Stand up, speak out: Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and researcher active in the global campaign to end violence towards women and children since 1979. She is talking here at the 22nd meeting of Woman’s Place UK.

Watch the film of Julie speaking at #WPUKLondon

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I want to first give a big shout out to Woman’s Place, one of the most principled feminist organisations anywhere.

And my next point is about the female penis. Last year I was in Australia doing a book tour. So there were feminists were at the book tour and those Australian feminists say it as it is.

We were complaining about the liberal press and in particular one feature in one particular liberal broadsheet. They were reporting on the case of Karen White, the sex offender, child abuser, natal man who suggested to the prison service that he was in fact a transwoman and ended up assaulting, sexually assaulting, women in prison. These are the most vulnerable, assaulted women on the planet. One line stood out for me: “Her erect penis was visible above her tights.” And this Australian full-on lesbian turned to me and said, “The only time that her penis should be used in a sentence is when a woman has castrated her rapist and she’s holding it up.”

So I want to start a brief whistle-stop tour of my experience with the “trans Taliban”. It was in 2003, when I wrote my first article and the year before the Gender Recognition Act.

In 2003 I saw a small report in a tabloid newspaper about a teacher who had left her primary school as Miss, and was returning the following term as Mr, having gone through sex reassignment surgery. The press said she had had a sex-change and I realised I had not read anything in the British press about the misdiagnosis or the madness of transgenderism. I decided, having found absolutely nothing in the press about it to date, to write a feature on the diagnosis of transsexuality, and how misogynistic psychiatrists in the 1950s had come up with the notion of being “trapped in the wrong body”.

They were, as we know, anti-gay and anti-lesbian and totally reliant on sex stereotypes
In the piece I quoted a forensic psychiatrist called Fiona Mason, who I knew to be a feminist and who was expert on the effects of sexual violence on women and girls. She said:

‘I can’t imagine assessing anyone suffering from a serious disorder in under three hours. It can take three years to assess patients with complex problems. The trouble with some private clinics is that the patients are just given hormones after an hour-long appointment, which can have an irreversible effect on the body.”

I quoted the best known psychiatrist for diagnosing transsexuality, Russell Reid, who some years later would end up being forced to stop practising by the General Medical Council after it was discovered that he took approximately 45 minutes to diagnose someone as transsexual, before referring them for surgery and hormones. Many of his former patients regretted going through sex change surgery, including my friend Claudia, a great ally, who was one of his victims back in the 1980s.

And here I have to say that we cannot possibly ignore the fact that many natal males who live as the opposite sex – with hormones and surgery – are also victims of this hideous medical malpractice based on women’s oppression. Some suffer through this, and I hate hearing language used to demean people who’ve been through this – who are, to some degree, victims of patriarchy.

I wrote:

“In 2000 Reid was involved in controversy over the condition known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), where sufferers can experience a desperate urge to rid themselves of a limb. Reid was one of the psychiatrists who referred two patients with BDD to a surgeon for leg amputations. ‘When I first heard of people wanting amputations it seemed bizarre in the extreme,’ he said ‘but then I thought, “I see transsexuals and they want healthy parts of their body removed in order to adjust to their idealised body image”, and so I think that was the connection for me. I saw that people wanted to have their limbs off with equally as much degree of obsession and need.”

In the 2003 piece I also mentioned children. I wrote:

“Particularly disturbing is the apparent impunity with which children are diagnosed with ‘gender identity disorder’. Mermaids, a support group for children and teenagers with GID, has seen a dramatic increase in enquiries since it opened its doors in 1993. Children as young as 14 are receiving sex-change treatment, including being prescribed drugs to block the onset of puberty. Transsexualism is the only psychiatric or medical condition where the patients can, to all intents and purposes, diagnose themselves.”

The next year I left my job in academic research to do journalism full time and was asked to write a couple of columns for the Guardian weekend magazine. I had heard about the hellish legal case that Vancouver Rape Relief had been going through for 10 years that had recently concluded in their favour. A transsexual male called Kimberley Nixon had taken out a case against this absolutely superb organisation and on a “human rights” ticket, claiming to have been discriminated against because he wasn’t being invited to counsel rape victims because he had decided that he was a woman.

It was clearly a setup because the day after it was politely explained to him that he could not play this role, the human rights organisation in British Columbia issued proceedings against Vancouver Rape Relief.

So when I wrote this column I was angry and I went berserk about the diagnosis of transsexualism, male entitlement and the sex stereotypes that transsexuality promotes. It was shared worldwide amongst trans activists on personal blogs and list serves. It was before Facebook and Twitter. A forum, Gingerbeer, which described itself as an online social group for lesbians to chat and share information in the UK, had a policy of including transsexual males who identified as lesbians.

