Last night, some women got together in a room to talk about law and politics and sex and gender. The meeting, in Hastings, was organised by a group called A Woman’s Place UK, which is concerned about the way politics and public debate is developing with regard to the legal rights of transgender people and women.
This stuff is complicated and, to many people, obscure. I’ve written about these issues quite a bit here, and while quite a lot of people seem keen to read about the transgender debate, I’m under no illusions that this has broken through into wider public consciousness. Most people, I suspect, haven’t really engaged with the detail of this debate, though that might start to change a bit next month when the Government launches a consultation on overhauling the law that allows someone to legally change their gender.
Given that a lot of people haven’t engaged with the detail of the gender debate, let me offer a catchier description of what happened in Hastings this week. Some women organised a meeting to talk about their legal rights. Someone threatened to blow up that meeting with a bomb. The threat in question was made on Twitter a few days ago. I became aware of it shortly afterwards, and I am sorry to say that my initial reaction, was to think: “Just some idiot on Twitter. Doesn’t mean anything.” Sussex Police took a different view. They are taking the threat seriously and have begun an investigation. A Sussex Police spokesman said:
"We are not disclosing details of the investigation or of our discussions with the organisers, however the threat is being taken seriously and is not currently being linked to any other event or offence."
What does it say about how strongly the women at that meeting last night feel about this issue that they went along despite such a threat? It’s not as if this was a one-off either: as Judith Green of WPUK wrote here earlier this year, Woman’s Place meetings are frequently the subject of aggressive protests from people who say they are representing transgender people. Yet women turn up anyway, in large numbers. And what does it say about public and political debate about gender issues that this stuff has become normal and almost unremarkable?
In Britain in 2018, women trying to hold public meetings to talk about politics and the law are being subjected to intimidation and threats. The police are investigating a bomb threat against one of those meetings. Yet politicians and large sections of the media are silent. Would that be the case if any other group or community were subject to such threats and intimidation? Why aren’t politicians, of all parties, shouting from the rooftops about this?
It’s not as if they don’t know or don’t care. Since I started writing about the gender debate in February, I’ve lost count of the number of MPs and other political people (of all parties and ranks, from policy advisers to Cabinet ministers) who have privately told me they are worried about the nature of this debate and worried about the implications of policy. Yet almost all of those people have also said they are not willing to talk about this publicly, for fear of the criticism and vitriol they believe they would face from people who believe the interests of transgender people are best served by shouting down questions with allegations of transphobia and bigotry. I understand that silence, but it has costs. When the people who are supposed to speak for ordinary people – and the rules that allow those people to exercise their basic democratic freedoms – stay silent, they leave a vacuum of leadership and moral courage that can be filled with hostility and fear.
I’ll end by repeating the basic facts of this story once more, in the hope that some of the politicians who talk so much about free speech and equality and fairness finally pluck up the courage to talk about this. Some women had a meeting to talk about their legal rights. Someone threatened to blow up the meeting with a bomb. The police are investigating that threat and say it is being “taken seriously”. And this happened in Britain in 2018.