When I started campaigning in the late nineties, it made me about as fashionable as the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons, though with fewer friends (and a vulva). I cut my political teeth by earnestly handing out flyers warning people about the bigotry of the British National Party with the righteous fervour of a teenage Marxist. As such, it’s been a surprise some half a lifetime later to find myself repeatedly called a fascist.
What apparently makes me, and the other feminists who think like me, akin to Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, is that we choose to prioritize the rights of women and girls. Criticism isn’t just from the left — even those in the belly of the establishment such as Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, sneer at our concerns while deriding us as “purported feminists.”
The issue that draws such slurs from left and right is that of gender identity. At this point, I should apologize to my fellow liberals for any hummus that may be spluttered onto iPhones, but I do not care about an individual’s internal sense of identity. I don’t want to cause undue upset, and will use preferred pronouns and chosen names, but ultimately if there is a disjuncture between how an individual feels and how they look, that is up to them to navigate.
In the UK, the first inquiry launched by the then-newly formed Women and Equalities Committee was the “Transgender Equality Inquiry.” One of the recommendations was to update the Equality Act (2010) to replace “gender reassignment” as a protected characteristic with “gender identity.”
Superficially, this perhaps seems like an innocuous attempt to bring language into line with the preferred terminology of a rapidly evolving movement. In practice, the ramifications for the rights and safety of women and girls cannot be understated.
Although this debate is often reduced to being about public toilets, arguably, prison policies present the most pertinent examples of how segregating people on the basis of their self-declaration might work in practice. In exceptional circumstances, trans people (though curiously, in practice this is always transwomen) can be moved without a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Tara Hudson, a violent and repeat offender was moved to a women’s prison, despite not having a GRC, following a well-orchestrated media campaign designed to twang the heart strings of well-meaning liberals across the country. In an escort advertisement, Hudson boasted of a “seven-inch surprise.” It may indeed come as shock, but the majority of biological men who identify as women do not elect to have surgery.
Last month Annabelle Ford, who has a GRC, attacked a friend with a scaffolding pole in front of a child. Annabelle was sent to a women’s prison where 81 per cent of the female offenders are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. To date, there hasn’t been a campaign to have similarly intact prisoners who identify as women but don’t have GRCs — such as rapists like Davina Aryton, or paedophiles like Nicola Florida and Jasmine Hill — moved into women’s prisons. But should the concept of self-identification become a protected characteristic, there will be no legal basis to challenge an individual’s sense of their gender identity. This means that, in practice, the sex-based protections that previous generations of feminists fought for will be effectively nullified.
The “trans umbrella,” as favoured by leading LGBT campaign groups, includes those who wear clothes associated with the other sex. Whilst it would be disingenuous to suggest that every cross-dresser is a Norman Bates, it is fair to assume that a pair of Janet Regers will not magic away the socialized norms of male behaviour. This, to me, is where the heart of the problem lies: we have a collective blind spot around male violence. It is a sad fact that male pattern violence does not change with identities, and neither can women identify out of risk. The reason single-sex facilities exist is not because women are prudes — it’s because a significant minority of men are predators.
Whether the recommendations of the transgender inquiry are ever formally implemented is perhaps irrelevant; in practice “gender identity” has already been adopted as a marker in place of sex across statutory bodies. Earlier this week, the National Union of Teachers voted to promote gender identity in educational institutions. Even the Girl Guides now accept self-identification, rather than biological sex, as a criterion for becoming a guide leader. Ask your local hospital, and it is likely that, despite the hefty fines for breaching single sex wards, if a patient identifies as the other sex they will be placed on that ward.
The standard response, when concerns about women’s rights are raised in relation to gender identity, is that transwomen are disproportionately likely to be victims of violence. It should be noted that the oft quoted “one in twelve trans women are murdered” refers to prostituted transwomen of colour in South America, not white computer programmers in Surrey. Furthermore, it isn’t marauding bands of nasty feminists who murder and maim trans people; it’s men.
Frustratingly, those of us who understand gender to be a collection of harmful stereotypes to be abolished, rather than a liberating performance, are rarely consulted when policy decisions are made. I think I might choose to identify as a man, then perhaps my concerns about women’s safety will be listened to.
Jo Bartosch founded the feminist campaign group Chelt Fems, which she chaired for seven years. In March she stepped down to become a Director of Critical Sisters, an organization formed to promote women’s liberation and critical thinking across the left. Follow @CriticalSisters.