“Gender Ideology” Is a Conspiracy Theory

Julia Serano
7 min readMay 7, 2024
Photo of an obsessed man in front of a wall full of imagined “evidence” and lines “connecting the dots” in support of his own personal conspiracy theory. Here is more about the photo from the “Know Your Meme” website: “Pepe Silvia is a reference to one of the most famous scenes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in which the character Charlie Kelly (portrayed by Charlie Day) goes on a conspiratorial rant about how he believes a person named “Pepe Silvia” does not exist. The scene has gone on
the “Pepe Silvia” meme, from Know Your Meme

In a recent essay, The Cass Review, WPATH Files, and the Perpetual Debate over Gender-Affirming Care, I made the case that “gender ideology” is a conspiracy theory. Here, I will expand upon this idea.

First, I should point out that the phrase “gender ideology” can function in different ways. For instance, the Catholic church (who coined it in the 1990s) uses it as a catch-all term to describe any and all progress made by feminists and LGBTQIA+ activists regarding gender equity, reproductive justice, bodily autonomy, and legal recognition of gender and sexual minorities (discussed further here). In this piece, I will be focusing more narrowly on its use by so-called “gender critical” activists to specifically target trans people (although there is obviously some overlap between these two groups).

Admittedly, some people who invoke “gender ideology” are employing it primarily as a rhetorical tactic: By depicting their opponents’ views as “artificial” (a mere “ideology”), they’re implying that their own views must be “natural” in comparison. I dissect this tactic in the Intro to my video Trans People and Biological Sex: What the Science Says. As the video shows, there is substantial evidence that trans people arise as a part of natural variation and sexual diversity, so there is nothing “artificial” about us.

Of course, one can make the case that recognizing that trans people exist and should be afforded the same rights and access to healthcare as cis people constitutes an “ideology” (a set of beliefs about the social world), but by the same token, opposing trans people’s existence, rights, and access to healthcare also constitutes an ideology. In fact, we already have words to describe this ideology! Those who believe that trans people should be “eradicated” or “morally mandated” out of existence can accurately be described as espousing transphobia. Less extreme (and often unconscious) beliefs that cis bodies, identities, and life experiences are inherently more natural and legitimate than their trans counterparts is often called cisnormativity (examples can be found in my aforementioned Cass review essay).

Anyway, while some people may use the phrase simply as a debate tactic, others seem to believe that “gender ideology” is a real entity: an insidious force that is spreading and corrupting the masses. Here is a passage from a recent piece in which I describe this mentality:

Despite trans people comprising less than 1 percent of the population, we are now routinely portrayed as an all-powerful cabal that has institutionally captured the media, health care, science, and the education system. Yet we are also (paradoxically) depicted as incredibly weak: trans people have supposedly been brainwashed by gender ideology, rendering us insensible to logic and facts; like zombies, our only purpose is to recruit and infect other people. Much of this moral panic centers on fearmongering over “social contagion” and “grooming,” which are essentially the same charge: both paint trans people as contagious and capable of contaminating otherwise pure and vulnerable children (who are often coded as straight, white, and female). These same fears of corruption animate the specter of the transgender sexual predator who preys on women in restrooms and other sex-segregated spaces (despite all evidence to the contrary).

I mostly encounter people who believe such things on social media. Sometimes I will scroll through their posts, and they are usually filled with anti-trans propaganda and disinformation, as though we consume a good portion of their waking thoughts. Some are “transvestigators” who are convinced that many cisgender celebrities and politicians are secretly trans. While I can understand why some individuals might feel uneasy about trans people (as we challenge taken-for-granted assumptions and social norms), I’ve had a difficult time wrapping my brain around how anyone could become so obsessed and irrationally paranoid about our existence.

All the signs of conspiratorial thinking are apparent here: the shadowy cabal of people secretly controlling the world, yet nobody sees it except for them (and their like-minded gender-critical brethren). They carry out their own investigations and draw connections between unrelated things (e.g., anything having to do with trans people, or even incidents that don’t involve us, are all imagined to be manifestations of “gender ideology”).

