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Women have every right to discuss changes to the law that could affect them

REBECCA LUSH attended a meeting to discuss changes to the Gender Recognition Act last week and was appalled by the behaviour of activists attempting to intimidate women and trans people and shut down debate

I’VE been an environmental and human rights activist all my adult life, from being jailed in Holloway prison for my part in the Twyford Down direct action protests to organising the back-turning protest at Thatcher’s funeral and much more in between. 

I’ve learnt a lot about the power of effective protest, how to create change and, crucially, how to communicate and engage to achieve the transformation needed. 

But in those 26 years of protest-organising I have never witnessed anything like the authoritarian, silencing tendency of current trans activism against women meeting to discuss their legal rights. 

Since last autumn women have been holding meetings up and down Britain to discuss proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) and how it could affect them.

I have become increasingly concerned at the violent and anti-democratic direction of protests against these meetings and my experience last week at the Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) meeting in Oxford has forced me to finally speak up. 

I was already disquieted by the no-platforming tactics used against Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, but it was the beating of a 60-year-old woman by trans activists at Speaker’s Corner last September as she attended a meeting about gender that absolutely horrified me. 

I could not sleep that night as the full implications of this premeditated attack sank in — that there was a group of people operating within our movements who felt justified in attacking women who wanted no more than to meet and discuss their legal rights. 

I was further deeply unsettled at the concerted misinformation campaign in the aftermath of this attack, including Owen Jones retweeting a misleading narrative to his 730,000 followers, which attempted to victim-blame the woman, revealing something very dark going on.  

Perversely, one of the attackers has been hailed as a hero by a small group of trans activists who supported the attacker in court recently, presumably as they think that beating older women is “progressive.” The footage was clear and thankfully the six-foot assailant was convicted of assault by beating. 

WPUK formed as a result of this attack in September 2017 to organise meetings for those who wished to discuss these issues safely and respectfully. As WPUK is rooted in the left and the labour movement, I have been a supporter of the group ever since it formed. 

I’ve been impressed by the calmness it brings to a divisive debate, its clear focus on women’s rights and the fact that it works with and platforms trans people who also want to see women’s legal rights upheld and are concerned about the negative effects of self-identification on them as transsexuals. 

Despite five WPUK demands for calm and evidence-based discussion being clearly available on its website and Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’ve never seen a more misrepresented group. 

I have now attended three WPUK meetings, the most recent in Oxford on April 25. 

I was tense as I had previously attended a London WPUK meeting in February at a church in Holborn where activists, some masked, had stood outside, intimidating those attending and disrupting the church’s homeless kitchen on one of the coldest nights of the year. 

The activists were thankfully prevented from disrupting the event by stewards from the trade union movement and the meeting went ahead and was extremely thought-provoking with contributions from trade unionists and trans people. 

My old friend, the legendary McLibel campaigner against undercover policing, Helen Steel, had also been bullied and intimidated on a previous occasion last year with regard to gender issues and a female trade unionist had been bullied from her own picket line by trans activists in March. 

I had also seen footage of aggressive, masked trans activists blocking a stairwell to a separate meeting in Bristol organised by a different campaign group called We Need to Talk the week before the WPUK Oxford meeting. 

I was aware that the venues that host these kinds of meetings are each time subjected to a barrage of harassment and misinformation, misrepresenting WPUK as a “hate group,” which is designed to scare them into cancelling. 

However I was determined that I would not be intimidated from attending a public meeting by bullies in balaclavas. I have been spied on by the police, was on the construction industry’s blacklist, have chained myself by the neck to countless bulldozers, been beaten up by Group 4 security guards and have been to prison four times for my beliefs. I was not going to be intimidated by trans activist bullies. 

I went to the Oxford meeting at the Quaker Friends Meeting House with a local mum friend whom I had met through my Constituency Labour Party. I had also arranged to meet two trans friends who were attending the meeting. 

We arrived late and thankfully most people were already inside the venue. Suddenly a group of approximately 50 students descended and immediately blocked the door to the meeting house to deter anyone from entering. They started chanting very loudly and aggressively. What happened next was utterly shameful. 

