QotD: “The piece, which was written by science reporter Jesse Singal, was thorough, nuanced, impeccably researched and fact-checked, and it caused an immediate firestorm”
I generally try to stay out of Twitter drama, which leaves me feeling like high school didn’t end, it just moved online, but yesterday I made an exception. It started early in the morning, after the Atlantic published its July/August cover story on trans kids, detransition, and the conflict some parents have when their kids come out to them as trans. The piece, which was written by science reporter Jesse Singal, was thorough, nuanced, impeccably researched and fact-checked, and it caused an immediate firestorm. On Twitter, Roxane Gay said it was a travesty. Lena Dunham called it dangerous. Nicole Cliffe, a woman who has literally never spoken to the author in her life, said that Singal is “obsessed” with trans women. She also called him creepy.
“Mad” doesn’t quite capture my response to these tweets. I was enraged, particularly at Cliffe, a writer who should know better than to smear someone she’d never met to her 81,000 followers. Unlike Cliffe, I’ve actually met Singal, and he is not “obsessed” with trans women. He reports on social science, including the science (or lack thereof) of gender. He was, quite literally, doing his job, and, if you follow Singal on Twitter, you’ll quickly find that if he’s obsessed about anything, it’s basketball, not trans women. The irresponsibility of Cliffe’s tweet, which has more than 4,000 likes and 1,000 retweets, was astounding—but it shouldn’t have been. This is how Twitter works: You repeat something, no one bothers to fact check, and all of a sudden, it’s treated as fact. Jesse Singal is obsessed with trans women. I read it on Twitter, therefore it’s true.
Of course, I wasn’t only enraged at the treatment of Singal because I like him and think he’s a good reporter. I was also enraged because the dog-piling of Jesse Singal echoed my own dog-piling, which happened almost exactly one year ago and for exactly the same reason: Like Singal, I also wrote an article about detransition. From the response to my piece, you would think that I’d written that trans people don’t exist or shouldn’t have access to medical care or deserve to be beaten in the streets. I wrote none of those things—and, in fact, went out of my way to include the voices of happy trans people and affirm trans identities and the need for trans health care—but it didn’t matter. I was quickly pegged as transphobic, not because of the content of my piece but because I, a cis woman, had the audacity to write it.
This, apparently, was many people’s problem with Singal, and they took to Twitter to argue that this article should have been written by a trans person instead. It’s the same argument that came up, over and over, when people were yelling at me and burning stacks of The Stranger last year, and it’s no less ludicrous now than it was then.
The idea that you must be a part of a demographic to write about it is contrary to the very nature of reporting: The job of the reporter is to listen to and relay other people’s stories, but it’s also to look for evidence, to dig into claims, to get at the truth. If you want all your stories to come directly from the source’s mouth, enjoy getting all of your news from social media. Besides, if people only wrote about populations they fit in, that would mean that I’m only allowed to write about 35-year-old lesbians from North Carolina and Jesse is only allowed to write about Boston Jews who love the Celtics and, sorry trans writers, but no more cis stories for you. Hope you don’t want to cover politics. According to this logic, the White House press corps would have to be made up of 70-year-old men with giant egos and tiny brains. Anyone writing about immigrant children separated from their families in Texas would have to be an immigrant child separated from their family in Texas. If that’s what people want, okay, but good luck effecting any sort of political change in a media ecosystem like that. You can’t argue for visibility and then claim that no one is allowed to write your stories but you.
This argument makes even less sense considering Singal’s piece wasn’t about trans people. It was about detrans people—detrans people who were willing to tell their stories to Singal, just as last year, they were willing to tell their stories to me. But for telling those stories, I was called, and I’m not kidding here, a “murderer.” And I still am today.
