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Transphobia is the latest weapon in a raging culture war

The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney

December 5, 2017
13 min read

Over the last two months, the press has run rather more stories on the trans community than happens in a normal year – most of these negative and many of them actively malicious. There has also been a staggering amount of unpleasantness on social media directed at both at the community and at individual trans people both from the right and, more depressingly, from people who regard themselves as left-wing and as feminists.

We trans people stand accused of being the narcissistic consequence of gender theory and post-modernism, of being violent sexual abusers merely by existing, of being ugly or of having had too much plastic surgery, ‘mad, stupid or evil’. We have too much power and influence; we are a fanatical lobby of activists; we are funded by big pharmaceutical companies, the sex trade and rich consumers of pornography whom we are using our IT skills to blackmail. We are a danger to women and young girls simply by using toilets and gender-neutral changing rooms – we don’t have to do anything wrong there, but are a threat simply by existing. We are a cult, trying to draw in young recruits through peer pressure. subversive children’s picture books and the presence of androgynous characters in computer games and Japanese anime. We are trying to destroy reality itself by undermining the concept of truth.

We are obviously all really busy, all of the time.

This is, of course, nonsense. Most trans people are too busy surviving for any of this – dealing with discrimination in employment, housing and education, trying to access trans-specific medical care in a time of NHS cuts and general austerity, surviving a disproportionately high rate of being victims of rape and more general assault. Trans people use toilets and changing rooms for the standard reasons, not to make a political point – it’s perhaps significant that the non-binary person featured in much of the coverage of the changing rooms – on the 4th December in the Sun for example – is black as well as trans. If we had any institutional power, we would be using it in all of these areas to protect ourselves, and make our lives easier.

The pretext for this wave of hate is, ironically, a suggested piece of legislation, unlikely to be passed any time soon, which we welcome but which was not high on our shopping list. The Conservative government is discussing an updating of the process of formal ‘Gender Recognition’ – established in the 2004 act as a intrusive. cumbersome and expensive procedure – in line with the best practice of other countries like Eire where making it a simple civil declaration has, contrary to all the scare stories and hypothetical scenarios, had no serious negative consequences whatever. It’s a vaguely liberal gesture which the May government favours partly because it doesn’t cost anything.

Yet a group of anti-trans radical feminists called A Woman’s Place UK (not to be confused with other groups with a similar name) is holding public meetings all over the country to alert women in general to what they claim is an attempt to erase the very existential nature of womanhood. (As so often, they ignore the existence of trans men except for the occasional pious hope that they will repent.) The only unusual thing about this – much of it is the usual suspects of feminist transphobia – is its growing virulence and the extent to which its signal is being boosted by the Times and the Daily Mail.

When former prison officer Anne Ruzylo, then Women’s Officer of Bexhill and Battle Labour Party, was the subject of a complaint about her transphobia by a 19 year old trans woman Lily Madigan, Times journalist Lucy Bannerman encouraged Madigan to talk to her. Bannerman then wrote pieces which included hit quotes against Madigan for applying for the Jo Cox Women’s Leadership scheme. A letter to the Times supporting Madigan’s application from the current members of the scheme was never published. There has been a lot of abuse of Lily Madigan on line from transphobic feminists – some of it obscene, some of it implicitly threatening; for example, when Madigan mentioned that she was attending a Reclaim the Night march, retired academic Julia Long posted on Facebook that she had gone around the march looking for her to confront her. Does it need to be said that it is disgusting for social and cultural capital to be expended on victimising a politically involved teenager, or indeed a young actor and poet like Travis Alabanza?

Times feature writer Janice Turner – not generally noted for being on the Left and a strong Brexiter – has written long and intrusive articles about young trans boys. She attended the September rally against GRA reform set up by A Woman’s Place UK and wrote on September 23rd an account of the confrontation in Hyde Park that preceded it. There is good photographic evidence of regrettable violence and aggression on both sides, yet Turner represents the issue wholly and exclusively as trans activists beating up an elderly woman – whose own account indicates that she was committing some serious mayhem of her own prior to the assault on her. Similar accounts appeared in, for example, the Daily Mail along with features by Sarah Vine, wife of a Conservative cabinet minister, and the former trot Peter Hitchens, all arguing that trans people are a threat of various kinds.

Why have right-wing newspaper columnists suddenly formed this alliance with a particular section of radical feminism? One theory would be that the anti-trans rhetoric has proved a powerful weapon in current culture wars. In particular, scare stories about trans women in women’s toilets served the Republicans well in the 2016 US election – and that might be transferrable to UK politics, especially given Jeremy Corbyn’s thus far positive statements on trans issues. Another would be the fact that hard-line pro-Brexit Tories are interested in weakening Theresa May by any possible means. Thus, it’s obviously to their advantage to present a policy she has proposed as a capitulation to a malign liberal conspiracy. It scuppers her one cheap liberal policy, which had the potential to serve as her equivalent of David Cameron’s move on gay marriage.

They are getting some support in this, ironically, from the group of liberal feminists who cluster around the New Statesman. What’s noticeable here is that figures like Sarah Ditum go along with the reactionary way that Janice Turner phrases her concerns about the proper rearing of trans children without ever mentioning what we can take to be quite significant disagreements about family life. Or indeed the fact that trans children are at much greater risk of self-harm, violence and suicide. Similarly, Ditum talks as if the concept of no-platforming people with contentious views from university spaces were largely invented by, and case by case instigated by, trans people. In reality, it’s more a generational debate about constitutes free speech. That generational divide often maps on to divisions within the feminist movement, most trans-exclusionary radical feminists hailing from previous generations of feminism. But the one cannot be collapsed into the other without muddying the waters. Then again, that confusion is once again, rather useful; it casts trans rights as emblematic of a general creep towards snowflake anti-liberalism among younger generations – particularly among students.

