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What Happened at Brighton: #WPUKLab19

Emily Ward attended the WPUK unofficial Labour Party fringe meeting in Brighton in September 2019.

I was in Brighton, England on September 23rd for a meeting of Woman’s Place UK, a group formed out of concern for the lack of public consultation surrounding proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (changes that will profoundly impact the lives of women and girls). I’m a Canadian who has been involved for decades in the struggle to end violence against women. I travelled to the UK to learn how women there are organizing to protect sex-based rights being dismantled with the advancement of transgender rights.

In Canada right now, people who raise concerns about trans doctrine, and about policies being pushed through without meaningful consultation, are being demonized as “transphobes” and bigots. Individuals with lengthy track records for human rights work suddenly find themselves cast in the role of oppressor. Academics, politicians, bureaucrats, doctors, teachers have fallen silent, fearing for their jobs and reputations. Ten years ago I won an award at a Canadian university for excellence in social justice teaching. Today I could well be sacked for the same courses.

I’ve been following the work of WPUK for some time. They are going where angels fear to tread, daring to put women’s concerns into the public domain by hosting public meetings across the country. There have been protests at most of these meetings, and accusations of hate speech. I expected protests at Brighton, but I was not prepared to be harassed— indeed, besieged—by trans activists. What I experienced in Brighton was unlike anything I’ve seen in more than thirty years of organizing.

I had my fish and chips on Brighton pier and arrived at the venue just before the start time of 7pm. The access to the building was impeded by an angry mob. I call them a “mob” because they seemed intent on causing trouble. People coming into the meeting—many old enough to be the protestors’ mothers and grandmothers; many who fought for rights the protestors currently enjoy—were screamed at and taunted. Several were doused with water. We were hurried inside under police escort. The constables did not push the protestors back, instead instructing us to “get inside quickly” (implied: before you get hurt).

Inside, we were ushered into a large basement meeting room. One woman said she felt we were going into a bunker. But it did not feel safe. The protestors had positioned themselves outside along the room’s street-level windows, shouting, pounding and kicking at the glass. The noise was deafening and I feared the windows would shatter and we would be sprayed with glass. Why the police allowed this level of harassment to go on and on is a subject for citizens of the UK to take up with their government. But I will say I felt afraid for the safety of everyone in that room.

Despite the intimidation, the meeting went on. Three intelligent, thoughtful women spoke. There was no hate speech. There was no transphobia. On the contrary, the right of trans people to be free from violence and deserving of all human rights protections under the law was explicitly and repeatedly affirmed. Questions and concerns were respectfully communicated. WPUK public meetings are videotaped and posted on their YouTube channel. They’re a great resource for anyone seeking to understand the issues and what’s at stake. There was a Q&A, and the meeting concluded.

Leaving the venue, the protestors were even more inflamed, perhaps because they had not succeeded in closing down the meeting. ”WPUK IS A HATE GROUP!” “POLICE PROTECT THE TRANSPHOBES!” “TRANS WOMEN ARE REAL WOMEN!” “TRANS MEN ARE REAL MEN!” There was so much rage coming at us. It was strange; surreal. As a person who has spent my life advocating for marginalized groups, it made no sense. As a lesbian, it made no sense. As a woman who has resisted the policing of gender since a very small child, it made no sense.

But beneath the rage I heard something else: desperation, and people in pain, and loneliness. I feel for the pain of people who do not fit in. I did not fit in. The policing of gender is real and damaging, shaming all but the most determined into conformity. Part of me wants to embrace these kids because I know they’re suffering. But another part of me is scared to death of them, because they blame us for their pain, and because they are so sure of themselves, and so entitled. They are unable to think from the perspective of others, and in that failure they have become abusive, and dangerous, like men who beat their wives because they will not say the words they want to hear.

For those of us who have worked to end men’s violence against women, the speech and actions of transgender activists are chillingly familiar. We recognize the hatred of women when we see it. Trans activists represent their cause as progressive and liberatory, but this is a struggle gone badly wrong. Trying to stop women from gathering, silencing women’s voices, degrading women with the most abusive language possible, threatening and using violence is anything but progressive. In fact, the trans lobby reveals a disturbing anti-woman core.

I believe the world is sleep-walking into a massive roll-back of women’s rights. The roll-back will begin with the erasure of women as a distinct sex class. If the trans lobby has its way, the sex-based category “woman” will become meaningless because it will include men. Already the language is changing so that talking about the biological reality of being female is considered offensive because it is seen to “stigmatize” and “negate” trans women (i.e. biological men). The fact that having a uterus and vagina makes you female is considered a “tired belief” that violently erases the experiences of women who do not have vaginas and wombs (i.e. male-bodied persons). This is men assigning themselves the power of naming and defining what a woman is and what she may or may not call herself, and it may be one of the most regressive ideologies we have seen in history.

If the trans lobby has its way, male-bodied persons will have access to all spaces where girls and women are particularly vulnerable, including battered women’s shelters, rape-crisis centres, women’s prisons, and sex-segregated bathrooms, change rooms and dormitories.

If the trans lobby has its way, female-only sports teams and sporting events will be open to men. All-women short lists designed to level the playing field will be open to men, indeed, all programs and services designed to protect, promote and empower women would be open to males by right.

The trans lobby asks us to collude in the fiction that men can have babies. Perhaps trans men (women who choose to live as men) can have babies, but that is because, notwithstanding surgical, hormonal and cosmetic alterations to their bodies, they are and remain biologically female. This is not men having babies. It is women who choose to live as men having babies.

We are being asked to accept that people can actually be “born into the wrong body”. Not just that they feel like or wish they were the opposite sex because inclined towards activities or traits typically assigned to the opposite sex, but that they actually are the opposite sex.

The “wrong body” narrative is a dangerous myth feeding young people’s sense of not feeling at home in their own bodies, offering surgical and pharmaceutical interventions, largely irreversible, as the pathway to reconciling body and spirit. In extreme cases of gender dysphoria surgery may be required, but most people at odds with their gender will fall down a rabbit hole on this path, because there is nothing in them that needs fixing. The problem resides outside them, in the broader politics of gender. The problem is the imposition of norms on how women and men should dress, act and feel. The work that needs to be done is social and political.

There is nothing progressive in a vision of a society where feminine men have to “become” women to survive; or masculine women have to “become” men. Besides the impossibility of changing sex, society will not transcend the harms of gender so long as we reify these categories.

Radical feminists were the first to recognize the gender binary—and the assignation of power and privilege to male-bodied persons—as the root of women’s oppression. For centuries we have challenged gender as an artifice by which men as a class maintain power over women as a class. That radical feminists are a thorn in the side of the trans lobby speaks volumes to the misogyny that is driving this movement.

The trans struggle is not women’s struggle. We have enough to do to protect ourselves from battering and rape, and from the systemic inequality that impacts our lives from cradle to grave. We don’t hate trans people. Not wanting to cede our gains is not the same as hate. Not agreeing with trans ideology is not the same as hate. They can shout all they want. Trans rights are not women’s rights. They are trans rights. Theirs is a distinct project. Women are willing to work alongside trans people, but not at any cost.

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Emily Ward is a pseudonym. In a climate where misinterpretation has settled in and communication is seriously hindered, it is impossible for anyone who holds a job, volunteers in organizations, or has responsibilities to others, to use her name without risking a negative impact beyond herself.

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Read the WPUK statement on events at #WPUKLab19

Read Labour’s values and WPUK, another account of the meeting by a Labour Party staffer

Read our rebuttal of the P*nk News coverage of the meeting

We have submitted formal complaints to both the Labour Party and Sussex Police and are awaiting a response.

 

 

 

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