Dear Men on the Left,
It was sometime in 2006 that I remember sitting on my sofa, watching George Galloway pretend to be a cat. Enthralling and disturbing in equal measure though it was, (poor Rula) it was not what struck me about the man. Lodged in my mind far more firmly are the comments he made regarding fellow housemate and glamour model, Jodie Marsh: that perhaps some might feel it sexist, but he believed deep down she likely longed for nothing more than a quiet life of marriage and motherhood. I remember I gasped in disbelief. Had he really just said that? The man on the left beside me didn’t even flinch.
I wish I could say that were the first time it had dawned on me that some men supposedly on my side were not, but the instances are too many to name. The tale of one visiting man, loaded into a shopping trolley and forcibly wheeled off site by exasperated Greenham women, was a staple of my childhood. Later, as a young activist, I would absorb the subtle messages designed to steer me towards the role of burner of the home fires and entertainer of the troops — a role I didn’t like and had never once asked for. Later still, I would hear in horror of the woman shunned by her supposedly radical community for turning in desperation to the police in the face of domestic violence. For much of my life as a left wing woman, I have been among left wing men. Full of machismo and high ideals, defenders of the poor, the earth, and of human rights and freedoms, some were men I much admired. But running a fine, near invisible thread through it all were the quiet, guiltily told stories of women; stories recognisable from any vantage point. For whether she is of the left, right, or centre, or even if she prefers to spoil her ballot, some women’s stories remain the same.
More recently I have watched, without surprise, men such as Michael Moore, Yanis Varoufakis, and Ken Loach speak up in defence of Julian Assange, who it seems could not possibly be a rapist when there are far more plausible explanations, such as CIA honey traps and lying women, to be had. I have also watched with a strange mix of curiosity, hope, and foreboding as men on the left have developed, out of nowhere, a sudden feminist consciousness. Whereas traditionally men have always been so hostile to the idea of women’s liberation, male feminists are now ten a penny, clustering enthusiastically around an altogether more sexy and palatable third wave, bestowing upon it their generous approval, offering suggestions, and claiming it as their own.
Yet nowhere is the misogyny of the left more apparent than in the current conflict around transgender issues. It is here that men most like to congregate, hiding behind a claim to advocate fairness and equality, aggressively signalling their no cost virtue. Risking nothing in terms of power or rights, they sit easily atop their high horses, shouting down at those of us with everything to lose, insulting us if we do not acquiesce to their view.
As an example, a commissioning editor at The Guardian, Chris Godfrey, recently described as “vile, transphobic trash” a painstakingly researched and frankly heartbreaking article highlighting the ways in which homophobic bullying of young lesbians can set them on a path to becoming trans men. The article had been written by a well respected female journalist and included quotes from both concerned medical professionals (apparently there are many) and a detransitioned woman, who stated explicitly that harassment due to her sexuality had been a huge factor in her seeking to transition. Real women, whose real lives have been turned upside down, summarily dismissed by a man who will never understand what it is to be a female, or lesbian, forced to navigate a hostile world.
On a recent radio show, self described champagne socialist, James O’Brien, recently encouraged listeners to ring in for a discussion on gender identity, claiming to want to understand the concerns some women and parents had about gender neutral spaces. A woman attempting to voice her opinion was interrupted by O’Brien no less than seventeen times as he hectored, mocked, and bullied her, refusing to let her speak. He judged as paranoid her reluctance to share fitting rooms with male bodied people. “Would you feel comfortable getting changed in a room next to me?” he demanded, daring her to say no. “What do you think I’m going to do?” In the current climate of mass disclosure and growing understanding as to the universal nature of women’s experience of sexual abuse and harassment, and given that many men on the left have loudly voiced their shock and condemnation, I find O’Brien’s claim to cluelessness extraordinarily disingenuous. He also appears to lack the self awareness necessary to realise he just scored something of an own goal: his aggressive refusal to accept a woman’s clearly stated boundaries showing a man none of us would want in the next changing cubicle.
It is well documented that the term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) is inextricably linked with misogynist abuse, death threats, and violence against women, yet many leftist men continue to delight in using it. Former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn, Matt Zarb-Cousin, complains that socially liberal TERFS are standing in the way of progress. One can only assume his idea of progress is for women no longer to be able to organise politically and exclusively with those of the same sex in order to fight their sex based oppression. He is fond of using the term TERF in place of a woman’s actual name, clearly seeing no need to speak to women like real human beings when there are dehumanising pejoratives to hand. “Jog on terf,” he types with palpable glee, presumably knowing he cannot get away with bitch.
Finally, in a recent tweet, leftist thinker and columnist Owen Jones wrote: “If ‘TERF’ is unacceptable, let’s just use ‘transphobe’ and ‘transphobic’ — problem solved” in an attempt to further cement the idea that any feminist thought critical of gender ideology is to be shut down and denounced, without debate or question. Now that men such as Jones have found a way to deny natal women’s specific rights and experience, and to dismiss, shout, and sneer at us whilst still retaining their veneer of political righteousness, it is hard to miss the relish with which some take up the task.
Fluent in the language of modern feminism, Jones and his ilk claim to be on the side of women. Yet all the empathy and anger they can muster appears reserved only for those self identified women born with the same bodies and biology as themselves. Outraged, they quote (often misleading) statistics on the violence experienced by trans women as though seeing the reality of male violence for the very first time. Perhaps violence against women and girls has always made them this angry, yet it is not an anger familiar to me. After all there has been pandemic, fatal violence committed by men against natal women since records began. We have been raped, burned at the stake, sold into sexual slavery, and are still killed, two of us a week, by men who claim — or once did — to love us. Where was all this righteous rage on our behalf? And if we accept there was none, or at least none equivalent in intensity, then how are we to interpret this sudden, furious epiphany?
Dear men on the left, I’m going to tell you something and you’re not going to like it. When it comes to rank misogyny, you are often no better than men on the right. Your claim to feminism cannot be made reconcilable with your attacks on women with whom you disagree, and neither is your claim to a belief in fairness and equality compatible with ripping up our hard won rights.
You are no better when you tell us we have no right to an opinion on what the word woman means. You are no better when you call us names known to incite threats of rape and violence, because we do not understand gender in the way you would wish us to. And you are no better when you refuse to listen to, empathise with, or try to understand our point of view.
Dear men on the left, have a look around you. You cannot build a better, fairer world on the backs of women. It will only ever take a few of us to get to our feet for it all to come tumbling down.