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Online Gendered Narratives, LGBTQI+ Targeting, and the Far-Right in Australia and the UK

Online Gendered Narratives, LGBTQI+ Targeting, and the Far-Right in Australia and the UK
28th November 2023 Dr Alexandra Phelan

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Content warning: This Insight contains transphobic and homophobic language

The importance of the gendered dynamics of violent extremism and terrorism is increasingly being recognised, taking account of the ways that these dynamics affect motivation to join, participation in and exiting of extremist groups. Not only does this recognition include how such dimensions can affect the recruitment and participation of women and men differently, but also how gendered narratives can facilitate radicalisation across different ideologies and countries. 

Gender identity and gender ideology are connected to extremism and terrorism, and prevention strategies should consider the gendered dimensions of radicalisation, recruitment, and participation in extremist groups. Yet, there has been limited critical engagement with the impact of gendered narratives on the contagion of extremism and how these narratives serve as motivators, even though misogynistic beliefs tend to feature prominently across violent extremist ideologies. This is particularly the case amongst the far-right, which is not only becoming more visible in both the UK and Australia but rapidly becoming a primary security threat for both countries. 

Our recent CREST research examined how online forums contextualise and spread extremist ideologies and justify the use of violence, especially by identifying and examining the channels used by transnational far-right networks in Australia and the UK. We applied a mixed-methods approach integrating both gender analysis and feminist methodologies, including a quantitative corpus linguistics analysis of language used within far-right online forms. This was followed by a qualitative analysis of the same corpus that examined some of the gendered narratives used by these groups in more detail. We also conducted a qualitative analysis of the type of language used within these forums, which, combined with recent literature, facilitated our development of a typology of gendered language that is used to justify and legitimise participation within far-right organisations and networks. 

We found that online channels were overtly used to promulgate extremist, gendered ideologies about women’s and men’s ‘proper’ roles within the movement and broader society, and to promote hostile sexist beliefs towards women that transcend state boundaries. Although we observed little evidence of direct interactions between far-right individuals/groups in the UK with individuals/groups in Australia (and vice versa), there were overt similarities in how they would appeal to masculinities in recruitment messaging to frame participation and justify certain offline activities. 

Moreover, the misogynistic and gendered narratives themselves present an effective mode of extremist transmission in the absence of direct interactions. The interconnected nature of online platforms allows these narratives to permeate borders and find resonance among disparate groups. Shared beliefs in traditional gender norms, anti-LGBTQI+ sentiments and the vilification of marginalised communities are a unifying factor that transcends geographical distances. The use of coded language and symbols further facilitates communication, allowing these narratives to traverse cultural and linguistic barriers.

Importantly, one of the most prevalent motivating gender narratives that we identified amongst the far-right in the UK and Australia framed the LGBTQI+ community as a sexualised threat – a consideration that remains under-researched when thinking not only about far-right behaviour and activity but the specific targeting of this community—including violent targeting—in both online and offline spaces.

Anti-LGBTQI+ Online Gendered Messaging 

The use of sexualised and gendered threat narratives amongst the far-right is important to note.  Terms relating to the LGBTQI+ community, including ‘LGBT(Q/I)’, ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘queer’, ‘transgender’ and ‘faggot’ were frequently employed in both the UK and Australian corpora. This points to regular and, given the frequent use of derogatory terms relating to LGBTQI+ individuals, highly offensive, discourse relating to these topics. Specifically, we found that the LGBTQI+ community is designated as a threat due to the perception that their sexuality promotes and normalises deviant and culturally destructive behaviour. 

Transphobia in particular has emerged as a unifying element in far-right hate, transcending traditional ideological boundaries. Online forums feature abhorrent posts often rallying against transwomen, using language that is not only transphobic but also creates the perception of an imminent threat, calling far-right communities to action. For example, an individual on an Australian Telegram channel wrote: 

“What you tolerate today, you’ll have to live with tomorrow. If we fail to challenge the evil spewing from our system, then there is no limit to the horrors they will inflict on our people. Ten years ago, it was ‘trans rights are human rights’. Today, it’s ‘permanently mutate your child or the state will do it for you”. 

