INTERVIEW: UK women are self-identifying as men to challenge proposed changes to the GRA as part of #ManFriday

On Friday, March 16th, Amy Desir and Hannah Clarke attended a men-only swim session at the Dulwich Leisure Centre, wearing only trunks and pink swimming caps. This action was the third of many that followed — part of a nationwide campaign called #ManFriday. Initially formed on Mumsnet, the 100+ women of #ManFriday are using direct action to expose the absurdities and injustices of self-identification and the threat to women’s rights posed by new gender identity legislation. In protest of proposed amendments to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would enable people to self-identify as men or women, UK women are “self-identifying” as men every Friday. Though the UK government held consultations over proposed changes to the GRA, women were not consulted, and the government only spoke with transgender lobby groups. Last month, I spoke with Hannah about this burgeoning political movement and the public reaction, which led to Swim England pulling it’s guidance (which had said trans-identified swimmers should be encouraged to use the changing rooms that make them most comfortable) from the Internet and listing it as “under review.”


Julian Vigo: How did #ManFriday begin?

Hannah Clarke: I was on Mumsnet one day, in the Feminism chat section (where I spend all my time these days), and I spotted a thread called, “I’m about to ID as a man.”

I started reading the thread and original post, which I now know to have been written by Amy Desir, who had taken it upon herself to challenge the Swim England Guidance in the most wonderful, British way. She emailed her local swimming pool and asked how they applied the new guidance to self-identified men, if she was allowed to swim topless, and if she was allowed to access the men-only sessions and male changing rooms. The guidance now allows the inclusion of male-identified trans persons in female spaces. On February 23rd, Amy had started that Mumsnet thread, explaining that she had a meeting that day with the management at her local pool to discuss the policy on trans swimmers and self-identification, and that she was going to identify as a man without changing her presentation at all. She [went to the meeting] presenting as she normally does — in a skirt and makeup —  to point out that she was clearly not taking any steps to change her body to look like a man’s, but said she was a man. [After explaining her concerns about the guidance] they informed her that they would get back to her with a decision.

Because the initial conversation on Mumsnet happened on a Friday, someone on the thread came up with the idea of continuing the action as #ManFriday, and then the [secret] Facebook group was born. Really this is Amy’s brilliance and the rest of us are jumping on her bandwagon.

JV: What are the main objectives of #ManFriday? And how do you think think it could change the outcome of the GRA consultation?

HC: We are a group of women who oppose the push towards self-identification, both in law and in practice. We are concerned that self-identification removes gatekeeping to women’s identity, protected spaces, services, and roles. It also denies biology and women’s lived experiences of sex-based discrimination and violence.

We also want to ensure that current sex-based exemptions in the Equality Act are applied. The current push to base GRA on self-identification [if adopted, the legislation would replace the term “gender reassignment” with “gender identity,” meaning that Gender Recognition Certificates (GRC) could be issued without any conditions, by a process of self-declaration alone] has caused a lot of companies and service-providers to jump on a self-identification bandwagon and create policies that allow people to use whatever facilities they opt to. We are asking for the exemptions in the Equality Act to be applied, so that companies and service-providers, like [retail stores with changing rooms], swimming pools, etc. to enforce the exemptions which would allow for sex to have primacy over gender and that state we can have spaces separated by sex.

This is why Amy started a petition which demands a respectful and evidence-based discussion about the impact of the proposed changes; for women’s voices to be heard; that the government consult with women’s organizations on how self-declaration would impact women-only services and spaces, data-gathering, as well as the monitoring of sex-based discrimination; and that the principle of single-sex spaces be upheld. We are asking to be taken seriously at the next consultation. We are asking to be included in consultation as the earlier consultation about changes included trans groups, but not women.

JV: What has been the reaction to your actions from the public?

HC: The second #ManFriday action at the swimming pool was fairly benign. The receptionist didn’t challenge me when I said I identified as a man, and none of the men in the changing room or pool said anything to me at all, though one did ask another man why I was in their changing room.

The dirtiest look I got was from the woman who was asked to leave the pool as it was men-only, while I was waiting at the side of the pool for the general swimming and the kids class to end. The pool staff had asked all the swimmers to leave as it was now the men-only swim. She didn’t ask why I was still swimming, though — she just looked at me in incredulity/crossness.

One man asked Amy if she knew it was men-only. She responded by saying that she was a man, and he said “ok” and left her to it. By the time Amy got out of the pool there were five or so men complaining to the lifeguards.

During the shopping action at Primark, Marks and Spencer, Topshop, and Urban Outfitters, one woman asked if we had anything to do with the Dulwich pool swim, but mostly people accept when you say you’re a man or just ignore you and roll their eyes.

It’s all been very British — no direct confrontation.

JV: What were the men complaining to the lifeguard about? That a woman was allowed in or that she was semi-naked?

HC: I don’t know what they were complaining about. I could see them, but I couldn’t hear them. I assume that they began complaining because Amy was half naked, as they weren’t complaining when I was in there wearing a rash vest. Either that or they had realized something was going on, as two women had accessed the changing rooms and pool and it clearly wasn’t a mistake.

JV: Could you describe your latest action?

HC: Our most-recent action was to go into changing rooms in retail stores to show how vulnerable people are in there. We identified our way into male changing rooms and took photos of one another under doors/curtains or over dividers. We had agreed beforehand that we would photograph one another, but the photos aren’t staged or posed. We went into the changing rooms, started changing, and others in the group got their phones out and went to town.

Mixed-sex changing rooms have resulted in incidents of voyeurism tripling — in this case, we were the voyeurs. We had consented to the photos prior, but they were taken without us noticing — it’s quite sobering to realize how vulnerable we are when changing, especially now that men can come into women’s changing rooms. We only went into shops that have publicly stated that customers can use whichever changing rooms they “identify” with.

