Be an ally for those targeted by the current conservative backlash 

From Florida doctors gaining the right to refuse treatment to LGBTQ+ people to Canadian columnists expressing outrageous anti-trans views and residential-school denial, conservative “moral panic” has set in, to the detriment of minorities and marginalized communities.

I remember, years ago, a good friend of mine and I were engaged in one of those deeply philosophical late-night discussions about the state of the world. I kept arguing that there’s a steady but often painfully slow global march towards some kind of evolution when it comes to fundamental rights. He, on the other hand, kept insisting that regression in societies was a real thing to watch out for; that the wheel of human progress could indeed move backwards given favourable circumstances. We were both right, of course. Progress does eventually happen, but regression does, too. 

That conversation took place in a kinder time, before Trump was elected, before Roe v. Wade was overturned, before we somehow started questioning LGBTQ+ rights in the western world again. 

In the past five or six years, I’ve seen a significant resurgence of regressive politics the likes I’ve perhaps never seen in my lifetime. Sure, backlashes to progressive social movements have always taken place, but I don’t recall ever seeing this kind of concentrated and controlled effort promoting a backslide in rights for some.

The effort is mostly amplified by conservative columnists who often have a direct link to populist governments and a hand in shaping government policies and the mainstream zeitgeist. Their opinions are often fuelled by an intense need to gate-keep and control the narrative, all while calling out censorship and woke-ism every step of the way, shielding us from imaginary bogeymen they need to protect us from. 

“Just asking questions…” 

A virulent streak of conservatism has reared its head, decrying all attempts to safeguard women’s rights and intersectional feminism, reproductive rights, gender rights, trans rights as “going too far” and being “too ideology-based.” And often it’s disguised as “intellectualism” as “ponderers” and “philosophers” just “asking questions” and writing columns using fancy words that really say nothing at all. At their very essence, these opinion pieces are fear-based lamentations of a privileged perspective unable to keep up with a changing world, unwilling to accommodate simple demands by new generations, minority groups and alternate life experiences that don’t mirror theirs. As these changes and perspectives leave them behind, as they challenge their rigid and entrenched worldview that favours only them and their self-proclaimed importance, they lash out. They resist. Their discomfort is shared by many in government who are white-knuckling their hold on political power and social influence. 

I’m leery of politicians like Pierre Poilievre and Maxime Bernier, who were unscrupulous in garnering easy support from the antivax crowd and the trucker movement that had more than its share of reactionary anger and right-wing populism. I’m leery of Jordan Peterson and Jon Kay, thinkers and pundits who seem overly and irrationally preoccupied by transgender issues, or who openly mock Indigenous activists, or, in Kay’s case, outright engage in denial of residential schools. People’s efforts to be better allies to these communities seem to profoundly insult, offend and disturb them, making them lash out even more, and emboldening others to do the same. This rhetoric affects people’s perceptions and fuels hate. 

Perpetuating harmful narratives 

At the University of Waterloo, a former international student walked into a gender-studies class during Pride Month and stabbed a female professor and two students in what is being called a “planned and targeted” and “hate-motivated” attack specifically against the teachings of gender identity. This attack comes on the heels of what has been a particularly brutal few months for the LGBTQ+ community, especially the transgender community.

One can question extremes or dérapages in any movement without dismissing the concerns, rights and safety of the community involved. Transgender people don’t have to personally convince you of the legitimacy and soundness of their own choices before you can grant them the right to respect and dignity — the right to simply exist. Similar backlash is being experienced by the queer and drag queen community. And many of our own homegrown and routinely lauded columnists who are given ample space to spew their anti-trans rhetoric (Mathieu Bock-Côté, Richard Martineau and, yes, even the late Denise Bombardier) aren’t helping to keep people safe. 

Two weeks ago, Richard Martineau wrote a column perpetrating the news that in the U.K. students are telling their professors that they’re identifying as animals. “One says that he’s a cat, another a dog, another a horse.” Even though the fake news story was quickly debunked, and it’s almost identical to similar hoaxes meant to discredit trans youth, which still didn’t stop Martineau or his paper from publishing it. Martineau (or anyone else purporting to be defenders of academic freedom) never felt the need to write about what transpired at Waterloo because I’m sure he views that hateful incident as a one-off, while every overblown reaction to what he agrees with is “stifling freedom of expression” and is certainly “ideological warfare” that must be dissected over and over again. And again. 

Targeted backlash against minorities 

In the U.S., the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled last week that a web designer in Colorado who said she had a First Amendment right to refuse to design wedding websites for same-sex couples was within her rights. It’s a move that many fear will encourage businesses to begin denying certain services to LGBTQ+ people, and many have called a “licence to discriminate.” The decision comes at a time when laws targeting the rights of transgender and other LGBTQ+ people are being championed or voted in by Republican legislators in many conservative-leaning states.

