An allegation of corrupting the young, particularly when it involves experts or educators, is an old favourite of the reactionary or the fearful. It can be exploited by unscrupulous politicians to create or inflate a moral panic, sometimes with devastating consequences. If I were spiritually minded, I might even suggest it is the original sin of democracy, were it not for the many misdeeds, occasionally original and often quite sinful, of the foundational Athenian popular democracy of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Just such an occastion, then, was the trial and execution of the philosopher Socrates. Today, many of the same tropes are being wheeled out in the current backlash against trans rights and trans healthcare.
Socrates was convicted by a popular jury in 399 BCE on a charge of ‘corrupting the young and not regarding as gods those that the Athenians do’. He was executed by being forced to drink hemlock (i.e.~poisoning himself). The timing and context of the trial has suggested to many that what was going on in 399 was that the Athenian public were working through the aftermath of defeat in the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE). This defeat was facilitated in no small part by citizens being persuaded by plausible-sounding politicians to make some profoundly stupid strategic decisions. The city had also experienced one anti-democratic revolution that petered out, the imposition of a a fascistic junta (‘the Thirty Tyrants’) on the defeated city and an ensuing civil war. Premature death and a political amnesty may meant that reprisals were somewhat limited, but Socrates certainly had personal relationships and connections with some of the key players and made a useful scapegoat.
One reason that there is a certain reluctance to take the charges at face value is that academics are perhaps nervous about philosophy specifically, or educators in general, as a threat to society. Another is that rather too many jib at seeing the society, and politics, that produced or fostered foundational and still-influentail literature, drama, history, philosopy and art, put to death a figure such as Socrates for the kind of intellectual activity for which Athens is famous. But the Athens of Socrates was also—and none of this is in dispute—nakedly and brutally imperialistic, relied on the exploitation of enslaved people (perhaps even more so than other Greek states), was politically, if not culturally, xenophobic or at least exclusionary (it had more rigid citizenship laws than non-democratic states), and of course profoundly and structurally misogynistic (but again more so than the norm in the Greek world). It had a politics and legal system that embraced hearsay and anecdote, emotional appeals and personal charisma. Sometimes the city admitted its mistakes, sometimes not. Athens may not have gone so far as to burn the books of innovative thinkers (see, e.g., this dispute between Dover and Finley), but such thinkers, and other cultural figures such as dramatists, were frequent targets of comedians, for being impious or atheistic, and for doing untoward things (intellectually and culturally) to young men and boys. Aristophanes' first (and now only fragmentary) play Banqueters (427 BCE) focused on the latter theme; a reprise in Clouds (423 BCE) places both elements squarely, and indeed literally, at the door of Socrates. The truth of Socrates' actual teaching or the nature of his interactions with young people (disputed by Plato and Xenophon in different ways), or the motivations of the prosecutors who brought him to trial (also disputed) are not the point at issue. Rather, the nature of the charges are drawing on a sustained smear campaign against public intellectuals: in other words, what we could call these days a ‘dog-whistle’.
At stake are ideas, and bodies, the agency of young people, all framed within gender and sexuality. For the ancient Athenians, listening to philosophers and being trained in rhetorical skills made you pale, weedy, unable to hold a shield, the possessor of a labile tongue (evoking cunnilingus rather than fellatio), shamelessly sexual (outside of ones own marriage), and happy to receive as well as give penetration (when of adult citizen age). All of this, in Athenian terms, made you unmanly. It might seem slightly perverse both to have enjoyed this sort of abuse of intellectuals and young men for a quarter of a century while also enjoying the vibrant politics and culture that such men provided only to turn round and blame current problems on that culture and those that allegedly spawned it, but that's democracy (or human nature) for you.
Which brings me to our own democracies—differently organised, differently populist, and with different systems of gender and sexuality, but with some strikingly similar dog-whistles. In 2021, the focus is on trans people; thirty years ago it was homosexuality and the infamous Section 28. The rhetoric is very similar.