I’ve seen several separate tweets saying I’ve been reported to the police for the photos… which are of me! And trans activists started a Twitter campaign to have us banned from Marks and Spencer. While I find this hilarious, I’m sure some people would find this quite frightening. Can you imagine if I got a visit from the police? Yes officer, would you like me to show you the pants I was wearing?

As for actions this past Friday, Amy Desir went head-to-head with the Caledonian Sleeper train due to their offering single-sex compartments, while still allowing people to self-identify gender and enter the spaces of the opposite sex. She conducted this action through social media and email.

We didn’t expect to make such a huge impact so quickly, and are playing catch up. There are around 150 people in the #ManFriday Facebook group, now — some women who are able to participate and others who can’t, as they are afraid to publicly express gender critical views due to threats to their livelihood from trans activists.

JV: Do you sense that your political actions have had any effect in shifting public perception on this issue?  

HC: I think they have had an effect in changing perception. There were news articles and radio shows about self-identification in the UK every day a couple of weeks ago. The mainstream media had been largely silent on this issue and it’s all over the place now. The comments on articles have been quite heartening. People seem to understand the implications in real life: It’s about same-sex spaces being maintained. It’s about the practical aspects of service providers [for example, domestic abuse shelters and hospitals] interpreting laws in ways that put vulnerable service users at risk. The Times recently covered the issue of Girlguiding and the policy allowing boys claiming to be female to share tents and showers with girls on camping trips, for example, so the story is being kept current.

JV: Why do you think so many people are unaware of the practical implications of making gender identity something that is achieved through self-declaration alone?

HC: I think the issue is twofold. One is that the proposed changes to the GRA are being snuck in under the radar as though they are something particularly unimportant/niche — as though this only affects trans-identified-people. The other is that we’re all so scared of being labelled “phobic” in the UK. Being called homophobic or racist is deeply discomfiting and people equate accusations of “transphobia” with the very real homophobia that goes on here.

It’s only when they start thinking beyond the dogma of “transwomen are women” that they realize that the ideology that trans activists are pushing is homophobic (and misogynist, but of course most people don’t care about misogyny). Also, most people aren’t really politically aware. We saw this after the Brexit vote when people said they “didn’t know” what they were voting over even though all the information in the world was out there for them to access. There’s a peculiar delight in being unaware of political issues in a Michael Gove “the country has had enough of experts” kind of way.

JV: Especially in the West where there has been an acceptance of gay rights in the past 20 years, there is now an impulse is to accept new discourse that sounds similar — whatever it may be — without thinking about what we are accepting. So, transgender identity and “trans rights” have been ushered in in such a way that most people are not actually sure — even now — what it means (i.e. a load of people still think it is the same as being gay or cross-dressing.)

HC: I found a quote the other day from Nellie Taylor, a prominent suffragette, that sums this all up: “There are hundreds and thousands of women who do care for the suffrage; but there are millions — I speak advisedly — millions who not only do not care, but who have, many of them, never heard of it, and certainly do not realize what it means.”

I also believe that lots of people think those who are “trapped in the wrong body” or “dysphoric” need our sympathy. But in truth, this current push of “transwomen are women” appears to be coming from the autogynephiles.

JV: Yes, but there is even a resistance — nay refusal — to talk about autogynephilia at all. There is this push to have us all believe in the inner gender-soul, as if this is the new religion.

HC: Exactly. Those who aren’t steeped in [gender] ideology (either to celebrate it or oppose it) know autogynephilia exists because we aren’t allowed to talk about it.

But yes I agree, [the notion of gender identity] is faith-based: we are expected to believe based on assertions of feelings, not evidence or proof. The ideology actively rejects science. There’s a lot of common behaviour strands behind creationism and transgender ideology.

JV: Indeed, but then we arrive at the “no true trans” arguments and it becomes very difficult for people to understand who is “really transgender” (i.e. those who suffer from gender dysphoria) vs who is a social transitioner, as seems to be more and more common today.

Inversely, there is no other medical or psychiatric condition where the NHS guidelines would state, for example, “She’s anorexic so one method we have for dealing with this is that all of society must tell her that she is fat.” Why has society been encouraged to take part in this illusion?

HC: I was diagnosed with anorexia four years ago and finished treatment in November. At no time was my dysphoria affirmed or validated — I had to fight it.

And I knew my brain was wrong — I knew I was underweight but I couldn’t see that I was underweight. If people had indulged my delusion and agreed I that was fat, as I felt I was, I would have later realized they were lying.

“Transwomen” (I hate the term, but bear with me) know they aren’t women. Forcing us to all chant “transwomen are women” is insane. They are forcing us to say something they know isn’t true.

The forcing of society to play into the delusion is the real problem here. It’s something that worries me so because it is mandating beliefs/thoughts.

JV: Yes, and this is a social model that is saying that we are adding to their pathology if we do not reaffirm. Yet, I can think of no other medical condition where the public is pressured to lie, in order to make the subject/patient feel affirmed.

HC: Exactly. Affirmation would have killed me. Affirmation is discouraged in every other delusion/lie. It’s not just the medical side of things — we don’t encourage people to be overinflated in their opinions of themselves or abilities (especially Brits, we love to tear people down). “Affirmation” isn’t something we do.

JV: That’s right. The Brits are very good at self-depreciation and toning down even legitimate accomplishments. Now we are leaping to this notion of “finding one’s true self” [applause] as if accomplishing such a thing is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning moment. How on earth did we get here?

HC: That’s what baffles me. I also struggle with the idea one’s “true self” involves — sometimes, though not always — medication and surgery. And that what one’s “true self” involves a great big lie.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, filmmaker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development. Contact her via email: [email protected].

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