There are some things that pretty much everyone in politics and public life agrees on. Ask any politician about any contentious, heated debate and they’ll immediately talk about the need for respectful debate, for all views to be heard calmly and in a civilised manner. They’ll say that there is no place for harassment and abuse and bullying and threats, because this is Britain, a mature democracy where everyone gets to express their views about things like politics and the law without fear. Except that’s not entirely true. There are some people who aren’t allowed to speak freely, who cannot express their views about things like politics and the law without being abused and threatened and, from time to time, assaulted. You might have heard of this group: they’re called “women”.
Specifically, women who ask questions about laws and rules and practices that are proposed to improve the lives and treatment of transgender people. Women who worry about the implications of rules that would mean someone born male and possessing a male anatomy can have the legal and social status of people born female. Women who look at the implications of enshrining the mantra “transwomen are women” in law and practice and wonder if doing so might just have (negative) consequences for women born female and their legal and social status.
Those women cannot be confident that they can ask their questions and raise their views without fear of harm. I’ve tried to document this year the sort of abuse and harassment routinely faced by women who question trans-rights orthodoxy, but I’ve mainly focussed on organised groups and meetings, such as those held by Woman’s Place UK.
I’ve said less about individuals, about what happens to particular women who ask these questions. Not because there are no cases of abuse or intimidation; quite the contrary, there are many: women who are threatened, women whose employers face repeated demands to sack them, women whose families receive threats and abuse. But generally, I’ve steered away from writing about those cases because it’s not helpful to the people concerned, most of whom want to avoid the limelight, for understandable reasons.
Last night in Reading, Women’s Place UK held another meeting, where trans rights activists gathered to shout and abuse women trying to talk about their rights under the law. That’s not uncommon for these meetings.
One of the women who spoke at the meeting is Rosa Freedman, professor of law at Reading University. She is one of a relatively small number of academics who have publicly questioned the orthodoxy of “transwomen are women”, though that doesn’t mean only a small number of academics have doubts here: a lot don’t say so publicly, and Prof Freedman’s experiences help explain why.
This is an account Prof Freedman wrote in the early hours of this morning and which she has given me permission to reproduce here:
“I am a Professor of Law, tenured, protected in terms of being able to speak in a respectful manner based on specific evidence, and supported to undertake research on topical and timely issues. That has not protected me from the harassment and abuse dished out by the transactivist lobby.
This week I picked up my post and received three more hard copy letters (separate to the daily emails I now receive) from staff and students at universities in the UK and beyond who are scared to express their views for fear of stigmatisation.
This week I found my office door covered in urine, including some that had seeped under the door, and I spent time cleaning it up because I could not bear the smell or the shame of what had happened. Last week I discovered criminal damage explicitly encouraging me to leave the University because of my views that a woman is defined by law as biological not psychological.
Tonight I met other academics who are being harassed in their workplace for setting out views based on specific evidence (i.e. doing their jobs). We all go to work to do our jobs – and we are pretty damn good at doing the research, educating, and administration that comes with the job – yet we are being demonised, harassed, and targeted for expressing opinions based on the expertise for which we were hired and for why we are revered.
This evening I was followed by students on campus, and ended up hiding behind trees because I was scared for my physical safety. I have been open about being a survivor of sexual violence, despite which young male-bodied persons have seen fit to abuse me verbally about rape or to follow me in the dark into secluded spaces.
It is now 3.30am and someone/ some people are continuously calling my phone from an anonymous number, and when I answer I am laughed at and told that I am a ‘TERF’ who ‘should be raped and killed’.
Rosa Freedman is a legal academic. Her job is to analyse and study the law and debate the law. For doing so in the context of transgender rights, she says she has been abused, followed and scared. She says she has had urine sprayed on her door and into her office. She says she has been threatened with rape and murder.
This is not shocking. This is not surprising. To people familiar with this area, this is pretty much par for the course. And that is shocking, or should be.
How did this come about? How did the abuse and intimidation of women for simply talking about the law come to seem almost routine and mundane? That’s a question that should be asked more, and answered by anyone who mouths those words about respectful debate and a conversation free from abuse. That includes the people who run universities, who should ask academics who preach that “trans women are women” whether they are encouraging students to take an intolerant approach to women who happen to have differing views.
And most of all, it should be addressed by any politician who says they believe in free speech and civilised politics free from fear and abuse. If those words really mean anything, Rosa Freedman’s case will outrage and appal MPs of all parties, who will want to debate its implications – and demand action to prevent such things ever recurring – at their earliest opportunity.
After all, MPs and ministers have – quite rightly – taken time and trouble to debate and address the wholly unacceptable abuse and discrimination that transgender people sadly face all too often. In that, they were doing their jobs, representing the interests of people who need someone to speak for them.
Will that happen in the case of Rosa Freedman? Will MPs do their job and ensure that she can do hers without urine on her door and calls in the night telling her she should be raped and killed? Don’t bet on it. After all, she’s only a woman, and who cares about them? Who speaks for them?