I was one of a group of about eight feminists who attended the event Transgender Equality: What Next? on Tuesday night in London (Sept 13), having been invited to attend presumably because we had all made written submissions to the trans inquiry. Maybe it was us Maria Miller was referring to when she spoke of “certain feminists” who are “the real impediments to solving discrimination” in the previous day’s Guardian. Not a very welcoming statement from the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, who might be expected to take seriously the concerns of women whose rights will be affected by new legislation, but indicative of the attitude we would face at the meeting.
The guest speakers – Helen Belcher (Director, Trans Media Watch) Ashley Reed (creator of the petition “Allow transgender people to self-define their legal gender”) and Dr Jay Stewart (Director, Gendered Intelligence) – were invited to reflect on the government’s response to the select committee’s recommendations following the trans inquiry, and as expected there was much disappointment expressed at the government’s lukewarm reaction.
There were areas of concern expressed by the transwomen attending this event which obviously raise questions and have implications for women and girls: transwomen’s rights to be housed in women’s prisons for example; the removal of gender markers throughout society where they are ‘not essential’ and the right to self-identify. There are clearly clashes here with women and girls’ existing rights to single-sex facilities and services but there are also wider issues around identity rights. On a practical level, a lack of distinction between men and women in certain areas would clearly pose risks to women’s safety but not men’s, for example.
More widely, there seems to be no will from the politicians to analyse the political, cultural and social effects on women and girls within this changed world order where males can self-identify into the female class. What’s missing is an analysis based on the structural power imbalance between men and women; without analysing new proposals in relation to the established gender hierarchy of male dominance and female submission we will inevitably shore up men’s position and further disempower women. When a dominant group gains entry into an oppressed group the power differential doesn’t change, the more powerful group just gains a new arena of dominance.
Women are already seeing this happen. The first and most essential right that women have lost is the right to define ourselves as the female sex rather than an ‘identity’ which anyone may adopt. Culturally and socially, we have lost the right to talk about ‘female biology’ or use the word ‘woman’ in relation to female biological functions. Women’s language is being policed to remove any reference to the connection between female biology and being a woman, and we are being bullied into denying specifically female experiences in order to accommodate those who change their ‘gender identity.’ Not to comply is framed as ‘transphobia’ whereas the denial of female biology is not considered ‘misogynistic.’ If we are denied the language to talk about and define ourselves as female, you may as well say that ‘being female’ is transphobic.
None of this, of course, is happening to men.
Biological females have been forced into the closet and silenced, politically as well as socially, while the only ‘women’ allowed freedom of speech are transwomen. Women have protected category status only in regard to our sex, so what happens when our sex is denied?
With women’s groups now defining women as ‘anyone who identifies as a woman,’ we have lost political representation as the female sex, a distinct class with boundaries; we are now the group that represents everyone, male or female. Nowhere is the effect of this neutering of women’s organisations thrown into stark relief so clearly as at government events like this one. There is no-one to speak for the rights of women and girls as a sex; politically it seems we have ceased to exist.
So it is left to a group of individual feminists to raise the issues which impact on the rights of women and girls. As one of those feminists, I ‘identify’ as a member of the female sex, the one identity that dare not speak its name, but I believe that the perspective of this group is vital if we are to protect the interests and safety of women and girls. What I observed during this event only confirmed what I see across social media: that however people ‘identify’ they are still treated as members of their biological sex class and the male/female power dynamic remains unchanged.
The first striking fact was that the attendees were predominantly transwomen; the no-show of transmen was bemoaned but not explained. It is transwomen who are the dominant force in this group, not transmen, who take more of a backseat (with the notable exception of Jay Stewart). So far so stereotypical in terms of male/female roles.
In terms of socialised male/female power relations, the females still catered to the males, took them seriously and showed them respect, the males demonstrated a sense of entitlement, assertiveness and confidence in being right. The serious responses to transwomen and contrasting lack of interest in the concerns of women from Ruth Cadbury and Maria Miller looked no different to what women have come to expect in politics: the male sex is taken seriously, the female sex is not.
As women, we respectfully listened to transwomen’s views and the three of us who had a chance to speak made our points calmly and politely. We raised points about the sterilisation and lifelong medicalisation of ‘gender non-conforming’ children, the teaching of ‘gender identity’ to children in schools, women’s rights to single-sex spaces and services, the issue of male violence against women, and the protection of women-only awards, scholarships, prizes and sports etc. The lack of engagement with these issues, and the total absence of curiosity about our concerns was stark. Even the words ‘sterilisation of children’ met with impassive faces. Women know so well that feeling of being invisible, but it still always comes as a shock.
We were also met with the kind of emotional manipulation, gaslighting, minimising and denial of our reality that women are used to experiencing from men. We had threats (unless the comment “you wanna take it outside?” was just “banter”) and there were cries of “TERF!” “It’s not about you!” and “I AM a woman!” When the point was made that there were areas where the pursuit of trans rights clashed with women’s rights, it was met with an immediate chorus of ‘No!” and the speaker was eventually shouted down completely. Two young women sitting behind us kept up a tirade of abuse; we were told we were disgusting, that we should feel ashamed, that we had no right to be there and should leave.
This was a public meeting at which one group and their supporters was given free reign to harrass another group: women. It is hard to imagine this being allowed to happen to any other group. Ruth Cadbury, as Chair, did not at any point stop the heckling but made it very clear whose side she was on: “I am not threatened by transwomen” was her virtue-signalling and point-missing response to concerns about the safety of women and girls in toilets and changing rooms. She also provoked the biggest gasp of disbelief (from our group) when she dismissed women’s fears with the words “not all men.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of women’s relative position in the hierarchy came when she was asked why no women had been invited to speak at the trans inquiry after submitting written evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee.
Her response? “We didn’t have time.”
It is a strange position to be in, when the debate is about policies which will impact on your rights and there is no acknowledgment that these sex-based rights and legal protections for women even exist, and consequently no recognition that they are being lost. As the first public meeting where transwomen and feminists were in the same room, this was a chance for the government to listen to both sides and facilitate respectful debate. Instead, the attitude of the politicians and lack of adequate chairing can only have reinforced the idea that the only possible reason women challenge gender identity legislation must be transphobia, that feminists are transphobic bigots deserving of abuse. It was a huge opportunity lost and a massive betrayal of women.