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THE word “heathen” was originally reserved for those with views so unpalatable they were cast out onto the heathland, excluded from civilised society.
This etymology came into my mind when I heard about the case of Helen Steel, a seasoned campaigner, who was forced to walk across the moors after being excluded from a protest camp organised by the Land Justice Network (LJN).
Steel is a formidable woman who has more than earned her activist stripes by pressing for environmental, feminist and social justice causes since her teens.
Most recently she hit the headlines as part of the campaign against spycops, which saw her join seven other women in initiating a case against the Metropolitan Police.
The women who brought the case discovered that they had each been deceived into intimate relationships with undercover police officers who had infiltrated campaign groups.
Following a fraught battle in the courts, the Metropolitan Police were forced to concede that the use of deceptive relationships amounted to serious human rights breaches — a public inquiry into secret political policing is now under way.
Given her history and experience as an activist, it’s difficult to imagine what LJN could find to object to in Steel’s politics.
And yet on May 12 2019 the 53-year-old campaigner was publicly told her presence violated the LJN camp “safer spaces policy,” alleging that she was “a risk to the safety of trans people.”
Steel was expelled from the protest camp because she was known to have campaigned against the government’s proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act, the brainchild of Conservative MP Maria Miller.
Like many feminists, Steel rejects the notion of “gender identity,” instead arguing that while sex is simply a biological reality, “gender” is the learned behaviour by which men dominate women.
Outlining her position Steel explains: “Feminists want everyone to be free from the gender stereotypes associated with their sex, so we have some ideas in common with many of those who identify as non-binary or trans, but the difference is that we want those stereotypes to be destroyed altogether by society, rather than being preserved but with an individual opt-out.”
She recalls the manner in which she was asked to leave as “aggressive and bullying” and a “very upsetting experience,” adding: “I hadn’t even said anything relating to trans issues at the point I was told to leave, but when I pointed this out I was told that they had made a prior decision that I wasn’t welcome at the camp because of things I had posted on social media.”
Since the incident LJN has not apologised to Steel, nor has it told her what exactly she was accused of.
Fellow activist Cath Bann organised an open letter in support of Steel which attracted 448 signatures; to date this has been ignored.
When approached, LJN declined to comment on the incident, though last week a statement was published which concluded: “Landcamp organisers look forward to feeding into a wider Land Justice Network safer spaces process which we hope will make clear that people involved in actively campaigning against trans rights will not be welcome at our future events.”
There are different ways to look at what happened to Steel: to the right it would undoubtedly be cited as another ludicrous case of the left eating itself, one to add to the “political correctness gone mad” list.
To liberals it might be a prime example of “horizontal hostility” where anger at structural social injustice is misdirected toward those who lack the power to make change themselves.
To feminists who have seen this before, it’s yet another incarnation of the witch-hunt whereby women with heretical beliefs are rejected lest they enchant unsuspecting goodly folk with their words. This excuse for the silencing of women is as ancient as it is misogynist.
Steel wryly notes the disparity in the treatment of women who are accused of transphobia with men who are accused of sexism within left-wing political movements: “Significant numbers of people are arguing that threats and violence against women are justified because women won’t keep our controversial opinions to ourselves.
“Contrast this approach to the examples I am aware of where men have been accused of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour within social movements.
“Always women are told it was a misunderstanding, he was only joking, he didn’t mean it, he should have another chance.”
Steel is now a veteran of the gender identity wars. At the Anarchist Book Fair in 2017 she was surrounded and verbally abused by a mob of around 30 people who objected to her, in her words, “defending the right of women to distribute leaflets.”
Following this incident trans activists have tried to exclude Steel from events and to deplatform her from speaking about undercover police abuses.
Perhaps the most shocking incident was at Manchester Anarchist Book Fair in 2018, where Steel explains she was “physically carried out while trying to persuade them that it was incompatible with anarchist principles to exclude women from participating in discussions about what the word woman means and whether males should be allowed into women-only spaces.”
Often when concerns about the rights of transgender people are raised, well-meaning allies will pop up to remind us all of the threats that trans people live with.
It should be noted that there have been no recorded cases of feminists attacking transgender people; this is in contrast to a growing list (including one conviction and one ongoing prosecution) of transgender activists physically attacking women with whom they disagree.
At the time of her exclusion from the LJN camp, Steel told organisers: “I have now been physically threatened and assaulted by trans activists several times, and yet I have not hit back or threatened anyone — if anyone’s safety is at risk, it’s mine.”
Across the left, from Quakers to 9/11 truthers, where there is common ground on one issue, a diversity of opinions can be tolerated.
The only exception seems to be the explosive issue of transgender ideology. For Steel, the ferocity of the debate is because “there is such disparity between the image portrayed of trans people as the most vulnerable minority in society and the fact that the trans advocacy movement wields such massive power and influence.”
She adds: “In a relatively short space of time the trans lobby has managed to get governments and organisations around the world to change laws and policies to the detriment of women’s rights without women being consulted.
“Whenever a powerful group has an image at odds with reality they always invest a lot of energy in suppressing the truth, which is why feminists have been given such a kicking; they need to silence us in order to prevent the wider public from seeing the reality of the situation.”
To evidence this she contrasts the progress made by feminists over the past century to the gains made by transgender advocates in less than a decade: “I think we can see the power wielded by trans advocates if we contrast the significant legal changes they achieved, which involve ignoring biological reality, with the length of time it has taken for women to achieve something as simple as removing VAT on sanitary wear.
“It’s clear that trans advocacy does not represent the marginalised and oppressed, rather that it dovetails with male interests to destroy women’s boundaries and create legal confusion about what a woman is, so that our ability to defend our rights is undermined.”
If the left is to progress, women like Steel must not be marginalised. At a time when there are very real threats from the far right, it is shameful that groups like antifa have chosen to focus on feminists, rather than fascists.
Articulating this frustration, Steel explains: “Those involved in progressive politics need to commit publicly to ensuring that women’s voices can be heard in this debate, and to investigating the issues rather than repeating smears calling women bigots [and] likening feminists to nazis.
“I can’t believe how easily people swallow and repeat such lies, especially bearing in mind that there has never been any evidence anywhere for feminists committing mass violence and murder.
“Yet rather than challenge those who make these smears, people lazily assume there’s no smoke without fire and so tell feminists to be nicer to the very activists who are abusing us.”
Steel remains committed to the aims of social justice movements like LJN, despite being left in the cold by their sexist stance on transgender issues.
She urges her opponents to listen, think critically, and to stop excluding feminists from social justice movements.
More widely the left would do well to remember: without the commitment and insight of women like Steel, there would be no counter to the status quo at all.
A vocal band of bullies who are invested in an intensely individualist ideology have duped well-meaning progressives into thinking that feminists are the enemy.
We must stand together against the takeover of our movements by a misogynist minority, because if we allow the issue to divide us we will fall.
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