‘No conflict, they said’ — An interview with Holly-Lawford Smith

Dr Holly Lawford-Smith is an associate professor of political philosophy at the University of Melbourne. Holly is a women’s rights activist and creator of the website, NoConflictTheySaid.org, which seeks to gather anecdotal evidence of the ways in which sex self-identification impacts women. As a result of the website launch, Holly has been targeted by her colleagues, who penned an open letter to university administrators denouncing her as transphobic. In addition, over the weekend of April 2nd, trans activists staged a protest on campus condemning her and the site. She is currently working on a book about gender critical feminism.

Genevieve Gluck: You recently started a website dedicated to hosting stories from women who feel afraid to speak up about their concerns or experiences with gender identity laws. Can you tell us how you got the idea for the website and what your goals are with it?

Holly Lawford-Smith: Yeah, and let me clarify, just in case anyone hasn’t heard of it before, it’s No Conflict They Said.org, not dot com, because trans activists hijacked the dot com site to redirect people and shame them on their way.

I started the website because I was aware of the fact that we have missing information in the debate. The liberal feminist side seems to be insisting that there is absolutely no possible conflict of interest — that there’s nothing to be said when it comes to the question of whether women might lose anything through the inclusion of males who identify as women in women-only spaces. They act like there are only gains for people with gender identities, but no losses for women, and that therefore it’s a no-brainer: we should just make all laws and policies “inclusive.” I think people on “our side” — like those who are gender critical or radical feminists — know there is a conflict, and know there are costs to women. Many of us are in online communities or have networks of women in real life where we hear about what those impacts are, but it’s really frustrating that’s not part of the public dialogue and that there’s so much insistence that this is all good news for people with gender identities and neutral for women.

I’ve been feeling frustrated about it for a long time. I’m angry that governments like mine in Victoria  just introduce sex self-ID, which has huge ramifications for women-only spaces, but are not gathering any information about the impacts. They just do it. So the only time we’ll ever hear [about negative impacts] is when something makes a headline. That means it has to be dramatic enough to be reported in the press and even then it might not be reported, given the zeitgeist around how marginalized and picked on [trans-identified] people are perceived to be.

[The website] seems like an imperfect way to get information — to let women tell their stories and talk about what they value in women-only spaces, and how they feel that those spaces have been impacted.

I’ve noticed in the reporting in Australia, when the left-wing press talk about the website, they’re just obsessed with bathrooms. There was a whole piece in The Age the other day about a trans-identifying man using the bathroom and that’s the least of our worries. When it comes to women-only spaces, it matters, but it’s not it’s not the thing that most feminists are worried about.

GG: You’ve gotten some backlash for this website, haven’t you? I believe there were hundreds of academics condemning this action.

HLS: Yeah. I actually haven’t kept track of what the final count was supposed to be — there was an open letter floating around online. My understanding is that it was gaining in signatories until [the end of March] and then was delivered to some higher-ups in the university. So I guess that means it’s closed now. For a few days they were a couple of hundred signatures and then they opened it up [to the public]. If you scroll through the signatures it’s [those with] university affiliations for the first couple of pages, then devolves into random made-up names. It’s unclear how many of those people are real or how much we should care about the fact that you can get 1400 random people from around the world via Twitter to sign an open letter. But you know, there’s at least probably 50 to 100 of my colleagues at the university who signed the letter, which is the main thing that matters I guess.

GG: Has this impacted you personally in terms of your career or your own safety?

HLS: Safety? Not really. I mean, I’m still working from home. Melbourne’s kind of just emerging from the lockdown, so I’m not physically unsafe. It’s obviously disappointing, and it’s definitely been a stressful and frustrating time. You think, “We’re in a university, we should all value the same things roughly. Right? Don’t we all stand for open debate and constructive disagreement and modeling good practice for students?” Obviously not, because some are on Twitter inciting mobs against our colleagues. It’s been a disappointing time, but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen happening to gender critical women all around the world. So it’s not surprising in that respect.

GG: What have been some of the positive responses to the website — are there any stories in particular that stand out to you?

HLS: There’s been an enormous positive response. A lot of people have sent emails and gotten in touch to say that they like the project or just to say, “Don’t give in to the bullies.” We see this happen sometimes: a woman will speak out, but then the bullying will start and she’ll [apologize]. If people hadn’t come across my name before, they would not have known I’ve been through this before, so they think, “Let’s hope she doesn’t give in.” So I had a lot of emails like that… Don’t worry. I won’t.