My article was a hot topic of discussion for at least a year. I could see, on visiting the site that the trans lobby had plans to come after the feminists. The Guardian received 200 letters of complaint about the column and the reader’s editor wrote his own weekly column on the issue saying that it was wrong to have published it. My editor, Katharine Viner, defended both me and her decision to publish it.

The gay press began to vilify me. I received hate mail and death threats on a weekly basis from all sorts of quarters. It was also the misogynistic gay male movement that ran the gay press. This harassment culminated in 2008 in a 200-strong demonstration against me outside the Victoria and Albert Museum where Stonewall was holding its annual awards ceremony. I had been nominated for journalist of the year, and quite frankly had it not been for the fact that I found out about the nomination via Pink News – or Penis News – in a “shock, horror – vile transphobe Bindel is up for an award” I would have not even attended the event, being no fan of Stonewall.

I happened to be escorted from the tube to the venue by Brian Padick, now a Lib Dem peer but a whistle-blowing police officer, past the 200-strong crowd calling for my blood, death, rape, whatever.

I didn’t win. But I had already found out from one of the judges who was appalled at what had happened that I was a clear winner, but that they did not dare give me the award in case the trans-activists stormed the museum. So instead it was given to a heterosexual agony aunt who had never been a journalist. A fair alternative, no?

That demonstration galvanised the transgender movement in the UK. From then on, everywhere I went to speak about violence against women and girls, there would be some kind of protest, picket, or attempt to disinvite me. Not me speaking about transgender issues – though I did try and on occasion succeeded in having a discussion with transpeople who wanted a reasonable conversation.

In 2009, I was given the honour of being the very first individual to be officially no platformed by the National Union of students alongside five fascist groups. The motion at the conference that decided my ban contained the sentence, “Julie Bindel is vile”. My name was misspelled – who says we are not paying for a decent education.

In 2010 I accepted an invitation to speak at an event called “Queer Question Time” at a notorious “queer” venue called the Vauxhall Tavern in London. There I was. Dozens of them turned up outside screaming and shouting that I was a Nazi, a bigot, a fascist, etc, etc. That I was Hitler (it’s always Hitler, never Pol Pot. None of your mid-range dictators ever get a look in).  And then they came into the venue itself, shouted and heckled all the way through my presentations, with one trans activist throwing an object at me on stage whilst screaming in my face. I thought – I’m just walking out. The videos can be found on YouTube.

As I walked out there was a queue of gay men saying they agreed with me and I was right to speak up.

It happened outside of the UK also, such as when Janice Raymond, heroic feminist and author of the 1979 classic The Transsexual Empire and myself spoke at a conference in Denmark in 2011 about the abuse of women and girls in the global sex trade. The pro-prostitution lobby, which is indivisible from the trans-Taliban, turned up at the event.

Outside of the venue they screamed and shouted about how bigoted, violent and dangerous we were, and proceeded to bang on the windows whilst a sex trade survivor was speaking about being pimped age 15.

You know if you took the words “actual” and “literal” out of their rhetoric there wouldn’t be much left.

In 2014 I did a debate at Essex University on pornography organised by academics, so the NUS was not involved.

It was with Jerry Barnett, producer of some of the most vile and racist pornography – including a parody of the taxi-drive rapist John Worboys.

I was screamed at as a fascist who was “causing actual, literal harm to transgender students” and biphobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, homophobic and not a real lesbian.

He got a free pass. That’s when I started to use the word Orwellian.

Probably their lowest point was when they attempted to get me disinvited from a talk I had been asked to do in 2017 at the Salford Working Class Library, the only venue of its kind in the country, on growing up a working-class lesbian in the north-east of England. They hounded and harassed the volunteers at the library, blocked their phone line, targeted all of their sponsors and supporters, tried very hard to get their funding pulled, and when they failed, turned up on the day to scream and shout. Leftist poster-boy Owen Jones was asked politely to give support to the library and denounce the bullies, but he declined. The brilliant Lucy Masoud has named him Talcum X. Faux working class, or rather: woking class.

The Working Class Library, because it is run by brave and principled people, did not for one second consider cancelling the event or replacing it with another speaker.

Which leads me to my key point. We saw this coming a long time ago. Those very few women you could count on one hand, with high profiles in the women’s movement, warned of this.

Some of you were not involved because you are too young or because of circumstances. But you are all here now. And that that, in and of itself, is a brave position.

I mean, I heard about Nina Power. This is someone who at the time went along with “transwomen are women” and signed a letter denouncing some of us.  Now she is being attacked for, I quote, “uncritically attended a Woman’s Place meeting”.