So we are told that ‘our’ young people are being ‘transed’. How is this achieved? Well, by figures of cultural and educational authority sending positive messages about being trans, just as it was positive messages about homosexuality thirty years ago. This encourages people to be trans, just as it encouraged people to be gay or lesbian thirty years ago. This ‘promotion‘ needs to stop. Universities that have equality and diversity policies in line with the Equality Act 2010 (and its precursor legislation) are targets, as are educators that discuss LGBTQ+ issues, or who are simply trans themselves. After all, what better way to ‘promote’ a trans identity than to suggest that you can live a happy, fulfilled life, in gainful employment and with supportive colleagues?
One important difference is that the modern campaigns either insinuate or explicitly claim that such messages are actually promoting paedophilia (e.g. teenagers are being ‘groomed’). To be clear, this is a homophobic slur, and makes no sense whatsoever about trans issues or identities. Ancient comedy, which was actually rarely one-dimensional or simplistic, in fact suggested that the unhealthy obsession with boys' genitalia came from the conservative and reactionary elements. Actually, maybe that isn't such a big difference after all.
The BBC, a long-time target of the right-wing press, is of course front and centre in this cultural offensive. Most recently it came to my attention that the Telegraph had been pushing a story that a concerned mother was claiming that her child had been encouraged by the children's channel CBBC to seek help for gender dysphoria. Now, I am quite familiar with the output of CBBC, as my children are devotees of Operation Ouch and Horrible Histories amongst others. It would no doubt appal the Telegraph to learn that they know all the songs of Horrible Histories including the ones that suggest that the British Empire was a teensy bit exploitative. Still, I was hard put to it to think of where this slew of trans-positive output was (and you think I might have noticed). Since the Telegraph article is paywalled, I see from quotations elsewhere that specifically mentioned is the 2014 BAFTA-winning documentary I am Leo, which followed a teenager transitioning (and is accordingly hated by anti-trans activists). More recently (2020), too recent indeed, to be relevant for the Telegraph story, there was the Australian show, only aired last year, the claim must be referring to First Day, a show about a 12 year old, who is trans, moving from an unsympathetic and unsupportive primary school to a secondary school that is somewhat more supportive. So that makes one factual documentary which follows the process and one drama that suggests that being trans might be liveable—in ten years. This is not a particularly high strike rate. And if we move away from young people transitioning, there is one documentary (again 2020) about having a trans parent, When Mum becomes Dad. Such things, of course never happen in real life at all actually, as my children and their friends can attest.
(I'm not sure that the Telegraph are aware that Dr Ronx from Operation Ouch is non-binary. I can't recall the show ever mentioning it.)
Let's be clear: what the pushback against trans visibility in cultural or educational contexts is about is removing trans characters or narratives, and to leave the floor clear to hammer home the message that, really, it's not OK. In other words, it is precisely the Section 28 playbook. But both depend on this traditional narrative of corrupting ideas.
To be sure, ‘gender critical‘ activists have sought to make a sharp distinction between trans rights and lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, but this rarely holds up for long under scrutiny (e.g. the paedophilia slur noted above). One particular move is to claim that, for someone, being trans is somehow ‘better’ than being gay or lesbian. Who this person is varies. In some cases this alleged preference comes from the medical professionals. This is, I think, the suggestion in the Telegraph case, although it must be clear that, although it was piggy-backing on the Bell vs. Tavistock case (currently awaiting an appeal verdict), the lack of parental consent meant that the child in question did not in fact transition medically: the mother is objecting to the child persisting, and transitioning as an adult. In other instances, by contrast, such as the Tavistock ‘whistle-blowing’ report, the alleged preference is said to come from the parents themselves, who are dragging their children to the clinic. It would, of course, be fantastic if the anti-trans rhetoric could get its story straight, but, even so, it is striking that in none of these stories is there any credence given to the preference of the young person themselves.
