Several trans activists say the Canadian trans rights movement needs updated messaging to counter hate after numerous protests last week.
“‘Protect trans kids,’ it’s a good rallying call in community, but it’s not going to move somebody in any meaningful way who is on the fence,” said Fae Johnstone, a prominent transgender activist and the executive director of consulting firm Wisdom2Action.
“Most people don’t know a trans person.”
On Sept. 20, activists rallied in several cities across Canada to protest what they say is an attack on parental-led values in public schools, framing their protest as “parental rights.”
However, LGBTQ advocates say the term “parental rights” is a smokescreen for anti-transgender attitudes.
The issue has come to the forefront in Canada in recent months as provincial governments in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have adopted new policies requiring schools to seek parents’ permission if their child wishes to be addressed by a different name or change their pronouns.
Counter-protests in most cities on Sept. 20 and subsequent days challenged the parental rights narrative with pro-LGBTQ messaging.
But while these messages successfully engage Canadians who already support trans rights, they are less effective at swaying the millions of Canadians unsure how they feel about whether children can change their pronouns at school without parental consent, says Montreal trans activist Celeste Trianon.
“If we want to move (those who are unsure), we need to appeal to shared values,” she said.
In Feb. 2022, social sector research firm ASO Communications conducted a nationwide survey of 1,000 American voters. They tested the relative efficacy of several pro-trans rights messages crafted by the firm and anti-trans messages most commonly used by opposition groups.
They found the message that trans people were one of many groups political opponents are scapegoating was a message that outperformed the opposition’s narrative.
In their subsequent guide for trans movement groups, they encouraged organizers to shift from narratives that focus on “Protect[ing] vulnerable transgender kids” to messages that emphasize a shared struggle, such as: “Each one of us should have the freedom to be ourselves, no matter the colour (sic) of our skin, how we worship, or our genders.”
Jacob Barry, executive director of TransCare+, a Kingston, Ont. -based organization serving LGBTQ communities, said a shift toward such language aligns trans movements with other parallel movement struggles, such as those for disability and racial justice.
“The battle we have ahead of us — it didn’t end on Wednesday after the counter-protests…[We need to] conserve energy, and think about it from a perspective of ‘Is what we are saying actually benefitting our end goal?’”
A survey conducted with about 3,000 adults by Canadian pollster Angus Reid in late July found 43 per cent of Canadians believe children should not be able to change their name or pronouns at school without parental consent.
Asked how they would respond if they were the parent of a child who had been showing an affinity for a gender other than the one assigned at birth, 18 per cent of Canadians said they would “resist” or “reject” it, while 57 per cent said they would “cautiously” accept it. Twelve per cent said they would “enthusiastically” accept the change.
So what do we do? Some strategies to counter hate
Kathryn LeBlanc, a communications strategist working with several Canadian LGBTQ organizations on a messaging guide to counter anti-trans hate, encourages trans organizers and their allies to steer clear of labelling political opponents and their messages as point-blank “transphobic.”
Organizations can fall into this trap of using “problem-centric” phrasing because social media posts structured this way often garner the most positive reaction, LeBlanc said. But when examined closely, only a movement’s existing base engages with this content — “not people who could actually have their opinion shifted,” she said.
Instead, ASO Communications said trans movements should spend their time targeting their messaging toward “persuadables” — the bulk of the public whose perspectives will shape politicians’ actions.
Effective messaging can sometimes have only a temporary effect if not accompanied by other organizing strategies, such as face-to-face conversations, said independent Canadian pollster Angus McAllister. However, he added he is increasingly sold on the power of framing when “done well and embedded right.”
For example, McAllister pointed to a campaign by BC First Nations that successfully banned hunting grizzly bears in the province.
In 2011, First Nations launched a campaign featuring the slogan “Real hunters eat what they kill.” While previously, hunters had been on the fence about the practice when framed as “sport hunting,” McAllister said the campaign, which advocated against “trophy hunting,” dramatically shifted public opinion. In 2017, the practice was banned throughout B.C.
Another messaging trap to avoid is repeating bad words.
LeBlanc said trans activists and their allies must also steer clear of refuting false and conspiratorial claims using the exact words uttered by their political opponents as message testing has shown countering such claims word-for-word can inadvertently sway the public toward the opposition’s position.
Trans organizers and their allies should instead use their own messaging, reinforcing their frame and narrative, said LeBlanc.
Barry said anti-LGBTQ protestors used their messaging better than trans groups at the competing protests last week. Whereas trans movements emphasized protecting trans children, the other side emphasized protecting all children through signs that said, “Leave our kids alone!”
Capacity issues a challenge
Johnstone and other trans rights advocates said capacity is the most significant barrier to building a more strategic, unified communications strategy.
The trans movement is led by self-made activists, who often create movement messages based on language pulled from educational research — great for firing up the existing support base, but not for getting broad public alignment, said Johnstone.
The messages Trianon developed for use at the counter-protest in Montreal on Sept. 20 weren’t based on strategic conversations or sophisticated polling but were the messages she found most successful through trial and error.
“It’s hard to find exactly what is going to work best if you don’t have the means,” she said.
LeBlanc is hopeful the communications guide she is producing with Egale, The Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity, and Momentum offers a start. She said it will be published in October and may be followed by additional training for organizers.
Johnstone said the stakes are high for the trans movement to get the message right.
“The risk here is that we become America — that we become a country where eight in 10 queer folks are afraid for their safety,” she said.
Fortunately, Johnstone said trans movements have more allies, more spaces to gather, and more solid financial footing than they did decades ago.
“We have an opportunity and a window in Canada to get ahead of all of this, and there’s some power in that,” she said. “But it’s not a limitless window.”