The story of my first brush with trans activism and what I learned.
In 2005 I became the artistic director of Manchester’s Queer Up North Festival. QUN took place annually in Manchester between 1992 and 2011 and had a tradition of disruptive, provocative performance work centred around sexuality and gender, alongside literature, film, music and debate. Artists and performers such as Lea DeLaria, Ursula Martinez, Mojisola Adebayo, Mx Justin Vivian Bond, Taylor Mac and Sandra Bernhard appeared. Scores of writers spoke, including Edmund White, Patrick Gale, Armistead Maupin, Sarah Waters and Val MacDiarmid. We invited a wide range of speakers, including Linda Bellos, Julie Bindel, B Ruby Rich and Billy Bragg. It was an irreverent and stimulating mix of events. Most importantly, it was a place where artists, writers, performers and audience were free to be themselves.
QUN had an activist dimension too. One of the projects I’m most proud of is FIT, the anti-bullying schools’ theatre project we co-created and toured with the charity Stonewall. Tens of thousands of young people have seen it and taken part in its linked workshops. Tens of thousands more have seen the 2010 film version.
In 2007 QUN began a drive to programme a greater variety of events aimed at our lesbian audience. Like many LGBT or queer organisations, we’d been a bit gay men-centric. One of the artists I researched was a hugely talented singer songwriter — Bitch — yet to perform in the UK. She is top-notch musician who’d appeared in John Cameron Mitchell’s gorgeous film ‘Shortbus’ — I felt confident she would find an appreciative audience in Manchester.
So I invited her. She accepted and the event quickly sold out.
Then, a few weeks before the festival, I got an email.
It informed me that Bitch had performed at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and that the festival had a policy of admitting only natal women. Apparently not only had Bitch appeared at the festival, she’d defended this women-born-women admission policy as well. Therefore, the email argued, Bitch was transphobic and the event must be cancelled. (In fact, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival had no such admission policy and trans women were welcomed — see here.)
Today, this sort of email from trans activists is commonplace, but in 2008 it was something new. As one of the authors of this email, Sarah Brown, recounts in the new book Trans Britain - Our Journey from the Shadows, what was about to happen between a small group of trans activists and Queer Up North would become the prototype for the many campaigns which were to follow — and which continue today.
Coincidentally, I had discussed the collision between emergent trans activism and feminism with Julie Bindel a year earlier when she was in Manchester to speak at the festival. Julie had explained to me her view that, while she supported the principle that each of us should be free to define ourselves as we wish, those women who choose to make a distinction between natal women and trans women should be able to do so without being demonised. This seemed reasonable to me. It still does.
As I continued to think about all of this, I did what I imagine many people do when they’re thinking about LGBT issues and considering their view — I consulted the Stonewall website. I found a page (no longer live) which listed examples of transphobic views and ideas. Included there were words to the effect of ‘if you don’t think trans women are real women, that’s transphobic’.
This troubled me in two ways. Firstly, Stonewall’s version of transphobia didn’t seem to require any negative view of trans people, let alone hate or unfair discrimination. All that was necessary to be designated a bigot by the UK’s leading LGBT charity was to question whether trans women and natal women might, in some ways, be different.
Secondly, Stonewall’s edict unquestioningly prioritised the wishes of trans women over those of natal women. This seemed both arbitrary and unfair to me. This question had been turning around in my head since I discussed it with Julie a year earlier and I’ve still not heard a satisfactory answer to it: why should feminists, engaged in their own civil rights struggle, be forced to redraw their definition of a woman to include trans women? Of course, some feminists have been happy to do so. Some have not. Labelling those who have not as bigots seemed intolerant and disproportionate to me then — and it still does today.
Bitch’s event went ahead and was a great success. A small group of trans activists — led by Sarah Brown — protested peacefully outside the venue. I went outside to listen to what they wanted to say to me. From what I remember, we covered the same ground as we had in our email exchanges. Sarah challenged me again with “you wouldn’t book someone homophobic, would you?’
She was right, of course. I wouldn’t.
My answer to this then (as it would be today) was that the parameters of what counts as transphobia are drawn too widely. Women who want to gather on the basis of their sex class should not be labelled transphobic. Sarah Brown took the opposite view. We didn’t so much agree to disagree as abandon the conversation.
Today, trans issues are justifiably seen as the next LGBT civil rights struggle and decent people want to do the right thing and be, as the phrase goes, ‘on the right side of history’. But there are some fundamental differences between today’s trans activism and the lesbian and gay activism that preceded it. It’s important to understand how it is different and the implications of these differences.
Lesbian and gay activism is centred around the freedom to have sex or fall in love with whoever we want. Whether it’s the conventional equality-orientated activism, or its more radical liberational sibling, it boils down to sexual attraction and the rights and freedoms which should flow from that in a fair society. Crucially, these rights and freedoms are not won at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others — nobody else’s autonomy is threatened by decriminalisation, the equal age of consent, gay marriage or civil partnerships for example.
Trans activism also has a rights and freedoms dimension to it — trans people have specific healthcare needs which the NHS has been slow to respond to. Trans people are at significant risk of abuse and violence. There is, undoubtably, an important and wide-ranging set of civil rights issues to be addressed.
So far, so reasonable. But trans isn’t a sexual orientation — it’s not about who one has sex with or falls in love with. And here’s where things get complicated. Modern trans politics redefines some existing ideas revolving around sex and gender, and introduces several entirely new concepts. Trans activism then insists that the everyone accepts and adopts these concepts and redefinitions.
The problem is, not everyone likes some or all of these concepts and revised definitions. Some people don’t want to accept and adopt them. This is the fundamental difference between LGB activism and trans activism; trans activism insists we all agree to understand sex and gender — understand ourselves — in line with the precepts of transgender ideology.
