Under the banner of biology, feminism or freedom of expression, trans people are being made the subject of debate and the target of wide-spread resentment and harassment. The charge is being led by an alliance of stakeholders to whom the media is, in their own way, actively contributing.
In the post-fact era, public discussions of societal issues frequently seek to invoke ‘ultimate truths’ – “facts” that promise an end of debate. When competing interpretations of the present come head-to-head, the calls for such undeniable facts grow louder in order to legitimize diverse political projects under the guise of “common sense”. The highly heterogeneous actors within social networks, as well as their mainstream media competitors – in heated debates — all articulate a longing for such intuitive truisms to navigate complex issues.
One such ‘truth’, which many Germans are currently and with some aggression tethering their convictions and worldviews to, is that “In biology, there are only two genders/sexes.” 1 This blanket statement about the state of the field within a scientific discipline has been discussed widely across German social media, in periodicals, and within academic circles in the last weeks and months. To some, it became an outright battle cry. The triggering event was a biologist’s presentation on the topic in June 2022: at first canceled and later postponed. Purportedly ‘canceled’ (in the cultural sense), it was finally held at the Humboldt University in Berlin under near-national attention.
The ensuing controversy has continued, unabated, and has most recently resulted in threats of libel suits, personal attacks and competing fundraising campaigns. On Twitter, feuds rage between anonymous and public profiles over subjects such as the persecution of gender-nonconforming people under National Socialism or the reproductive cycle of fish (the subject of the lecture). Both sides gather evidence in the hopes to finally prove that the other side has escalated the debate via ‘disinformation’.
Mainstream media outlets are the beneficiaries of these online dynamics, and invite experts to present audiences with the “neutral facts” of biology, sex or gender: The media thus personalizes the debate, fanning the flames of a culture war with real and harmful consequences, and contributes to its escalation. The so-called “Causa Vollbrecht” case makes this obvious: From the publishers at Springer to the weekly Die Zeit, mainstream media is either cynical or ignorant enough to turn complex conflicts and discussions (within their respective activist, academic or Twitter contexts) into scandal sheets on ‘biology’, on the threat of a “translobby” or the imminent breakdown of so-called ‘academic freedom’.
Some background. In June of 2022, Die Welt newspaper released a scathing article which alleged that German public broadcasters were guilty of promoting “transgender ideology” and the “indoctrination of children.” The previously little-known biologist Marie-Luise Vollbrecht, a PhD candidate at Humboldt University, was one of the article’s authors, together with several other figures who had for some time achieved public visibility with transcritical and transphobic views.2
The Welt article was a collaboration between different interest groups: so-called radical feminists, who had been rallying against transness under the banner of ‘biological feminism’ for some3 ; and right-wing conservatives, who also have an established history of opposing persons associated with gender or queer studies, up to denying outright the validity of these academic fields. Right-wing conservative and radical feminist voices mingled within the article, expressing relatively undisguised transphobia formulated via an AfD-like polemic against “indoctrinating state broadcasters.”
In response to this activist backstory, a student group criticized Vollbrecht’s biology presentation on why there are “only two genders/sexes” that was scheduled as part of a Long Night of Sciences event, a public outreach program of Humboldt university. Protests and counter-protests were announced, and the university canceled the presentation, only to reschedule it as a highly publicized, stand-alone event two weeks later. In public perception, Vollbrecht was transformed from an activist author against “transgender ideology” into a valid “representative of biology” presenting the discipline’s alleged state of the field – a reframing that almost all media outlets adopted without further contextualization. The German public had found its attention grabber du jour: With the help of Springer-newspaper Die Welt, other media publishers and a rather naïve university, anti-trans activists achieved a media coup and the repercussions would be experienced throughout the summer months.
Although it was depicted as such, the case had little to do with the character or expertise of the doctoral student and activist: Vollbrecht provided a suitably fresh face and scientific credentials to the longstanding anti-gender coalition. Rather, the case is symptomatic of a radical discourse in which antigenderism – the term scholars use to denote populist movements that incite panic around gender and queer studies, as well as women’s and LGBTQ rights – joined hands with transphobia, gender conservatism, and the German mainstream. The sheer volume of attention for a statement like “there are only two genders/sexes” indicates how wide-spread resentments against trans people are and how easily the public can be mobilized via well-worn triggers – a simple simulation of “scientific discourse” and the accusation of “leftist cancel culture”.
If “only two genders/sexes” was the allegedly correct and controversial answer for so many German onlookers, what exactly was the question? This is easily answered: The declaration of and debate over biological truisms is, at its core, a veneer for a different debate which seeks to negate the existence of trans and non-binary people in Germany – people who are not represented in a binary gender system infused with biological absolutism.
