What's Up With "Gender Critical" Gay Guys?

They are tacky, spiteful, and, so far, mostly British

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 14: Transgender people and their supporters gather by Wellington ...
Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
James Greig
Wots All This

You are likely familiar with the rampant transphobia across the pond — despite being a civilization in terminal decline, it’s one area where Britain remains an undisputed powerhouse. So far, most of the attention surrounding this movement has focused on the cisgender woman at its vanguard: in Britain, as feminist theorist Sophie Lewis wrote in the New York Times in 2019, “the most vocal trans-exclusionary voices are, ostensibly, ‘feminist’ ones, and anti-trans lobbying is a mainstream activity.” But within the last few years, a new demographic has made its presence felt: transphobic gay men. The LGB Alliance, a charity founded by both gay men and lesbians which has been described as a hate group by a number of prominent figures and organizations, remains the most notorious example of this development, but this year also saw the launch of a trans-exclusive media outlet, Lesbian and Gay News (there is no news about bisexuals, I guess.)

The LGB Alliance claims in its mission statement to “advance the interests of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals,” but its view of what constitutes these interests is a narrow one: each of their six active campaigns is concerned with trans people. The UK’s high rate of homelessness amongst LGBT youth, the risk of deportation faced by gay asylum seekers, or the fact that homophobic hate crime has soared since 2015 — all of these issues fall outside of the LGB Alliance’s remit, in favor of more pressing concerns like “ensuring that people are asked about their biological sex while filling in the census” and “making it harder for trans people to change their birth certificate.” Gay people in Britain can breath a sigh of relief that an organization is here at last to advance their interests, all of which, for some reason, involve antagonising trans people. Having successfully persuaded polite society that “TERF” is a slur, the British anti-trans movement now organizes under the banner of “gender critical” — a euphemistic moniker made considerably funnier by the fact that nobody is more critical of gender than someone who transitions.

There's a certain kind of gay man who embodies the gender-critical vibe. He’s white, middle class and exactly 45 years old, and even though he works as a corporate lawyer, he thinks teenagers with dyed blue hair are an oppressor class. His Twitter Bio reads something like, “snarky prick taking aim at the tyranny of twaddle” or “why drink the Kool-Aid when you can have a lovely G&T?” His pronouns are “sod/off” or “jog/on.” He’s not especially interested in gay culture, and instead prefers the standard fare of middle-brow English liberals: George Orwell and The Great British Bake-Off; Solzhenitsyn and Strictly Come Dancing; comedy panel shows called “I’m Afraid I Haven’t the Foggiest!” and popular history books titled Bothersome Broads: A Feminist History Told Through 12 Grating Gals (which he “inhaled in a single glorious afternoon.”) His aesthetic crimes are gruesome and, more to the point, he is dedicated to making things harder on already vulnerable people.

It’s instructive to compare these men to their more recognizable counterparts, because they have an even less convincing case. “While I find the transphobic discourses promulgated by some cisgender women in the name of feminism very harmful, I do at least have some empathy or ability to understand how some women can have very real anxieties exploited by that movement,” says Shon Faye, author of The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. She points to the decimation of women’s services in Britain after ten years of austerity, the fact there has been no reduction in the levels of male violence against women in their intimate lives, and the deprioritization of cisgender lesbians within the LGBT movement. “These are all real phenomena,” Shon says, “although I believe the anger is misdirected at trans people. However, in stark contrast, I find the transphobia of so-called ‘gender-critical gay men’ utterly self indulgent, considering that cisgender men tend to hold the most structural and interpersonal power within LGBTQ+ spaces. Their begrudging attitude towards the recent advances of trans people doesn’t seem to be underscored by any sense of danger that is grounded in reality.”

For this reason, it can be difficult to discern what it is that “gender critical” are actually so aggrieved about or where this is all coming from. “There are many different subtypes of gay guy, and I think the gender-critical gay man spans them all,” says Sean O’Neill, a writer based in London. “You've got the squalid little social-democratic hacks animated more by a contempt for the 'left' than they are by social democracy; the contrarian right-wingers; the 'pro-science' guys who love the EU and call stuff 'amazeballs'. What unifies them isn't quite a certain aesthetic or politics.”

Instead, Sean suggests, the common thread is a need to cling on to a particular way of thinking about sexuality and gender. “For some of them it’s all just a post-hoc justification for regular population-level transphobia,” he says, “or a symptom of being too-online or too much in other people's business (classic gay traits). But I think there's probably something more to it: people who spent a lot of mildly traumatic years rationalizing a certain ontology of sex and gender to themselves, gradually feeling society come round to it, and then this 'new thing' comes along that appears to pose a threat to their already-precarious place within a system. The reaction is irrationally existential and heated.” There seems to be the concern that if gay men lump ourselves together with trans people — a group subject to greater discrimination — we risk being damned by association.

“If society has given you a conditional acceptance on the grounds that you can be normal, and participate in the family and in marriage without altering them too much, that’s a huge weight,” says Max*, who is trans masc and based in the U.K. “I don't think it's any wonder, really, that it would heighten some people's sense of fear and loathing of the things that cannot or will not be folded into that order. It’s a very successful sort of divide-and-conquer where straight society tells a certain — often more middle-class, wealthier — strata of gay men that it's on them now to make sure that the weirdoes are kept at bay so that the really scary queerness, the messy, line-blurring stuff, doesn't force that straight society to roll back all the gains in civil rights there were made in the late 20th and early 21st century.”

