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An assault on free speech and free thought

TWO weeks ago I was invited to an event in Bristol organised by a campaign called We Need to Talk to discuss my view that extreme caution should be exercised in the medical attempt to sex transition young people — and was met with a noisy and aggressive political protest.

Activists dressed in black and wearing masks entered the building and refused to leave, in an attempt to prevent the meeting taking place.

I’m no stranger to highly charged political situations. 
In 2005, I stood in solidarity with Palestinian villagers as they demonstrated against the Israeli government grab of the territory surrounding their village. 

I am a Quaker and I had taken a three-month sabbatical from my university to volunteer in the summer period as a human rights observer in the Palestinian territories. 

The programme to which I was attached is wholly committed to the fundamental humanity of both Palestinians and Israelis. 

In the demonstration, I was pressed so close to the helmeted Israeli soldiers that I could see the sweat beading on their brows. 

Each soldier had a gun. In that moment, it occurred to me that I was going to get killed in the half-desert under the baking sun. I looked down on myself as if from the outside, fearing the impact on my family of my death while hearing my pulse thudding in my ears. 

A Palestinian teenager, apoplectic with the rage of occupation, was throwing stones at one soldier. I locked eyes with the soldier to help him recognise that I knew his stress was being raised to an unbearable pitch. 

I pleaded with the boy. Amid the thunderous hubbub, the three of us sustained a brief human connection: myself, the Palestinian boy who desisted, and the Israeli soldier who thanked me with his eyes. 

Soldiers are conscripted into the army at the moment they are legally adult, and this young man was an example. He was approximately the same age as my son who had suffered fatal brain injury in an accident two years earlier. I identified the soldier as a young man caught up in power politics beyond his control.

Why do I tell you this personal story? First, to let you know that I have a certain fearlessness, plus a strong, lifelong ethical commitment to resisting injustice and to the peaceful resolution of conflict.  

Second, to illustrate the complexity of my feelings about the political protest in Bristol. I found myself trapped in a stairwell by masked trans activists who believed me to be the oppressor, equivalent to Israeli soldiers, and who believed transwomen to be actual women and the most victimised and oppressed of all social groups.

I appealed to the activist nearest me but he refused eye contact. I have subsequently been informed, perhaps erroneously, that he self-identifies as a woman. 

Because I do not accept that transwomen really are women, identical with other women, although of course with rights as individuals to identify how they wish, he felt morally justified in using his superior physical strength and slurring me as a transphobe and a nazi.

I feared the injuries I might sustain if pushed downstairs; I looked down on myself being obstructed from speaking by a man almost young enough to be my grandson. 

Parents, medics, social commentators and psychotherapists critical of transgender doctrine have far more to fear however than masked 20-year-olds using masculinist tactics of intimidation. 

They fear being accused by social services of not safeguarding their own children, of losing their licence to practice as medics, of being no-platformed in their universities, of being expelled from their political parties. 

I stand with other women, and with the men, transsexuals and transwomen who are my friends and colleagues critical of the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. 

The reforms, currently in consultation (because women have pressed for their own voices to be heard as well as those emerging from the trans movement) would allow people to legally self-affirm their gender rather than, as now, being required to live as their preferred gender for two years and have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before a gender recognition certificate is granted. 

I argue it is not being on the right side of socially progressive history to censor our reasoned concern about the rights of biological men to enter female only space and the possible consequences for women and children of self-declaration.  

Any political movement that attempts to silence dialogue and that trivialises the entire being of critics, however thoughtful,  into one label — transphobe — is an example of  liberalism’s frightening converse. An illiberalism is entering our society that attempts to shut down not only free speech but free thought.

Heather Brunskell-Evans is an academic and formerly a spokeswoman for the Women’s Equality Party’s policy on violence against women and girls. 

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