Should I jump into a debate with transphobic “feminists”? No.

Imagine for a moment that a group started up in your local area wanting to ban you – just you, personally –  from the local post office. You would probably find it odd, a bit unnerving, but you would probably shrug it off. The campaign grows and now they’re banning you from the local supermarket, then the pubs, then the town centre as a whole – except for one hour a week when you’re permitted to enter. You start to get hate mail and threatening messages on your phone from the campaign group. Then your local Lib Dem Executive starts talking to this campaign group, to get to the bottom of the problem. Your local party Chair says that the campaigners seem to be sincerely worried about your presence in town, and the local party are going to debate the issue.

How would this make you feel?

Something similar is happening.

The Government has begun its consultation to amend the Gender Recognition Act. The proposed changes would allow transgender people to amend the details on their birth certificates more easily. This would probably be done by a process involving a statutory declaration like the ones that exist already in countries like Ireland, Norway and Malta. At the moment, if you want to change your gender on your birth certificate you enter a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare where a panel that you don’t even meet decides whether to allow your application, with no right of appeal. 

This consultation has kicked off a wave of controversy that is deeply unpleasant.

Of course there are the normal bigots and hate-filled rants filling the internet. That’s sad, but hardly out of the ordinary. What’s new this time is the much more seductive approach of the “feminists”. (I’m putting that word in quote marks because I do not buy into the idea that these people are feminists at all.)

These faux-feminist campaign groups say they are concerned about the unintended consequences of changing the Act. They are worried that non-transgender men will somehow abuse the new legislation to argue their way into women-only spaces. They say that they are concerned about how the needs of cis women and trans women intersect. (Cis meaning that your gender identity matches the gender you were assigned at birth.) And some of these groups add on other concerns about gender roles and protecting children from misguided gender confusion or hormone therapy.

A fundamental belief of Liberal Democrat philosophy is the right to free speech and the right to question things. But our belief here needs to go hand in hand with some common sense, sensitivity and caution. Because this is one area where engaging with people’s concerns can actually cause harm and hurt.

What’s so seductive about the argument of the faux-feminists is that they often say that they fully support trans rights. They say they are just worried about non-trans (cis) men using loopholes created by the legislation that helps transgender people. They argue that they want transgender people to have their own safe spaces, away from the cis women. And again, that might sound quite reasonable given how vulnerable trans people can be. But then, as a good liberal, you should really catch yourself and think, hang on… isn’t that just segregation? By demanding that transgender people are labelled as “Other” rather than men and women, isn’t that actually a way of pushing trans women out of women’s spaces, and trans men out of men’s spaces?

To explain briefly why these concerns are redundant, there is perfectly good, robust legislation to keep perverts of any gender out of public toilets and changing areas. Birth certificates have nothing to do with it. I don’t know when you were last asked for your birth certificate before being allowed to enter a changing room or a public toilet? The point is, it never happens. 

Women’s refuges already carry out robust individual assessments before allowing people in – that’s how lesbians fleeing abusive partners keep safe. Many of the other “concerns” are really just too bigoted to justify with responses – like worries that boys playing with dolls will turn them gay or trans. Come on people, we should be better than this. 

It’s also worth noting that these gender recognition changes have been established already in many other countries including Ireland, without a great crime wave, and no reported surges in any particular pervert-related behaviour. 

To tackle what’s really beneath all this, let’s address the actual issue. Trans women clearly do have some life experiences that are different to cis women. But there is no universal experience that makes you a “genuine” woman. We come in all shapes, sizes, colours and backgrounds and no two are alike. I’m a cis, white, middle class, educated, straight, 40 year old woman from the South of England – a trans woman who shares most of those attributes is going to be far more similar to me than a Japanese grandmother who has never left her country, or a Bangladeshi teenager who has grown up in the centre of Glasgow on the poverty line. Those four women would have totally different cultures, experiences, struggles, expectations and biases. But we are all still women.

Yes, the experience of being trans is different to being cis gendered. But women are not defined by biology. We are just as female once we have had hysterectomies or mastectomies aren’t we? Infertile women are still women. We don’t define womanhood on biology, culture or experience – until now it seems.

This is the problem at the heart of these campaign groups, that they are desperately trying to define “female” in a way that excludes one set of women – trans women. 

These faux-feminist groups are using a potential change in a small administrative law to promote ideas of difference, division and exclusion. As Liberal Democrats we should not be validating their concerns. The more we engage with them, the more exposure their ideas get. We are giving them oxygen when we engage with their falsehoods and paranoia.

I know that we Lib Dems like to talk to people. To listen to them, hear their concerns and then engage them in a debate that moves them. That is what I have done my whole political life. But here, on this issue, we need to think carefully. By agreeing to engage these people in debate, we implicitly agree that their questions are worthy of debate. 

You might be thinking, well we can still talk to these groups and address their non-transphobic concerns, like that one about the cis men arguing their way into women only spaces. The problem there is that the more we engage with that idea, the more we promote the idea that there is a link between this myth and the changes to the Act. We are then actually giving publicity to the idea that this horde of perverted men is just waiting for the opportunity to claim that their birth certificate says they are female. Every time we engage with these groups and these arguments we give them oxygen and allow them to grow.

I do understand that shutting down debate feels like an instinctively wrong move for any Liberal. It is certainly not what we normally encourage! But here, the way to support our transgender friends is to declare our support. Proudly and loudly. 

When groups come along saying they are scared and worried by moves to support transgender people, we need to be careful with how we engage in that conversation. Rather than endorsing their worries, we need to carefully explain our take on the issues. There may be some valid points muddled in with the scaremongering, and on those issues we can cautiously engage. But we cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into debates as to whether trans women “are really women”. We should not be dictating who should be allowed access to shelters and refuge – we should allow the experts who run those services to determine what’s best for their clients. In fact, trans women suffer disproportionately high rates of domestic and sexual violence and desperately need access to these life-saving resources. 

By recognising the rights of transgender people, we do not diminish anyone else’s right to be recognised. Trans women are women and trans men are men and both deserve help and support when they need it. 

It’s important to remember that not every person who is engaged in these faux-feminist groups is transphobic. A lot of them have become concerned because they have a friend who told them there was something to be worried about, or they read a worrying article in the media. And I think that the success of these groups is that the people leading them look like me. Nice, well educated, well presented women. They don’t look like Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage. They don’t seem horrible. But the views that the groups are campaigning to promote – most of those views are transphobic, in that they explicitly deny the rights of transgender people to live their lives in their self-defined gender. 

Let’s go back to the example at the start of this article, where you find your local party are engaging in a debate about your rights with a campaign group trying to ban you.

I think you would be horrified that a campaign of victimisation and exclusion was being given legitimacy by people who are meant to be your colleagues. I would be appalled that my colleagues were debating my entitlement to my own liberty when I had done nothing wrong.

This is a very sensitive and unusual issue. It is not like any other area of policy. Let’s understand that and be true to our values, sensitive in our approach and think really hard before we enter into a debate on this topic. We do need to engage with the issue, and change people’s minds, but we need to do so without endorsing these paranoid and prejudiced myths. 

If you would like to be an ally for the transgender community, please don’t engage with these faux-feminist groups. Don’t give them any more oxygen. Instead, just promote the facts about the changes to the Gender Recognition Act, champion the campaigns and causes of transgender and trans-friendly groups, and openly state your support, loudly and proudly as a Liberal Democrat. That’s how we can change people’s minds.

———-

If you would like to learn more about these issues, or if you are puzzled by some of the words often used in these discussions, these links will guide you to some useful glossaries and FAQ pages.

Two glossaries:

https://www.theproudtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/download-manager-files/1516697937wpdm_Glossary%20of%20LGBT+%20Terminology.pdf

http://www.gires.org.uk/resources/terminology/

Two “Frequently Asked Questions” pages:

https://www.glaad.org/transgender/transfaq

 (American site, but a good basic starting point if you’re totally new to all this)

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/truth-about-trans#grc

What’s Lib Dem policy about all this?

https://lgbt.libdems.org.uk/en/page/lgbt-party-policy-overview

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24 Comments

  • Scott Berry 22nd Jul '18 - 7:38pm

    I completely agree that the GRA has been misrepresented and that the position against it ends up being inevitably transphobic. What I’m not convinced by is the best approach is to not engage with the debate. As you acknowledge the Lib Dems traditionally (and I believe correctly) take the approach that we have a right to free speech and part of the reason for that is engaging in debate is the best way to change people’s minds. In this particular case I believe the majority of those on the other side of the debate are our natural supporters – i.e. have actively supported rights for other marginalised groups (women’s rights more generally, gay rights, minority ethnic rights and so on), liberal, intelligent people. It’s a case of a lack of understanding not hate, and if we can’t engage and convince those people we won’t make progress in society more widely. Whether there is a minority of cynical leaders (as you imply if don’t state) or whether it’s entirely born of misunderstanding I don’t know but don’t see as hugely relevant.
    My big concern is there are attempts on both sides to stop debate and engagement; I’ve seen both sides try to deny the other side are feminists, attempts to stop public meetings and debates of groups on one side of this issue, even discussion around the language used – e.g. the suggestion that “cis” is an offensive term seems a fairly clear attempt to shut debate down (because by denying “cis” as a subcategory you deny “trans” as a subcategory), and the use of the label TERF (in which radical seems to be unnecessary and is used with negative connotation). Until we move past that, engage in debate no matter how difficult to try to advance understanding we won’t get anywhere. To put it more simply if we don’t engage in debate we leave one side to control the debate even within groups who should be our natural supporters.