This “discussion” – which holds much of Germany in thrall at the moment – is a fundamentally violent and violating one: there simply can be no “trans debate”. Trans people cannot be denied the right to exist – not in the name of biology, feminism or freedom of speech. And while the self-declared proponents of “biology” or “sex realism” may insist that they are actually not denying anyone’s right to life, they are effectively distracting from the fact that this is the exact stance taken by the discussion: a part of German society wants to pass judgment on the lives of others according to a rigid biological model, and they demand license to articulate this doctrine without criticism and with the media’s support. Trans people must explain and prove their own existence over and again to a public that continuously asserts the very opposite: according to biology, feminism or ‘scientific standards’, trans people cannot or should not exist.
The Push against the Self-Determination Act
The real world situation in Germany today is discriminatory to its core, one of the main reasons behind a recent push to make fundamental legal changes to the law. According to the “Transexual Act (TSG)” of 1981, trans people must prove their gender identity to both experts and the courts in order to formally register a change in their gender marker (Personenstand). In this costly process, the state problematically partners with medical and psychological experts in order to decide on a person’s claim to gendered personhood and their lived reality.
Up until 2011, changing one’s sex designation in Germany depended on inhumane criteria: to change their registration, trans persons had to be sterilized, undergo mandatory surgical and hormonal measures, and meet the “expected role patterns” of the targeted gender – i.e. fulfill gender stereotypes set forth by psychologists. Even the since-mitigated TSG remains largely incompatible with Germany’s constitution, as the Federal Constitutional Court has repeatedly remarked.
Against this violent framing and facing significant opposition, activists have spent decades fighting for a ‘Self-Determination Act’ – a political cause which Adrian de Silva traced in his wide-ranging study “Negotiating the Borders of the Gender Regime.” Despite repeated and malicious invocations of an all-powerful “translobby,” the German parliament rejected the so-called Self-ID-Act in May 2021 with a large majority.
The “Ampelkoalition” (the current German coalition government consisting of Alliance 90/the Green Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Free Democratic Party) is currently working on a new bill. Its key points were presented to the public on June 30th, 2022 – two days before the biology presentation at Humboldt University was scheduled to take place. The simultaneity of events is telling: the discourse playing out under the misleading headlines of “biological facts,” “scientific freedom,” or “smear campaign against a young PhD student” rather presents a broad transphobic push against the imminent Self-Determination Act, and against the rights and public visibility of trans people.
The extent of this phenomenon is reminiscent of the concurrent US-American “trans panic,” including a coalition of conservative and right-wing instigators. Its real-world consequences span public doxing – the release private information about trans people and their families – up to direct violent actions against persons and projects. In June of this year, the right-wing extremist Identitarian movement bricked up a Vienna bookstore that had organized a Drag Queen reading event. In August, the Canadian streamer Clara Sorrenti was arrested at gunpoint by a special police force, who were sent to her home under false pretenses in an act of so-called “swatting.”
The Connection between Right-Wing Populists, Twitter Trolls and Feminist Splinter Groups
The – bottom-line transphobic – discourse of “only two genders/sexes” has surprising longevity due to its appeal towards broad anti-trans resentment in Germany, and its ability to unite different political actors under the same banner. For decades, different groups (primarily right-wing conservatives) have been agitating against so-called “gender ideology” that allegedly seeks to destroy nearly everything: freedom of speech and science, the family, the happiness of children, and finally “gender/sex” itself. Akin to Canadian protests against Bill C-16 in 2017 (championed at the time by Jordan Peterson), these groups make the threat of a so-called “gender dictatorship” tangible for broad publics via the so-called “gender star”, the German variant of so-called “compelled speech”: a typographic method to indicate gender-neutral address and inclusivity that can be used voluntarily in the German language. Nowadays, the fantasy of “dangerous men in women’s clothing” supplements these agitational endeavours: like in Hitchcock’s Psycho, “false women” are said to populate washrooms, women’s shelters and gender quota seats within the Green Party. This argument is being made by a wide-reaching alliance of actors, from Beatrix von Storch (a member of the far-right AfD party), conservative commentators, German second wave-feminist flagship EMMA, and a vocal online community of self-professed radical feminists.
That a certain brand of “gender critical” or trans-exclusionary feminism has entered into precarious alliances with the far and moderate right is an international phenomenon. Associations such as Women’s Declaration International (WDI, formerly WHRC) represent a radical feminism that pinpoints its interventions on the “the trans question.” This organization regards trans women as outright symptoms of patriarchy, who “colonize femininity” via what Australian feminist professor Sheila Jeffreys calls “womanface”– trans women in this view present simply an outright expression of male tyranny over women. WDI further asserts that trans men are similarly pawns of patriarchy, and are fleeing their oppressed status as women for the allegedly less stigmatized insignia of (trans) masculinity. “Extremist” positions such as these have isolated the WDI from wider international feminism and brought them into strategic coalitions with conservative and extreme right organizations.