One of the biggest issues of all is the question of how to define a woman. What is a woman?
The philosopher Kathleen Stock has written extensively on these issues. Here’s her explanation of what is usually termed a ‘gender critical’ view:
Here is one position held by many radical feminists. It holds that what it is to be a woman is to have a certain biological and reproductive nature, involving female sex organs and a female reproductive system, and to be economically, socially, politically, and sexually oppressed on that basis. This view therefore concludes… that transwomen, though fully in possession of all basic human rights (obviously!), and also deserving of respectful treatment as if they are women in many social contexts, are not in fact women. Simply put: they don’t have the required biology, nor do they have the required history of oppression on the basis of that biology.
And, on the other hand, the transgender view:
In contrast, there are those metaphysical positions which argue that transwomen are women. These usually argue that women’s biologies and reproductive capacities are not essential to their nature as women. People with penises and testicles and no female reproductive characteristics can be women.
Gender critical views argue that biological sex is of primary importance. The opposing view, central to transgenderism, argues that biological sex is irrelevant. This question was at the heart of the QUN dispute: Michigan Womyn’s Festival took the view that biological sex was central, whereas the activists who protested QUN took the opposing view.
This question has taken on a fresh urgency with the planned reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. This proposes writing into law the concept of ‘gender identity’ — one of the newer ideas in transgender ideology, and one which is strongly resisted by those holding gender critical views.
Stonewall defines gender identity as follows:
A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.
But not everyone agrees that gender is innate. Many people — me included — prefer to see gender as a social construction, a hierarchy, which disadvantages women (and, in some ways, men too) and against which we should struggle. Rather than identify with it, we want to fight it.
You may or may not have an innate sense of your own gender. It isn’t for me — or anyone else — to tell you how you should feel or think on the subject. Likewise, those of us who wish to resist or deny the concept are deeply unhappy at the prospect of it being written into law.
When new ideas emerge in society there is usually discussion about them. It’s a sound general principle — the best way to evaluate new ideas is to explore them critically and freely. These issues of sex and gender are of importance to society as a whole. Women especially will want to debate all of this. Surely we can agree that women should have the right to discuss it?
But that is not how this is playing out.
Instead of open, respectful discussion, today’s trans activism too often seeks to prevent women from discussing the issues in trans ideology which directly affect their lives.
For example, a recent meeting due to be held by the campaigning organisation Woman’s Place UK at the Brighton Quakers’ Friends Meeting House had to be relocated after trans activists targeted the venue with claims that Woman’s Place UK was a hate group. The Quakers cancelled the booking and the event had to take place elsewhere. Woman’s Place UK routinely has to keep its locations secret until the very last moment to prevent trans activists targeting venue owners.
This example demonstrates how trans activism’s tactics have developed since the QUN protest. In 2008, there were no attempts to persuade the venue to cancel the event, there were no targeted email campaigns directed at the festival’s funders or board of trustees.
But today such tactics are commonplace.
Why is this happening? How have we reached this degraded state of affairs in which members of one marginalised group try to prevent another from talking.
Here is where the role of Stonewall is so important.
Stonewall has a powerful reputation earned primarily through its invaluable work in the 1990s and early 2000s on issues such as the equal age of consent and civil partnerships. The Stonewall brand has huge impact. What Stonewall says — and doesn’t say — really matters.
Stonewall is failing in two key ways.
Firstly, it is too willing to label those who question ideas within trans ideology as transphobic. For example, the small group of lesbians who protested at London Pride in July 2018 were denounced by Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt as transphobes. This was unfair.
Stonewall’s liberal use of this derogatory label also acts as a dog whistle to the most aggressive of trans activists who then abuse gender critical women online. Some of this online abuse is horrific. It is almost always misogynistic.
So far, apart from a general boilerplate statement, Stonewall appears to have done nothing specific to discourage this behaviour. Of course, Stonewall is not directly responsible for the bad behaviour of some trans activists — but that is not to say it is entirely disconnected from any responsibility.
When writing this article, I asked Stonewall whether it had taken any specific actions to discourage trans activists from meting out misogynistic abuse to women who question trans ideology. Stonewall has refused to comment on the basis that this article is not written for a recognised news outlet. If Stonewall would like to respond to this article I will gladly incorporate any relevant statement they wish to make.
I have been thinking about writing this for several years but — to be frank — I have been nervous of coming out as gender critical. So many women have now spoken up — often at considerable risk to themselves —whereas, since I left QUN, I have not. That has started to make me look somewhat cowardly. So here we are.
It’s undeniable that trans issues were marginalised in LGBT politics for a long time. Many in the trans community are angry and I don’t blame them. I do not argue for meek, timid activism — positive change only comes to those who are willing to make a stink.
For what it’s worth, I think this is the challenge facing us all: to advance trans rights and liberation without compromising natal women’s sex-based rights and protections. This must be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect in which anyone is free to critically discuss anything they wish, using whatever (respectful) terminology they choose. The underlying issues of sex and gender must be seen for what they are: nobody’s exclusive property.
We are a long, long way from this ideal state of affairs.
This article was amended on August 21st to correct an inaccuracy regarding Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
In quoting from the letter asking Queer Up North to cancel Bitch’s concert, I unwittingly reproduced an untruth about Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, namely that it had a policy of admitting natal women only. The founder of the festival, Lisa Vogel, has explained to me that no such policy existed and, in fact, the festival’s position was far more nuanced. Please take a moment to read Lisa’s own words here.
If anyone would like to feed back to me on this article, or discuss anything in it, you can find me on Twitter as Jonny Best. I will engage respectfully and constructively with anyone who will undertake to do the same with me. Feel free to get in touch and we can chat either publicly or via DMs if you prefer. You can also comment below, of course.