To get into Topman at Oxford Circus you have to pass through Topshop first and go up an escalator. This is the only time I ever see inside Topshop. Two things always strike me during the six or seven seconds it takes me to pass through this bright, colourful, alien girls’ zone. First, how young the shoppers are. I am always reminded of a gag by the late, great Victoria Wood, about how the alarm system in Topshop isn’t designed to filter out shoplifters but non-young people. ‘Out-of-shape 36-year-old woman! Come quick!’ And the second thing is the pleasure girls seem to get from shopping. Up in Topman the blokes are a little sullen, having to pretend they don’t care about how they look when really they do. But in Topshop it seems more joyful, certainly louder. Fashion advice is imparted, selfies are taken, mirrors stared into. One gets a sense of occasion.
This is why I was perturbed to read about a male trans person demanding, and winning, the right to use the girls’ changing rooms at Topshop in Manchester. Travis Alabanza identifies as non-binary and calls himself ‘they’. By using the word ‘himself’ I have committed a transphobic speechcrime, I know. But the fact is that to most of us, Mr Alabanza is a man. He has a man’s voice, stubble, and a penis. That he wears women’s clothes doesn’t make him a woman, or even non-male: there’s rather more to womanhood than lipstick and heels, as generations of feminists have made quite clear.
And yet upon having a hissy fit on Twitter about Manchester Topshop’s very reasonable request that he change in the boys’ changing rooms, with all the other customers who have testosterone and the beginnings of beards, Mr Alabanza didn’t only win the right for himself to remove his clothes in the same space as 14-year-old girls – he won that right for all other men, too. Topshop promised it would more strictly enforce its non-gender-specific changing-room policy. Which means the next time I go to Topman – I’m too old for Topman, I know, but they do nice-fitting jumpers, so hey – I could potentially try my clothes on among the girls. The thought of it makes me queasy. The question is: why doesn’t it make more people, especially those who call themselves feminists, feel queasy too?
We live in strange times. It is considered perfectly reasonable, and in fact progressive, to create ‘Safe Spaces’ on campus for 20-year-old adults who want to hide away from mere speech. Yet anyone who suggests the Topshop changing rooms should be for girls alone – and many of them really are girls, aged 13, 14, 15 – will be shot down as a vile, trashy transphobe. Some adults demand, and are granted, protection from the ideas of Maryam Namazie or Julie Bindel or Linda Bellos, on the basis that these women’s speech is akin to violence and could literally, for real, damage these adults’ feeling of safety. And yet those same adults, most of whom are trans-sympathetic, will rail against you if you suggest that young girls, who might be shy and self-conscious, deserve a space in which they can try on clothes together. Grown-ups deserve a safe space from speech, but under-16s don’t deserve a safe space in which to undress: how extraordinary.
Ideological ‘safe spaces’ for adults are ridiculous and patronising. But you know what? Teenage girls need safe spaces. Whether it’s the changing room or the bathroom, they need a space in which they can chat, feel comfortable, apply make-up, gawp at themselves, do and redo their hair, without having some bloke – and that includes a ‘they’ in a dress – wandering about. This is not to say trans people are predators. Trans-sceptical feminists have focused rather too much on the threat posted by trans-women to born women, as if everyone with a penis is given to violent or disruptive behaviour. They risk undermining the important questions they’re asking about gender-fluidity and its impact on women’s standing in society by crossing the line into moral panic. No, it is simply to say that girls need private spaces in which they can feel at ease, especially when it comes to trying on clothes, going to the loo, showering, etc. That one of the most popular campaigns of recent years has been the right of male people to use female changing spaces feels disturbing.
In a sense, the Alabanza case is just another typical Twitter-fit that too many people have caved in to – par for the course in the 21st-century, right? But it also feels more important than that. It feels symbolic of the relativistic rot afflicting Western society. Because if we cannot even say ‘No’ to men who want to go into the Topshop changing rooms, then who can we say no to? If we will not even say the Topshop changing rooms are a specific place for a specific kind of person, then perhaps there are no public or moral lines we are willing to hold anymore? If a man is allowed to go into a space where girls under the age of 16 are taking off their clothes, then all bets are off. Society has officially lost the ability to say: ‘Back off. This space isn’t for you.’
I have never, and will never, go into the Topshop changing rooms. But I imagine that for girls they are a rather sacred space. A place in which they can experiment with new looks, be honest with themselves and their friends. Add a grown-up, gruff man to that mix and you change everything. You deprive these girls of a space in which they can cut loose. That just strikes me as wrong – and symptomatic of the trans ideology’s creeping corrosion of female space. I wonder if those virtue-signalling trans-friendly ‘feminists’ in the media and on Twitter, especially the male ones, ever imagined that they would be fighting for the right of adult males to go into the changing rooms of teenage girls? When they were getting radical and dipping into bell hooks, or maybe even Rosa Luxemburg, did they ever think they would end up going to the barricades, metaphorically at least, for the right for stubbly men to take the changing cubicle next to a gaggle of pubescent girls? Every now and then they must look in the mirror, surely, and say: ‘How did that happen?’
The Topshop controversy sums up the problem with trans activism today. This presents itself as a liberatory campaign on a par with the women’s movement or the gay-rights movement, but in truth it looks increasingly like an intemperate demand for permanent identity-validation. And nothing – not even the right of young girls to hang out together – can be permitted to stand in the way of this crusade for self-validation. ‘I am a woman’, they say, ‘and any person or thing or changing room that says I am not a woman must be destroyed’. The world and everyone in it must mould themselves around an infinitesimally small identity, which strikes me as crazy. The women’s movement and the gay-rights movement were demands for greater tolerance; the trans movement increasingly looks like a facilitator of intolerance. It urgently needs to reassess itself. If you are a man demanding the right of other men to go into teenage girls’ changing rooms, you have forfeited the right to call yourself a progressive.