Another hallmark of conspiracy theories is a belief that eventually some kind of “smoking gun” will come along and reveal the conspiracy for what it is. In my aforementioned essay, I discuss how gender-critical activists seem to hold such views about gender-affirming care for trans youth — here is the pertinent passage:

A second demographic that embraces the Cass review (along with the WPATH Files, the Finnish study, the Jamie Reed ordeal, etc.) are people who are aware of the previous research on this matter (at least to some extent) but thoroughly distrust it. Oftentimes, these individuals gravitate toward conspiracy theories wherein gender-affirming care is merely a ruse funded and promoted by Big Pharma, or Jewish billionaires working to create a transhumanist future, or patriarchal doctors striving to replace “biological women” with “man-made women.” A more generic version of this conspiracy theory that’s very popular these days is that the gender affirmative model and all the studies supporting it are merely a product of “gender ideology.”

So what is “gender ideology” exactly? Was it invented by the healthcare industry? Or in gender studies and queer theory classes? Or by trans people themselves? Anyone with any firsthand knowledge of these groups knows that they display numerous inter- and intra-community disagreements with one another, so it’s unfathomable that they all somehow came together behind closed doors and hashed out some grand plan together.

In its general usage, “gender ideology” may refer to gender-affirming care, but also to putting pronouns in your email signature, or respecting a trans person’s identity, or recognizing gender and sexual diversity, or publicly displaying a Pride flag, and so on. Basically, “gender ideology” is an amorphous catch-all phrase for anything and everything they consider to be “pro-trans” all rolled up together into one vast conspiracy theory. (Yet somehow, cisnormativity and heteronormativity — societal-wide beliefs that are often strictly enforced — do not constitute an “ideology” in their eyes. Fancy that!)

If you believe that gender-affirming care is part of some vast conspiracy, then of course you’ll be expecting some kind of “smoking gun” to finally come along and prove that it’s all a sham, a house of cards waiting to be toppled down. To be clear, this has nothing to do with science, which is built upon large bodies of evidence accumulated over many years by multiple independent research groups all generating similar results, and thus not readily upended by a single study or review. But much like an episode of The X-Files, this imagined “smoking gun” feels “science-esque” and has the allure of “truthiness” to them.

I go onto say:

I find it ironic that many of the conspiracy theorists who rant about “gender ideology” often claim that trans health practitioners and trans people like myself are attempting to “trans” other children. Sometimes they will project sexual motives onto this conspiracy theory (e.g., we are “grooming” or “sexualizing” children), but other times they act as though gender-affirming care is all part of some vague nefarious plan we are implementing (Step 1: “trans” all the children. Step 2: ?. Step 3: profit!). For the record, I don’t think that it’s possible to “create” trans kids: some kids happen to be trans but most are not. Past attempts to intentionally raise children as the other sex (which trans people had nothing to do with), by and large, failed miserably — this indicates that most cis people likely have a deep-seated gender identity too (I discuss this in more depth in this video around 26–31 minutes in). As I’ve been saying since 2016, I believe that we should strive to minimize all unwanted irreversible changes, whether they be in cis or trans or intersex youth. I’m pretty sure that most trans people would agree with this, as would most trans health practitioners.

As I detail in some of the above links, there is a large body of evidence showing that 1) trans people (like LGBTQIA+ people more generally) arise as part of natural variation, 2) countless studies have shown that gender-affirming care is beneficial and gender-disaffirming approaches harmful for both trans adults and youth, and 3) trans people pose no threat to women, children, or society at large. Any reasonable person can examine this evidence and come to these conclusions. So there is no need to invent a conspiracy theory about how trans people, allies, and advocates are all being “duped by” and/or “promoting” “gender ideology.”

To be clear, I do not believe that every person who expresses concern about gender-affirming care or other trans-related matters is necessarily a conspiracy theorist. In my Cass review essay, I explicitly outline other factors that may drive such concerns. But whenever you see someone decrying “gender ideology,” that’s often a red flag that they believe there is some vast conspiracy that is “turning people trans” and/or covertly orchestrated by trans people (who, to reiterate, make up less than one percent of the population).

Just as it’s crucial to understand how the QAnon conspiracy theory has spilled into and influenced U.S. politics in recent years, or how anti-vaccination conspiracy theories have undermined honest and evidence-based discussions about Covid, we should learn to recognize how “gender ideology” conspiracy theorists have distorted contemporary discourses about trans people.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate it, please consider supporting me there. A non-paywalled version of the same essay can also be found on Substack.



Julia Serano

writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science. author of Whipping Girl, Excluded, 99 Erics, & her latest: SEXED UP! more at juliaserano.com