INTERVIEW: Julia Beck on the Equality Act, sex self-identification, and why she perseveres in the face of controversy

Meghan Murphy interviews lesbian feminist Julia Beck about coming out, fighting sex self-identification, the Equality Act, and working within — and without — the system.

Julia Beck is a lesbian from Baltimore, Maryland. She advocates for women-only spaces and honest conversations. This year, she represented Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) at congressional hearings for the Equality Act and the Violence Against Women Act. I interviewed her about her journey, her politics, and the controversies surrounding her fight for women’s sex-based rights.

Meghan Murphy: Tell me a bit about your history? When did you come out as a lesbian? How did you get involved in feminist activism?

Julia Beck: I came out as “gay” when I was 23. I didn’t say “lesbian” yet, because I associated the word with pornography. I had a lot of deprogramming to do. It all started with Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto — a wicked text by a riotous woman who inspired me to think differently. I searched for more feminist texts and found Andrea Dworkin, Claire Heuchan, Sheila Jeffreys, Renee Gerlich, and Audre Lorde. One year later, after visiting woman-only land in Delaware, I joyfully embraced my lesbianism.

Experience has been my greatest teacher on the journey to finding feminism. I learned first-hand that the personal is indeed political. When I was young, I spent a lot of time in churches. My mother and I relied on the charity of God-fearing people to survive homelessness. I was dependent on people who said homosexuality is a sin. As is the case for many women, for me heterosexuality was a coping mechanism to survive patriarchy. In my 20s, I moved to Baltimore City and met lesbians with similar experiences. They held space for me, and I finally saw what healthy relationships could look like.

In the summer of 2016, these lesbians took me to SisterSpace. I had never been to a women’s festival and found myself stunned by the weight of what I didn’t know I was carrying. Leaving was excruciatingly painful, so I journeyed to the Ohio Lesbian Festival two weeks later. I’ve attended women’s gatherings every year since then, because female-only space heals me. I love walking at night, totally alone and completely naked, on women’s land. This feeling of natural embodiment fuels my work.

MM: You were kicked off the Baltimore mayor’s LGBTQ Commission in 2018 — Why? What happened?

JB: I joined Baltimore City’s LGBTQ commission to represent lesbians in local government. In spring 2018, I helped form the law and policy committee. That autumn, I was elected to serve as one of two committee co-chairs on the official commission. I was voted out of my co-chair role and off of the commission two months later. For the record, I was not paid — only the mayor’s liaison to the commission receives a salary.

After co-chair elections, the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) shared newly drafted policies with the committee for review. These policies described procedures for body cavity searches, warrantless arrests, and weapons pat-downs. Biological sex was not mentioned. Instead, BPD listed “gender identity” as an “apparent demographic category” and “personal characteristic.” I recommended BPD enact same-sex searches and add “sex” to the list of demographics and characteristics. Nobody on the committee disagreed until our first meeting in October 2018.

I was joined at this meeting by three men: my co-chair, one committee member, and the president of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance (BTA). The BTA president said he was there because BPD alerted him of my allegedly “transphobic” policy suggestions. I explained that if “gender identity” replaced “sex” in public policy, women in Baltimore City would suffer at the hands of men. Then the three men in attendance worked in clumsy tandem to gaslight me for the next two hours about what “sex” and “gender” mean.

One week later, the BTA president emailed the mayor’s liaison and my whole committee. He accused me of committing “violence against the transgender community,” expressed concern with my leadership, and called for a vote to have me expelled as co-chair. My committee had just been established. We had no bylaws, statements of purpose, or voting procedures. Despite all this, and despite the fact that the BTA president was not even a committee member, an emergency meeting was swiftly scheduled for early December.

At this meeting, my accuser refused to make a case against me. He simply stated that my recognition of biological sex was incriminating enough to have me expelled. I was accompanied by three women from the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) whose stories and statistics clearly illustrated the necessity of “sex” in public policies. Unfortunately, my committee voted me out anyway. Tough crowd. My accuser, a heterosexual man who calls himself a lesbian, has now assumed the co-chair role I previously occupied.

MM: This year, you appeared on a panel hosted by The Heritage Foundation, a right wing think tank. Can you tell me why you decided to participate in this panel and what the outcome was?

JB: The panel was initiated by Katherine Cave, founder of The Kelsey Coalition, a non-partisan organization whose mission is to promote policies and laws that protect young people from medical and psychological harms. Cave spent four years searching for anyone willing to speak publicly about how “gender identity” impacts children and their parents. She asked every left-leaning think tank she could find, but they either flatly refused with accusations of “transphobia,” or simply did not reply. Eventually, Cave and WoLF worked together to plan a panel of left-leaning people to speak at The Heritage Foundation. WoLF asked me to speak since I’d just been kicked off the committee, and I said yes.