It feels as though the positive response is almost on a par with the negative response at this point. That would be hard to measure exactly, but that’s how it looks to me.

There are a few themes that I’m noticing. I was talking to Kelly-Jay Keen (aka Posie Parker) recently about how struck I was by the [impact on women’s] recovery meetings, in particular. There seem to be quite a number of stories about women in various kinds of support groups, such as drug and alcohol recovery support groups, sexual trauma survivor support groups, menopause support groups…. These are small, women-only groups — usually face-to-face, but some of them are online, just where women have managed to create a community to support each other. Women talk about how a trans-identified male joined their group and then they just felt uncomfortable. Their opponents seem to want a punch line — like they want it to be that something really bad happened, something physical happened, or a woman got hurt, otherwise they don’t care.

But what a lot of women are expressing is that it was a really fragile community to begin with, and when these male people come in, it upsets the mutual trust, or they don’t feel comfortable talking about their histories of rape anymore, because they can’t be guaranteed to have had a shared experience or a shared socialization history. I think that’s something that we as feminists do care about. We don’t need a dramatic punchline. We know that women value these spaces and that having men in those spaces is highly disruptive to them and makes people feel uncomfortable. Women don’t want to make a fuss or have a fight, so they just stop going. I’ve read a number of stories like that. I find that really heartbreaking. Those are important places for women and they can’t use them anymore because men have started using them.

There are also quite a few stories about dating, which are some of the ones that stand out to me as a lesbian. There was one story I got really upset about: a woman on a university campus invited someone she thought was another lesbian to her dorm room, and the person turned out to be male, but it was too late. They were already at the door. She said she would never have invited a male person to her room on the first date to hang out. You just trust women in a way that you wouldn’t trust men. She had to play video games with this person for two hours. Quite a few of those sorts of stories about men’s interventions in lesbian dating have been quite striking.

GG: It’s really interesting to me how any sort of offense or accidental “misgendering,” as it’s called, is considered to be a form of violence and yet making women uncomfortable isn’t even considered to be worth discussing.

I do want to ask you more about the laws that have recently passed in Australia, which you discussed with Graham Linehan a few weeks ago. Can you explain a little more about the laws that have passed and what their implications are?

HLS: Here in Australia — and particularly in Victoria, where I am — they made it so that you can just change your sex. It’s not separate — there’s nothing to distinguish the legally “female” person [i.e. a male who identifies as a woman] from the biologically female person. All the gatekeeping has gone out the window, all the requirements for surgical, hormonal, or appearance-based interventions are out the window. So you can now have a fully male-presenting, male-behaving, clearly male person who does the statutory declaration and is now legally a woman. Once [he has] that, he cannot be treated as male for any purposes.

It’s built into our Equal Opportunity Act that you can’t discriminate on the basis of gender identity. So even if we hadn’t gone to self-identification, the way that the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission tends to implement the trade-offs between various protected attributes — I don’t think this is actually the law, but this is the way they tend to dispense advice — is that gender identity tends to trump sex.

They interpret [the Equal Opportunity Act] so that gender identity takes precedence — a female-only school can exclude males so long as they don’t have gender identities, which is kind of like saying because race is a protected attribute, a girl-only school can exclude men but not black men. It’s a totally upside down way of understanding the protected attributes and how they interact. But there’s this whole ideology around gender identity, which insists [trans-identfying people must] be treated as the opposite sex. So we kind of already had something like self-ID in place even before the self-ID legislation was passed.

The other piece of law I mentioned, the vilification law, is an attempt to expand the state’s vilification provisions (our version of hate speech legislation). At the moment, we only prevent vilification (hate speech) on the grounds of race and religion, and this new bill is looking to expand it to a number of other attributes, but there are three attributes listed that all pertain to gender identity: gender identity, gender, and sex characteristics.

We were hoping that it would get [rejected], or at least reformed through a consultation process. To their credit, they did a parliamentary committee, invited submissions, and had hearings. They got various researchers involved and tried to find out more about which groups are suffering which kinds of effects in the community. I’ve skimmed through the report from the committee, and it’s very comprehensive, and it doesn’t seem to be captured. It does talk about groups that you would expect to hear about, like indigenous Australians and recent immigrant communities, and it talks about women, so it’s not all about just the “fashionable” groups. But it looks like they’re recommending that the legislation go ahead.

