No, I am not saying be ‘a trans ally’. That’s identity-politics nonsense, it’s being partisan, it’s like joining a football supporters’ club – but the thing is, the wheels really have come off Stonewall’s #NoDebate train in their self-ID/queer theory/gender-ideology campaign, and it’s time to re-assess the situation.
It’s a real shame it happened the way it did. Hadley Freeman writes, “So I always knew it would start with sport. The great advantage sport has over, say, prisons and refuges is that it happens in public: people can see it and they are interested in it.” (Freeman in Unherd, 22/04/2022)
We don’t all love sport
Much as we respect the sportswomen and men who have spoken out recently, some women have been on this campaign for five, or ten, or more years – but weren’t particularly thinking about sport. Up until now, it centred around things most people don’t know much about. (Skip the bit in italics if you don’t want/need context on that.)
[If you like details, it’s like this: Julie Bindel dates the conflicts she’s had over this to the 1990s. She discussed the issue with Ruth Hunt, later CEO of that organisation, when they looked at the funding opportunities buzzing around, and discussed adding the ‘T’ to the ‘LGB’ (which they did in 2015) thus, as Bindel pointed out at the time, bringing two very different and potentially conflicting interests into the remit of one organisation. L, G and B are all about sexual orientation. the T and everything embedded in the Q+ that comes after it, are something else altogether.
Women, notably political lesbians, began the sex-based rights campaign because they were involved in the funding or running of women’s services or hostels, or because they were women’s officers in trade unions or political parties, or worked in prisons or refugee centres, and saw what was happening to unprotected, lone women, or had been told by Stonewall people that they shouldn’t talk about fgm, or wear pussy hats, because ‘some women don’t have vaginas’, or got told they couldn’t be Women’s Officers if they didn’t believe in ‘gender identity’, or had seen ‘women’s studies’ dismantled and reborn as ‘gender studies’ in universities, and had noted the distinct antagonism to ‘female centred’ feminism, now wrongly termed ‘bio-essentialism’ in the new courses (yes, you may well ask – what’s the point of feminism, if you don’t acknowledge that ‘female’ is a thing, but that’s what ‘gender studies’ does), then Stonewall submitted their suggestion to the government that single-sex exemptions be removed from the Equality Act, and Maria Miller MP said ‘there was no opposition except from some people purporting to be feminists’ and said feminists got very angry.]
Now, those women are doubly angry because the world didn’t give a toss about lesbians, or women prisoners or refugees, or the threat to our legal rights, and simply did not believe us about the danger to traumatised youngsters but oh, they are spoiling sport now, so let’s all complain! Well, for better or for worse, everyone is very angry now. ‘The public’ – the common denominators in the national conversation – do not like unfairness when they see it – nor are they, en masse, too discerning in who they blame or how they react.
A conflict of rights?
I remember some years ago, when socialist transwoman Kristina Harrison spoke at a women’s rights meeting I helped to organise, she said she had always been an activist for both women’s rights and trans rights. Nowadays, that would confuse most people, because the problem we have has translated into the public conversation as ‘trans rights v women’s rights’. That is so dangerous. It’s Stonewall’s line, but it’s really not necessary to approach it like that. The trouble is, it’s an easy, bite-sized way for the media to present the problem. We must challenge that view.
The conflict was inserted when LGBTQ+ groups took up the ‘trans women are women’ queer-theory approach in line with their new funders’ requirements, and started demanding that women’s specific legal rights be erased in favour of ‘self-ID’, so that transwomen could ‘actually be’ women (as if merely saying it could make it true). In her speech at that meeting, Harrison said she didn’t buy that idea because, as well as the obvious (it should have been obvious) threat to women, it simply was not true, and she supported a politics based on reality. Also, she said, there would be a backlash against trans people when the public worked out what was going on.
She was right, and here we are. If politicians had had the sense and decency to listen when women’s groups approached them about the problems Stonewall was creating for women’s refuges and prisons back then, it may well have been sorted out carefully and compassionately, without most people even noticing it had happened.
But the politicians lacked the courage, and the situation didn’t come to light until a generation of kids had been taught Stonewall’s line in schools and, as teenagers, got their ideas of sex and gender entirely the opposite way round to the traditional ones, and came out fighting. Now, they clash with Mr and Mrs Angry who have seen the outrageous unfairness represented by the likes of Laurel Hubbard and Lia Thomas on GB News, or in their anger-stoking popular newspapers, and there is something very, very important that Mr and Mrs Angry are in danger of forgetting.