At the beginning of 2019, no other platform with half as much political influence as Heritage even dared to challenge the status quo, and that remains the case today. Members of my own so-called “community” had freshly ousted me for defying the dogma that “transwomen are women.” I figured there was more to gain than lose. Plus, I already planned to be in D.C. for Women Stand Up — a gathering of women from the US, the UK, and Canada to challenge social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to stop banning women for standing up for ourselves.

I had my doubts about working with the right. My first voter registration card read “Independent,” because I doubted the left just the same. I thought no politician or political party could ever be trusted. Now I question the necessity of trust. Both parties promote capitalism, wage wars, and dehumanize women. I wielded my privileges of race and education to speak on the side that I could.

The circumstances of the panel caused an uproar weeks before the event. I knew that whatever I said would spread like wildfire. So call me an opportunist, if you must, but I prefer “pirate.” According to Mary Daly, women must Plunder and Smuggle what phallocentric society steals from us. Lesbians are met with violence for simply existing as female while the very definition of “woman” is under attack. Our voices are drowned in the alphabet soup, so I used Heritage to send a message. And you know what? This message was received by people all over the world.

The very next day, organizers of Women Stand Up canvassed legislators on Capitol Hill. They shared concerns about “gender identity” legislation with anyone who would listen. Every Republican they spoke with already knew about the Heritage panel. In just one week, over fifty news articles were published about the panel in mainstream sources. Even left wing outlets shared what my fellow panelists and I said, despite merciless slander. The coverage was remarkable.

In the following months, Republicans offered me platforms on Fox News and in Congress. I caused quite a stir by accepting these invitations. Women blamed me for allegedly “destroying feminism.” Lesbians banned me from online communities. Men and male allies physically removed me and my partner from the dance floor of a local bar. Fortunately, this backlash is not the only outcome.

Radical feminist critiques of “gender identity” are now in the congressional record, directed to top officials in the current administration and Supreme Court. Women on both sides of the aisle have formed their own interest groups in support of women’s sex-based rights. International lesbian and feminist networks are growing stronger every day. I played a tiny yet galvanizing role in the greater conversation in which hundreds of thousands of people around the world are now participating.

MM: The panel was controversial, as many accused you of being, essentially, “in bed with the right.” How do you respond to this framing of your participation on the panel?

JB: This accusation is misogynist and anti-lesbian. Male politicians and activists on the left are never accused of being “in bed” with the right. Why is women’s bipartisanship frowned upon? Why are women’s actions compared to prostitution in the political arena? Is this implication reserved for women only? Does the left own feminism? These are the questions I encourage women to ask before accusing others of political impurity.

In all honesty, I detest male politics. All political systems built by men are patriarchal shams, just like all other hierarchies. Why should women work in systems designed by our oppressors? On the other hand, which women have the privilege of political abstinence? It all depends on who benefits, and my intention of working in male politics was to benefit my entire sex class.

I abhor the accusation of selling access to the insides of my body for political gain. I am bored by people who misattribute women’s successes to men. I’m wary of people who remain willfully ignorant of how two-party systems work. Things have become so polarized in the US that women sling insults at each other for the slightest disagreements. Newsflash! Political purity is a farce. It’s like virginity — a patriarchal limitation that justifies abuse against women for disobeying. Feminist pirates don’t obey.

MM: How did you feel about that backlash? Particularly coming from other feminists…?

JB: I’m astounded by women who rail against Republicans but in the same breath pledge allegiance to Democrats. The left inhibits women’s bodily autonomy and lesbian sovereignty by commodifying female sexual labour and obscuring biological sex from legal records. The right criminalizes abortion and promotes the nuclear family to meet the same ends. There exists no party for women.

Regardless of political affiliation, women are diminished and violated by the rapidly changing redefinition of womanhood. Female athletes are denied titles, prizes, and scholastic opportunities by males who compete in women’s sports. Homeless and incarcerated women are forced to shower with male predators who call themselves female. Teenage girls who don’t conform to feminine stereotypes are undergoing bilateral mastectomies, and permanent sterilization is recommended to prepubescent children. Parents who question these medical interventions are slandered as bigots and denied parental rights by the state.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. That’s machiavellian, I know, but so is politics. Some women say working with Republicans makes feminism look bad. Can we please dump beauty myths already? Optics are small potatoes when an entire sex class is threatened with legal erasure. Feminism will never “look good” anyway. Feminism is hated because women are hated. Period.

MM: You received enormous attention from right wing media after doing that HF panel. Can you tell me what that experience was like for you?