There is a worry now for feminists working to protect sex-based rights. There’s even maybe a worry for the website. I think they’ll try to say that these kinds of stories about men disrupting women-only spaces constitute hate speech or vilification against transwomen as a group, and then it’s going to come down to that disagreement.

We say this is not about trans women in particular — it’s about all males. We’re not making any exception. Given that we don’t think [gender identities] are real, we’re not going to think they somehow magically make some men an exception over others. So for us, this is just a set of stories about males.

But the opposite view is going to be that the kinds of males who are contesting women-only spaces tend to be the ones with gender identities, and so they’ll say what we’re really talking about is transwomen. So I can see this new legislation potentially creating a problem by empowering the activists who are already so aggressive in how they come after women, like what’s happening to me at the moment just by having the website up, and what’s happened to so many other gender critical women. It will be interesting to see how that legislation goes forward, but we’ll probably have to wait to hear more about that.

The conversion therapy legislation was proposed [and passed] more recently. We’ve been trying to put up a fight against it in the last few months. That legislation is very expansive compared to what’s been proposed in other parts of Australia and what’s in place in some other countries. It will mean almost all adults — with some exceptions like medical practitioners — must support or affirm a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. So they’re trying to prohibit change or suppression practices and they understand that to mean practices that attempt to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation, and have introduced new criminal punishments for any attempts. It is something like up to a $100,000 in fines and 10 years in prison. The legislation [includes] various other things as well, like the introduction of a new commission to educate people about suppression practices and to investigate any reports or accusations against people said to have engaged in such practices.

That’s pretty worrying for a number of reasons. It looks like pretty serious overreach on the part of the commission. These are also excessive criminal penalties compared to almost any other jurisdiction that has this kind of legislation. One thing [those of us] campaigning against it are really worried about is the fact that it combines gender identity with sexual orientation as though those two things are remotely similar to each other, which they’re not. Attempts to convert or change people’s sexual orientations don’t work. There’s ample evidence of that. But that evidence is being applied to gender identity, which misses the fact that gender identity is this vague umbrella concept that’s just part of this recent cultural movement covering a diverse range of identities and many different motivations. It gives gender identity a lot of cachet because it rides on the coattails of sexual orientation, but it’s a completely different thing. So we’re really worried about what that’s going to mean in terms of kids identifying as trans and then ending up on a medical pathway, future detransitioners, harms to women and girls, and harms to lesbian culture. If someone mistakenly thinks they’re a transman or non-binary female because they’re swept up in this cultural moment, and no adults are able to tell them they may not be without fear of criminal punishment, that seems pretty worrying.

GG: It strikes me that conversion therapy for same-sex attracted individuals versus for gender identity are diametrically opposed, in the sense that someone could actually read gender identity as a form of conversion therapy. Would you agree with that?

HLS: Do you mean like “trans the gay away”?

GG: Yeah, like that.

HLS: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. With conversion therapy [used to attempt to turn gay people straight], [those subjected say] they knew what they were, but others were trying to force them to change. So if a female is a lesbian, but mistakenly believes they’re a transman, they are not told by any adults that they’re not. It’s like the activists are so swept up in the idea of how important it is to be affirmed, even if you’re wrong, that takes precedence over helping kids explore what they really might be and being comfortable with that, even in a society that maybe stigmatizes those people or treats them worse.

I think the activists will try to say it’s not the same because they aren’t [being made to transition] against their will, but I don’t think that means it’s not in fact transitioning the gay away. The trans population has really high numbers of gay kids in it, and those kids are being put on a medical pathway towards being medically or surgically dependent as adults. So that is a loss to the gay community and a kind of conversion into trans identity via a cultural idea.

GG: It seems a bit like social grooming. One might say that those opposing “conversion therapy” for gender identity ends up being pro-conversion therapy for same-sex attracted people. But what about the reaction of the general public? I know that in most parts of the world where this is going on, gender identity legislation is being swept in quickly and quietly without much public debate. Has that also been true in Australia?

HLS: It’s absolutely true here. There has been no public consultation —  unlike in the UK situation, which allowed them to get a solid public uprising and so many sensible reforms — or resistance. There hasn’t been anything like that here.

Self-ID was pushed through really rapidly in Tasmania, then a few months later Victoria followed suit. There had already been changes in other states. There wasn’t much consultation over it, or if there was, it was within the “relevant communities,” which just means they talked to some trans activists. There’s been no public democratic discussion about it, and that means lots of people don’t know.