What is quite remarkable is how totally the NS group and their allies on eg the Guardian have over the last two years misread the political current. Helen Lewis, the NS political editor, committed herself so staunchly to anti-Corbyn politics that she probably has little capital to persuade the Labour Party to her way of thinking on issues such as trans rights.

Which brings us round to the question of why A Woman’s Place UK figures like the former Momentum member Venice Allan and the veteran black feminist Linda Bellos are so prepared to make use of the right-wing Tory press? In her book Gender Hurts, retired academic Sheila Jeffreys – closely associated with Bellos in the so-called sex wars around the London Lesbian and Gay centre in the 1980s – bemoans the fact that only people as right-wing as Norman Tebbit seemed to agree with her about the perniciousness of the 2004 Gender Recognition act. Allan has stated on social media that A Woman’s Place UK do not just have GRA reform in their sights but wish to overturn the 2004 act as well as various provisions in equality legislation that give trans people rights. She has devoted a number of videos to fervent appeals to Jeremy Corbyn to drop his support for trans rights.

However, so far the only Labour MPs with whom these views have openly gained much traction are quite rightwing ones like the currently pro-Brexit Caroline Flint; Allan has posted selfies with Jess Phillips but it remains to be seen whether Phillips will be persuaded by her. A political heavyweight like Bellos, with a long positive history on left causes like the reparation movement, may get more of a hearing, at least for old time’s sake. It is to be hoped that the easy publicity given to anti-trans views by alliance with the Murdoch and Rothermere press will make such views toxic to much of the left, demonstrating as they do a significant failure of principle.

Anti-trans politics in feminism have a sorry history on the left. In the early days of Gay and Lesbian liberation, there was the silencing of trans women of colour like Sylvia Riveira. There is the paranoiac and exterminationist rhetoric of Janice Raymond’s 1979 book ‘The Transsexual Empire’ which calls for transsexuality to be ‘morally mandated’ out of existence, followed by Raymond’s cooperation with a Republican congress and right-wing christians like Paul McHugh to remove federal funding from trans medical care, something only restored by Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Sheila Jeffreys has called for trans medical care to be made a crime against humanity by international treaty.

In her 1993 book ‘The Lesbian Heresy’, Sheila Jeffreys bemoaned the failure of her brand of radical feminism to sustain its brief dominance over the women’s movement, a dominance characterised by stigmatisation of various choices ranging from bisexuality and BDSM to pierced ears, long hair and cosmetics. It’s clear from that book that it has never seriously occurred to Jeffreys that in the fight against late stage capitalism and racism many might hold these concerns to be trivial and counter-productive bullying. She seems to hope that by exploiting a right-wing populist current against trans people, and taking the old band on the road, she might kick start her old joyless brand of politics into relevance again. How this would fit in with the broader direction of the British left is hard to see.

There is, in all of this, an undercurrent of generational resentment. How dare millennials consume cultural products that have values we don’t understand? How dare they ban from their platforms women who have done long service to the cause – and whose commitment to free speech back in the day included at least discussion of public book burning? Millennials are, as far as we can tell, just far more relaxed around gender variation than previous generations – so much so that intolerance around this issue is one of the things young Nazis and other far right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos use to characterise their rage against ordinary decent liberal values. Transphobia is seen by people in their twenties and thirties as being like racism – a preserve of the right; it is not a good look for feminism.

If A Woman’s Place UK manages to win the odd battle – deferring reform of the GRA and forcing trans people to spend several hundred pounds to change their paperwork – it will not affect this. If, by allying with the most reactionary sections of the British press, transphobic feminism were able to reverse the tide and make trans people unacceptable to a majority of the population it would be a self-defeating victory. In the US, the panic about trans people in toilets led to attacks on a variety of gender non-conforming cis women. The Times and the Daily Mail will not defend other areas of any conceivable feminism – the societal model they want has no place for equality of any kind. They are not feminist allies even in the short term.

Speaking as a trans woman who has resisted attempts to suppress my community for forty years, I don’t call on transphobic feminists to like the fact that I exist. But what is the end game of all this? A ban on transition during childhood or adolescence that would risk an epidemic of suicide? A Clause 28 style law preventing sharing of transition-related information on the internet? A North Carolina style toilet law that would effectively bar trans people from any role in civil society? Incarceration, forced detransition and compulsory ‘therapies’? The right might favour all of this – though only UKIP has specifically anti-trans policies – but surely not feminists.

I just ask them to recognise that the path they are going down is a threat to their own survival as well – I don’t appeal to the womanhood they don’t accept we share; I certainly don’t appeal to the kindness they don’t feel they owe me. I appeal to their self-interest. If they change society so that it has no place for me, the deals they will make will rapidly leave pretty little room for them either.


This article originally contained a paragraph relating to an Independent article claiming to have ‘debunked’ a study by Fair Play for Women on trans prisoners. We have since been made aware that this article is the subject on ongoing legal action between the authors and the Independent. We have removed this paragraph and withdraw any link between this article and the Independent article. “A comprehensive study report describing the data source and methodology is published on the Fair Play For Women website. The organisation’s figures for the total number of transgender prisoners has since been shown to closely match official figures recently released by the Ministry of Justice.”

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