Singal knew this was coming. He’s written on trans issues for years, and the response is always the same. We talked about this last week at the Open Minds Conference in New York, which we both attended. The conference was the first of its kind sponsored by the Heterodox Academy, an organization for university faculty that advocates for ideological diversity. It’s not an innately controversial concept: Hearing other people’s views, whether on a college campus or on the news, is essential for both avoiding confirmation bias and for understanding critiques of one’s own views. But perhaps predictably, it was pegged by some people (who were not there) as some kind of white supremacist, alt-right meet-up. This was patently ridiculous. Honorees at the event included Cornel West and a number of other people of color, and I highly doubt there was a single Trump voter in attendance (which, for the sake of viewpoint diversity, is a problem). But that did not stop people from tweeting to my employer that I was at a secret KKK rally because they saw my name in the program.
Still, there were no protesters in attendance and the conference itself was interesting, with sessions about, among other things, the role of administrators and professors in creating an environment in which people are free to express their opinions. But, more than the sessions, what I really got out of it was talking to people about how they’d ended up there in the first place. Everyone had a story, from a (queer, Latina) professor in Oregon whose classes were boycotted, to a professor in Virginia who was nearly pushed out of his school for criticizing a black woman’s scholarly work, to writers like Emily Yoffe, Jon Ronson, Jesse Singal, and myself, all of whom have been targeted for writing about inconvenient truths… but truths, nonetheless.
Meeting these people, I was reminded that while becoming the target of an online mob can be painful, it’s also hugely enlightening. I’m a queer women whose politics align pretty closely with Leon Trotsky, but when the left came for me last year, I began to see how orthodoxy on my own side stifles not just speech and expression, but ideas. Before, I judged arguments based on who was making them. If a conservative said something, I automatically dismissed it. Now I engage with the ideas themselves. I’ve left my echo chamber, which has given me a fundamental understanding of the world that I didn’t have before. In fact, I’m glad I found myself at the bottom of a dog-pile, and I think the best thing for society would be for everyone to go through the same. Luckily, the bar to end up trending on Twitter is so low these days that with one mis-tweet or culturally appropriated prom dress, you’ll end up there eventually, too.
We are a group of parents based in the UK, who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose ‘gender non-conforming’ children as transgender. We reject current conservative, reactionary, religious-fundamentalist views about sexuality and we have no political affiliation. We are also concerned about legislation which places transgender rights above the right to safety for girls and young women in public bathrooms and changing rooms.
We come from diverse backgrounds, some with expertise in child development and psychology, some who were themselves extreme gender non-conforming children and adolescents, some whose own children have self-diagnosed as ‘trans’ and some who know supportive trans adults who are also questioning recent theories of ‘transgenderism.’
Our work is voluntary, non-profit and unpaid, so we rely on personal donations to keep going. Our work includes research, travel to events, letter-writing (to government ministers, health professional bodies, the NHS, the BBC etc), media interviews, press releases, speaking and activism.
A lot of our work goes on ‘in the background’ in the form of private meetings, networking and consultancy. None of this is paid.
Transgender Trend Schools Resource Pack
We have developed comprehensive guidance for schools, in consultation with teachers, child protection and welfare professionals and lawyers. Our aim is to arm schools with all the relevant facts so that teachers feel more informed and confident in creating a safe school for all pupils, including non-conforming children and those who identify as ‘transgender.’ Our resource pack covers advice for school leaders, tips on how to create a school culture of acceptance of gender non-conformity without denying biological sex, communication, primary schools and secondary schools, existing safeguarding policies and guidance, the legal situation for schools, and a glossary of terms. We also include factual information about the social and medical transition of children, testimonies from young people who have desisted or detransitioned, and a statement from a teacher who has witnessed the increase in the number of young people identifying as ‘trans’ in their school. We have included a statement from the Lesbian Rights Alliance in recognition of the fact that the number of teenage lesbians who are choosing to identify as ‘trans men’ has recently grown so significantly.
Previously only available in downloadable format, we are now seeking funds to print hard copies of the pack, as these have been regularly requested by many teachers.
Additional funds will be used to cover exhibition materials, leaflets, attendance at conferences/events, ongoing website costs and legal fees.
Thank you so much for your support!
A feminist group concerned about the social pressure placed on children to become transgender has had its fundraising stopped after a “bullying” campaign by trans activists.
Transgender Trend said it was considering taking legal action against activists for claiming that a resource pack that it publishes for schools was “transphobic”, included “hate speech” and was “a modern edition of Mein Kampf”.
The Crowdfunder website has now suspended the group’s fundraising page — jeopardising nearly £5,000 already raised there — after it received an “unprecedented” number of complaints from trans groups.
The resource pack says transgender pupils “have the same rights as all children to learn while feeling safe and to be free from bullying, harassment and discrimination” and should be treated with “kind acceptance”.
However, it warns against “labelling”, “affirming” and “celebrating” as transgender any young people who may subsequently change their minds, saying teenagers are at risk of “social contagion” from online celebrities who “glamourise medical transition”.
Susie Green, chief executive of the Mermaids charity, said the guidance contained “hysterical and unsubstantiated claims made to damage the rights of transgender young people”.
Stephanie Davies-Arai, of Transgender Trend, said the pack was measured, careful and evidence-based and advocated the “watchful waiting” approach pursued by the leading NHS clinicians in this field.
“Attacking our fundraising and telling lies about us is part of a concerted campaign by trans activists to silence anyone who disagrees that children should be rushed into life-changing, even surgical interventions at a harmfully early age,” she said.
“I hope Crowdfunder will not give in to this bullying.”
Crowdfunder said: “In line with our content guidelines and terms and conditions, we have suspended the project while we investigate further.”
So today we have seen Venice Allan and Mayday4Women suspended. Women’s voices of dissent are disappearing. You will soon hear little other than male bodied people telling you how to woman/feminist the correct way. Exaggeration? No. Who’s next? Me? You?
I can’t remember the exact words, who said it or when, but the general message was: courage isn’t the lack of fear, but doing something even when you’re afraid. I am writing this with lots of fear about a backlash that will almost certainly happen. However, I’ve reached the point where I can’t stay silent any longer and need to muster whatever courage I can and do what I think is right, regardless of the cost.
This past week, a woman I’m proud to call a sister ally, Yuly Chan, was no-platformed by a small group of individuals who appointed themselves judge and jury of acceptable ideas and speech. They claimed Chan was a violent, hateful woman whose political opinions were too dangerous to be shared in a public venue and demanded she be removed from a panel scheduled as part of this weekend’s Vancouver Crossroads conference. Chan had been invited by conference organizers, the Vancouver District and Labour Council (VLDC), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and Organize BC, to speak on behalf of her group, the Chinatown Action Group. The Chinatown Action Group organizes to improve the lives of low-income residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown, many of whom are seniors. She was to speak to the incredibly important work of this group at the conference.
A recently-formed group called the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) wrote a letter to the organizers, then an open letter that included a link to a website CATA had built, documenting supposed evidence of Chan as a threat to public safety. Although Chan was not speaking on the panel about debates around gender or prostitution, Organize BC members interrogated Chan about her politics regarding these issues and eventually refused to move ahead with the panel unless she was removed. Instead of condemning the unethical tactics and behaviour of CATA, intended to silence Chan and smear her as a hate-filled oppressor, the organizers cancelled the entire panel, sending a message that the organizers and their supporters were not willing to take a stand to ensure the needs of low-income Chinese residents were heard. As a result, the Chinatown Action Group was no-platformed right along with their representative.
CATA also demanded that the conference organizers issue a public apology for daring to invite Chan to speak about the activism of low-income Chinese residents of Vancouver. They also demanded that a policy be instituted with the guidance and approval of only “trans women and sex workers,” banning anyone “who promote[s] any form of oppressive, supremacist, and fascist ideology from being offered and/or provided a platform at any of VDLC, CUPE, and Organize BC’s future events.” But who decides which ideologies are “oppressive, supremacist, and fascist”? And why, in activist and academic circles, has it become common and acceptable to engage in witch hunts to rid “the community” (that is made up of whom?) of particular political positions that are grounded not in hate or violence, but in a radical feminist analysis (radical meaning “the root”)? Chan, and so many others who question and critique systems of power are being persecuted for having these feminist or critical politics. It is not violent oppressors, supremacists, or fascists that are being silenced and no-platformed in this case and others like it, it is feminists. There are limits, of course, to the idea of “free speech,” but what I am addressing is specifically discourse among activists and academics on the left.
Organize BC privately and publicly apologized to CATA for inviting Yuly Chan to speak on the panel. But I will not apologize for standing next to Chan and the Chinatown Action Group, and next to all people who have been no-platformed, threatened, intimidated, bullied, and even beaten for their political opinions.
What was Chan’s crime? Having a political analysis and sharing it. She is accused of promoting “SWERF/TERF” ideology. “SWERF” stands for “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist,” and “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” These terms are used as insults against women with a radical feminist or class analysis of prostitution and gender. “SWERFs” and “TERFs” are accused of hating, oppressing, harming, and sometimes even killing trans women and sex workers, despite the fact no feminist engages in these practices.
I am of the political opinion that prostitution is a form of male violence that should be abolished. I am also of the political opinion that gender is a social construct and hierarchy that traps and harms women and should also be abolished. Today, these two sentences are enough to mark me as a violent, hate-filled, supremacist/fascist, and have the ability to destroy my reputation, livelihood, and potential academic or employment opportunities now and in the future. I have already been passed over for some opportunities due to my political analysis of prostitution, asked to leave conferences, told I’m not allowed to speak about prostitution when invited to speak about Indigenous research, and threatened with police involvement. I have been intimidated and harassed due only to my politics, not my behaviour. These are only some examples of some of the backlash that I, and other women, have experienced for speaking our opinions. This backlash, however, doesn’t just include no-platforming, but also threats and acts of violence. To many, this may sound unbelievable, as though I am exaggerating. I wish this were the case. I wish I were exaggerating. Unfortunately, this is the reality of activist and academic circles in Canada and elsewhere.
Speaking of academia, in 2016 I was publicly accused online of being an oppressive “SWERF” and “TERF” by a former employee of the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia University, where I am a student. This is the first time I am speaking publicly about this incident, as I have been too afraid to do so since it happened. Although this individual is no longer employed by the Centre for Gender Advocacy, going on instead to become the president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), this issue has not been resolved. In the public post, I was accused of oppressing sex workers and being “transphobic,” funders and the university were tagged, a quote was attributed to me that I never said, and individuals went on a hunt to dig up evidence of my supposed bigotry. One person attempted to publicly engage in discussion about these allegations against me, which I’m grateful for, but they were not heard. Some faculty members were concerned that a staff person at a student support organization was making these types of public allegations about a student and alerted some in positions of power at the University, but got little, if any, response. The manager of the Centre for Gender Advocacy was made aware of the situation, and I am not aware of anything that was or is being done to resolve and rectify the situation. No one has reached out to me to apologize for the online bullying I had experienced, or to speak about concerns or questions they had about my politics, leading me to believe this type of hostility is directed at me not only by one staff member, but the Centre for Gender Advocacy as an organization. I explored different options myself, but was unable to find a way to formally hold the individual and Centre to account. I attempted to find support at the University, but those I approached refused to speak out against the behaviour of the individual and the Centre.
Regardless of your politics, this behaviour is unacceptable. It is not ok to tell lies about people or subject them to political persecution over disagreements. It’s important to note that the Centre houses Missing Justice, an Indigenous solidarity group that hosts the march for murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls every year in Montreal. As an Indigenous woman who works on these issues, I was already alienated from Missing Justice when, a number of years ago, non-Indigenous organizers told me to stop speaking and attempted to literally grab a megaphone out of my hand when I was invited to make a statement at their gathering by another Indigenous speaker. My crime was a decolonizing and feminist critical analysis of prostitution and speaking out against men buying sexual access to Indigenous women and girls. In other words, my crime was having a political opinion that differed from the organizers. Rather than attempting to silence an Indigenous woman at an event supposedly held for Indigenous women, a better way forward would have been to publicly acknowledge at the event that my statement does not reflect the organizer’s politics and to encourage those in attendance to learn more about the issue.
Although this incident happened many years ago and the online bullying at Concordia happened two years ago, it continues to severely impact my life as a student in different ways. The message I received from the inaction by the University and the Centre for Gender Advocacy is that it is entirely acceptable to attempt to silence those who are critical of prostitution. I still hear this message today. I feel fear about publicizing these experiences. The very fact that I feel intensely afraid to speak about my own experiences speaks volumes about the climate of activism and academia today.
I grew up working class, and proud. My father was a Marxist who was active in the labour movement, campaigned for Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, and educated me about the harms of capitalism. Throughout my teen years and young adulthood, I never questioned which side I was on. To this day, I remain steadfast in my belief that everyone deserves access to affordable housing, free health care, and advanced education. I believe that poverty is unacceptable and that wealth is unethical. I believe racism and sexism are embedded within our society. I’m pink, through and through.
But politics aren’t just about words and ideas. They’re also about ethics and action—both personal and political. And though I remain a leftist in my principles, I can no longer stand in solidarity with former fellow travellers whose ethics are dictated by social convenience, who prioritize retweets over free inquiry, democracy, and debate, and who respond to disagreement with calls for censorship (or worse). These feelings aren’t new for me. But they’ve recently come into sharper focus.
In my experience, it isn’t the threats, insults, smears and verbal abuse you get from random trolls online that is most upsetting. Rather, it’s the betrayal from those who you thought were on your side: colleagues, friends, community members, political allies. If Men’s-Rights Activists tell me I’m a “man-hating,” “anti-sex,” “cunt”—that’s just another day at the office. But what may surprise some readers is that the bulk of the abuse I receive online—lurid demands that I should be variously guillotined, curb stomped, drowned, or bludgeoned—comes from those who claim to be leftists.
By way of background: I am sometimes smeared as a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (or “TERF”) because, as a feminist, I believe that gender is imposed on people through socialization, rather than innate factors; that trans-identified males have different life experiences than those of females; and that people who were born male, and have spent most of their lives as men, should not automatically be admitted to every space that is otherwise reserved for women. And unlike the many young gender studies apostates one often finds at the vanguard of trans activism, I regard the sex trade as an inherently misogynistic and exploitative industry (which is why I support the so-called Nordic model, under which pimps, johns, sex traffickers, and brothel-owners are criminalized).
In May 2015, Maggie’s Toronto—a lobby group that supports the legalization of prostitution—launched a petition against me, with the intended audience being my bosses at rabble.ca. The petition claimed (falsely) that I had published “material that dehumanizes and disrespects women with different experiences and perspectives…in particular Black women, women in the sex industry, and trans women.” I also was accused of “racism, whorephobia and transmisogyny.”
A review performed by rabble editors and board members concluded that the claims of racism and transphobia were false, and that the allegations were rooted principally in the petitioners’ disagreement with my views about the sex industry. In other words, this was a political argument that my detractors had transformed into a personal campaign against my livelihood as an editor and writer.
Those who don’t inhabit the subculture of online Canadian leftism will regard all of this as obscure. But it wasn’t obscure to me: My career and reputation hung in the balance—all because of ideological disputes that had nothing to do with challenging the violent men and oppressive systems we were all supposed to be fighting.
While the initial petition against me received more than a thousand signatures, a counter-petition garnered almost twice as many. Various women and feminist organizations published articles and letters in support of my work. Yet, for the most part, mainstream Canadian leftists and media either remained silent, or threw their hat in with the smear campaign. Notwithstanding the formal conclusions of the rabble.ca report, I was shunned by my rabble colleagues, and it became clear that most of the staff wanted me gone. These ex-friends and ex-allies made it apparent that they saw me as politically inconvenient—a liability to both the rabble.ca brand, and to their own personal brands. My presence was hurting their personal friendships, and they didn’t want to risk being ostracized or smeared themselves just so they could defend my right to free speech.
The stress of dealing with this betrayal was substantial, and continues to impact me today. As I write all this, three years later, I still feel the old anxiety reflexes. It is, as the so-called social-justice warriors like to say, “triggering.”
