I was one of the transactivists on the channel 4 documentary, I regret what I did — this is why
Yep, that’s me. Imagine my horror when I found out that, not only was I on national television, I was on national television with bad hair.
Like many trans women, I can be self-conscious, particularly about my voice. I was told that Channel 4 would obscure it. They didn’t. Now my terrible ‘tranny voice’ has been heard by the whole country, sometimes uttering views I no longer hold, at least not so militantly.
I told Channel 4 that my name was Adama Berkowitz. It’s not: my name is Esther Betts and I come from London. And I’m also not that bad looking when I’m not wearing a balaclava, honest!
But merely looking and sounding awkward on television isn’t my biggest regret. When I was interviewed, I was standing directly in front of the main entrance to the Jam Jar venue. There, I was holding a banner in an effort to prevent people from entering an event hosted by the “We Need To Talk’’ group. Earlier, I had entered the building and blocked the stairwell with a group of other activists. I stood t-posed directly in front of Heather Bruskell-Evans and Julie Bindel and shouted at them that they were “as bad as the Nazis”; a sentiment I reiterated during my interview. Because my comrades and I had blocked the main entrance, the ticket holders had to be snuck-in through a fire exit in a side-alley. When we noticed what had happened, we camped outside the fire exit until one of the attendants left. We then forced the fire exit open and tried making our way up the stairwell inside. Our plan was to penetrate the event hall and let off a smoke bomb with true revolutionary panache.
I was right at the front of this advance, being squished between the security guards and the crowd of protesters behind me. I was so determined to break into the event and disrupt it that I was one of the last people left on that stairwell. It took four security guards to drag me out, kicking and screaming.
I did all of this for two reasons. The first was simply to support my friends, the second was that I was, at least in my mind, showing solidarity to the trans community. I’ve been transitioning for a few years now and even in Bristol, probably the most trans friendly city in the country (despite the presence of Posie Parker), being a trans woman has been a challenge, to say the least. I was made homeless after being told to leave my house on account of my trans identity. I have been assaulted on a busy road and lost friends and support for the same reason. This, coupled with the dull agony of gender dysphoria, really wears you down. And if you’re not careful, it warps you. To deal with all this and then see people given a platform to tell you they think trans women are all male fetishists trying to prey on innocent girls can hurt, a lot.
So what do we do about it? Well, my mind-set at the time the Channel 4 documentary was filmed, was to try to shut down events like the one I was protesting. People asked me at the time, “why don’t you just go into such events and ask critical questions?” My response was that engaging in the event, even in an oppositional fashion, was to inadvertently validate views I considered hate speech. Furthermore, trying to shut down the event sent out a message: transphobia is not welcome and trans people are supported. In this day and age, I wouldn’t, and still won’t, turn down the opportunity to show support to my trans brothers and sisters.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was engaging in the event anyway. By attending it and blocking the stairwell I was engaging in the event. I was still acknowledging the views of people like Julie Bindel and Posie Parker, just in an entirely different, completely nonproductive way. I hate to admit it, but we achieved absolutely nothing, which is likely less than had we gone to the event and raised hell intellectually in the Q&A period.
We achieved nothing.
The event still happened and people like Miranda Yardley were still permitted to speak. Even if we had managed to disrupt the event, they would have just taken to Twitter or their YouTube channels to spread their ideology there. I’d even go so far to say that our attempts at protest actually made things worse. Not only did we give these people ammunition against the ‘trans activists’, we tried to deny critics the opportunity to confront the ideas, and not just the person, of Yardley and her ilk.
I also hate to think that our belligerence actually cowed trans people from going to the event. The result of our behaviour was not a show of solidarity for the trans community. Rather, it was that an event was held where a highly trans-critical point of view reverberated with no to little opposition or responses from trans voices. It produced an audience that heard only one side of the debate. A better show of solidarity to the trans community would have been to go to the event and make damn well sure that our voices were heard in the form of difficult, intelligent questions.
