Woman’s Place: Is the tail wagging the dog?

Last night I went to a public meeting organised by a group called A Woman’s Place UK (@WomansPlaceUK on Twitter), ostensibly to discuss the potential impact on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act on women’s safety. There were three speakers: Lucy Masoud, a woman fire-fighter and FBU regional officer, Steph Pike who is a co-founder of AWP and Pilgrim Tucker, a community organiser who became well-known after the Grenfell Tower fire last year. The chair was Megan Dobney, who is or has been regional secretary of SERTUC (Southern & Eastern Regional Council of the Trades Union Congress) but is simply called a “union organiser” in the programme. All of them claim to be “of the left” and a major bone of contention was the Labour party allowing a person in the early stages of transition, known as Lily Madigan, to become women’s officer, but there have been a number of women leaving or threatening to leave the party over this (as well as more general discontent over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and policies). For avoidance of doubt, I tweeted the organisers beforehand to ask if it was an all-women meeting; I was told all were welcome. I did not need to sneak in and there were a number of other men present, although mostly accompanying women.

The stand-out speaker was Lucy Masoud, who told of how women fire-fighters in the London Fire Brigade had demanded women’s toilets and changing facilities and had to campaign for a long time, facing management attempts to divide the men against the women by threatening that the new facililties would take the place of the TV room or other social facilities, all while women were changing behind screens or in their cars. She claimed that having “gender neutral” facilities would set back the gains women had made in her industry as the service could claim that they were “gender neutral” when in fact they would mostly be used by men. Steph Pike’s was the least memorable, but she did mention the right-wing press at one point and at another she said that we should not be looking at “queering gender” but at eradicating it, to rapturous applause. Pilgrim Tucker talked about the likely effect the organisation believed the GRA reforms would have, for example allowing men to simply sign a form and be recognised as a woman, thereby allowing access to domestic violence shelters, women’s prisons and so on with obvious implications for women’s safety. She claimed that the sex offending rate for trans women was some ten to twenty times the rate for the general female population and that “some studies” put it at the same rate as for men (this is presumably the one study that every TERF likes to quote). While she at one point said that everyone knows that someone with a penis was not a woman, none of them baldly stated that trans women were simply men.

At this stage I’m going to state that I have some sympathy with the basic concerns about self-identification and allowing people who are very early in the transition process into women’s prisons or shelters, especially as, in some of the high-profile cases and those which have appeared in my social media feeds, many of those in the prison cases are people who, as men, committed serious violent and in some cases sexual offences. It was even reported last year that Ian Huntley, who murdered two young girls from the school where he worked as a caretaker in 2002, had tried to change his gender (though recent media interviews with him make no reference to that). As for people later in the process, who have had surgery and could not be easily told apart from a ‘born’ or, to use the jargon, ‘cisgender’ or ‘cis’ woman, I see no reason to continue insisting that they are male. While it’s true that they do not have uteruses and will not menstruate or be able to carry children, the same is true of a lot of women with certain genetic conditions and nobody disputes that they are women. I do not believe that the body is of no significance and that ‘identity’ is all that matters, but as far as I can tell, the people who insist on calling all trans women men are those who both hate men, and hate being female.

I wanted to ask the question of whether they thought it morally justifiable or politically worthwhile to approach a reactionary Tory paper, the Times, with such concerns given that it could give the impression that their concerns are Tory policy; it could give the message that “if we vote Tory, they will stop this self-identity nonsense”. The same paper, remember, put on its front page the story (later shown to be false) that a Muslim foster carer had told a child not to eat pork under her roof, a quite reasonable request even if it were true, and if you put a reasonable demand on the same platform as bigotry, it starts to look like bigotry. I know many women, particularly disabled women, who have suffered major losses under the Tory and coalition governments: benefit withdrawals (and fear thereof, particulary with the move from the old DLA to PIP), assessors who lied, inability to find social housing, traumatic hospital experiences (because of having to be admitted miles from home because the local NHS unit has been closed, particularly in mental health) to name but a few — as well as demonising press coverage and the resulting harassment and bullying. I can’t fathom any ‘socialist’ being prepared to let all this continue just so they won’t encounter a trans woman in an all-female space, even though that might make them uncomfortable. Much as I agree that what’s being proposed is wrong, the sheer numbers make it a lesser priority than the thousands or tens of thousands, men and women, threatened with penury or turned into hate figures because of disability or illness. (Many of those I know would not even agree with me on this; they are fully behind the idea that trans women are women, whatever their stage of transition, and are entitled to be treated as women.)

