At the end of March 2021 the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC) published a one page pdf falsely implying that the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) was campaigning to legalise child sexual exploitation. In under two weeks, this claim was being repeated, and transformed into a homophobic false accusation that Scottish LGBT rights groups were lobbying to lower the age of consent to 10 years old at a conference stage for the newly formed Alba Party in Scotland (run by former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond). Trans Safety Network followed its course from initial publication to high level political platform.
The initial claim
On 29th March, the WHRC published a statement via Anna Kerr (their regional contact for Australia) on her website1, entitled “Feminism has been co-opted to support an agenda to lower the age of consent”. The basis for this claim was a dubiously cropped set of clauses from a document entitled Feminist Declaration which was drafted by the Women’s Rights Caucus, a global coalition of over 200 women’s rights and gender equality organisations. This document was read out the UN Comission on the Status of Women (CSW) last September to mark the 25th anniversary of the commission and to increase pressure towards more radical steps to end women's and gender-based oppression.
While ILGA are not solely, nor even the primary drafters of the declaration2, the WHRC document made disturbing claims which focused entirely on painting a picture of ILGA, the world's largest coalition of LGBT rights organisations, and their affiliates as supporters or sympathisers of child sexual exploitation. As part of this WHRC raised historic claims that ILGA were associated with paedophile advocacy groups despite the fact that ILGA has explicitly taken a stance against child sexual exploitation since 1990 and expelled paedophile advocacy groups which had joined before it implemented a more rigorous screening process in the years shortly after3.
To quote ILGA’s statement on this subject (which was published years earlier):
“In short, ILGA does not support paedophilia, and never has”.
— ILGA and the ECOSOC Status controversy
WHRC's accusations also link to a piece by Jennifer Bilek on the Catholic conservative website First Things4 to bolster the implication of sinister plans connected with the LGBT lobby. Bilek has become notorious for her now years-long career of claiming that Jewish Billionaires are behind a global transhumanist conspiracy to use LGBT rights and particularly trans rights as a plot for technological destruction of nature. Her work has been cited extensively and positively by Nazi groups, including by a neonazi conspiracy book about the Jewish origins of the "Transgender Industrial Complex" published on Trans Day of Remembrance last year.5
The headline claim in the document is justified using section 14.a and 14.g of the Feminist Declaration. We list this in full below with the sections removed rendered in inverted colors to demonstrate the clear bad faith in hiding the context which has a material impact on the meaning of the words:
Respect the rights of all individuals to exercise autonomy over their lives, including their sexualities, identities and bodies, desires and pleasures free from all types of discrimination, coercion and violence, and fully realize sexual and reproductive rights, and ensure bodily autonomy, integrity and sovereignty, by taking the following actions:
a. Eliminate all laws and policies that punish or criminalize same-sex intimacy, gender affirmation, abortion, HIV transmission non-disclosure and exposure, or that limit the exercise of bodily autonomy, including laws limiting legal capacity of adolescents, people with disabilities or other groups to provide consent to sex or sexual and reproductive health services or laws authorizing non-consensual abortion, sterilization, or contraceptive use;
g. End the criminalization and stigmatization of adolescents’ sexuality, and ensure and promote a positive approach to young people's and adolescents’ sexuality that enables, recognizes, and respects their agency to make informed and independent decisions on matters concerning their bodily autonomy, pleasure and fundamental freedoms;
— Feminist Declaration, Women's Rights Caucus
Some observations here:
The root clause for section 14 is a clear and unambigous assertion of the importance of bodily autonomy and freedom from coercion or violence. This autonomy is clearly violated when people in positions of authority (such as adults over a minor) attempt to engage in sexual conduct with them. Ommitting this clearly has a bearing on the following clauses.
Clause 14.a is very obviously about eliminating the criminalisation and punishment of young people for engaging in sexual activity (which has been and continues to be the case for many young people in countries where legal systems criminalise or offer discriminatory legalisation for same sex intimacy).
Clause 14.g is very clearly about asserting the right of young people to a positive and supportive environment regarding sexual development and access to appropriate sex education materials in order to help them make informed decisions around sexual matters and bodily autonomy as they mature.
It is only possible to misconstrue these statements through the reckless mangling undertaken by WHRC.
One possible motivation for WHRC focusing on ILGA in this way (hinted at by the fact that they refer to it in their Media Release document) is that ILGA has supported international legal reforms to recognise sex based on a person’s self declaration (colloquially known as “Self-ID”). WHRC was formed largely as an anti-"Self-ID" campaign with a Women’s Declaration of their own which calls for the elimination of trans gender recognition and recapitulates much of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), gutting it of language which supports trans civil rights claims.
Also included in WHRC's Media Release was a list of regional Australian LGBT organisations called out by name as affiliates of ILGA, enabling readers to mobilise pressure on these groups to disaffiliate from ILGA and otherwise stigmatise them.
Pattern of distribution
The WHRC Media Release was published at 3:36amUTC on 29th March by WHRC Australia and New Zealand6, and immediately distributed through Gender Critical social media networks. By mid-day UK-time, it crossed over to Twitter via the popular Gender Critical Facebook and Twitter page “Women’s Voices Matter”, with the additional transitive claim that this supposed paedophile advocacy was supported by major unions in the UK (who are supporter members of ILGA), calling for followers to join the WHRC’s own Women’s Declaration signatories. The same day it was then shared by many other regional WHRC groups. Without suggesting direct connections between these groups and individuals, a selected timeline of significant figures within or adjacent to the anti-trans social web shows the pace at which this went global:
- ForWomen.Scot (7:29amUTC) 7
- Conservatives for Women (12:25pmUTC)8
- Wild Woman Writing Club (1:23pmUTC) 9
- Irish Women’s Lobby (3:35pmUTC) 10
- Jane Clare Jones (4:12pm) 11
- “Biological Women’s Hour” (5:45pmUTC), a business account linked to Kellie-Jay Keen.12
- Ann Sinnott (6:25pmUTC) - a co-founder of the LGB Alliance 13
- Safe Schools Alliance (6:48pmUTC) 14
- Acknowledged by Conservative Peer Helena Morrissey after being directly messaged by Safe Schools Alliance UK (7:21pmUTC) 15
By 10:11pm UK evening time (UTC+1) it had reached Mumsnet16, having morphed into the headline Unite Unions and Many Other LGBT Organisations Lobby Government to Lower the Age of Consent. The vast majority of instances we could find of this story gaining purchase were in the United Kingdom, even despite the fact that it was published by an Australian based group. This lends some weight to the popular myth of "TERF Island"—the UK as a base for internationalised transphobia.
Over the following days this spread further across Gender Critical Twitter and the wider internet, and likely across numerous less public channels, picking up claims and more accusations against LGBT and social justice organisations along the way in full homophobic and transphobic moral panic.
On April 6th a week later, it was republished on Irish ultra-right catholic media outlet Gript.ie19 with the headline “Allow children as young as 10 to consent to sex - LGBT NGO”, repeating the claims wholesale while listing a number of Irish LGBT organisations affiliated with ILGA, adding the World Health Organisation definition of adolescent as “10-19 years old” to justify their assertion that reducing age of consent to 10 years old was credibly a goal of ILGA.
WHRC's motivations in doing this are not worth speculating on. We can nevertheless look at the campaigning impact and function this cultivated moral panic has had travelling across the social web. Using publicly available search tools on Google Search, Facebook and Twitter, we searched for references to the WHRC pdf link, including quote tweets, and so on. TSN observed there has been a repeated pattern many different times, enabled by a highly connected trans-national and multi-lingual anti-trans feminist social media network, and fueled by a willingness to look past missing details:
- Enabling homophobic narratives: The original media release lead by example, ignoring the other 200+ orgs that were originally involved in drafting and cosigning this statement. From reviewing threads and conversations where users clipped screen shots from the Feminist Declaration, Trans Safety Network observed a number of cases where gender critical influencers did read just enough of the Feminist Declaration to confirm that the curated quotes in the media release were backed by words in that order somewhere in the Feminist Declaration being cited. However, TSN could find no questioning by those sharing the claims about the focus on ILGA in particular out of the many organisations signed up to this statement.
- Providing a template for localisation: By including a list of local Australian organisations and a link to ILGA’s list of affiliates, WHRC again lead by example with a pattern repeated internationally by local supporters around the world, from Ireland to Brazil20, in looking up their local ILGA affiliates and similarly denouncing, stigmatising and mobilising social media attacks on LGBT rights groups.
- Building momentum to break out from anti-trans feminist spaces: The claims being made here are really extraordinary, and are unlikely to be repeated seriously by even the most conservative traditional media bodies. However alt-media groups whose business model depends on building readership on highly emotionally engaging “raw, unfiltered” news the mainstream media won't print are more receptive to this and serve as a place for this to spill out from WHRC's core followers.
Ultimately these claims ended up being repeated from the stage at the new Alba Party’s women’s conference yesterday by scandal ridden former charity boss and Alba MP candidate Margaret Lynch21, as reported by multiple individuals present.
Via this conference (and the substantial stir caused online among people following those live tweeting these events) this conspiracy theory then had another breakout from the UK transphobic feminist sphere into coverage on the controversial Scottish Nationalist blog “Wings over Scotland”, and led to a large amount of angry social media accounts targetting Stonewall Scotland, who were forced to make a public statement refuting the claims:
Today a Scottish parliamentary candidate stated that we are campaigning to lower the age of consent. This is categorically untrue. Such claims are dangerous and irresponsible and we would urge those making or sharing these claims to stop.— Stonewall Scotland (@StonewallScot) April 10, 2021
The Wings Over Scotland article followed the repeated pattern we described above, overlooking the missing context of the quotations, localising to local LGBT groups and adding the WHO "10 year olds" element. The article then follows up on this by listing a history of paedophile scandals in Scotland involving gay people who had connections to Scottish LGBT organisations and naming an out gay MP from the SNP party that Alba formed in rivalry to, purely on the basis that he is also involved in Scottish LGBT rights organisations presumably to smear him as being implicated in this spurious scandal.
References and footnotes:
https://archive.ph/A7JZf - Wild Women Writing Club were recently responsible for an open letter attacking a trans woman author longlisted for a writing prize.
Screenshot: Jane Clare Jones, deleted tweet - formerly at https://twitter.com/janeclarejones/status/1376568032496091139. Jane Clare Jones is an influential "gender critical" philosopher who’s Political Erasure of Sex research was funded by Women’s Place UK and Oxford University via Selina Todd, repeating Jennifer Bilek’s claims around wealthy financiers “behind” the trans movement, without citing her. Jane Clare Jones used to tweet with Bilek, and showed familiarity with Bilek's work two years ahead of publishing Political Erasure of Sex which shows considerable overlap in themes and theories around the supposed sinister motives of "transgender ideology"
https://archive.is/y6DZL - Kellie-Jay Keen herself was banned from Twitter after years of making anti-trans statements, including among other things calling for the sterilisation of trans men who choose to become parents.
And maybe further - our research skills only extend so far in terms of language divides.