During the time I was being publicly and visibly harassed and abused, aside from my brilliant and close circle of friends, most people kept their heads down. I would get emails from feminist after feminist telling me they agreed with what I had said. They shared my position, but of course dared not say anything because they would come in for the same treatment as me.

I would then get the liberals telling me, an out lesbian since 1977, that they could not possibly support my position against transgender ideology, because the trans-rights movement, as they saw it, was exactly the same as the lesbian and gay liberation movement back in the 1970s. They refused to accept that this was a men’s rights movement, underpinned by the most pernicious misogyny, and supported by men who could scream “bigot, transphobe” and the likes at me and still be seen on the side of the progressives.

And then there were the free-speech warriors who told me that although they personally despised my transphobia, they defended my right to say it.

There were good people such as Mary Beard, until she saw the light. And then Peter Tatchell.

This deeply offended me. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party member of Parliament for Brighton Paviliongave an interview to Penis News in which she expressed dismay at my bigoted transphobic beliefs.

And then there were the women’s organisations.

Fawcett Society published its report on the organisation’s position on “gender” – meaning transgenderism – in order to look like good girls and cover their backs. They used me as an example of feminist transphobia that they disapproved of, quoting from a report in Penis News – not something I had actually said – that was as pernicious as it was inaccurate. I complained, and the reference was removed.

When I hear women and men say to me that they couldn’t possibly risk going through what we have been through, I tell them that the purpose of the abuse against those of us who have spoken out.

It is to act as a warning. I wouldn’t have chosen to be in that position. But I am.

Since when were we ever a women’s liberation movement that decided to keep shtum and let a few other women take the shit?

It’s not about me. It’s about 20-year old women at university or on the estates – facing being abused raped, their drinks spiked, denigrated. We all have a duty – moral, ethical and political to stand up.

Since when did we capitulate in case we were sacked or in case we were thought of as nasty women? Yes, some women have more to lose than others. If they lose their job, they are in trouble and might not be able to feed their kids. So we feed their kids, we do what women throughout history have done, during the time in the 1970s and 1980s when our refuges were run by volunteers who had to have a whip round to buy the food to feed the women escaping violent men.

But they can’t sack everyone. The most reasonable people – someone like Nina Power – are being called fascists. This is the unreality.

So we do what feminists have done in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where they have no rights.

I have just come back from Uganda, where there is a 14-year prison sentence for same-sex encounters. It is much worse for women where lesbians are punishment raped, rejected by their families, live on the streets, and often pimped into prostitution, for being lesbians. What do they do?

They don’t go around saying, “I’m too frightened to speak out”. Uganda has the most vibrant lesbian feminist movement I know in the in global south. If they lose jobs then have to go to other women and say feed me. If we have to do that, we do that.

We can’t sit at the comfort of a computer screen.

Speak up.

Stop doing that anonymous thing. Stop saying, “I can’t say this.”

Yes you can.

When I was on the way to the airport leaving Uganda I thought I’m going to have the conversation on the trans issue.

I spoke with one fantastic lesbian activist. And she said, “You know that meeting we had with 50 lesbians. meeting 50 lesbians?”

Yeah.

“Well do you know why I nipped out for 10 minutes?”

No.

“Well there were four transwomen demanding to come in and we were all telling our coming out stories and you were interviewing everyone. So I said to them: ‘I know you hate me. I know you’re going to kick up a fuss. But go away. There are loads of transgendered places for you to go. Loads of LGBT places for you to go. ’This is a women only space.’”

And she said she was raised with nine brothers and she just wasn’t having it.

So let’s just not have it.

Julie Bindel

20th May 2019

@bindelj

 

 

 

 

 

Feminism, postmodernism and women’s oppression

Professor Selina Todd is Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford. She spoke at our London meeting, A Woman’s Place is back in town in London on 20th May 2019. 

You can download or share her speech as a PDF

You can watch the speech here.

She is the author of The People: the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010 and her next book, Tastes of Honey: the making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution will be out in autumn 2019. Follow her on Twitter @selina_todd

The people

How far we have come in a year and a half. A Woman’s Place UK has gone from protecting the rights we have, to now fighting for those we still lack.  

Among our demands are women’s right to same-sex spaces, and to self-organisation. They are vital in themselves, but also as means of destroying women’s oppression by men – an oppression that is based on our biological sex, and which socialises us in gendered ways. Working collectively to change this, is what feminism is all about. And as feminists, we have a long and proud tradition to draw on, which I want to talk about tonight.  