The idea of being trans being generally seen as being preferable to being gay does not square with the legal, cultural or political reality: legislation specisfically about trans issues was over a quarter of a century behind the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK (although of course people had been transitioning before then, including receiving support on the NHS). There are still no out trans MPs or MSPs, whereas now there are a number of gay and lesbian MPs from various parties. (One former MEP came out as trans after leaving office. Significantly she had earlier been out as lesbian but not trans; more surprising is that it was only after being elected on a UKIP ticket that she noticed that they associated with homophobes and racists.) In the US, the election of Sarah McBride as a trans State Senator in 2020 was a brekthrough; there have been less than a handful of legislators at state level. Trans people in sport in other countries make the national BBC news headlines. For me personally, the idea of being trans as being perceived as preferable to being gay or lesbian is somewhat hilarious. It certainly doesn't square with my experience, growing up in the 1980s. At that time, homosexuality had been decriminalised, but homophobia was rampant, Boy George famously preferred a cup of tea, and the ignorance and fear was reinforced by the AIDS pandemic and then Section 28. Yet there was even more ignorance about trans people. The few individuals who transitioned were guaranteed a spot in the local newspaper as a bizarre and prurient spectacle; if you were in education, you would make the nationals (even a decade on, as I was to discover myslef. I can certainly recall, in my early student days, my mum being aware that something was going on, but it only ever went as far as dropping extravagant hints over the washing up that, really, it would be fine to bring (male) friends to stay: being trans never crossed my parents' mind. And in my experience gender identity clinics are quite keen indeed for clients to consider that they might actually be gay. Really. You can barely sit down before you are asked that question (for the first but not the last time).
Make no mistake: this is something that hits you before you are 16. It may take you a while to work out how to deal with it, and to find support, and that's a lot harder when the landscape is one of ignorance, repression and fear. In the days before the legal framework was established and trans people became more visible, and the cultural landscape less hostile, this culture of repression led to a stereotype of the forty-something transition, where the walls of repression came tumbling down, and with them a great deal of the structures of life that had accumulated. Of course, this scenario still happens; some never make it that far, still. When there are suggestions that it is wrong for cultural or educational figures to present positive representation of transgender, this is the alternative (or worse). But, happily, the landscape has shifted, and there are young people transitioning earlier, and without the accumulated baggage of a life lived in fear.
And this is perhaps the part that really irks some of those who have amplified the anti-trans message. The culture has shifted, and young people have taken decided for themselves how they are going to live. They have taken seriously, and built on, the environment created in the wake of the absurdities of Section 28, when for two decades voters elected parties, of both left and right, committed to equalities (culminating in the Cameron government's legalisation of same-sex marriage). Despite the keen attempts in some quarters to take their ball away, or to say that playing with the ball is not allowed, or even to pretend there never was a ball in the first place, young people in particular are quite happy with the ball and have been developing the game to play with it.
Cultural change can be painful to those of us who are older. For example, I don't as a matter of course include my pronouns; and I'm still not sure I totally understand non-binary, but I think I might have rested there for a while thirty odd years ago, if I had had the language or concept. But then again, if I were going through it all again, I might have been able to explore my own identity in an open and supportive context, and to reach a sustainable conclusion more quickly. Who knows?
The same thing applies beyond LGBTQ+ rights. I was privileged this week to participate in a panel on Disability in Ancient World Studies, run by the Australasian Women in Ancient World Studies (AWAWS), the first of its kind with an all-disabled panel. The energy, drive and vision came from the organisers and from my fellow panellists, all postgraduate students. I was the one learning, or seeing afresh, that things do not and should not remain the same, that the structures within which we have had to work are not, actually, acceptable. There was also some cracking research being discussed too. Elsewhere, it is largely younger scholars of colour who are pushing the agenda on race and ethnicity (see, e.g., London Classicists of Colour), and often taking flak in the process from elements within the discipline who should know better.
And outside of scholarship, as I have started tentatively dipping my toes back into local Green politics, I face the realisation that the landscape has shifted in the past decade, and again from the same source. The young people I encounter are driving the political movement: they have the energy and vision, but also they can organise.
There are all sorts of fantasies, and one of them is of an education that was safe, contained, the imposition of a moral framework and moral values that are unthinkingly obeyed; another is a sinister conspiracy by educators and intellectuals to warp our fragile children (although of course it is totally fine to repress these same fragile children). It is helpful for an Athenian jury of 399 to pretend that Socrates stood behind Alcibiades in 415 or 411, pulling the strings, or behind Critias in 404, because they can avoid responsibility for listening to the former, or for the defeat that brought the latter to power. It is helpful to pretend that there are scandalous new demands being made and forget a track record of voting for equalities for the best part of two decades. It is helpful to anti-trans activists or angry parents to suppose that young people are being corrupted by medical or educational personnel because it means they don't have to listen to what young people are saying. If we've learned anything from history it is that these fantasies don't work.