I can already hear my comrades whipping out their Tumblr profiles to denounce me as a “trans terf’’. Before I continue, let me make this entirely clear: I am still radically trans. I still believe wholeheartedly that trans women are women and trans men are men. The views of some people from that event still repulse me entirely. I have no love for conspiracy theories about how trans women are part of a conspiracy to ‘gaslight’ young girls.
But the quelling of meaningful confrontation and dialogue that I just described has been repeated on an international scale. The trans rights movement’s tendency to refuse direct, open engagement in debates has not silenced transphobia at all. On the contrary, people like Posie Parker are permitted to argue points easy enough to dismantle, and yet without enough actors to do so. This is how they win, amidst a flurry of evasive deplatforming, protests, and name-calling that cast trans-activists in a rather unflattering light and — more importantly — deny people real insights from the trans community.
There is so much misinformation out there about transgenderism. And, I repeat, it would be so easy to refute if we, as a movement, just did it squarely!
You can tell that since the fateful Channel 4 demo my views have softened quite a lot on free speech. I no longer think that ‘TERFs’ should be simply censored. They have the right to ‘speak their truth’, even if I think it is much less than the truth. It’s immoral for me and immoral for the transgender community to act as if we have the right to control speech. Not only is it ultimately impossible in free societies, it sends the wrong message: we want to control you. In shutting down these events, we are denying people the opportunity to learn a different truth: what we really want is to be free and to be understood.
A lot of people will argue that these talks negatively impact the mental health of trans people. Well, since the demo, I’ve have gone to talks by two different big name ‘TERFs’ and questioned them heavily about their views right to their face.
Did it hurt? Did I burst into flames? I’m not someone without mental health issues. (In fact, the police once dragged me into a mental hospital.) At times these talks were uncomfortable, sure. But having the ability to challenge transphobes’ and TERFs’ views directly has been a thrilling and revolutionary experience for me. I’d say it’s actually improved my mental health. It’s made me feel like, for once, I was actually engaging and contributing to the trans community in a real, productive way. It showed me that the debate over trans rights can be civil and even fun –and leave you feeling emotionally and intellectually enriched.
A few weeks ago, I even hosted an event where cis-people were given the opportunity to ask some of my trans friends and me difficult questions. We talked about the Jordan Peterson controversies, how trans people are viewed in different cultures, and the relationship between body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria. Given the current climate, all these topics are hard to discuss openly and in good faith, with room for critical questions and honest confusion.
But our debate was lively, friendly, and ultimately, I think productive for everyone. After the event, my trans friends actually came up to me and said they were impressed by how well it went. They didn’t even think that it was “possible’’ for people to discuss these issues in such a way.
The thing about the trans community is this: we are so used to being disrespected that we have forgotten that it’s possible for people to respect us without agreeing on all the views emanating from trans-activism, or without understanding everything about us. I encourage all trans people to go forward and truly engage: it’s a risky proposition, inviting awkward, uncomfortable questions, and even direct hostility. But even where respectful, friendly conversation can’t be had with the cis-community, the chance to dismantle the truly foolish ideas of many transphobes, humiliating them reasonably in the public square, is one that should be pursued and relished. In either case, there’s the opportunity for self-empowerment.
Allow me to end with possibly the most important point personally speaking:
The biggest reason I regret my participation in the protests against “We Need to Talk” is because I genuinely made people feel like I was a danger to them. I may be a trans woman, but I’m still bigger than most women and I’m still scary when I’m wearing a balaclava and shouting at you. I remember standing a few steps above Julie Bindel and Heather Bruskell-Evans and screaming down at them whilst Dr Bruskell-Evans tried to hide in the corner and looked absolutely terrified. I have played this memory through my mind many times and asked myself, “what was I thinking?’’ I was on track to becoming not only the sort of trans-activist, but also the sort of person, I don’t want to be.
If there is anyone reading this who was made to feel afraid by me, please let me take this opportunity to apologise to you. If you’re ever in Bristol I owe you a pint, or two.