Though I was not technically fired from rabble.ca, I was subjected to a silent bullying campaign and ostracized. For obvious reasons, it was difficult to work with people who wouldn’t speak to me. Meanwhile, rabble.ca continued to work with, and commission writing from, many of the same writers and activists who’d slandered me by means of a petition that the outlet itself had concluded was baseless.
In a 2000 book, Imagine Democracy, veteran grass-roots Canadian leftist organizer Judy Rebick argued for participatory democracy and processes, wherein “all voices are heard and a diversity of experience is brought to bear on a problem.” According to Rebick, many socialist and communist systems around the world failed in large part because they were insufficiently democratic: “Patriarchal political parties have produced top-down versions of socialism that exclude the very people who should have been shaping the policies of a socialist regime.”
When I re-read those words, I’m struck by the irony that rabble.ca was Rebick’s own creation: She co-founded it with Vancouver writer, and former political science professor, Duncan Cameron, in 2001.
My experience at rabble.ca, and with the Canadian Left more generally, does not stand in isolation. In the UK, working-class women have been forced out of the Labour Party for questioning new gender-identity legislation and its potential impact on women’s rights. In Vancouver, the Vice President of the provincial New Democratic Party, Morgane Oger, participated in the targeting of a woman holding a sign challenging transgender ideology at the 2018 Women’s March. At its 2016 convention, the British Columbia Federation of Labour voted to blacklist Canada’s longest-standing rape-crisis centre, founded on the very principles Rebick advocates—collective decision-making and a rejection of “the hierarchical command model of the public service”—on account of a peer-counselling policy based on the belief that women share a common experience as a result of being born female under patriarchy. Heather Brunskell-Evans, an academic and author, was removed from her position as Spokeswoman for the UK Women’s Equality Party after appearing on Moral Maze—a BBC Radio 4 series—to discuss the issue of transgender children. She also was deplatformed by a student group at her own university, where she had been scheduled to do a talk about pornography and the sexualization of girls.
These are all cases of self-identified leftists excommunicating other leftists—silencing those who fail to heed the maximalist demands of trans activists.
As my own experience shows, it has become common to simply smear and misrepresent a fellow leftist’s position, even to accuse her of “hate speech,” based on differences arising from matters of policy or ideology. All of this is defended under the guise of creating a ‘safe space’ to protect the marginalized from hurtful perspectives. But who decides who is and who is not ‘marginalized,’ or which perspectives are worth listening to, and which must be dismissed out of hand as hateful? As in all movements, those with the most power tend to identify contrary opinions as dangerous heresies that must be silenced. This pattern has played out countless times, in countless places, throughout history. In its most general form, it’s called ‘political persecution.’
To be fair, dishonesty and hypocrisy exist at all points on the political spectrum. But because of my own principles and politics, I expected more from the left. We can no longer claim the Left to be a radical social movement so long as its adherents abet the silencing and censorship of those who offer their own radical analyses of oppressive social systems. Certainly, we cannot claim the Left as a friend of labour given how easily its dissenters are dispatched.
Having endured my share of slings and arrows, I’ve become a more jaded leftist. But in the important respects, my politics haven’t changed. I still oppose capitalism and wealth inequality. I still support universal access to the necessities of life. And I still fight for social justice—a project that includes fighting sexism, classism, and racism.
What has changed is that I now find myself more willing to question the orthodoxies I see spouted by other leftists. Unlike a younger version of myself, I no longer believe that the positions taken by leftist parties and groups should be taken as automatically correct—nor that positions argued by centrists (or even conservatives) should be immediately rejected, without due consideration. Experience has taught me to value independent thought more than blind allegiance.
To put it bluntly, the Left has become cowardly—though you wouldn’t know it from the heroic postures and hashtags that activists adopt on social media.
The fear of dissent has made many progressives utterly incapable of self-critique or critical thought. Clannish and gutless, too many betray so-called brothers and sisters in order to preserve their own reputations and political connections. They bleat the same empty mantras back and forth to one another; a game of call-and-response in which everyone is afraid to admit they might not believe—or even understand—the words they’re saying or tweeting. It all helps explain why America’s Left has disintegrated, and Canada’s is moving in the same direction.
