise this, the better off we’ll all be.