Rosa Freedman

No, the fight for trans rights has nothing to do with the Holocaust

No, the fight for trans rights has nothing to do with the Holocaust
(Getty images)
Text settings

For the last two-and-a-half years, I have been hounded, attacked and shut down for participating in discussions about sex and transgenderism. My offence? That I believe something that was once accepted as truth: women are women and men are men.

As a law professor, I have used my expertise on human rights to advocate finding a way to ensure that women’s rights and transgender rights are upheld without one or the other group losing their rights. The attacks on me have been varied, from facing a barrage of constant abuse online, being called a Nazi and a ‘TERF’ (trans exclusionary radical feminist – a slur used against women in my position), being de-platformed from events, and having my workplace contacted demanding I be fired. I have even been verbally abused at work and, in one particularly nasty incident, had my office door vandalised. These things are not done by trans individuals but by those – often straight, white men – who call themselves trans allies.

Despite this, the events of the last week still shocked me. Since the landmark ruling in the Keira Bell case, which found that children are unlikely to be able to give informed consent for taking puberty-blocking drugs, the abuse has taken a more shocking turn.

This latest sequence of events began when Jo Maugham, a prominent barrister (who is not transgender), sent a tweet saying: ‘First they came for the Jews and I said nothing’. This came in response to a comment about the Bell judgment and whether this might lead to the removal of abortion rights in the UK. In response, I replied: 

‘Whatever your position on sex and gender identity please stop equating this with the Holocaust. I and very many others would stand in front or in the place of those being put onto trains leading to the death camps. Stop co-opting our trauma’.

Plaid Cymru politician Helen-Mary Jones retweeted this in support. She was then seemingly pressured to retract that statement and apologise. It was a sign of just how powerful trans allies are these days. Helen-Mary Jones is a former deputy leader of Plaid Cymru. She has a long history of fighting for human rights, social justice, equal opportunities, and children's rights. Yet she, too, has been labelled a TERF for her support of women’s rights. And it appears as though members of Plaid Cymru were waiting for an opportunity – any opportunity, including one of solidarity with a minority group – to portray her as a witch who needed burning. And that is exactly what they did.

In her apology, Helen-Mary Jones wrote that she understood that retweeting my words had caused ‘pain and hurt’. Perhaps the trans allies in her party should also try to understand why comparisons between Jews and trans rights are so offensive. Although given Plaid Cymru’s ongoing problems with anti-Semitism, that may be wishful thinking.

What this offensive comparison boils down to is a gross appropriation of Jewish trauma. The Holocaust was not only about the deaths of huge numbers of Jews, but also about the ways in which the Nazis plotted and carried out their extermination.

The comparison with the Holocaust is a tactic that has crept into the discourse on trans rights. It is used to bully and silence those who do not agree that sex and gender identity are the same thing. The very mention of the Nazis forces many people to fall silent and retreat from discussions altogether.

Of course, it is appalling that trans individuals in the UK are marginalised and face discrimination, particularly in healthcare. And, of course, we should all be fighting for trans individuals to have their human rights upheld and implemented. But what they face is not a genocide.

The Nazi regime planned the systematic annihilation of the Jews. They built train tracks across Europe to transport Jews to death camps and gas chambers. They tried to round up every Jew in every country that they marched into; and they dehumanised an entire group, to the extent that they took photographs of themselves at concentration camps not caring about – or oblivious to – the condemned skeletal Jews in the background.

It is unbelievably crass to appropriate the Holocaust in any way that lessens its memory. But it is also a microcosm of the ways in which discussions about transgender rights have reached such a level of hyperbole that these comparisons are even being drawn. It is a lamentable state of affairs when a politician, let alone one with a long history of advancing human rights, appears to have been pressured to retract her support of Jewish people.

The BBC quoted a member of Plaid Cymru who cancelled his membership of the party, saying ‘trans and gay people were targeted themselves during the Holocaust, and it’s potentially dangerous to overlook these people being targeted for discrimination once again’. The first part of this statement is indisputable: trans people were victims of Nazism. But seeking to compare ‘targeted for discrimination’ with genocide undermines the sheer horror and scale of the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Jews and the Jewish people.

The fact that a prominent lawyer like Maugham apparently felt able to connect the outcome of a carefully reasoned court judgment with words usually associated with the Holocaust is deeply worrying. The fact that a female politician was told that it is transphobic to support a Jewish law professor in challenging that reaction is no less so.

It tells us a lot about the treatment of different minority groups in this country that the accusation of transphobia, without evidence, was used here to silence people talking not about transgender issues but about Holocaust appropriation.

Professor Rosa Freedman is professor of law, conflict, and global development at the University of Reading