The Judy Rebick of 18 years ago was correct, even if the project she created now has become part of the problem: People seek to join political movements in which they are respected and heard, and in which discussions take place in a humane and intellectually honest manner. But that’s not today’s Left. The glaring hypocrisy of a movement that defends only the fashionably doctrinaire is not what I signed up for. When those around you are afraid to stand up for principled discussion and debate, knowing that they themselves are always just one misstep away from becoming a pariah, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re running with the right crowd.
How low should we set the bar for discussions about gender and trans issues? Maybe it’s enough that they happen at all, since there’s so much resistance to them taking place. When Channel 4 planned a debate as part of its Genderquake season of programmes on identity, it was under the strictest conditions of secrecy: the location wasn’t published and panellists (I was one, along with Germaine Greer, Caitlyn Jenner, trans activist Munroe Bergdorf and others) were asked to keep the list of contributors under wraps until the producers released it the day before the show.
That’s because whenever discussions about gender identity are attempted, they tend to get sabotaged before they can even begin. Venues are pressured into cancelling events. Women who take part in discussions that take a critical view on prospective changes to the Gender Recognition Act risk physical attack. And trans people willing to debate these issues are often ostracised by their own communities, deemed to be collaborating with their oppressors.
In these conditions, for Channel 4 to get the debate on air at all counts as an achievement. It took careful negotiation, a lot of cloak and dagger and multiple stand-in panellists to insure against dropouts. But what actually went out on air was a woeful missed opportunity. Conversation never took hold. Despite an impressively broad spread of participants (two trans women, three feminists of various stripes, a trans man and a genderqueer drag king), talk time was dominated by the two trans women. The trans man and drag king – two perspectives rarely given attention in gender discussions – hardly got to talk at all.
By the end of the hour, a fractious studio audience had resorted to heckling, with comments such as “you’re a man” shouted at Munroe from the floor. For those who thought the debate should never have happened – the trans activists who considered it to be denying their right to exist – this was a vindication. For feminists, it proved our voices always come last on this issue. All parties have plentiful reason for frustration, but the most significant one isn’t any specific shortcoming of this particular event. It’s that Britain urgently needs to have this discussion. At the moment, we can’t.
changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”
In 2016, the women and equalities committee published its trans inquiry report. It recommended changing the protected characteristic from “gender reassignment” (not sex) to “gender identity”. More than two years later, there’s been no legislative progress, meaning both women and trans people have been left in limbo about how their conflicting rights will be resolved. Yet at the same time, there’s been a rapid informal adoption of gender identity as the defining marker for accessing women-only services and spaces.
From Labour’s all-women shortlists to the Guides to workplace mentoring schemes, things designed for women (or girls) are now open to self-identified women. A small shift in semantics, but a significant one. For women, it means their sex is increasingly cast as a matter of feeling, not fact – no minor thing when your sex is the one that takes the brunt of pregnancy, maternity discrimination, unpaid domestic labour, sexual harassment and rape. Areas established as female-only have become in effect “gender-neutral”, while gender at large stubbornly refuses to be neutralised.
For some trans women, particularly those who transitioned before the current consensus on gender identity, this new environment isn’t a triumph – it’s a threat. Having gone through sex reassignment and empathised with the experiences of being female in a sexist society, they understand that removing all limits and safeguards on the legal definition of sex creates a loophole for violent men. And that leaves trans women as vulnerable as it does all women: if the problem is male violence, then trans people have every bit as much interest as all women do in keeping bad-faith claims from gaining legal force.
Then there are the questions that can’t be answered as long as debate is considered to be violence. Why was there a 20-fold increase in children referred to NHS gender identity services between 2010 and 2017 and why has that rise been driven by female adolescents identifying as boys or non-binary? As many lesbians observed, there seems no place for butches: young women who don’t identify with the faff and submission of femininity now often tend not to identify as women at all.
