Trans activists should not be allowed to dictate the language women can use to describe their bodies and lives, believes MIRANDA YARDLEY
ON SATURDAY June 6 in Sheffield, RadFem Collective, a radical feminist women’s group, and I hosted an open talk and discussion with journalist Julie Bindel to discuss the effect of the no-platforming of radical feminists.
No-platforming has been justified based on allegations of transphobia. Although this may seem to be a niche discussion, the real-world effect is both further and broader than it at first would appear. The Trojan horse of transgender identity politics dominates much feminist and women’s discourse and makes it harder for women’s groups to prioritise other concerns and causes.
This event was to some degree a follow-up of a similar talk held in Nottingham in February. That these two meetings even happened is remarkable. For each, the location was shrouded in secrecy and revealed to attendees only the day before to prevent campaigners from lobbying the venue to force cancellation.
Both these meetings were planned and organised between radical feminists and me, a trans woman. I have written before in the Morning Star about the conflicts that exist between radical feminism and transgender politics, and in the light of these problems RadFem Collective and I have resolved to work together to bring people on both sides of this debate together, as well as anyone else who may be interested. Both meetings had a mixture of radical feminists, other women who would not necessarily describe themselves so, as well as trans women, trans men and men. If nothing else, we were able to measure the success of both these events by the diverse mixture of attendees.
Feminist debate has become a political hot potato, particularly over the role of trans women within the feminist movement (which is, at the moment, dominating a lot of discourse) and whether undertaking sex work is a viable alternative career.
Campaigns attacking individuals for alleged transphobia and “whorephobia” have become common: academic Germaine Greer’s talk at the Cambridge Union this year was unsuccessfully lobbied against by transgender activists accusing her of transphobia, comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show at Goldsmiths College was cancelled because of lobbying over her speaking out against prostitution and Cambridge Green Party election candidate Rupert Read, a lecturer in philosophy at East Anglia University, was criticised and attacked online as he has written critically about transgender issues.
Bindel’s problems with no-platforming began after a feature she wrote for The Guardian in 2004 which has been interpreted as being transphobic, and she has since apologised for the language used.
As well as being a journalist, Bindel campaigns for women’s rights and welfare across many spheres, including addressing domestic violence, human trafficking, rape and prostitution. Notwithstanding this work, Bindel continues to be attacked in campaigns motivated by the transgender activist lobby. The National Union of Students LGBT Campaign Policy 2010-2012 includes the following statements, which are ironic given Bindel is a lesbian activist: “8. Conference has previously declared that Julie Bindle (sic) is a transphobe and has agreed that no representatives of NUS will ‘share a platform’ with her because of her hateful views and statements about trans people.? 9. Bindle has stated on many occasions that trans people are mutilants and butchers of their bodies.? 10. That Julie Bindel is vile.”
In response to what is seen as attempts to silence debate at universities, author and feminist activist Beatrix Campbell drafted an open letter published in the Guardian on February 14 2015 which tried to highlight ideological attempts to curtail debate.
This letter contained the statement: “We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.” It was signed by a number of men, women and trans people, including Peter Tatchell, Mary Beard and myself. Some elements of the transgender community were unhappy with this, and in the days following its publication one of the more aggressive transgender activists included Beard or Tatchell in around 350 tweets attacking their approval of the letter.
Bindel has found this no-platforming obstructive to speaking about issues that affect girls and women, some of which (for example female genital mutilation) do not even obliquely concern transgender individuals. It was no-platforming and the related effect this has on free speech and our ability to use language that the discussion in Sheffield sought to address.
Fundamental to understanding the friction that exists between feminism (in which women are central) and transgender activism (which holds that men can become women, and vice versa) are the questions of “What is a woman?” and “What is a man?”
During Bindel’s talk she stated that “I do not know what it feels (like) to be a woman, I only know how it feels to be me,” while noting that being a man or a woman is conventionally defined according to the individual’s potential reproductive ability, which recognises some common life experience between members of the same sex.
Within discussions of sex and gender, there is often a lack of clarity as to what sex and gender actually mean, yet it is important to ensure we use common language to describe concepts or else ideas can neither be discussed nor evolve.
Sex itself is based upon reproductive roles: men inseminate eggs inside women and women bear children. It is the identification of this potential which is used to sexually classify children.