  • Excellent article, Miranda.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Jul '18 - 8:10pm

    I like this article it is one with very intelligent and strong arguments I concur with.

    Miranda you are reasonable whether radical or moderate. Every stance or group has extremes, some worrying.

    These feminists are not faux in my view but extreme. They even sign on the dotted line to the description TERFS, the r being for radical, but they are extreme in my view. They are instilled by a distrust and dislike of that which is male, they do not realise we are all male and female in many ways biological or emotional, logical or practical.

    We need more feminists like you Miranda, but these extreme feminists are not like you.

  • Joseph Toovey 22nd Jul '18 - 9:24pm

    From what I’ve seen of them, TERFs seem to utilise the same debating tactics as alt-right movements, Gamergate etc. – they exploit the liberal instinct to debate and address concerns and resolve disagreements using logic, but when you attempt to give them the debate they ask for, they refuse to engage in good faith. They don’t really want a debate, and their minds won’t be changed by debating – they want to use their interlocutors as megaphones to parade their thin and already-debunked arguments before as large an audience as possible in the hope of drawing in as many new recruits as possible, and we liberals shouldn’t give them an opportunity to do so. (That is, when transphobes are even bothering to make a pretence of debating, rather than just initiating a mass pile-on of social media abuse and threats against anyone daring to be trans or to support trans rights.)

  • Cass Macdonald 22nd Jul '18 - 9:32pm

    This is an excellent article. I absolutely believe in the freedom of speech, however, like Miranda, I’ve tried to engage with the radical feminists and fallen foul of them myself. Equally, I’ve also had rather appalling language directed at me by those on the militant other side of this.

    I absolutely support my Trans family’s right to self expression and determination. I think a lot of the rhetoric that TERFs spout is alarmist and conspiracy theorist. It is NOT demonstrative of the Trans community at all. I also will not tolerate anyone’s insistence on attempting to define me (a lot of that coming from being high functioning autistic and rejecting labels and social definitions as bunk and damaging anyway) against my will or how I identify as who I am. I’ve had middle class, white men do that to me. Never a good move!

    I believe that other nations have it right: if someone is living as the gender role they choose and intend to stay in it, then as far as I am concerned, that’s that. There will always be practical considerations (the prison service will have to take this into account) and there’s a long way to go in relation to equal rights, there will always have to be practical and ethical considerations in relation to scientific progress. Certainly, speaking as one intersectional XX person, there’s a lot of work to be done in teaching people and their teachers that being who you are is absolutely fine and that targeting, bullying, assaulting or discriminating against someone because of difference is absolutely wrong.

  • OnceALibDem 22nd Jul '18 - 9:33pm

    Excellent piece Miranda

  • Liberal Neil 22nd Jul '18 - 9:34pm

    Well put Miranda.

  • Thank you Interesting article and I endorse much of it. I wanted to comment but WordPress would not allow me to be so wordy. so I have published my comments at https://timobru.blogspot.com/2018/07/gender-is-no-longer-relevant-to-civial.html.

    Is it not time that we moved on? We have male and female, bisexual, homosexual (male and female), transvestites, transgender, CIS, and I am sure other groups you could add. Should society not simply start treating everyone as human beings?

  • Marjorie Bark 23rd Jul '18 - 6:59am

    A good piece. There is one reason to engage in discussions about trans rights online. If radical feminists are spending time discussing the finer points of their outrage with you, they are not spending that time harassing trans people online. Online harassment is so common in this “debate” that many high profile radical feminists have been permenently banned from Twitter and Facebook.
    I’ve yet to see a reasonable, moderate view from radical feminists that includes tolerance of trans people. So much of their debate is abusive and disrespectful. Radical feminists compare trans people to sexual predators (an argument that was also used many years ago against the equalisation of the age of consent) or state that questioning gender will make it fashionable and convert cis children into thinking thinking they are trans (the same justification used for introducing Section 28). It is no surprise that most LGBT+ people show solidarity for trans rights when we see the arguments that were used to oppress all LGBT+ people in the past. Is this the thin end of the wedge to roll back other LGBT+ rights? Anti-trans feminist groups are building alliances with Christian fundamentalist groups such as Hands Across the Aisle. It makes you wonder.
    I’m proud that our party is at the forefront of trans rights. It is such a basic liberal principle that we all benefit when we are all treated as equals, and that includes accepting and loving trans people for who they are. The LGBT+ Lib Dems do amazing work and we should be very proud of them.

  • clive englisjh 23rd Jul '18 - 12:05pm

    I can’t agree with Carl Gardner. The leadership of these groups are definitely Faux Feminists and are part of the so-called alt right. In the USA they have been part of the attempt by said groups to roll back advancements in LGBT rights generally, by using the rest room argument as a battering ram.
    Leaving this aside it can not really be seen how an argument that in their own words a Woman is defined by her biological organs is a Feminist argument.
    The problem, however, is that by not engaging in argument the ground is ceded. It is not possible to debate or even reason with TERFS anymore than with the EDL, but not arguing in public forums means that the general public can be influenced by their vicious hatred without hearing countervailing views. So we need to challenge them publicly without being co-opted by their Agenda. Not easy I know.

  • David Allen 23rd Jul '18 - 1:16pm

    “Faux Feminists … are part of the so-called alt right…(and) in the USA have been part of the attempt … to roll back advancements in LGBT rights generally, by using the rest room argument as a battering ram.”

    Yes, that seems fair comment. But the question is then, what is the best way to deal with a battering ram? Is it best to let the alt-right join forces with those who simply don’t like to see public provisions which could help rapists, so that they can jointly keep battering away effectively with their battering ram? Or might it be an idea to see what can be done to deflect that battering ram, for example by better design of rest rooms to avoid conflicts?

  • An excellent article.

    I am endlessly puzzled that the “R” in TERF stands for ‘Radical’ when their values are those of the Reactionary hard right.

  • Mick Taylor 23rd Jul '18 - 2:53pm

    I agree with Miranda. I never engage with fascists and racists, because from personal experience I know I’m wasting my time. So I see absolutely no reason to engage with the faux feminists, because they are impervious to any contrary view to their own.
    I do of course speak out against all forms of discrimination whether it be racial, gender or LGBT+ and will continue to do so because equal rights are a prerequisite of the sort of society I want to live in.

  • The consultation and the online response form can be found here:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-the-gender-recognition-act-2004

  • OnceALibDem 23rd Jul '18 - 4:06pm

    Carl – look at Trans Crime uk .com (deliberately not linked to).

    Straight out of the Nick Griffin/BNP/Far right playbook from the mid 2000s or labelling all muslims (and antifascists) as ‘risks to women and children’ with a heavy ‘guilt by association’ tactic.

  • Toby Keynes 23rd Jul '18 - 6:21pm

    There must be an awful lot of well-intentioned people who believe what they read in the press (The Times, for example).
    As a result, they will have genuine but misguided concerns, which can be easily addressed.
    I do hope we’re not supposed to refuse to engage with anyone who may fall into that category.

  • OnceALibDem 26th Jul '18 - 4:40pm

    I made specific reference to the far -right in the context of the website referred to above – which mirrors the tactics of the far right.

    What is your view on that site? Do you condemn it or think it makes a contribution to the debate?

  • So anyone is allowed to self identify as male or female, but you get to decide who is a real feminist and who is a faux feminist? This article is the most appalling piece of “faux” liberalism I have ever read. How can any liberal support shutting down discussion?

  • I am a 50 something, white, middle class woman and I do feel a connection with a Japanese grandmother and a Bangladeshi teenage girl precisely because we share female biology and the personal experiences and cultural expectations that go along with that. The transgender experience is real. The experience of being a biological female is real too and it is not the same.

  • Well Sam, you’ve fallen into the trap that many transphobic feminists do (not saying you are, mind) of appropriating other women’s experiences. No, as a white privileged woman, your experience is nothing like that of a Bangladeshi girl. Do you work in a sweatshop making clothes for privileged people in the UK? Is DV so commonplace that a good proportion of your fellow women think that it’s OK to slap a woman around? Were you sold off for child marriage? Did you not get a full education?

    One of the (many) problems with transphobic radical feminists (obviously not all radfems are transphobic) *is* that they only see things from their usually very privileged position – I can count the number I have encountered who aren’t white and financially stable on one hand!

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