I witnessed an older Quaker volunteer telling the students that they were disturbing a sexual abuse survivors’ group which happened to be taking place in the building at the same time and the students simply shouted louder to drown out his words. 

This Quaker man became very upset and frustrated at the lack of respect accorded to him and the contempt with which he and the survivors’ group were treated. 

The female co-ordinator of the survivors’ group came out and tried to speak, but none of the students would listen. They just continued their chants to drown her out. I spoke to a number of the students around me and asked the male leader with the megaphone whether he would communicate to the rest of the protesters that a meeting of sexual abuse survivors was being disrupted and his exact words were “we don’t care.”

There was something uniquely obnoxious about a privileged male Oxford student telling women that they didn’t care about sexual abuse survivors and that women need to get back in their box as they had no right to speak. 

Each time I spoke to the protesters, the only response I had was loud robotic chanting. After about five failed attempts to get them to understand they were disrupting a survivors’ group, the Quaker man, survivors’ group co-ordinator and I gave up and I went into the packed meeting, located far away from the protesters, to listen to the excellent and thought-provoking speakers. 

Contrary to allegations, there was nothing “hateful” said against anyon and trans people were in the audience. This was a group of people discussing women’s legal rights, sexism, and how to challenge sexist stereotyping. 

Halfway through the meeting I checked the front door and spoke to the woman leading the sex abuse survivors’ group. She and the women from her group had been forced to leave through lines of protesters shouting at them, not knowing who they were or why they were there. It was reminiscent of protesters at an abortion clinic haranguing women. 

After the meeting, my two trans friends who attended the meeting asked a few of the protesters why they thought WPUK was a “hate group,” but the protesters would not engage, not even with trans people on whose behalf they were apparently protesting. 

When I asked various protesters what they thought the meeting was about, most refused to engage and just chanted robotically in my face. 

The very few who actually talked to me demonstrated quite clearly that they had absolutely no idea what the meeting was about or what the aims of WPUK are. 

Not one could tell me just one of its five demands, for instance, which are clearly available in WPUK publicity material. 

One said: “You think trans people don’t exist.” When I pointed to my two trans friends who’d attended the meeting and begged to differ, she went back to the cult-like chanting in my face. There was little critical thinking on display, just an unnerving groupthink, coupled with a chilling sense of misplaced righteousness. 

I found it very sad that a group of young people would attempt to block a meeting without actually bothering to find out anything about the group they were protesting about, apart from what they’d been told. 

My overall impression was that it all seemed extremely cult-like and not at all thoughtful. No-platforming tactics, reserved for preventing violent, street-level fascist organising, clearly have no place in preventing women from trade unions and Mumsnet meeting to discuss legislative proposals and women’s existing legal rights. 

Asserting that feminists are akin to “fascists” and using the controversial and serious tactics of no-platforming for fascists on ordinary and left-wing women and dissenting trans people undermines the very meaning of the word “fascist” and the gravity of far-right organising. 

In direct action protest I think it is important to always engage with those we are opposing, to debate, hopefully leading to changed and opened minds, including our own.

However, the violent and intolerant extremist trans activism we are witnessing isn’t a progressive movement, but bears all the hallmarks of an authoritarian cult where people are not allowed to think for themselves or have their ideas challenged. 

Women’s rights have been hard-won over centuries, yet we are still nowhere close to equality, with sexism and misogyny rife, including on the left. Women have every right to meet and discuss how to challenge sexism and uphold our few hard-won rights.

WPUK works with trans people who wish to see legislation that protects both the rights of trans people and women’s sex-based rights. Violence, threats and intimidation have no place in democratic and progressive movements and we will not be deterred from speaking out.  

For readers who wish to find out more, the Woman's Place UK website is here: womansplaceuk.org and the YouTube channel with speakers (including transwomen) is here: www.youtube.com/channel/UCzFqsUqDzyXEQMJVy42NwUw.

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