Gender is itself a social system. It sets out the traits, attitudes and behaviours society deems appropriate for members of each sex class. For example, following gender roles girls might prefer to wear pink and play with dolls, while boys may like blue and play with cars.
As adults, the effect of gender is to structurally polarise power based upon reproductive role. In simplistic terms this pushes women to lower-paid, care-based professions while men enjoy higher-paid jobs that attract status. Of course, there are low-paid men in caring professions and high-paid women in banking. However if anyone should doubt the general rule, a quick visit to a hospital or City trading floor will provide adequate empirical evidence.
Gender positions men as the leading rank in its hierarchy, and it imposes control over access to the things that make up human life, based not on preference, aptitude or ability but on one’s sex identified as at birth. This is what oppression is: structural, long-lasting and of benefit to the oppressor (male) class.
With characteristic good humour, Bindel opened the debate by introducing the audience to her work. She then explained the difficulties she has encountered speaking publicly about matters that concern women and young girls.
Following this I took to the floor and talked about my Caitlyn Jenner feature (M Star June 4). The floor was then opened to discussion, which initially involved older members of the audience talking about whatever it means to be a woman, which is central to addressing the identity politics of the queer and transgender movement.
A younger audience member managed in a few minutes to encapsulated the crux of this debate. At first she spoke uncertainly: “I turned 30 last week, I am one of the youngest ones here. None of my peers know that I am here, I would be vilified,” she said.
“(When thinking of) people who are my peers and younger, when you talk about language, it is a completely different scenario. This conversation we are having is almost missing the boat, because among the circles I walk in, even talking about biological sex is considered transphobic. You cannot talk about pregnancy as a woman’s issue, you cannot talk about periods, we do not talk about the menopause because no-one is thinking about that yet.”
There was a brief, uneasy laugh, then she continued: “Obviously I don’t want to cause violence to or harm to anybody, but we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when, for example, you’re talking about the developing world, where girls don’t go to school because there aren’t toilets or provisions to deal with their sanitary facilities. Well, that can be taken as being transphobic because you’re talking about menstruation as a women’s issue, so how can you talk about the body, or gender and the body, in a way that is not hurtful?”
She was asked to explain where these rules were coming from. “Feminists, young people who use the internet, people who are very vocal about rights for trans people not to suffer violence,” she explained. “Sara Ahmed has said ‘when we try and define what womanhood is, that’s when we run into difficulty.’ If body parts, biological sex, doesn’t determine what a woman is, if it is all down to identity, then what are the boundaries? Do we have boundaries? Are they useful?
“I think they are useful, because you can’t talk about perpetrators of male violence if a man doesn’t exist. So what is womanhood? Is the essence of womanhood just oppression?”
Bindel passionately replied: “ ‘Woman’ doesn’t exist — it’s just an idea, an identity. Even if we don’t have a uterus, there are physical realities for women and girls that lead to our discrimination and oppression. We are not defined by whether we menstruate or not — some women may never menstruate — but let’s be clear that female genital mutilation affects girls. It’s not being oppressive to trans women to say ‘we are leaving you out of this conversation,’ because this is something that, growing up as a boy, you escape.”
If we are able to accept that trans women are by definition born biologically male, raised as boys and undertake a social (and sometimes medical) transition to live as women in their adult life, the scenario above appears perverse. To be brutally frank, females are being silenced by males and women’s oppression and disadvantage are being given to the oppressor.
I spoke about this with a radical feminist friend who is herself a university student and has experienced this first-hand in women’s groups at her university. She complained of how “women are policing other women’s language, which is, in itself, a form of oppression. Women are denying women the opportunity to express their experiences as a woman.”
This is a completely backwards step and a grotesque inversion of women’s issues and feminism, a movement that exists for the benefit of women and girls. It is now being done over in favour of supporting a transgender ideology that is erasing women’s ability to describe their own bodies, on the grounds that, as is often said in transgender ideology, “not all women have vaginas.”
Transgender issues are dominating discourse and debate in feminism, yet this week it was reported that there were 632 incidents of female genital mutilation in the West Midlands. Surely matters like this are a higher priority for women’s organisations than transgender identity politics?
If the transgender identity is so fragile that for validation it must coercively redefine what it is to be a woman and monopolise feminist debate, then it is the ideology that has to change, not women.
Miranda Yardley is a trans woman and publisher of Terrorizer magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @TerrorizerMir.