On Saturday 2nd June I attended the London radical bookfair held at Goldsmiths university with approximately 300 copies of a pamphlet I had written entitled: Sex, Gender and Women’s Rights. The pamphlet was designed as an introductory explanation of current laws around gender recognition, what the proposals for reform to those laws are and how these could potentially impact the sex based rights of women and girls, as well as the difference between sex and gender from a feminist perspective. The following article is an account of the day and my attempt to process what happened — indeed what is happening — to feminism, to solidarity amongst women, and to the wider concept of so called radical politics.
In the many conversations I had had with others about my intention to attend the bookfair, the first issue to come up was always one of personal safety. Following the assault by transactivists on a feminist at Speakers Corner, and the hounding of Helen Steel at the Anarchist Book Fair, it is not to over egg the pudding to call it a concern women cannot afford to take lightly. Certainly, I was apprehensive enough that by the time we arrived at Goldsmiths I asked the people accompanying me not to put my pamphlet on display until I had had a chance to go to the toilet, as after people had seen me distribute it, it would no longer be safe to go alone.
The stated aim of the London Radical Bookfair is to “showcase the depth and breadth of radical publishing” and “invite you along to explore the latest debates,” in light of which my pamphlet and its offer of an alternative narrative to the current orthodoxy regarding sex and gender should have been most welcome. Perspectives on such topics as the State of Israel and the conflict in Syria that many may have found to be offensive were being left to sit happily unchallenged, and in fact so was I able to hand out my pamphlet to a great many women — lots of whom took and read it happily — before someone eventually made a complaint to the organisers that it was “anti-trans”: an accusation I reject.
In spite of disagreement however, initial conversations with bookfair organisers remained — though tense — respectful enough. Although I object strongly to being made responsible for the potentially bad behaviour of others, and felt the suppression of radical feminism at a radical bookfair rather made a mockery of the whole event, it was still clear to me that I was dealing with fundamentally decent people just anxious to avoid an ugly scene by heading off any potential conflict at the pass. I could empathise with their difficult position: I do not blame anyone for not having the stomach for this fight.
In any case it was agreed that I would put away my pamphlets and cease distributing them in the hall itself, but that I could hand them out outside if I chose. At no stage was I, nor any member of my group, asked to leave the premises, and in fact we spent some time after in the hall browsing other stalls and chatting to various people.
As the bookfair was winding down though, it was decided that four of us would stand just outside the gates leading into the university courtyard, as previously agreed, and hand out more leaflets. The late afternoon heat saw a large crowd of students and bookfair goers sitting around the place, chatting and enjoying the breeze, but as word appeared to get round about the content of our literature, the atmosphere felt increasingly on edge. Feeling unsafe, I suggested we put the leaflets away and go back inside and so began to walk back through the court yard, only to have my path intercepted by a young woman rushing over to block me.
A crowd immediately formed and an ugly confrontation ensued in which a young, very gender conforming man called one woman a “fucking ugly cunt” and turned aggressively on a female organiser who had asked him to please stop being so antagonistic. This same organiser then informed us we were not welcome and had to leave, but would not allow our entire group of four back in together to take down our stall. She suggested the two men go to pack up and the women stay outside although it was clear to me, and I said as such, that this was not safe and would leave us at risk of being assaulted given the large and hostile crowd. Eventually it was agreed that one man and one woman would be allowed to take down the stall, and one man and one woman would remain outside. Assurances were given that the crowd had been instructed to keep away from us, although nobody in charge remained to ensure this would happen.
It did not happen. As I waited outside the gates, one woman approached, ripped up my leaflet and handed it back to me. Another did the same and then attempted a number of times, unsuccessfully, to set fire to the shreds. Soon after I became aware of a group of men, plus one woman, sitting to my left a couple of metres away talking loudly about “TERFS.” This group included the same young man as had been particularly abusive earlier, and as I looked over he made eye contact, raised his eyebrows suggestively, and blew me a kiss in such a way that — particularly in the context of having been on the receiving end of so many threats of sexual violence online due to my beliefs about sex and gender — I found extremely unsettling.
After a time we walked around to a side road to wait for our car and were immediately followed by this group, who gathered first with others at the top of some steps opposite, before descending and crossing the road in order to stand next to us. A continual stream of invective followed over the next twenty or so minutes: misogynistic comments about my own and another woman’s appearance, wild accusations such as we were “white supremacists” (when in fact I was marching against the BNP before the accuser was likely born), along with an unstated but ever present threat of potential violence. As the car finally left I was told that they hoped we died in a car crash.
It has taken me some time to process this experience that I found both shocking and deeply saddening. My pamphlet was fact based, moderate, and contained long understood and really quite basic feminist ideas regarding gender as a tool of oppression, as well as perfectly reasonable concerns about the impact on women if we are to lose our sex based rights and spaces. That sharing these ideas might be considered so transgressive, and I should be made to feel frightened for even daring to do so, is something I struggle to come to terms with. As is the reaction of women who hear a man calling another woman a “fucking ugly cunt,” see a group of almost all male people specifically bullying and intimidating women, and instead of recognising raw misogyny when they see it — a raw misogyny that will be instantly turned on them the minute they step out of line — blame those women for having provoked it with their apparently unacceptable view that they are a distinct class of people whose oppression is based on their distinct biology. That women’s opinions provoke, and are deserving of, male violence is not a view I ever expected to come across in feminist circles. I am filled up with disbelief; with despair and alarm. We are going so fast backwards.
Also alarming is that overseeing these events was a respected member of staff at the university. Matthew Fuller, professor of cultural studies, was not only present in the courtyard as we were being verbally abused and intimidated, but also part of the group who gathered at the top of the stairs having followed us as we waited to leave. At no point did he, as someone in a position of authority at the university, attempt to prevent students behaving in such a threatening manner; indeed he appeared only to support them, describing my pamphlets as “anti-trans” — again, an accusation I reject. For a respected academic to be a part of a group deliberately intimidating women for their feminist beliefs, or at least turning a blind eye as they engage in such behaviour, is something I find to be completely unacceptable. I would invite Matthew Fuller to explain to me exactly what I have written that he feels justifies my being treated like that.
I would like to end by saying that in spite of everything, I believe the day to have been a success. My goal of sharing the necessary information contained within my pamphlet with as many women as possible was achieved. At least some of those women will read it, think about it, and possibly change their minds. These bullying and intimidation tactics do not work; do nothing to convince women we have nothing to fear from opening up our spaces; do nothing to build bridges or foster compromise. You cannot bully and threaten people into loving acceptance. We are not scared. Women will not give up their rights.