A Woman’s Place Is Speaking Out

Harvey Jeni
Apr 13, 2018 · 10 min read

Last night in Cardiff, over one hundred and forty women and men gathered together to discuss proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. Under the banner of a Woman’s Place UK, we wanted to have a respectful dialogue regarding the potential impact on women to such a change in the law.

We were due to convene at the Mercure hotel in Cardiff, who cancelled without warning at the eleventh hour due to harassment and threats by transactivists. But women rallied, a new venue was found, and our meeting went ahead.

I would like to give massive thanks to the women behind the scenes who worked so hard to make that happen. You know who you are and you are brilliant like diamonds.

Below is a transcript of the talk I gave at that meeting: a talk that anti women’s rights activists (because that is what they are) wanted to prevent others from hearing. I publish it here for those unable, or too intimidated, to attend. We have the right to speak; to assemble with each other and express ourselves freely. We will not be silenced.

Hello, and thank you to everyone who has come here tonight to listen to women speak about this issue that affects each and every one of us, and potentially our daughters, granddaughters, and their daughters to come.

We are here to discuss potential reforms to the gender recognition act: specifically the bid to remove all gatekeeping from the process of being legally recognised as ones preferred gender. Currently an individual needs a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and to have lived and presented as their preferred gender for at least two years, in order to gain a gender recognition certificate. Under proposed reforms none of this will be necessary and the process will change to one of simple self identity. What this effectively means is that any man - for whatever reason he chooses - will be able to fill out a form and declare himself legally a woman: no need for any medical diagnosis or engagement with mental health professionals, no need for any hormones or surgery, no need even to make any changes to his appearance.

Parallel to this, we are also experiencing an aggressive, ideological assault on the sex based exemptions that women have, up until recently, perhaps come to take for granted. It is in these exemptions that women’s rights lay.

Sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, which means the law understands that women as defined by biological sex, not gender identity, are discriminated against and have need for women-only spaces and services. And so it is lawful to exclude any biologically male person (including trans women protected under the category of gender reassignment) if it is considered a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Thus we have sex segregation in sports, single sex services such as domestic violence refuges, and we may see certain jobs advertised as open to female applicants only.

This sex segregation can be upheld by the law, but social convention plays a part too. We might see written warnings put up outside women’s public toilets if there is a male cleaner on duty, for example, not because it is illegal for him to be there, but because as a society we understand that women do not expect to see male people in their sex segregated spaces and that to do so might be uncomfortable or alarming.

So sex based protections are enshrined in law, but under intense lobbying and pressure from transactivists, they are ceasing more and more to be used. Women and girls organisations as well as commercial businesses are failing to invoke them for fear of the backlash. And so we have places like TOPSHOP opening up their female changing rooms to anyone at all who wishes to use them, and organisations like the Girl Guides allowing boys who say they identify as girls to sleep in tents with biological girls, without informing parents.

What is happening is an attempt to force, not only a change in the law, but a shift in our social norms to suit what is in fact a very small minority of people. This is being achieved — can only be achieved — via the aggressive shut down of any dialogue, disquiet, or dissent from the majority: specifically in this case, women.

So the argument for reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which is to make the process of legally changing ones gender less long and stressful — something we might all have had some sympathy for — is getting confused with the quite different argument that anyone who self identifies as a woman should not only have an immediate legal right to be affirmed as one, but is, in fact, quite literally female, and should therefore have totally unimpeded access to all women’s spaces, services, and provisions. If we allow for this, it will effectively obliterate all the rights and protections women spent centuries fighting for.

This is an ideological battle that seeks to erase sex as a meaningful category, so that those of us who were born with female bodies and have been treated by society accordingly, are no longer a protected group. Instead humans will be categorised according to subjective, individualistic, and ill defined ideas around gender: an ever changing social and cultural construct.

Why is this such a dangerous idea? Because sexism, is the short answer. Because the clearly sexed power differentials in our society are still so undeniable, and in some cases becoming worse. If we take as an example the issue of sexual violence, we see that sexual assaults in schools have gone up alarmingly over just the last four years, and that rapes were reported in February this year as having risen by 20% in the London area. As always — and you don’t need to take my word for it, just look at any crime statistics you like — almost all perpetrators of this kind of violence are male, with the large majority of their victims female.

We know that women’s oppression is rooted in our biology and always has been. Everything from female genital mutilation, a lack of reproductive rights, period poverty, the pay gap, the fact that we still do the vast majority of unpaid and undervalued labour in the home — none of these things happen to us because we identify or not with an imposed set of gendered expectations or stereotypes. They happen to us because we are sexed female. In a sexist society, sex matters.

But what I have been particularly fascinated by are mens responses to this debate; specifically the response of those born male who apparently do happily identify with societies imposed ideas of masculinity.

I remember one of the first discussions I ever had involving a group of men (some of whom I’d known and trusted a long time) about this issue on social media. A piece of writing had been linked to in which a woman had gone to great personal lengths to explain why she would not be comfortable with male bodied people in women’s spaces. She described her fear of men as a justifiable response to a life time of male violence, and stated her belief in women’s rights to assert boundaries around who was allowed into those spaces where they may be vulnerable or in a state of undress. It was heartfelt, it was passionate, and to my mind unarguable. I read it and felt only sympathy and empathy. I didn’t see how anyone else could read it and fail to understand. I waited for a response, and the first one, from a man, was: “Whoever wrote or agrees with that can climb a wall of dicks.”

Climb a wall of dicks.