JB: Never before had I experienced such intense media exposure. Leftists dragged my name through the mud while conservatives celebrated my supposed allyship. Many on the right used me to prove the left was eating itself. Both sides propped me up as some kind of anti-trans poster child. In reality, I’m just pro-woman.

The controversy of my actions spread my message farther than any left wing platform ever would. After the panel, right wing journalists and pundits asked for interviews, invited me to join their networks, and offered me more speaking opportunities. It wasn’t until after I spoke on Fox News that my left-leaning local paper, The Baltimore Sun, contacted me for a statement.

Before the Heritage panel, there was minimal media coverage on the experiences of lesbians in “queer” communities. Very few outlets honestly reported on the violence of men who refuse to call themselves men. It seemed like the only way to get on the news was to become the news. I do believe going to these “extremes” encouraged the national conversation to bubble over in such a fashion that it could no longer be ignored. But sometimes after speaking, I just felt dirty.

This year, I spoke on a different platform every month from January to May. I was exhausted and torn. By working with the right, I deepened a rift along the intersections of race and class in many feminist and lesbian communities. I felt obliged to speak, even though each time I sank deeper into the place of unfeeling that I spent so many years climbing out of. I simply went numb, and I stayed numb until I spoke at Lesbians on Chairs in London.

Right wing media did not pay attention to this panel. It was organized by and for women to protest the exclusion of lesbians from so-called “inclusive” spaces. The name refers specifically to an event where UK-based lesbian Julia Long was forcibly removed by police while she sat on a chair. I felt rejuvenated after sharing time and ideas with other politically active lesbians. I realized this was the kind of work I wanted to do, regardless of mainstream coverage.

MM: Earlier this month, you testified before the US House Judiciary Committee on HR 5, the Equality Act. Why? What did you say? What was the significance of your testimony?

JB: A Republican congresswoman — herself a survivor of domestic violence — invited me to testify at the HR 5 hearing because I am publicly opposed to “gender identity” ideology, and because I was willing to work with the right. I had already testified for the Violence Against Women Act just three weeks prior. There was no way in hell I’d turn down a second opportunity to testify before Congress.

Every few years, members of Congress modify the Equality Act (EA) with hopes of passing it into law. The EA was first written in 1974 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and sexuality. This year, a new version of the EA called HR 5 proposes amendments to sex-based protections, such as Title IX and the Civil Rights Act, to include protections on the basis of “gender identity,” also known as sex self-identification.

Sex self-identification denies women, regardless of sexuality, our right to protection on the basis of sex. When we lose the ability to name sex, the boundaries of sexuality cease to exist. From a legal perspective, we have to be able to define these basic sexual boundaries if we are going to afford them civil protection. HR 5 cannot protect sex or sexual orientation while also enshrining gender identity in law.

Lesbians have faced discrimination for centuries, because we defy the heteronormative sex stereotypes that “gender identity” supports. Lesbians are not pretending to be men when we love women. We are no less women for not fitting every stereotype of femininity. The notion of “gender identity” obscures biology in such a way that lesbians are increasingly pressured by peers and larger society to accept male partners who proclaim that they are in fact female. This ideology also pressures gender non-conforming lesbians to dress and behave as men by “transitioning.”

Any legislation that attempts to erase boundaries for women and girls by replacing “sex” with the amorphous concept of “gender identity” renders female boundaries meaningless. Sex self-identification is a legal jackpot for sexual predators. Incidents of abuse occur far too often for anyone to write them all off as anecdotal. How many women and girls must be hurt by men who refuse to call themselves men before we acknowledge that there might possibly be a problem? When “gender identity” wins, women and girls lose.

MM: What advice do you give to women who are angry about how trans activism is impacting women, and lesbians in particular? What can/should they do to take action?

JB: Go off-line and get local. Meet other women and raise energy together. Make zines, paint walls, and break bread. Perform cervical exams and practice martial arts. Feminist activism outside patriarchal systems of “law” and “justice” is just as important, albeit slightly more rejuvenating, as is working within them. So form a girl gang, and whatever it is that y’all do, go do it!

I want women’s groups to act like the Hydra, a mythological serpent with nine heads. The story goes that if one head is cut off, two more grow in its place. Imagine a movement like that! Growing with the limitless ebbs and flows of life. Regeneration is a powerful skill, and lucky for women, we’ve got it. For this idea to work, we need many different women doing many different things in many different places all at once. This is entirely dependent on the resilience and security of personal networks.

Women’s communities are wildly precious. When we share space, we conspire by breathing the same breath. We have the opportunity to share love, the most powerful force in the universe. My sincere advice is to build connections with women nearby. In the words of Magdalen Berns: Be brave. Take care of yourselves, and keep fighting.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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