By Rachel Elgy: firstname.lastname@example.org
In March every year, the world celebrates International Women’s Day, recognising the small steps, great leaps and onward journeys towards gender equality, highlighting role models, and renewing commitments to the cause.
In our globalised world, movements towards social, economic and climate justice have fluxed, grown and strengthened as voices from around the world with varying ideas and perspectives have become connected and amplified. The movement towards gender equality has become much more powerful as it has become more diverse. We see this playing out through movements like #MeToo which reached across borders, class and nationality to bring together voices who have all too often been unheard or ignored. We see it in smaller movements and circles too, where women are working together, bringing different voices to the table and challenging the patriarchal norms that hurt us all.
So it is painful to see the growing divide and the abject hostility bubbling within the women’s movement in the UK, at a time when we need to be working together.
Following various Labour leadership contenders standing in solidarity with the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, there was widespread backlash and debate. In particular, the call for members of groups such as Women’s Place UK and the LGB Alliance, labelled as ‘trans exclusionary hate groups’, to be banned from the party sparked angry responses, however, the discussion has continued to fluctuate and spiral into a much broader debate about trans rights.
This is a discussion which is the very definition of controversial: it is incredibly evocative and emotional, strong feelings are aroused, the underlying facts are contested and there is no simple solution.
Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society has highlighted the importance of empathy in finding a way forward and has refused, in her own words, to ‘pick a side.’ However, when one ‘side’ of an argument involves diminishing the rights of an already vulnerable group, and fans the flames of bigotry, it should become clear where allegiances should be placed and where perspectives should be challenged.
Empathy and understanding are indeed essential when trying to make positive change, but it is important to take a look at the bigger picture here, and at what is being asked for.
The debate is currently being framed as a clash of rights between cisgender women and trans people, suggesting that progress for trans rights puts cisgender women at risk. This positions trans people as a threat, with commentary about access to single sex spaces implying predatory behaviour, and the ‘trans lobby’ being described as actively harming cisgender women’s rights.
Transgender people are one of the most marginalised groups in the UK with transphobic hate crimes increasing by 37% in 2018/19. However, the fight for transgender rights is starting to be won, leading to increased visibility and acceptance, but with visibility and change comes resistance.
It must not be forgotten that being transgender is only ever one part of a person’s identity. Trans people are also Black, White, mixed race, Asian, African, European, disabled, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, older, young, middle aged, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbours. Many trans people are also women, and so to position trans rights and women’s rights as being at odds is nonsensical.
The reality is that women still have to fight for their rights: the right to equal pay as seen in cases like Samira Ahmed’s at the BBC; the right to make choices about their own bodies; the right to exist without fear of violence, sexual assault or abuse.
But many of these fights are shared by the trans community. In Stonewall’s Trans report, 28% of trans people in relationships had experienced domestic violence. 34% had been discriminated against because of their gender when visiting a café, bar or nightclub. 48% of transgender people surveyed don’t feel comfortable using public toilets because of fear of discrimination or harassment.
Some of the commentary from Women’s Place UK and other groups and individuals is that access to women’s single sex spaces should be protected for ‘biological females’ only – terminology used to exclude trans women. This raises the question of what constitutes a ‘biological female’; a somewhat problematic concept when there can be differentiation between internal and external sex organs, hormones and chromosomes even amongst cisgender women. Information from the World Health Organisation explains the many varying possibilities of chromosomal make-up beyond the binary of ‘XX’ and ‘XY’.
There are suggestions that trans women using women’s toilets or accessing women’s centres are putting cisgender women at risk. The LGB Alliance in a recent advert displayed in newspapers in Scotland stated: ‘Self-ID gives predators the green light’ and claimed that proposed changes to gender recognition legislation ‘will be exploited by predatory men who pose a real threat to women and girls.’ In any other context this would be recognised as victim blaming. Arguing that because there are still dangerously high levels of violence against women means that we should restrict the rights of an equally if not more vulnerable group (which includes many women) avoids holding the actual perpetrators of violence to account.
Research conducted by Dunne in 2017 (Dunne, 2017) found that “the existing research actually illustrates that, rather than instigating sexual violence, trans persons are disproportionately the victims of rape and sexual assault in segregated spaces (Gehi and Arkles, 2007: 17)” and concluded: “While there may be trans individuals who have committed, or will commit, violent crimes, that is also true of the myriad other communities who enjoy automatic access to their preferred gendered-space. There is also little (if any) support for the idea that trans protections facilitate cisgender predators who feign a trans identity to perpetrate assaults in women-only space.”
It has been seen time and again through various iterations of feminism the ways in which, as Rachel Mann put it ‘those people who don’t fit very particular narratives of what a woman is tend to get thrown out-‘ Remember the pertinent question Sojourner Truth asked ‘-ain’t I a woman?’
Whilst labelling groups as ‘hate groups’ may be inflammatory and in some ways unhelpful, it’s important that people are held to account, and a critical approach is taken to those whose voices are being platformed on any given issue, asking what they are bringing to the table and what is the motivation behind it.
Whilst it is of course important to have diverse opinions and perspectives as part of any discussion, it is also important that debates are centred in fact, and that when discussing issues of identity those with lived experience are not just front and centre but are listened to and believed.
It is then essential to look at what is being debated. Are people debating how to progress trans rights in a way that upholds (or improves) current equality standards, and protects everyone’s human rights, or are people debating whether a person has the right to exist as themselves and to protect themselves from discrimination?
Asking those who experience discrimination to constantly explain their experiences, justify their identity and enter into conversations with people actively seeking to limit their rights is abusive, and has been called out in other contexts by writer Afua Hirsch and activist Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, who continually find themselves being asked to prove that racism exists and explain why it is wrong, rather than to work towards solutions and support.
The damage that this debate is doing to the women’s movement is that it distracts from the ways in which we can all move forwards, and has people focussing on how society might move backwards. Instead of developing an intersectional inclusive approach, it seeks to reduce the definition of women to a supposedly fixed biology. Instead of building a powerful diverse movement, it breaks it down and makes progress that much harder to achieve for us all.
So this International Women’s Day I do pledge to do my bit, to work towards a more equal world, but my #EachforEqual pledge is and will always be #EachforEqualforALL
EqualiTeach is currently developing a resource to support primary schools to embed LGBT+ equality and tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. Find out more about the project here. The resource will be launched at the end of March and will be available to download for free from our resources page.