How hard is it for women to talk freely about sex, gender and the law? Not very, I used to think. I’d heard about a few no-platforming incidents on campuses, where speakers including Germaine Greer were blocked from appearing because of their views. What I hadn’t realised was just how far the problem has spread. In the past few months, I’ve discovered firsthand that political debate is narrowing for everyone — and that fear and intimidation are being used increasingly to curtail free speech.
I am one of a small group of women who get together to discuss proposed changes in the law on sex and gender. We’re called Woman’s Place UK. But because of the content of our discussions, certain activists want us closed down. They’re doing their best to make it happen. The managers of the venues we book are harassed, our attendees are abused, our organisers are threatened. For our most recent meeting, held in London last week, we had to disclose the location only a few hours before it started, just to be safe.
And it’s all because we want to ask questions about changes which could have serious consequences for us as women, for our children, and for society as a whole. We want to talk about gender and the differences between men and women, and whether or not the law should be rewritten to allow people to change their legal sex more easily. The government says it is committed to making ‘self-identification’ easier. That means whether you are legally male or female is purely a matter of choice. It would be nothing to do with your biology or your socialisation. At present, there are rules: to designate yourself female you need to live as a woman for at least two years and have your transition confirmed by a doctor. Some see this as unreasonable, and object to having what they see as a matter of personal identity ‘medicalised’.
The MPs pushing for reform hope to amend the 2004 Gender Recognition Act to mean that any man who declares ‘I am a woman’ will have full access to all the rights, protections and places that women have fought for and won over the past century. Some of the momentum for this reform comes from the Women and Equality Select Committee, which is led by the Conservative MP Maria Miller. As well as backing self-declared gender laws, this committee has also proposed that laws allowing some services and jobs to be reserved exclusively for what we call natal-born women should be removed. It was the combination of these two proposals that rang alarm bells for many women. So we started asking questions.
Should someone born and raised male, who is therefore reasonably perceived as male, be included in spaces reserved for women — changing rooms, domestic violence shelters and prison wings? How would the changes affect women of certain faiths who rely on single-sex exemptions to enable them to access services they might otherwise have to avoid? Should all-women shortlists (used by Labour and the Lib Dems) be put at risk by including people who are legally male, purely because they say they are a woman?
Most transgender people, I am sure, are as decent and kind and open-minded as anyone else. But a small, aggressive group of activists — not all of them trans, by the way — want to establish a new norm of debate: that anyone who disagrees with them, or even asks questions, ought to be silenced, sacked or both. They do this by branding us as ‘transphobic’ bigots, and by going to astonishing and worrying lengths to disrupt our meetings. As soon as Woman’s Place UK announces a meeting, the venue starts getting hassled and harassed — with phone calls and social media messages accusing them of hosting a ‘hate group’ — as if a bunch of women talking about the law are dangerous subversives. But you’d be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) at how toxic the charge of ‘hate speech’ can be. Most of the venues haven’t been swayed, because they believe in free speech. But when there has been the threat of violence and the police have had to get involved, we’ve moved the event.
People attending and speaking are also targeted. A common tactic is to send messages to their employers accusing them of transphobia and inciting hatred. Personal details are posted online. At the meetings, we’ve had activists arrive with their faces covered, shouting and swearing at women as they arrive and leave. Some of our conversations are about domestic violence and abuse: they are now held while people outside bang drums, having sworn at the women on their way in.
A lot of women are understandably scared. The people who support us aren’t battle-hardened activists but working mums, students, grandmothers and others coming to attending a political meeting for the first time in their lives. Some women have told us they would like to attend but they’re terrified of what will happen if their names are known. Others use pseudonyms. No one wants their employers or family being bombarded with emails and messages calling them a bigot.
After all, it is not bigoted to make a distinction between sex and gender identity. It is not bigoted to defend the right of women to have boundaries that protect them. Single--sex spaces are, by definition, exclusionary — the question is where the line is drawn and who gets to decide. Do our meetings ‘exclude’ trans people? Hardly. There are trans people who agree that women-only spaces should be upheld and our rights defended. They have spoken at our meetings.
The women worried about these changes in the law come from all parties and none. We don’t want to silence the transgender campaigners who dis-agree with us: they have every right to be heard. But they have no difficulty with being heard — since wealthy charities, prominent politicians and media figures make their case frequently and loudly, often while calling for us to keep quiet. The people who run the country hear their voices daily. All we ask is that they have the chance to hear ours too.
The approach of the people who want to stop us is to attack, slur, abuse, harass, bully — but we’re not going to take it. We find ourselves fighting for the right to discuss our views — and the fact that this is becoming so hard in Britain in 2018 ought to alarm everyone. We have three more meetings scheduled, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Oxford, and there will be more in the pipeline. It’s far riskier than we ever imagined, but we’re going to keep talking.