In some cases, language within the analysed forums attempted to discredit transgender people and LGBTQI+ communities more broadly by linking them to paedophilia and the grooming of children. For example, a post in a UK Stormfront forum stated: “When fags adopt little boys I find it especially sick because you never know what sexual behaviour it will be exposed to. Give homos rights give pedos and perverts rights”. Similar to recent observations regarding anti-trans and gay speech, some of the discourse we observed in these far-right online spaces revolved around linking access of trans women to women-only spaces (including bathrooms, changing rooms, and women’s prisons) to sexual violence against cis women. Such discourse portrayed them as a hypersexualised threat to (white) women, which is seen as discriminatory exploitation of a wider public debate. 

LGBTQI+ Offline Targeting

2022 saw several deadly attacks against Pride events and LGBTQI+ gathering places around the world, such as the shootings in Oslo, Bratislava and Colorado Springs. These incidents evidence a growing trend of offline violence targeted at LGBTQI+ communities globally. UK and Australian far-right groups have been increasingly organising and participating in protests against drag and Pride events throughout 2022 and 2023. This is a clear example of the offline extension of online narratives against LGBTQI+ rights and ‘agendas’. In this context, far-right groups in both countries tend to conflate drag performers with transgender individuals, linking events such as the global Drag Queen Story Hour to sexualised threats against (white) children and communities, in line with the online narratives discussed above. 

For example, in Victoria (Australia), threats from far-right groups led to multiple councils cancelling Drag Queen Story Hour events, putting pressure on the state government to strengthen anti-vilification laws. In September 2022, Australian far-right actors staged a protest against a drag queen performer at a school holiday event in Melbourne. The rationale for this protest was outlined in an Odysee video posted after the fact. On one hand, the drag queen performance was condemned by far-right actors simply due to the fact it promoted and normalised ‘deviant’ behaviour, with the counterprotest’s justification being rooted in an anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-drag sentiment. 

However, there was a further justification for the protest in the video directed at the local council. Local council members were criticised for sanctioning and allowing a drag queen to perform for children at a community event. Significantly, according to a far-right leader, the reason the performance was allowed in the first place was ostensibly due to the council’s predominately female composition. According to the video posted by the National Socialist Network (NSN) leader, it was these “obvious subversive entities” (read: the female local council), recruiting a “Jewish transgender entity” who is likewise referred to as a “literal demon”. 

In the UK, researchers from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) recorded 57 anti-drag incidents in 2022. In an incident in February 2023, brawls erupted during a far-right protest outside the Tate Britain, where around 30 protesters from the white nationalist group Patriotic Alternative demonstrated against the gallery’s Drag Queen Story Hour event. Signs carried by the group read “groom dogs not children” and “no drag for kids.” Another incident in June 2023 involved far-right violence against members of a South London community protecting children at a Drag Queen Story Hour event at a pub. Turning Point UK, linked to far-right organisation Turning Point USA, led the protests. These incidents highlight the growing trends of offline targeting of anti-LGBTQI+ communities within the Australian and UK contexts specifically, as well as within the wider global context as linked to the propagation of these gendered extremist narratives online.

Conclusion

The intertwining of online discourse and offline events illustrates the tangible consequences of extremist ideologies propagated on digital platforms. Urgent attention by both policymakers and researchers is warranted to understand the multifaceted gender narratives employed by the far-right, recognising their role as justifications for targeting the LGBTQI+ community, as well as other perceived outgroups. Additionally, recognising the role of gendered narratives as a connective tissue between sometimes disparate expressions of violent extremism, and allowing extremisms to communicate across contexts as well as people to move between more easily or mix these ideologies. 

This has key implications for risk assessment and technology companies, particularly in terms of considering how extremist, gendered narratives espoused on platforms can impact offline behaviour and lead to real-world harm. Future research and policy-making should delve into these nuanced gendered dynamics, offering insights into the mechanisms of online-to-offline influence. Effectively countering the impact of divisive rhetoric requires a comprehensive understanding of how gendered narratives contribute to the far-right’s extremist agenda and influence real-world actions.