However, I never got to ask my question. Instead, the mic was passed from one of the “usual suspects” to another; we heard from a couple of other socialist-feminists such as Ruth Serwotka (wife of Mark Serwotka of the Public & Commercial Services union), but we also heard from the hardcore TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) such as Julia Long and Anne Ruzylo and from three supposed trans women who side with the TERFs and even claim not to be women. I commented on hearing all this that “the mask has slipped” — meaning that the true feelings of the people attending the meeting were now clear, and that the ‘reasonable objections’ about males being able to get recognition as women and access spaces where there are vulnerable women may have been just a cover. I got a flood of tweets from TERFs and their allies who pretended not to know what that expression meant, despite it being a very common idiom. Someone announced from the gallery that Justine Greening had kicked the self-ID idea into the long grass before she resigned, but none of the four socialists on the panel gave any answer to this.

Someone later asked me how as a Muslim I justified exposing women, including my mother, to “people with a penis changing in front of” them. I responded that I agreed with the concerns about self-identification; it was the more generalised attacks on trans women from the gallery after the speeches that I took issue with. But as it happens, I didn’t see that many Muslim women in the audience last night, and I don’t think I saw a single hijab despite the venue (a church) being fairly near the London School of Economics and only a short bus ride away from Whitechapel and other inner suburbs where there are lots of Muslims. As I understand it there are differences of opinions among scholars about the status of trans women (although many authorities insist that trans women are indeed men, but others do not) and I know Muslim women who are supportive of trans women and others who aren’t. I’m sure many would share the ostensible concern about self-identification that was meant to be the focus of this meeting, but sadly we do not have the luxury of being able to vote Tory, unlike the sort of privileged white middle-class woman who might read the Times — we tend to vote for whoever is most friendly to us as a community so as to avoid official hostility, erosion of our civil liberties and so on, much as is the case with other visible minorities.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a public meeting. The location was kept under embargo until a few hours before the event so as to minimise protests, but anyone could get a ticket; perhaps we were all subject to some vetting, but they did not know me and if they had checked my Twitter follower list, they would have found a lot of feminists with a pro-trans outlook and very few of the opposite persuasion. (Most of them do not like men very much.) Yet someone made some comment to the effect that one day feminists will not have to meet in secret, a silly bit of hyperbole. Secret would mean by invitation only in a venue owned by someone the organisers trusted, or under false pretences.

The event left me wondering if “Woman’s Place” is a legitimate movement with a serious concern with an extremist tail trying to wag the dog, or simply a front for the extremist lesbian separatists who piped up during the “audience contributions”. Is it the equivalent of Labour beset by Militant, or just a front for Militant? And it’s ironic that this movement keeps getting positive write-ups in the Morning Star when their commitment to socialism looks dubious. They say “I’m a socialist and…” then say nothing as socialism is trashed from the floor and the gallery and on the social media feeds they follow. It’s one thing to criticise the Labour Party or not to remain a member of it (I’m not — they are not very active at all round here) but let’s remember why we want a Labour government; not to change the decor but to stop the destruction of the NHS and the social welfare system, the social care system and so on, to safeguard the Human Rights Act and to arrest our descent into the abyss of Brexiteer isolation. How much of a socialist are you if your hatred of trans women is stronger than your passion for equality, justice and human rights?

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