Underneath the celebration of the “genderquake” are hard problems and grievous losses. Is it a triumph for liberalism to suggest to boyish girls they might be male and girlish boys that their true self is female? How can we counter sexism if institutions no longer “see sex”? Only through debates such as the one Channel 4 attempted can such questions begin to be answered; the next attempt needs to be better.
QotD: “An illiberalism is entering our society that attempts to shut down not only free speech but free thought”
Two weeks ago I was invited to an event in Bristol organised by a campaign called We Need to Talk to discuss my view that extreme caution should be exercised in the medical attempt to sex transition young people — and was met with a noisy and aggressive political protest.
Activists dressed in black and wearing masks entered the building and refused to leave, in an attempt to prevent the meeting taking place.
I’m no stranger to highly charged political situations.
In 2005, I stood in solidarity with Palestinian villagers as they demonstrated against the Israeli government grab of the territory surrounding their village.
I am a Quaker and I had taken a three-month sabbatical from my university to volunteer in the summer period as a human rights observer in the Palestinian territories.
The programme to which I was attached is wholly committed to the fundamental humanity of both Palestinians and Israelis.
In the demonstration, I was pressed so close to the helmeted Israeli soldiers that I could see the sweat beading on their brows.
Each soldier had a gun. In that moment, it occurred to me that I was going to get killed in the half-desert under the baking sun. I looked down on myself as if from the outside, fearing the impact on my family of my death while hearing my pulse thudding in my ears.
A Palestinian teenager, apoplectic with the rage of occupation, was throwing stones at one soldier. I locked eyes with the soldier to help him recognise that I knew his stress was being raised to an unbearable pitch.
I pleaded with the boy. Amid the thunderous hubbub, the three of us sustained a brief human connection: myself, the Palestinian boy who desisted, and the Israeli soldier who thanked me with his eyes.
Soldiers are conscripted into the army at the moment they are legally adult, and this young man was an example. He was approximately the same age as my son who had suffered fatal brain injury in an accident two years earlier. I identified the soldier as a young man caught up in power politics beyond his control.
Why do I tell you this personal story? First, to let you know that I have a certain fearlessness, plus a strong, lifelong ethical commitment to resisting injustice and to the peaceful resolution of conflict.
Second, to illustrate the complexity of my feelings about the political protest in Bristol. I found myself trapped in a stairwell by masked trans activists who believed me to be the oppressor, equivalent to Israeli soldiers, and who believed transwomen to be actual women and the most victimised and oppressed of all social groups.
I appealed to the activist nearest me but he refused eye contact. I have subsequently been informed, perhaps erroneously, that he self-identifies as a woman.
Because I do not accept that transwomen really are women, identical with other women, although of course with rights as individuals to identify how they wish, he felt morally justified in using his superior physical strength and slurring me as a transphobe and a nazi.
I feared the injuries I might sustain if pushed downstairs; I looked down on myself being obstructed from speaking by a man almost young enough to be my grandson.
Parents, medics, social commentators and psychotherapists critical of transgender doctrine have far more to fear however than masked 20-year-olds using masculinist tactics of intimidation.
They fear being accused by social services of not safeguarding their own children, of losing their licence to practice as medics, of being no-platformed in their universities, of being expelled from their political parties.
I stand with other women, and with the men, transsexuals and transwomen who are my friends and colleagues critical of the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
The reforms, currently in consultation (because women have pressed for their own voices to be heard as well as those emerging from the trans movement) would allow people to legally self-affirm their gender rather than, as now, being required to live as their preferred gender for two years and have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before a gender recognition certificate is granted.
I argue it is not being on the right side of socially progressive history to censor our reasoned concern about the rights of biological men to enter female only space and the possible consequences for women and children of self-declaration.
Any political movement that attempts to silence dialogue and that trivialises the entire being of critics, however thoughtful, into one label — transphobe — is an example of liberalism’s frightening converse. An illiberalism is entering our society that attempts to shut down not only free speech but free thought.
Here’s a recording from Bristol, featuring Brunskell-Evans and also Julie Bindel: