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Hundreds of women gather in London to discuss sex and gender

Earlier this week feminist campaign group Woman’s Place UK held its biggest meeting yet. ROS SITWELL reports

OVER 500 women’s rights activists packed into Bloomsbury Baptist Church in central London earlier this week for award-winning feminist group Women’s Place UK’s 22nd public meeting, held to launch its new manifesto.

The group was formed in September 2017 to discuss the potential impact of changes to the Gender Recognition Act which could allow people to self-identify their sex, and has been holding meetings up and down Britain with a range of speakers drawn from across civil society.

The lively meeting, punctuated by several standing ovations, had to be organised in secret, with the venue announced only on the day to prevent disruption from protesters.

The event kicked off with WPUK co-founder Kiri Tunks explaining that the group was hoping to get its new manifesto into the hands of all parliamentarians across Britain, and she encouraged supporters to give feedback on the document, which features a detailed set of calls regarding policy on women, including sections on economic status, migrant women, violence and abuse, healthcare, education, law and justice and participation in public life.

The first speaker was Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy, founder of the Feminist Current website, who has been in Britain for a mini-tour to discuss similar legislation already introduced in Canada, called Bill C16, and to raise awareness of how she was permanently banned from Twitter for attempting to talk about trans rights and women’s rights on the social media forum, which she is now taking to court over its decision.

She said that Canadian feminists had had real difficulty attempting to debate the law, describing how a recent meeting in Vancouver had been protested by 150 to 200 trans rights activists and had become so disruptive the police department had to be called out. 

“We have been painted as hateful, intolerant and bigoted,” she said.

“Women and girls are being told they can’t define their boundaries, that we can’t say no to men — this is now called feminism.”

Murphy lamented that many activists were “going along with ideas and policies in order to appease their Facebook friends” rather than attempting to understand the issues.

“Women are being told we must shut up and take it because women must always be nice,” she said.

“But I don’t believe the majority of the population believes it is possible to actually change sex.”

Murphy has also spoken at separate events over the past week, in Brighton about freedom of the media to report on gender and sex, and in the Scottish Parliament, at the invitation of SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, to discuss women’s rights and the GRA, which was attended by a range of cross-party MSPs.

Next up at the WPUK meeting was historian and socialist Selina Todd, who emphasised the two important tenets of feminism: women’s right to single-sex spaces and women’s right to self-organise.

She said that there has been an increasing “suspicion of feminism” which she traced back to the rise of postmodernism in Western universities after the fall of the Berlin wall.

“Dressed up as radical, it is really the acceptable face of neoliberalism,” she said.

“Many students were and are taught that people cannot break out of the confines of capitalism — though this is a strange form of capitalism, in which language, rather than money, makes the world go round … Over the past 30 years, students have studied collective movements less, and individuals’ identities, emotions and desires more. 

“While individual choice is celebrated, the very notion of collectivity is deemed oppressive. Revealingly in our neoliberal times, socialist, labour and feminist movements have been most strongly attacked.”

Drawing on ideas of socialist solidarity, Todd continued: “It’s action not personal identity that takes us to a better world. United we stand, divided we fall.”

The third speaker was Maya Forstater, who hit the headlines recently after losing her job at the Centre for Global Development think tank for discussing sex and gender online. She is now taking her former employer to the employment tribunal on the basis of freedom of belief. 

“If I win it will have a huge impact on others who fear for their jobs for having gender critical beliefs,” she said.

Forstater explained that when making her comments she had been thinking about gender in relation to the GRA but also in terms of how governments relate to other governments.

She pointed out that the Sustainable Development Goals, Oxfam and others use the word “gender” in their policies when they actually mean “sex.”

They know they are using the words incorrectly, she said, but they “are hoping not to rock the boat and not go near a toxic debate.”

“International development organisations would have a hard time talking about their work if they didn’t have a word for female people. The word ‘woman’ we are now told is old-fashioned. But if we can’t name things, we can’t speak the truth and organisations can’t do their job.”

Forstater said that in many countries overseas people do not argue that trans women are literally women, they say that trans people need dedicated protections and services. 

“Separate rights and protections are needed for different categories of people,” she added.

Rounding off the panel was journalist and co-founder of Justice for Women Julie Bindel. She discussed how she had become a public hate figure among trans rights activists when she had an article published in 2003 in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine in which she interviewed a male to female transsexual who believed that her psychiatrist had been too quick to diagnose her as needing surgery. 

She began to receive hate mail after a subsequent article in the Guardian, in which she wrote about a volunteer-led organisation called Vancouver Rape Relief which was facing legal action for wanting to remain a female-only service.

In 2008 she was nominated for Stonewall journalist of the year, but a mob of around 200 people turned up and protested outside the awards venue. 

“According to the judge, I should have won, based on the readers’ votes, but I was denied the award because they were afraid of the activists storming the building,” Bindel explained. “After this I was picketed and no-platformed everywhere.”

“I’ve been called a bigot, Hitler — it’s always Hitler, never Pol Pot, never a mid-range dictator,” she quipped.

She said she’d had objects thrown at her at a gay rights event, and after a meeting in Denmark to talk about prostitution she had to be escorted from the building by police because of the actions of protesters.

But, she said, the worst incident that occurred was in 2017 when she was invited to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford to give a talk about growing up as a working-class lesbian.

Bindel described what the activists did as “horrendous.” 

“They tried to get the library’s funding pulled, they blocked the phone lines and they turned up and banged on the doors” to try to get the library to cancel her talk, but it refused to cave in and the meeting went ahead.

“What happened to me was a warning to other feminists,” Bindel said.

“But since when were we a women’s movement that decided we would keep schtum and let a few women take the shit? Since when have we capitulated because we might be seen as ‘nasty’?”

The Woman’s Place UK Manifesto can be read at mstar.link/WPUKManifesto.

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