And I thought, hmm. Interesting. So a woman writes a painful account of just why women only spaces are so essential, and the response is not: I’m so sorry these things have happened to you. Or even, yes I see where you’re coming from, but I believe biologically male people are female if they say they are, and that allowing them access to all women’s spaces is for the greater good. Nothing like that. Just climb a wall of dicks.

And at first I was shocked. But I soon got angry. Because here were women disclosing their most private, painful experiences, with all the personal cost that can involve, and the response they were getting was yet more sexualised abuse.

I thought how on earth did we get here, before coming to the realisation that, actually, we’d never really left. That underneath the surface, there was much had never really changed. That the sad truth is there are many men (hashtag not all men) who were just never on board with the idea that women are full and equal human beings with as much right to self determination, power, and influence as themselves. That underneath all the pretence at modernity, many men still do hold onto a core belief that women are inferior, that our input is of lesser value, and that if they say our sex based rights are no longer necessary, then — sweetheart — that’s just how it is.

I have since waded through rivers of sexualised insults and dismissals from men who seemingly just cannot accept that women might not be prepared to smile pretty and simply hand over the rights feminists before us fought so hard for. Our fears around male violence are paranoid and hysterical they say, whilst simultaneously making a huge show of how shocked and devastated they are by the revelations of ME TOO. Our refusal to accept males who have taken no steps towards physical transition as literal women is science denying they say, while they wax lyrical about some mystical female essence, or pink and blue brains.

They think we’re bloody stupid.

The raw misogyny on display is unlike anything I’ve encountered in my life. We, who will not roll over, are cunts and bitches, old and irrelevant, ugly and bitter. All these old tropes about women and about feminists, that I believed were no longer socially acceptable, have been revived with enthusiasm by transactivism and the men who support it.

I’ve seen men high on this culture of socially acceptable misogyny; the escalation in insults as they slap each other on the back and egg each other on. They are like small children overdosed on sugar and getting away with being really naughty. In reality they are kicking against constraints they always secretly resented: the ones that dictated they at least pretend to think of women as worthy of respect and of being listened to. These men, having seen that being an ally to the transactivist cause involves there being a group of women they are allowed to insult and denigrate — for the heinous crime of advocating for their rights no less — have decided transactivism is the hill for them.

The threats and abuse against women that we are seeing as part of the transactivist movement are not new. Feminists like Julie Bindel, who has dedicated her life to campaigning against male violence and supporting women brutalised by the sex trade, have endured smears, blatant misrepresentation of their views, and no platforming for years. More recently we have witnessed an escalation and a forcing of the issue into the wider public consciousness, with the assaults on Maria Maclachlan at Speakers Corner, the hounding and intimidation of Helen Steel at the anarchist book fair, and the attack on Paula Lamont, shoved and verbally abused on her own picket line, for the crime of being recognised as having attended one of these Woman’s Place UK meetings.

This abuse serves the same purpose as all abuse of women has ever done. Male pattern violence has always worked not only to terrorise and control individual victims, but to control the behaviour of the wider female population. When women were burned as witches, all other women learned to modify their behaviour in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. When women are raped and told they are to blame, all other women learn they must watch how they dress and move through the world if they want to avoid becoming victims themselves. Now women openly concerned for their sex based rights are being verbally and physically attacked in the public sphere, and all other women are learning not to share their inconvenient opinions if they don’t want to cop it.

The escalation in woman hating rhetoric should alarm all right thinking people. We need to be brave and call out what we see: that groups of men nursing their own agendas are working in tandem with transactivists in order to create an atmosphere so poisonous, so threatening, that all women will be frightened into silence and compliance while their rights are systematically dismantled. An attempt is being made to portray as somehow immoral, any desire on our part to keep these already established and lawful rights. This is sexism. This is misogyny. This is the same old shit tied up with a different coloured bow.

Understand that it is not possible to categorise humans by both gender identity and sex; that any use of sex based exemptions under the equality act threatens to invalidate the notion of gender identity as trumping, or dictating, biology. These exemptions are under attack precisely because they are an admission of truth: that you may identify as a woman — even be legally affirmed as such — but if you have been born male, you are not sexed female, and females are a protected group entitled to rights of their own.

Transactivism will not allow for this basic truth. And so we must think through what the implications of disregarding sex entirely, might be. How might it affect women when anybody who is not only biologically, but recognisably physiologically male, can access our prisons, our changing rooms, our toilets, our rape crisis centres, without challenge? When we are still so far from being equally represented in terms of positions of power and influence, what might it mean for our fight against sexism, when those positions can be filled on the basis of gender identity?

I totally reject the notion that I am transphobic, or in any way a bigot for asking these questions. They are perfectly reasonable questions, and we are entitled to ask them. There is a third way: compromises to be had that could ensure rights and respect for all. But abuse along with a narrative of hate and bigotry is being used deliberately and cynically to shame and frighten women into staying silent. We have to ask ourselves: who does this benefit?

Lastly, there is no amount of name calling, threats, or ridicule that will force me to accept something I know to be false and believe to be harmful. There is nothing anybody can do or say that will make me tolerate a society in which my daughter will grow up with less rights than her mother did. When the demands of one group can only come at the expense of the already established rights of another, it is time for us all to stand up.

So today I am saying loudly and publicly: NO. No I do not believe that biologically male people are female just because they say they are, or that any laws made on that basis are good laws. I won’t accept any loss of women’s rights — not today, not ever — and I will NOT be climbing your wall of dicks.

Thank you for listening.

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