Also last week, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down affirmative action, a program that sought to rectify very real and observable inequities and lack of access to preparatory services many minorities face. As Michaele Turner Young from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said, “Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not” — something those who wanted it struck down fail to acknowledge or care about. 

I don’t expect that anyone actively writing columns about the need for “meritocracy” and “fairness” (as if these students didn’t already have excellent and in many cases far superior grades compared with their peers) will be quoting from a study published in 2019 in the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study that found that “43% of white students admitted to Harvard were recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty or on the dean’s interest list — applicants whose parents donated to Harvard.” That number drops dramatically for Black, Latino and Asian American students, the very students affirmative action aimed to help even the playing field for. 

Moral panic fuelling discrimination 

There’s an undeniable conservative backlash taking place — a kind of moral panic. Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, there’s been a clear attack on minorities in the States and an “unprecedented and dangerous” spike in discriminatory legislation. More than 525 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced and more than 70 signed into law so far in 2023. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a pretty vile bill making it legal for healthcare providers to deny treatment to LGBTQ+ members on religious or moral grounds. How are Americans not up in arms about such inconceivable legislation that — just like anti-abortion legislation — will put people’s lives at risk? 

“Are you a doctor who hates gay people? Come to Florida,” writes The Guardian

While conservative pundits like to rail against “woke-ism,” the organized ideology actually harming people is coming from them. An Associated Press analysis points out that bills actively seeking to ban or restrict gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth (routinely the primary targets of state legislation) weren’t derived from grassroots efforts or constituent demand, but from the opining of a few powerful conservative interest groups. 

The people they’re targeting are already the most vulnerable among us, often facing verbal and physical violence, discrimination and high suicide rates. New data from the Trevor Project, which works to end suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, underscores the mental toll on LGBTQ+ youth. The group surveyed more than 28,000 LGBTQ+ people aged 13 to 24. They found that “41% of them said they had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, 56% said that in the past year they wanted mental healthcare but couldn’t get it, and nearly two out of three said that hearing people talk about proposed laws banning discussion of LGBTQ+ people in school made their mental health much worse.” These kids need help and allyship, not our sermons. 

This toxic rhetoric directly harms those targeted. Why are we allowing people’s inability to understand or relate to someone’s personal choices dictate how they are being treated? It’s completely irrelevant what Jordan Peterson or your uncle Bill think of transgender people — why they decide to change their pronouns, or why they opt for gender reassignment surgery — or how much their choices may utterly confuse us or make us uncomfortable. Cis isn’t an attack on you unless you use trans as a slur, and people’s dignity, bodily autonomy, happiness, and mental health shouldn’t be up for debate. Respecting someone’s life choices — or something as simple as their pronouns for that matter — which affects you in exactly zero ways is literally the least someone will ever ask of you. 

Yet the moral panic continues, and it’s channeled by well-funded right-wing and religious groups trying to dictate how others should live — or what they should read. Many state legislators have censored or want to censor books or discussions on topics they disagree with. Many of those banned books are by and about LGBTQ+ people, visible minorities and other marginalized groups, books that conservative voices claim are “harmful to minors.”  

Backlash to inevitable progress 

Of course, this reactionary, deeply regressive movement hasn’t materialized out of nowhere. It’s reacting to something very real: progress. Representation has increased in the past few decades. More women and visible minorities in politics, academia, upper management. More out and proud members of the LBGTQ+ community living their lives the way they want to live them, more diversity slowly occurring everywhere, slowly gaining the institutional power to exact the changes that are needed.

There is more freedom to express ourselves sexually and identify as queer, as androgynous, as bisexual, as whatever you want to identify as. I see younger generations appear less stifled when it comes to self-identity and more comfortable with understanding that people can’t easily be put into boxes, that people’s sexual identities and orientations are complex and defy easy classification. 

It’s that very progress now fuelling this surge in regressive politics, in religious conservatism, in book bans, in the removal of hard-earned rights and policies that make the world safer, fairer, more inclusive, and more accepting. It’s these small moves forward that have propelled the conservative right to yell louder, campaign harder and more ruthlessly. They scream censorship while appearing on popular TV and radio shows, writing multiple columns per week and still have the gall to claim to be silenced and “cancelled” by the “woke left.” 

As new faces and identities have emerged in politics and as minority voices are taking a stance in defending their right to exist and to exert political power, the conservative right is fighting back. For now, the right still has the institutional power and often also the numbers politically. The right still has most of mainstream media in a vice-like grip.

Those targeted need our support and allyship more than ever. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.