Part 4: Dog whistles in context – transphobia

SWU Blog Series | Part 4: Dog whistles in context - transphobia

Listen to what communities affected by dog whistles are saying.

jane fae is chair of Trans Media Watch and a director at TransActual UK. SWU has invited her to share her knowledge and perspective of the ongoing issue of transphobic dog whistles in the UK as part of this educational blog series for social workers.

A banana is just a banana, until it isn’t

As a quote often attributed to Freud goes, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Likewise, a banana.  On occasion, a dislike of spicy food denotes nothing more sinister than a sensitive – English – taste palate. 88 is no more than a bingo call: “two fat ladies”, although we don’t call it that anymore.

All fine and good. Except: tossing a banana onto the pitch in front of a black footballer is basic racism. Ditto with the spicy food thing, which is a condition set by some landlords to exclude Asian tenants. As for 88, tread carefully if you see it in someone’s Twitter handle as 8 is often code for H, the 8th letter of the alphabet. So 88 can stand in for HH – or, in some circles, “Heil Hitler”.

If you weren’t aware of such usage before – and these are just the tip of the iceberg – welcome to the world of the toxic dog whistle. It’s shorthand for a word, a phrase or some part of a communication that sounds innocuous to most people, but is also intended to convey something altogether nastier to a specific subset. It can be rallying cry to those who share certain views or a bullying tactic enabling one group to have a go at another “in plain sight”. It’s a double whammy, as the bully gets to have a go and when called out can just shrug their shoulders and feign innocence.

LGBTQIA+ dog whistles

In respect of trans folk, and often the wider LGBTQIA+ community, common dog whistles sometimes include:

  • Family values” is a broad-spectrum dog whistle that has been used to signal opposition to liberalism, feminism, comprehensive sex education, atheism, homosexuality, trans people, same-sex marriage, and divorce with the implication that these are immoral and threaten the fabric of society. In the specific context of anti-trans dog whistles, “family values” is currently being used to stoke moral panic over the alleged existence of a predatory “gender ideology”.
  • Adult human female” is part of the anti-trans slogan “woman = adult human female”.  The implication here is that everyone’s gender is immutably determined by the sex they are assigned at birth and therefore trans identities are not valid.
  • Trans-identified” is a term that denies the existence of trans people by implying that people cannot self-determine their own gender and that gender is determined by the sex that someone is assigned at birth. It is used in discourse to misgender people – for example, calling a trans woman a “trans-identified male” (TIM) or a trans man a “trans-identified female” (TIF).
  • 41%” refers to a grim statistic from the 2011 US National Transgender Discrimination Survey (in which a staggering 41% of 6,450 respondents said they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared to 1.6% of the US population) and is a covert dig at and in some cases an expression of jubilation at suicidality in the trans community.
  • Globalism” / “big pharma” are used as anti-trans dog whistles to imply that the trans community is a powerful, monolithic and international cabal operating in the shadows. These awful two-for-one dog whistles echo the antisemitism of “international finance” and historic anti-Jewish slurs, and are an example of antisemitism manifesting in anti-trans rhetoric.

Sometimes – and that, of course, is the rub. The entire point of dog whistles is that they cannot be heard by humans, or in this case everyone who is not the intended audience of their coded message, and that they travel underneath the radar. In part, dog whistles are a response to more sophisticated moderation on social media platforms, which make outright insults and expression of prejudices a banning offence. They are code and allusion.

But sometimes… well, sometimes that cigar really is a cigar. When I was a lot younger, a “faggot” was a meat patty that my mother cooked from Sunday lunch leftovers on Mondays; and the most common use of “tranny” was in respect of a van (transit van) or radio (transistor radio).

Times change. Terms change. Usage changes.

Keeping up with the evolving language

So how can you tell when someone is dog whistling transphobia?

Look at their audience. If they are mostly addressing an anti-trans audience, there is a good chance they are. Also, keep an eye out for people who claim to be “engaging in debate”, and keep “accidentally” using dog whistles.

Listen to what trans people are saying. Because who better than the target of abuse to tell you that they are being abused?

It won’t always be clear cut. But 9 times out of 10, it will be. There is a pattern. Other less coded commentary makes motives clear.

So, when you see it, call it out. And when others call out something as a dog whistle, do some research. Do not fall for the innocent shrug and the puppy dog eyes!

Read the rest of this blog series to learn more about what dog whistles are and about different types of dog whistle discrimination from people who have experienced it first-hand:

You may also be interested in reading our recent guest blog by TransActual on supporting transgender young people, the June 2022 Pride month episode of the BASW Let’s Talk Social Work podcast examining the issue of anti-trans discrimination and conversion therapy, and the SWU statement in support of the transgender and non-binary community.