James Kirkup

Fear and loathing grips the gender debate

Fear and loathing grips the gender debate
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Since I started writing about issues of sex and gender here a few weeks ago, I have made all sorts of new acquaintances; a lot of people are interested in this topic, it seems. Many of the people I’ve been in touch with are women who worry about the direction of politics, policy and even popular culture when it comes to gender and sex. And many of them are frightened.

Frightened of what happens if the law is changed to let people born male become legally female simply on the strength of their own declaration. Frightened that the word “woman” will become meaningless and allow the legal rights and protections currently granted to women to be eroded and erased. Frightened to meet to discuss these concerns. Frightened even to speak about them.

Some of these women are political activists and professionals, but some are, to use a clumsy term, ordinary people, women who never gave much thought to politics until they stumbled across this issue through questions about swimming pool changing rooms, Girl Guides safeguarding policies, or Mumsnet. Now aware of –  and worried about – politics, they believe they should speak about their worries, but fear what will happen if they do.

Why? Well, as I’ve written before, the debate around gender is poisonous, nasty and even violent. Online conversation can turn extremely hostile when someone questions the orthodoxy on transgender issues – or is simply perceived to have done so: some people have written some venomous things about JK Rowling because she “liked” a tweet some saw as transphobic. Neither celebrity nor the facts (she hit the like button by accident) are any defence from the mob.

Real-world encounters can be nastier still: Judith Green wrote here about organising Woman’s Place UK meetings for “gender critical” women. The video here, meanwhile, shows what happened to a female trade unionist who had attended one of those meetings; it seems she was identified as attending and then targeted for mob abuse when she stood on a picket line some days later. That aggression wasn’t unique; one accusation of assault is before the courts, arising from an incident following protests against a meeting where feminists gathered to debate gender laws.

Other stories in this area involve women who speak out using their own names getting abusive messages at home and at work. In both the public and private sectors, being accused of transphobic bigotry is no small matter, and even many people who know they are doing nothing more than asking questions about an issue of public interest feel reluctant to risk being tarnished with such accusations, no matter how baseless they may be. (For real-world examples of this, see Mumsnet: this thread is just the latest to pop up while I was writing this. There are too many others.)

Here, I need to make a couple of things clear. First, lamenting the fear and abuse these women suffer does not in any way dispute or minimise or disregard the abuse and prejudice that many transgender people suffer. This isn’t an either/or situation: there is hardship and pain on both sides, and none of it is acceptable in a decent society.

Second, the people responsible for the fear and abuse these women suffer are not representative of transgender people as a whole; the transgender population must be assumed to contain as wide a distribution of vice and virtue as any other group.  Indeed, some of those involved in this debate suspect that at least some of the real authors of that fear and abuse are not transwomen but men intent on frightening and diminishing women. Certainly, some male supporters of transgender rights seem to take a certain pleasure in the anxieties of women who question that agenda.

How did we get here? How can it be that in modern, democratic and free Britain in the early 21st Century, women are frightened to meet or talk about law, politics and society?  Don’t we have institutions and, more important, social norms that say this shouldn’t happen, can’t happen? Shouldn’t this stuff get the attention and interest of politicians who are supposed to listen to all the different strands of public opinion, and ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak and be heard?

Bluntly, why the hell is no one in politics shouting from the rooftops about this stuff? We’re talking about people trying to put the frighteners on Mumsnetters, for goodness sake. In any other area of public life, politicians usually fall over themselves in their rush to speak up for middle-class working mothers. Yet the politicians who were desperate to talk biscuits at Mumsnet Towers are curiously silent about the intimidation that some women now report there.

If this was simply a story of a small number of nasty people online and – sometimes – on the street doing bad things to women who speak up about a political issue, I suspect this problem wouldn’t persist. The relevant legal and political authorities would indeed pay attention to that fear, and maybe even do something, even if that was just listening to those women, meeting them, answering their questions.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s because those women have been – quite successfully and even skilfully – demonised and stigmatised, put beyond the pale of civilised debate as those who question orthodoxy often are. They’ve been given a name, a name that means they’re bad people, people who should not speak and should not be heard. That name is “Terf,” which once meant “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist” but now appears to stand in its own right as a term of abuse and dismissal alongside the other short, harsh words often used to question the worth and virtue of women.

And that small number of people who direct violence and abuse at “Terfs” are swimming in a larger sea of contempt and dismissal. Their conduct takes place in a social context where hostility to “Terfs” has become not just normal but even amusing, where there is no social cost to talking about and perhaps even inciting violence towards women who hold “unacceptable” views. Simply, some people, including people who would never themselves engage in that sort of violence, are doing things that make violent discourse and even violence look and feel OK. Sadly, they include journalists and politicians, people who parade their support for minority groups but speak about feminist women in terms they would never use about other people.

Which brings me to Etsy. If you don’t know it, Etsy is a hip, happening online market where you can buy cool stuff: “Find handmade, vintage and unique goods that express who you are” is its strapline.

And if you want to express yourself through the stigmatisation of women who question transgender orthodoxy, Etsy is your place. For a few quid, it will happily sell you a badge declaring “Fuck Terfs” or one that speaks of “Anti-Terf Action”.

Note carefully that this is about “Terfs”. Not “transphobes” or “bigots” or any of the other words that get tossed around this debate: those are words that describe the views that someone holds. “Terf” is about more than what someone thinks  it’s about what they are. And the people to whom that word is applied are women.

(Yes, I know some people will attempt to argue that “Terf” can mean men as well as women, but trust me, that’s cobblers. I’ve written four articles about this issue in the last two months, links and references to which have been shared tens of thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook, meaning my online mentions are heaving with comments about those articles and about me. Pretty much no-one has called me a Terf, while the word is sprayed like confetti at female journalists and commenters who enter this territory.)

For shoppers on Etsy, vilifying women who ask questions about transgender law reforms – and endure fear, abuse and sometimes violence as a result – is not just normal, it’s a bit of giggle.

This, to use a fashionable word, is normalisation. As British Jews fearfully watching Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership know all too well, this is how the abuse and dismissal of a group of people becomes ordinary, unremarkable, even trivial. This is how some people are excluded from political debate, so that politics stops being something they take part in and becomes something that is done to them. If it’s OK to “Fuck Terfs”, it’s democracy that’s screwed.