When right-wing populists, Twitter trolls and feminist splinter groups align, it becomes clear that the persistent campaign of “only two genders/sexes” has little to do with biological research or a young doctoral student and activist. Rather, the strategic core of this affair lies in its ability to organize new political alliances motivated by shared resentments towards trans people.
All mainstream media who have in the past months willingly and complicitly adopted the narratives of “cancel culture,” a “translobby” and the martyrs of anti-gender populism have persistently helped these actors: they lend them greater reach and authority for their agitation. These alliances will unlikely be able to prevent the imminent Self-ID-Act; they have however negatively influenced the greater social acceptance of this law, by instigating notions that this new act will do nothing but put women and children in danger, or that “left-wing activists” are “taking gender/sex away” from normal citizens.
Of course, none of this is the case: The Self-ID-Act in Germany intends to liberate trans people from an inherently discriminatory legal situation that defines them as “pathological” and therefore subject to medical and psychological experts. Whether the new law will be successful or adequate in doing so cannot be decided within the current climate, as the perception of trans people and their legal situation is distorted by fearmongers and bad actors. Instead of orchestrating such fabricated scandals and exploiting the political discussions within queer and feminist communities for outrage profit, German media should be reporting on the lived realities, healthcare experiences (or lack thereof) and discrimination of people with very diverse backgrounds, opinions and intentions.
In any case, instead of adopting the rhetoric of trans panic and cancel culture, more knowledge on society’s complex gender realities should be discussed and disseminated. Unsurprisingly, the much-maligned academic field of gender studies could help in this: to impose an oversimplified and rigid system such as “only two genders/sexes” onto the diversity of gender identities and relationships requires considerable effort. This effort also is visible in the violence imposed on bodies and lifestyles that did not and do not correspond to idealized gender roles, an argument that was always forcefully articulated by radical feminists, as in Adrienne Rich’s foundational essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). Feminist, lesbian and gay movements have been intimately familiar with the violence of gendered discourse and have persistently brought their critical knowledge to the streets and the academy: the social policing of the rigid gender binary targets many more people and bodies than vocal anti-trans activists suggest, historically and currently. In order for an inadequate “two-gender/sex system” to function literally anyone who appears to threaten or undermine the system is surveilled and can be punished. The deplorable debate of these past months in Germany is above all an expression of this apparatus of surveillance and punishment, and its exacerbation by malicious instigators and resentful publics: the system of “only-two-genders/sexes” is patrolling its limits of permissibility and has put trans people in Germany into its crosshairs.
Simon Strick is a scholar working in American, Media and Gender Studies, currently at the Brandenburg Centre for Media Studies (ZeM). His book Rechte Gefühle: Affekte und Strategien des digitalen Faschismus (2021) won the Hans Bausch Media Prize from the SWR. He writes and works for the Berlin-based performance collective Panzerkreuzer Rotkäppchen (PKRK).
- In the German language, the term “Geschlecht” ambivalently carries both meanings of “sex” and “gender”. In the declarative sentence “Es gibt nur zwei Geschlechter”, the former meaning of biological sex is the intended one. However this article argues that the debate on “biology” is everything but, and therefore I retain the ambiguity of “gender/sex” in my translation.
- To name just one contributor: Uwe Steinhoff is professor of Politics and Public Administration in Hong Kong, and has since 2020 published no less than 25 thought-pieces with titles like “Why men who think they’re women are psychotic” in conservative venues like Quillette, German Cicero magazine and his own blog.
- The relationship between (mostly) second wave feminists and the trans population in Germany has been a long and difficult one. While this article cannot do justice to the long debates in activist and academic circles, one might get a glimpse of the changing complexities from Germany’s most public feminist Alice Schwarzer, who has switched from a transpositive feminism in the 1980s to an exclusionary stance in the present (https://www.emma.de/artikel/koerperpolitik-338437). Similarly, debates over “gender” between Women’s and Gender Studies in Germany have from the late 1980s on played out between proponents of either side, famously reflected on by Barbara Duden and also Judith Butler in her introduction Gender Trouble’s German edition. These debates within feminism have for the longest time existed apart from what must be understood as a new wave of transexclusionary feminism existing mostly online and in the form of ideologically diverse grassroots initiatives. Lawyer and writer Eva Engelken might be seen as a spearhead for this new brand of anti-trans-focused feminism, whose blog also published the dossier on the “transagenda” authored by Vollbrecht et al. (https://www.evaengelken.de/aggressive-transaktivisten-stark-gegen-frauen/).