A conflict powered by sexism
It’s worth noting that Stonewall’s original slogan was just ‘transwomen are women’, and it was a specific type of mature male transitioners, who had their eyes on women’s Olympic medals and political roles, who made all the running. The slogan only became ‘transwomen are women and trans men are men’ when feminist campaigners noted the one-sided approach, and very quickly worked out the reason for it.
We live in a sexist society
The rainbow-teen-warriors, and the night-club drag-acts and fetishists waging a screechy war on women are all too visible to us, but there is also a cohort of transwomen, many of whom made their decision decades ago, who have for the most part been going their own way successfully, hurting no-one; and then there is the growing cohort of young females who as youngsters were persuaded to take testosterone and, in some cases, line up for ‘affirmative surgery’.
Most of these two very vulnerable groups do what they do because we live in a judgemental, sexist society. They do what they do either because they are gay, and grew up somewhere where they knew you could not be gay without being a victim of bullying, or else they are strongly gender-non-conforming, and they grew up in an environment where sexist stereotypes ruled so absolutely that they saw their future as a choice between transitioning or being miserable forever.
It’s not their fault
It would be injustice on top of injustice if these people now take the heat as society sets about swinging the pendulum back the other way. May it please soon come to rest in a place approaching fairness – a place where we acknowledge, buttress and apply essential women’s rights and exemptions but also acknowledge that although trans people are already protected in law from discrimination, that doesn’t mean they never have problems, and like most minority groups in times of austerity, they need better social and medical support.
Ensuring they get that is everyone’s job. They don’t need ‘allyship’ – this is not a football match, and we may never agree – but they need solidarity, a recognition that we all have needs and we all have something to offer, and we all need to allow elbow-room for each other.
Where do we go from here?
Well, my first suggestion would be women, please don’t vote Tory because Boris Johnson said biology matters! He is in no way a friend to women. In the last few months this issue has gone from being a completely taboo subject to being the nation’s favourite political football. Just because the red team is currently yelling ‘we support self-ID’ and the blue team are yelling ‘biology matters’ does not mean either party actually cares about either trans people or women. Next week, it’ll be something else they are trying to score points on.
My second suggestion is, please recognise that to a great extent, trans people and women have the same requirements. We need a peaceful, stable society in which we can live our lives as suits our own unique characters, as well as our respective positions according to sex and gender-expression.
The point of potential conflict is in deciding where segregated spaces and services are best defined by gender, where by biological sex, and where a third, or open, category may be necessary.
Seen like that, it is very obviously an issue that needs everyone to sit down and figure out what works – not an issue for big lobbyists or shouty electioneering. The noise and persistence from the women’s campaign has been our demand that the bullying, cancelling and slandering of women stop, and that we are allowed a debate. We don’t want to have the whole conversation in that tone. Given a civil discussion and some genuine research, those issues can be solved. Please require of your political representatives that they facilitate those discussions, sooner rather than later.
Sex, race and class
Although the last thing I’d want campaigning women to do is shut up, there is some sense in the appeal to ‘take the heat out’, in the way that Baronness Faulkner puts it – Time to take the heat out of the trans debate, Telegraph, 08/04/2022 – but she is specifically talking about the trans debate – and pointing out the vital fact that there are other protected characteristics that need attention. Women are far, far more likely to be too quiet, and too easily put off campaigning (that’s why this issue didn’t hit the headlines until the conflict started to spoil sport).
If you’re in the more long-term battle against sexism and sexist solutions, if you’re in any of the campaigns against race, sex or class based injustice, I AM NOT asking you to argue quietly – those are fierce, relentless forces you are up against. They need to be smashed – but please don’t be led into a situation where you’re seen as on one of the ‘teams’ in a women v trans people row. That will not lead to the right solution.
Just because Dawn Butler and Rosie Duffield were among the MPs who rode to prominence on the Corbyn movement does not mean that black and working class women no longer have problems that are neglected. Gender ideology is not called a ‘luxury belief’ for nothing. It’s all too easy for well-paid, well protected female MPs to sit around and say “be kind”. They aren’t at the sharp end of any of the issues where losing the language and practices women need can hurt them.
Above all, we need to analyse and address the fact that where people don’t see race and sex and class-based oppression for what they are, they won’t understand why some women desperately need single-sex provision, and others think it’s an old-fashioned, troublesome idea.
Into battle – and back out again?