While there are commonalities, gender-critical gay men in the U.S. have a disctinct flavor. “GC gay men in the U.S. tend to be part of what I'd call a kind of anti-identitarian scene where everyone sees identity as a kind of red herring of politics — a distraction from things that actually matter,” explains P.E Moskowitz, a writer based in New York. “From what I've seen, transness is posed as this newfangled identity that takes too much energy to uphold and demands too much out of movements. Worst of all, it's kind of cringe to them, because it requires sincerity, and I think sincerity is the scariest thing to these people. How gayness or white womanhood is any different as an identity, I do not know, but these people are not good at self-reflection.” This brand of anti-identitarian transphobia has yet to make serious in-roads within the British left, gay or otherwise, though that’s likely just because being anti-trans is a wholly establishment position in the UK. It’s harder to imagine you’re taking a hammer to “woke capitalism” when this requires aligning yourself with the most tedious pundits in the liberal press and a website called “Mumsnet.”

Beyond vague anxieties about their place in the world, “gender critical” gay men have a number of specific grievances, all of which are stupid. The fear of erasure is one thing which looms large: the idea that these days, if you identify as “same-sex attracted,” (i.e only attracted to cis men) you’ll get arrested and thrown in jail. But this has never been a term with which gay men have identified, other than, in recent years, to signal their support for a hate movement. They also resent the presence of trans men in hook-up apps and sex saunas, as though these were harmoniously shared spaces rather than ones where everyone is ignoring everyone else constantly and being ignored in turn. ”Frankly, I think the idea that trans men being on Grindr poses some existential threat to cisgender gay men is less a case of misguided anxiety and more a case of wishful thinking,” says Shon. “I don’t think any gay trans men I know would touch these men with a bargepole.” While I can’t speak for the transmasculine community, it’s indeed hard to imagine they’re clamouring for the amorous attentions of these middle-aged Dr Who fans who talk about eating “emergency biscuits” and, in any case, live in Surrey.

Many anti-trans gay men also hate the the word “queer,” which they sometimes refer to, in Tumblr Teen style, as “the Q slur.” In prose that would make an undergrad creative writing workshop blush, one Lesbian and Gay News contributor argues, “As words go, [queer] is a sharp blade, the wounds it leaves are messy lacerations that don’t heal neatly rather than clean surgical cuts. Strange it is then, that a word which was an essential piece of architecture of social hate is now contorted like an Escher staircase to nowhere where up is down, left is right and being ‘queer’ is now desirable.”

Having just read that sentence, I can empathize with the feeling of being on an Escher staircase. This writer is staking a claim to moral authority through victimhood, despite this being a tactic which he criticizes himself in the previous paragraph (with the help of — and I’m not kidding — an extended Game of Thrones analogy). It hardly needs saying that “gender critical” gay men don’t pay any deference to the hurt feelings of the people who disagree with them, nor are they reluctant to leverage accusations of homophobia against their critics. Pointing out the hypocrisy of your opponents is usually a waste of time, and it would be corny to suggest that it is, in fact, these guys who are the real “snowflakes.” And yet…

Beyond these issues, “gender critical” gay men make a larger and more apocalyptic claim: the existence of “gender ideology” means that gay men will eventually be made extinct. According to their feverish imaginations, five-year-old boys are being hauled off to the Gender Identity Clinic the moment they stage a dance routine to an Olivia Rodrigo song. This is a well-worn talking point: transphobic men, gay or straight, love to recall that when they were young, they were always a little bit different. While the other boys were out playing footie, they’d be sitting inside the library with their nose tucked in a book. These days, they’d be force-fed estrogen pills by the school nurse — probably!

But this just isn’t representative of reality. In the UK, it’s nigh-on impossible to be prescribed puberty blockers before the age of 16, and the decision to allow one’s child to socially transition is not one which any parents, even the most supportive, are taking quickly or casually. The fear that gay men will be “transed” away rests on the premise that there is a significant cohort of homophobic but trans-enthusiastic parents who would rather have a trans child than a gay one. Given the relative levels of societal acceptance for either group, the existence of such people is literally unfathomable. We can probably rest assured that cis gay men as a demographic won’t be disappearing any time soon (more’s the pity!)

However ridiculous and whiny these men might be, it would be reckless to dismiss them entirely — after all, the wider anti-trans movement began with a similarly small group of people being weird on the internet and is now being championed by mainstream British politicians. The vein of transphobia among gay men we’re seeing in the U.K is already making in-roads in the States — most chillingly of all, one of its chief proponents is a white rapper — and it’s easy to imagine it converging with an Andrew Sullivan-style gay conservatism to nightmarish effect. Whatever the answer is to this problem, we can start by deflating their outsized self-regard and refusing, as a point of principle, to afford either them or their grievances an ounce of respect. These men are spiteful and staggeringly unchic; they’re wasting their lives in the worst possible way— luckily, as a gay man, I am allowed to say so.

James Greig writes about culture and society.