Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist and writes the Bug-eyed and Shameless newsletter.
When engaging with the discourse around transgender issues, writes Julia Serano, beware the Gish gallop.
The debate tactic, named by anthropologist Eugenie Scott after creationist Duane Gish, involves firing off so many inaccurate or spurious claims that it is simply impossible to refute them all while still making your point. “Anti-trans activists love to Gish gallop,” Ms. Serano, an author, biologist, and transgender activist writes on her blog, “as it’s a convenient way to make it seem as though an established scientific field is suspect and riddled with inaccuracies.”
Delegates at this weekend’s Conservative Party convention in Quebec City got plenty of Gish galloping in, as they debated two resolutions: One to forbid all gender-affirming health care for trans people under 18 years old, and the other that would, amongst other things, force trans women to use men’s washrooms.
To make their case, delegates launched a litany of half-true or outright false claims: Children are undergoing irreversible surgery; little girls are under threat from trans people in public washrooms; gender dysphoria is akin to schizophrenia, and so on.
Some delegates tried to sway their fellow Conservatives. One member, a family doctor, called out the “hypocrisy” of banning health care for trans people. It “stands against the values of our party – to embrace freedom and bodily autonomy,” she said. Another tried to explain that a bathroom ban is a solution in search of a problem.
But with just 30 seconds to make their cases, they had little chance of dispelling all those myths and falsehoods. The Gish gallop won: Both resolutions passed with an overwhelming majority.
It is easy to simply write off the Conservative delegates who voted for these policies as hateful or backward. That will almost certainly be the Liberal Party’s message. But as Ms. Serano explains, the “moral panic” around transgender issues “takes advantage of the mainstream public’s lack of awareness about trans experiences and trans healthcare.” Since most people know virtually nothing about the actual process of transitioning, they are inclined to believe that it is novel, risky, irreversible – and aimed at children. And unfortunately, there are enough zealots, grifters and bigots out there willing to cherry-pick cases or misrepresent the facts to feed that anxiety.
Yet those anxieties are shared by trans people and the medical profession – and even helped inform the clinical guidelines. The Canadian Pediatric Society clearly states: “Medical interventions are not recommended for prepubertal children.” The medical literature also recognizes that most young children who express discomfort in their gender will never need or want medical intervention. For those who continue to experience gender dysphoria – the clinical diagnosis for feeling uncomfortable in your sex assigned at birth – and opt to transition, they will receive counseling and therapy at every step of the way. More permanent interventions, like surgery, are usually not considered until the person turns 18 years old.
These guidelines are informed by decades of research. Studies show that gender-affirming care leads to massive improvement in patients’ mental health and is associated with a reduction in the risk of suicide; it literally saves lives. And a 2021 systematic review of 27 studies showed that vanishingly few people who undergo gender confirmation procedures regret their decision.
Activists and educators like Ms. Serano have worked valiantly to try and convey these facts. But too often, they are drowned out by the anger and vitriol of our culture wars. And now, a legislative assault on trans people is under way in the United States.
The question now: Will Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre play into those anxieties, or try and allay them?
While his office did not respond to a request for comment, a senior Conservative told me that Mr. Poilievre and his team are unlikely to endorse the newly adopted policies, as they know doing so would likely fuel hate. That’s laudable. But the Conservative Leader probably won’t reject the policies, either – partly because he and his team simply do not understand the issues well enough to navigate them. More likely, the Conservative said, Mr. Poilievre will simply stay mum on the issue.
The Liberal Party, however, is already attacking Mr. Poilievre for his supposed desire to put LGBTQ rights “up for debate,” as a fundraising missive recently claimed. These two new Conservative policies will be grist for that mill, no doubt.
But Mr. Poilievre can do the right thing and turn this issue into a political winner. He could disrupt the Liberals’ callous effort to wield LGBTQ issues for their own benefit, put forward his two LGBTQ members of Parliament to actually engage with the trans community, and help address the anxiety-inducing misinformation rife amongst his supporters. It starts, however, with rejecting these two odious, and likely unconstitutional, policies – and riding away from the Gish gallop.