I was teaching feminism and I remember in one lecture telling the students about what the law is here in terms of what sex is as a category and most of them didn’t know. It’s being pushed through on the down low, so most people have no idea what’s happening and therefore no opportunity to resist it. I really think if people knew this was going on there would be a lot more public resistance.

GG: What were some of the reactions from your students?

HLS: It’s so hard to know because we’re quite distanced from the students at the moment due to teaching online and working from home. I haven’t really had much direct contact with mine. When I taught the feminism course last year, there wasn’t really any problem. I just tried to teach in a neutral way. I definitely raised some issues that you wouldn’t raise if you were super woke, but I don’t think it was clear what my viewpoint was.

In response to the backlash over the website, I’ve had some emails of support and haven’t had any negative emails from them. I didn’t see any of my students’ names on the open letter, but I didn’t read all the names.

GG: How are feminist organizations working to combat this kind of legislation? Obviously your website is a form of awareness and education. What kinds of steps do you think need to be taken?

HLS: I don’t think there are very many feminists working against this at all. My impression is that most feminist organizations are captured, which means they accept gender identity ideology. They have the view that transwomen are women and self-identification is absolutely fine, and there’s no necessary requirements on what it means to be a woman. They just buy into the current ideology and so they’re not concerned about the impacts. They are concerned with policing and gatekeeping so-called “TERFs” rather than worrying about what kind of cost replacing sex with gender identity is going to come with.

There are definitely some grassroots groups that have sprung up in the last few years in Australia, like we’ve seen happening in the UK since 2018. I think there are seven or eight groups now, like Save Women’s Sports Australasia, The Coalition for Biological Reality, and the LGB Alliance Australia. These kinds of groups are, I think, gaining in members and the word is spreading. I think it helps every time something makes the news, like when a six-foot-something transwoman is on a women’s rugby team. Then there will be a bit of public discussion, but most other cases don’t, really.

We had this transwoman axe attacker here a few years ago that you might have read about. This person hit two people in the face with an axe at a 7-Eleven and then went to prison, but they were put in the women’s prison. There was hardly any public discussion about which prison they had gone into and whether that was okay. I feel like we are where the UK was in 2018. The conversation is just starting to heat up and I don’t know whether we’ll be able to get as much publicity or traction given that we’ve had these legal changes without consultations. It’s almost as though we’re going to have to wait for something awful to happen to really make the news and then to force the public discussion. That’s quite a depressing thought.

GG: You were just on Sky News recently, weren’t you?

HLS: Yeah, it was a couple of days after the website launched. Then once the open letter got announced, I think there was a bit of a story just in terms of academics at war with each other. That was definitely a hopeful moment in terms of raising awareness about the cause. Senator Claire Chandler is quite frequently on the news and getting high visibility in videos and in Senate hearings, where she talks about sports. There’s definitely some visibility, but not as much as we need. We need more women and activists doing actions.

I remember during the consultation in the UK there were lots of cool actions, you know, like the Resistors group going around putting “Woman: Adult Human Female” t-shirts on statues, and there were groups in every city that crept out and did it at dawn, and then they filled social media with all these great statues around the cities wearing these t-shirts. Whereas I think in Australia, we don’t quite have the numbers yet to do stuff that really raises public awareness, but hopefully our numbers will grow.

GG: I believe you have a lot of support from women around the world in various countries. So with any luck, your website can at least be a starting point to spread awareness about the issue and the ramifications for women. So thank you so much for doing that important action.

HLS: Yeah, I hope that will be the effect as well.

GG: How should women who have concerns about gender identity legislation contact you if they want to share their own experiences?

HLS: They can go to the website and there is a submission form. It’s all fully anonymous at the moment. We’d really love to hear from any women who have had experiences in any of a range of women-only spaces. We’re interested in [experiences in] fitting rooms, changing rooms, rape and domestic violence shelters, and gyms. Also relevant are quotas and shortlists, and [organizations or policies implementing “inclusive”] terminology as well, for example, [redefining words such as] “breastfeeding,” or “mother,” or “lesbian.” Basically anything you do with other women, and you feel has been disrupted by this move from sex to gender identity, or under the guise of “inclusion,” on the basis of gender identity, we’d really like to hear about from you. You can submit your story through the website.

Genevieve Gluck

Genevieve Gluck is a writer and advocate for women's sex-based rights and creator of Women's Voices, an audio library dedicated to bringing awareness to feminist texts and speeches.