You know how it goes – time and again, in recent years, we women have said “we can’t tolerate self-ID or ‘gender identity’ being written into law, because it allows predatory men to take advantage.” The trans-rights-activist folk reply, “that never happens.” Our folk come back with examples, and the tras go “they are saying trans people are predatory!” This has led to many people thinking women are being stupid, many more thinking there’s a plague of transphobia out there, and yet others thinking trans people are all predators/fetishists. We need to unpick all that, stitch by stitch.
Then there are kids who’ve transitioned to escape all manner of horrors, and others who’ve declared themselves ‘non-binary’ to dodge sexist pigeonholing. Most of them have been persuaded we are their enemies.
For the sake of families and friendships up and down the land, we need to work in a way that shows them this is not true, that the fact that we don’t see sex and gender the way they do does not mean we oppose them. Possibly the most painful divide of all is between friends and family who, each in their own way, passionately defend those kids – some by trying to protect them from what they see as temptation down a dangerous, medical pathway, others trying to protect them from what they see as ‘nay-sayers’ who seek to deny them something they need.
One immediate task that will help us ‘win the peace’ is to send out the message, loud and clear, that we know no sane person is ‘for’ conversion therapy. The issue that brought down the government’s recent disputed ‘conversion therapy ban’ bill was that the bill was so poorly written, many women’s groups thought it would end up banning conversation – neutral counselling – for heaven’s sake, *all* counselling should be neutral – and it can be vital for youngsters trying to understand what they want and why.
And lastly, we need to remember that most people have no idea why so many women are so blisteringly angry, and so easily stirred to vitriol over this. I lost some friends over what was seen as a ‘tribal’ and/or ‘party political’ point I made recently. Yes, I was very angry. Yes, I was accusing certain people – but I forgot that most people simply have not seen the extent of the lying, the bullying and the manipulation that’s gone on in political parties and unions over this campaign. They just think we’re weirdly, persistently, angry by nature.
What do we do? Swallowing anger and hurt is bad for you – but we do need to remember it can be alarming to those who aren’t expecting it. Just keep underlining the fact that this campaign is about a legal issue. It’s about maintaining what is probably the best equality law in the world, the UK’s 2010 Equality Act, and putting pressure on politicians and institutions to see that the provisions for ALL the protected groups it covers are applied properly.
Our political home
My third suggestion is based on our discovery there really are advantages to be gained from these terrible years of conflict. Many of us now know a lot more about trans people, and many women have rallied to feminist organisations in order to defend our rights – all that led to me going along to a FiLiA conference, where I got a whole new education – about eco-feminist women, Palestinian women, Rojavi women, WAST refugee women, radical feminist women, women running co-ops, and how to make samosas, and how to organise ‘find-your-tribe’ sing-arounds, and more and more and more. It taught me that party politics may be rubbish, your vote may not make much difference, but out in the world, there are thousands upon thousands of women doing good, local and national politics, based on finding out how to do justice for the environment, and improve our society in terms of race, sex and class.
A message to the women who’ve been through hard times on this campaign: for as long as organisations like FiLiA exist, there is no reason any women in this country need feel ‘politically homeless’.
Let us maintain and grow the fantastic women’s organisations that have stepped up for us in recent years, and make them a lasting force for good, so that we ALL come out better off. That goal will require the kind of patience and long-term attention that genuine anti-racism work does, because it includes getting ‘the public’ to understand that women are not fighting trans people, they are fighting gender-based ideologies, and getting our country’s politicians and administrators to see why that’s a fight worth supporting.
Corporates and obsessives
Last year, as Jane Clare Jones pointed out, women finally won the battle with the ‘no debate’ crew, and brought this issue into the arena of legitimate conversation. This year, thanks to the sporting world’s examples, we’re on the way to winning ‘the public conversation’.
We still have a very difficult job to do though. Stonewall is far from being the only lobbying company that saw the trans trend as a big earner. Corporates do not give up money-spinning ideas easily. Only this week, a piece of NHS commissioning work went through in my area that contains dangerous, unscientific nonsense, seeking to medicalise ‘non-binary’ youngsters, among other things.
As well as all this, we have to deal with a swathe of deeply misogynist would-be activists who are thriving on this opportunity to attack women’s rights, and women’s footholds in public life. Fortunately, we now have a strong women’s movement to organise around while we fend them off.
Dear lefty groups – feeling depleted? Feeling marginalised? Feeling in need of a strong, courageous army of eco-socialists? Worry not – we’re over here, in the women’s movement, where you pushed us. As it turns out, we like it here but come and talk to us, why don’t you? This whole sorry country could use some solidarity just now.
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