BRANDY ZADROZNY This is On the Media, I'm Brandy Zadrozny sitting in for Brooke Gladstone while she's on vacation.
BELLIGERENT WOMAN 1 He's a man with a penis.
[CONTINUES UNDER WITH MUSIC]
BRANDY ZADROZNY On June 24th, a woman behind an anonymous Instagram account posted a video of herself having an altercation at Wi Spa, a popular Korean spa in Los Angeles.
BELLIGERENT WOMAN 1 I don't care. So a man can just say "I'm a woman today and I want to come in?" [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY The poster claimed that Wi Spa had allowed a person who she said was a man into the woman's section of the spa, and that it traumatized her. In the video, Wi Spa employees explained that they follow California law and don't discriminate on the basis of gender, but the woman shot back.
BELLIGERENT WOMAN 2 We are concerned about women's safety. When a 30 year old man with a penis and testicles is getting into the Jacuzzi. OK?
BELLIGERENT WOMAN 1 Yeah, pervert. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY The video went viral, moving quickly through right wing spaces on Facebook before being picked up by Tucker Carlson.
BRANDY ZADROZNY A man, a biological male, walked into the female kids’ section of the spa with his genitals exposed. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY In just over a week. There were 6 mentions of the story on Fox News, but on July 3rd, the violence left the virtual world and spilled out into the streets when people gathered for what they called a, quote, "anti-pervert protest" in front of Wi Spa. Counter protesters showed up to protest for trans rights, and the event turned into a street brawl.
NEWS REPORT Violent clashes between demonstrators and the LAPD. Officers in tactical gear pushing the crowd back off Wilshire Boulevard. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Two people were stabbed, another was bear maced. The LAPD made no arrests. Lois Beckett, senior reporter at The Guardian, who herself witnessed a second protest, describes how it all unfolded.
LOIS BECKETT After there was an announcement that there was going to be this protest around Wi Spa, various activists in the Los Angeles area, made it clear that they were going to counterprotest for trans rights. Precious Child, an artist, a musician and also a live streamer who is herself a trans woman, shared the post and encouraged people to come out and protest for trans rights, and what happened next is that a very local activist known for being an anti-vaxxer and anti-masker posted on Instagram a picture of Precious calling her a monster. And this post didn't explicitly say that Precious was the original person who was in the spot in that original incident, but a lot of people who read it interpreted that way. And so I spoke with Precious, who said that soon after she saw this post on Instagram, she started getting horrible comments on her Instagram, people calling her a pedophile, threatening to attack her, attack her family. One of the most frightening was a picture of a man with a military style rifle saying that she was a predator and threatening to come after her.
BRANDY ZADROZNY This didn't just stay confined to L.A. This became a global rallying cry for all these disparate groups, right?
LOIS BECKETT Precious said as she watched these hateful, horrible, harassing comments roll in, she could see that the people posting them came from different demographics. She watched as this false claim spread around the world. She said, first, she saw comments from sort of militia group types in the US, then from broader pro-Trump people in the US, then she said that like transphobic feminists in Germany and in Australia were weighing in. In the United Kingdom, Mumsnet, which is a parenting website which has become a gathering place for anti-trans feminists, posted a lot about this Wi Spa incident, so suddenly, this one woman who was very upset in a Los Angeles spa is being hailed and treated like an international figure who is doing something very brave.
BRANDY ZADROZNY You went to one of the protests. What happened?
LOIS BECKETT For the first couple of hours of the protest outside Wi Spa, you know, it was just very weird because it was surrounded by police officers early in the morning. There were pro-trans protesters there pretty early and then around 11:00 a.m., this group of anti-trans protesters, the police estimated like 50, 60, 70, come marching down towards this spa. There's a woman at the front who's holding a baseball bat. They're chanting about pedophiles. They're chanting Save our children.
[AMBIENT PROTEST SOUNDS PLAY]
ANTI-TRANS PROTESTER Save our children! Save our children!
LOIS BECKETT There are women there carrying signs that women's rights matter and protect women's spaces, but there are also men there who are wearing masks that cover their whole faces, helmets. I see later a man who's carrying a massive shield. So it's this very chaotic and very intense group of people coming down the street towards this group of pro-trans protesters. And clearly, a lot of people had come that day wanting to fight. And once people have identified me as a journalist, I got surrounded. People are very angry, and eventually I tried to get away because it wasn't safe anymore and ended up sort of being pursued by a number of people.
ANTI-TRANS PROTESTER Get out. Get out! [END CLIP]
LOIS BECKETT You know, people are screaming at me like throwing water at me, throwing a water bottle at me, and eventually someone shoved me to the ground.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Real world violence that stems from, you know, so-called fake news isn't that common. Does it feel like this story is an exception, a precursor of what's to come?
LOIS BECKETT I mean, I think the thing we're all afraid of is it's a precursor of things to come. Because we saw all last year there was very local street violence and it was just, you know, one little attack at a time. Car attacks, people getting shot in Kenosha and this brawling in Portland or in other places in California or in Michigan. That was a bad sign, and it did culminate in the attack on the Capitol. Local fights are a training ground for what goes national. And I think I thought that the fear from the FBI's investigation of the Capitol rioters and all of these arrests would have a longer effect at making people, specifically the Proud Boys, a little bit more nervous about coming out to fight and attack people in public.
BRANDY ZADROZNY They were supposed to go back into their holes, I was told.
LOIS BECKETT Yeah, I mean, it's July, it's August. Like here they are in the streets of Los Angeles being publicly violent again and without consequence. We know where that leads.
BRANDY ZADROZNY There is a real temptation to want to believe that the groups who were emboldened, I think, by the Trump presidency will now find something else to do. I think I even said, well, once the vaccine comes, then we won't be online all the time. People will be out, real world connections. People will go back to church, back with their families. And, you know, the world will be a little better. It will get not so violent. It won't be so scary. And I think that the Wi Spa protests and then the side protests that you saw from anti-vaxxers that were also at the Wi Spa protests just sort of cemented the idea that we are nowhere near out of the woods.
LOIS BECKETT I always try to remind myself, listen, it's not that many people. It does appear to be the same tiny group of agitators who are going from issue to issue and from place to place acting in volatile and dangerous ways. Maybe it's a couple of dozen people. But that's the thing about violence. You don't need a lot of people to have a big impact if you're willing to be violent. And I think one of the things that's been really striking about seeing this violence start up again, at Wi Spa, is how little the city as a whole is paying attention to it. There hasn't been condemnation from the mayor or political leaders. Big LGBT groups haven't weighed in on this. So I was talking to precious child who is sort of falsely accused and brought into this whole situation, and she just said it was very upsetting not to feel that people were seeing this violence and speaking out and condemning it.
BRANDY ZADROZNY In your article, you quote Gay Chapman, who is the owner of After Ellen, a site for lesbian and bi women that's been criticized for transphobia content. Now, Chapman was at the protest on the anti trans side and said, quote, It was just like a regular day on Twitter, only it was real life. What does that say about how we need to change the nature of our online spaces? Is that even possible?
LOIS BECKETT I thought that was such a resonant quote. When we talk about online harassment, we know the most marginalized people are often subject to really terrible attacks. And that has been true online, and that is true with real world violence. If we acted more rapidly about the violence that trans women of color face in the real world and online, physically and in terms of harassment and made sure that they were safe, then we would really all be safer because we've seen that they are often the first to experience some of this violence and that violence inevitably spreads. And that's the opposite of what's actually happening. There was just a new Brennan Center report which suggested that social media platforms from Facebook to YouTube were not particularly responsive to the harassment against the most marginal people and tended to enact their policies with more nuance and care and restraint on more socially prominent and powerful groups, and that is the opposite of the reaction that we might want if we really cared about making our online spaces or the streets of our cities safer.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Well, that's always been the pushback, right? Is that there's online and there's IRL, and I think that part of the thing about that quote that was so illuminating is that even the people who are in real life battling out these issues directly correlate their experiences back to their online lives.
LOIS BECKETT And there's a weird feeling about being at these protests because there's dozens or hundreds of people at the protest, but it's thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who will see the video clips of the protest later.
BRANDY ZADROZNY It becomes almost performative for the people that are actually at the protest as well.
LOIS BECKETT That feeling is just unavoidable, that everybody is streaming themselves and streaming other people. And one of the things that was really striking and clear is that some of the violence and the attacks against journalists were because these people do not want to be captured or live streamed or photographed by someone who isn't on their side, so that the violence is a attempt to control who gets to show what's really happening. And at the same protests where I was assaulted by far right protesters, there was also another journalist who was taking pictures of the left wing counter protesters, and he said that he was taking a wide angle shot and might have gotten the license plate of the car into it and was surrounded by people who thought that he was deliberately trying to take the license plate of the car to dox someone and who, you know, got very angry at him and eventually took his phone and took his bag of camera equipment. And so just a tremendous anxiety and paranoia about being identified in these public actions that are playing out in the middle of the day, but also a real fear of what it means to be captured on film, captured on video, the power that has in this situation.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Lois, thanks so much.
LOIS BECKETT Great to talk with you.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Lois Beckett is the coauthor with Sam Levin of The Guardian article, A Nightmare Scenario How An Anti-Trans Instagram Post Led to Violence in the Streets.
Julia Serrano is a writer, performer, biologist and activist. She says that although the protest at Wi Spa brought together a new cohort of strange bedfellows, including Proud Boys, Anti-Trans Feminists and the conspiracy cult QAnon, the language and the tactics they weaponized followed an old and well-worn playbook.
JULIA SERANO One of the striking parallels to what's been happening lately is the Anita Bryant era of the 1970s, where she had the Save Our Children campaign.
NEWS REPORT Anita Bryant was once known as an orange juice saleswoman. Not anymore. With a religious fervor that has made her America's most controversial woman overnight, she has been selling her Save Our Children group. Her group is crusading to repeal a new Dade County law which protects homosexuals in jobs and housing. Anita Bryant began her fight in her church, where the congregation believes the new law will force them to hire homosexual teachers.
ANITA BRYANT In our campaign. We we talk about the danger of the homosexual becoming a role model to our children.
NEWS REPORT With television commercials, the Save Our Children group is appealing to parental anxieties, saying gays will flaunt their homosexuality before impressionable children. [END CLIP]
JULIA SERANO Essentially, the thrust of those arguments were that we have to protect children from gay teachers, and there were lots of concerns about pedophilia and child molestation and claims that gay people were going to recruit children
BRANDY ZADROZNY And this "threats to women and children," this was also used by pro segregationists in the 1950s, right?
JULIA SERANO That is correct. During the civil rights movement, there was a lot of attempts to raise fears about how integration could potentially lead to threats against white women and children like the Anita Bryant campaign. There's no evidence to suggest that there was any higher risk of child sexual abuse or of sexual violence, but this language is very powerful, and today's anti-trans activists have picked up on almost all of the same means from the Anita Bryant era.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah, I mean, it's almost too on the nose that the QAnon slogan is actually Save Our Children.
JULIA SERANO Yeah, I don't know whether that was purposeful, especially because QAnon did not start out as a anti-LGBTQ movement, that was more against a vague idea of Democrat elites, but yeah, they are basically using Anita Bryant slogan.
BRANDY ZADROZNY How do the events around Wi Spa fit into the historical continuum of anti-LGBTQ panics or movements or campaigns? So are things generally moving toward greater acceptance and equal rights for trans people or are we backsliding?
JULIA SERANO I would say over the last several years we have been backsliding, famously. I think it was Time magazine declared in 2014, the transgender tipping point and the year after that was the Caitlyn Jenner year, where Caitlyn Jenner's transition garnered a lot of news. And it was really the following year of 2016, there was this rash of, from various angles, fears about an imagined effect where there were more transgender children, so therefore, it must be contagious or kids are being pressured into it, or it's a trend that was a very popular saying around 2016 by people were pushing anti-transgender ideas. So in 2016, there's this onslaught of kind of organization among anti-transgender activists that I think has been increasing and becoming more and more potentially violent over the last four or five years.
BRANDY ZADROZNY A lot of the anti-trans movement has been bolstered by what seems like science-y or journalistic coverage. So you've researched, for instance, and written about the total lack of science behind this concept of rapid onset gender dysphoria. This posits that being transgender can be caused by social contagion. So in other words, being trans is an identity that young people can catch or be tricked or misled into by the Internet and peer pressure. It comes from a 2018 paper published on PLOS ONE by Lisa Littman, a medical doctor with very recent research interest in trans youth. The paper was roundly criticized, PLOS ONE had to issue a correction because of some problematic research methods. Can I just ask you to tell me about this rapid onset gender dysphoria, what it is, who's pushing it, what effect it's having?
JULIA SERANO Yes, I investigated this for an article I was writing about it, and I found them through doing Google searches, trying to find the first instances, someone who was posting on a website called 4thWaveNow, which is one of several anti-transgender parent websites, and basically the idea that social contagion is turning children transgender was invented on these websites starting in February 2016. In July of that year, Lisa Littman put out on these same anti-trans parent websites a call for parents to participate in her survey that ended up becoming the data for her paper. And it's important to point out that this paper on rapid onset gender dysphoria did not study the children at all. It was basically a survey of parents’ beliefs about their trans children.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And specific parents events.
JULIA SERANO Yes, specifically, Lisa Littman did not put out calls for parents on, say, gender affirming websites. She specifically selected from the same three websites that both invented the term and was going to have a lot of parents who already didn't believe that their children were actually trans.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OK, so this very science-y sounding term, that's not very good science. It really spread, though, and it caught on. Why and how?
JULIA SERANO So in my investigation of this, which is origins of social contagion and rapid onset gender dysphoria, it basically really took off in August of 2016 and it really spread largely because this social conservative media environment began picking up on it. They found out about it.
TUCKER CARLSON In 2018, Brown University researcher Lisa Littman found that many teenage girls are abruptly identifying as transgender after seeing a friend do so or after being exposed to pro-trans material online, and there's an awful lot of that. [END CLIP]
JULIA SERANO Just trying to raise concerns that everything that's happening, say, with transgender children, that it's all this new experimental stuff or this is a completely new phenomenon that's just taken over, but in actuality, this has all been going on for decades. And I've been involved in trans health related discourses since the 2000's. And there were debates among trans health professionals about what's the best way to treat these children are. And there was a growing consensus that built up over many years that gender affirming approaches, that is taking what trans children say seriously. And rather than kind of denying them or doing conversion therapy, that that's the best way to go. And it should be pointed out that the main reason why that is, is because there has been lots of research that has been done showing that dis-affirming trans children's identities, insisting that they continue to be the gender they were assigned at birth, even if that isn't working for them, that that has very serious health ramifications and trans people themselves would agree with that, because we have our own experiences of struggling, trying to move through the world in a way that is dissonant with or incongruent with who we are.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thinking again of the idea of rapid onset gender dysphoria. What can that tell us about how pseudoscientific ideas, sort of like Andrew Wakefield's anti-vaccination research, the one that falsely connected the MMR vaccine with autism, which is misinformation that persists today. What can that tell us about how these ideas get picked up and popularized by the general public?
JULIA SERANO People latched on to research that seems to support their belief. And if your main goal is you don't want your child to be transgender, then any evidence that you can find in support of that, you'll latch onto it, whether it's contradictory or not. If you insist that there's a contagious element to being transgender, it gives parents the ability to seclude their children from trans peers to limit their viewing of, you know, YouTube videos or information about transgender people or issues because you're trying to essentially quarantine them from catching the transgender when that supports the outcome that you want, even if it's an incorrect rationale.
BRANDY ZADROZNY What's the best way to go about countering that disinformation and is there a cost to engaging in every eruption of anti-trans disinfo?
JULIA SERANO I think it's important to remember that every parent who finds and starts utilizing anti-trans disinformation, that there is a child who is basically going to have a really horrible experience as a result. And I think that the most concern that I have is the way that sometimes within the media there can be a both side-isms sort of approach to it. Like, oh, well, let's have, you know, the pro-transgender side and then the anti-transgender side and give them equal time. I think it's really important to stress that the scientific consensus says that we should recognize trans people and take trans people's identities seriously.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thank you, Julia.
JULIA SERANO Thank you.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Julia Serano is a writer, performer, biologist and activist. Coming up, the actual child sex trafficking ring that no one thought was newsworthy and the single reporter who wouldn't let it go. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.