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How to create hate: Inside the mission to shut down respectful debate about transgender women in sport

To protect themselves against a respectful discussion about trans women wanting to be included in spaces created for their biological counterparts, many have reached for a tried and tested formula to rebrand debate as hate.

There are different ways to win a debate. One is to use logic to reason and compassion to compromise; another is to shut it down by rebranding it as hate.

When she became the Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves revived the public discussion in Australia about the rights of trans women and biological women.

Before becoming a candidate, Deves posted inflamed and sometimes cruel comments on social media, which she has since deleted and apologized for.

She is now calling for a “respectful discussion” about the “conflict of rights” which occurs when trans women seek to be included in sports and spaces which have been created for biological women.

A respectful discussion would allow for logic as well as compassion. Of course, such an exchange carries the risk that one side or the other may need to concede a point.

And so instead of approaching the discussion Deves is offering to have following her apology as an opportunity, some LGBTIQ+ advocates view it as a threat. To protect themselves against it, they have reached for a tried and tested formula to rebrand debate as hate.

Over the last weeks, three rebranding tactics have been on display: political threat, science-feeling, and dismissal.

It wasn’t long into the discussion before Equality Australia, an advocacy group which aims to ensure “LGBTIQ+ people are equal” across the country, commissioned polling to create a political threat argument for ending discussion during the election.

The poll, which was taken in a wealthy inner-city suburb with a Liberal incumbent and a diverse suburban electorate of NSW with a Liberal challenger, found both of these electorates might not be won by Liberals at the coming election.

The same poll found people in both of these suburbs overwhelmingly support trans people having the same rights and protections as other Australians, and “would be less likely to vote for a candidate who expressed critical views of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Australians”.

In an accompanying media release, Equality Australia linked the encouraging level of empathy and support for transgender Australians to the narrow polls in the two electorates.

The release used this as a political threat to call on “all political parties and candidates” to end what it characterized as “the damaging debate on the lives of trans and gender diverse people”.

See the sleight of hand? Australians support transgender people, and therefore having a discussion will lead to electoral pain. Also, any debate is harmful. The poll didn’t ask whether Australians support respectful discussion.

Then there is the science-feeling tactic, in which a media story purports to be dispassionate only to switch out fact for emotion.

This tactic was on display in a recent ABC article that said “while those who believe trans women should be excluded from sport have defended their right to ‘free speech’, little airtime has been given to examine the science behind the claims being made”.

The piece quotes Associate Professor Dr Ada Cheung, a principal research fellow in endocrinology at Austin Health, who leads the Trans Health Research program.

Dr Cheung cites a number of studies that indicate trans women might lose the advantage that men have over biological women.

She admits these studies are not scientifically conclusive on whether trans women have an advantage over biological women in the sporting arena (and indeed no conclusive studies appear to exist). So she shifts to the anecdotal evidence of her patients, who tell her they don’t have an advantage.

Dr Cheung also says there is “no data to suggest that safety [for cisgender women] is worse when trans women are competing” – partly, she says, because so few trans women play sport or exercise in the first place.

This, she argues, is because they fear discrimination.

At this point the story introduces the heart-warming story of trans woman Roxy Tickle who found a local hockey club that was delighted to accept her. Roxy, luckily, has been accepted rather than discriminated against.

Nonetheless, the “recent public conversation about trans participation in sport has taken a toll on her mental health”. So if you want to have that discussion, you must be a cruel bigot.

The logic doesn’t check out, of course, because Roxy did find acceptance, demonstrating there is a good deal of inclusivity in Australia. But the bait-and-switch is that, despite inconclusive science, we can’t have any conversation because it is “harmful”.

Finally there is a simple technique which many media outlets indulge in of implying that discussion of such matters can never be in good faith.

Often as not, this is as subtle as scare quotes around the term “debate” in an article, to suggest that there is no legitimate disagreement on these matters.

When debate appears in quotes, it may be read as a substitute word for hate.

All of these techniques insult the generosity and intelligence of all Australians by shutting down public conversation on the basis that Australians must be too prejudiced and unkind to have them in good faith. Equality Australia’s own polling shows this is patently untrue.

Far from creating a more inclusive society, the techniques for rebranding debate as hate put us in danger of losing our ability to come together to build a society based on mutual respect.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is Managing Director Strategy and Policy at public relations agency Agenda C.


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