But feminism, like the definition of woman, is an object of suspicion for the opponents of women’s sex-based rights. I want to talk briefly about where this hostility comes from, drawing on what’s been taught in UK and US universities over the past thirty years. Some of what I say may sound esoteric, but two, almost three generations of students have been educated to see the world a certain way. They are now the teachers, journalists, civil servants and politicians seeking to negotiate the current debate over women’s rights. We need to understand how their education has influenced their worldview, if we are to set the record straight. 

Postmodernism 

Suspicion of feminism owes much to postmodernism, which began to prevail in British and US universities after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Dressed up as radical, it is really the acceptable face of neoliberalism. 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. People cannot change the world, but individually they can alter their relationship to it, through their self-description and performance of gender. No reality exists other than self-description.  

By this logic, feminists brought women’s oppression into being by naming it. Feminism prevented people being ‘queer’ and gender fluid by insisting on the category ‘woman’.  

 Over the past thirty 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. The leaders of feminist movements were, it is claimed, attempting to dominate those they purported to represent. The world was and is a collection of self-interested individuals seeking to dominate others or avoid domination themselves. In the words of that great postmodern theorist Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as society. 

 We’re now seeing the rise of scholarship on transgender people in the past, and museum and gallery celebrations of ‘queerness’. These university courses and exhibitions aren’t replacing the older focus on white privileged men, but rather taking over the limited space that we’d fought to create for women’s history. Often these ‘queer’ histories involve appropriating lesbian history, as the transwashing of lesbians’ contribution to Stonewall’s establishment shows. This is a glaring example of why we need single-sex, feminist spaces and organisations, to record and learn from women’s achievements. 

The attempt to reclaim transgender ancestors is deeply ahistorical. Transgender ideology argues that biological sex does not exist; and that gender is a personal identity brought into being by self-description. These claims do not speak to the experiences of people in the past. Before the late 20th century, gender and sexuality were widely understood as determined by one’s biological sex.  That’s why some lesbians understood their sexuality as a biological ‘inversion’.  

 

Postmodernism

 That biological sex does not determine gender was revealed by feminists, not postmodernists, in the 1970s and 1980s. They showed that the very existence of gender is due to historically specific, unequal relationships between men and women. Male oppression of women predates capitalism, but in capitalist societies certainly, women’s biological role as actual and potential mothers – and therefore as reproducers of labour power – explains their oppression as a sex. Gender and sex are connected by the exercise of male power over women. Social and cultural gender roles helped to control women.  

Who holds power? 

This analysis of power – who holds it, how and why – is often lacking in university teaching. Power is presented as diffuse and operated through language. Feminists can therefore hold as much power as white male capitalists. But gender was not and is not an identity, freely chosen. Gender norms are meant to keep people in their place. The minority of people who lived as members of the opposite sex in the past, did not make this choice freely. Very often, they were lesbians or gay men who faced social opprobrium or worse if they did not conceal either their sexuality or their sex. Others did so for equally material reasons. One of the most famous cases is Lilias Barker, a woman born in late 19th century Britain who lived much of her adult life as a man, was jailed for marrying another woman, and became a freak show on Blackpool pier. On one of the rare occasions that Barker was allowed to speak for herself away from court and salacious press reports, she explained that she had begun living as a man because it was easier for men to earn a living than for women to do so. This reasoning, which reflected women’s lack of economic power, is usually ignored by scholars. Instead of studying why women had so little power, Barker is celebrated as ‘queer’. But if a woman can only be economically independent, behave as she likes or love who she wants by living as a man, this tells us she lives in a society where gendered roles are very rigid. If we find ourselves in a society where many women apparently want to live as men – as is true among teenagers today – an appropriate response is not to embrace, but to challenge those gender roles – and, even more important, to smash the structures of oppression that underpin them.   

Feminist history reveals that women can do just this. They do so through solidarity, understanding that united we stand, divided we fall.  

Feminists in the 19th century 

The notion that feminism creates male oppression of women, by naming it, ignores that feminist movements don’t come out of nowhere – they are provoked by sexism. Take late 19th century Britain. As men’s education, employment and suffrage rights increased, feminists responded to the exclusion of women from these. They also reacted to new threats to women’s few freedoms. A scare over male syphilis in the army led to the forcible inspection of women – not men – for venereal disease. Women suspected of being prostitutes could simply be pulled off the streets and subjected to invasive examination. The government also debated legalising brothels. Feminists recognised that prostitution exists for men’s interests, not women’s. They campaigned against brothels, and for women’s right to walk freely on the street without arrest or assault.   

These feminists are sometimes represented as simply restricting working-class women’s freedom to undertake sex work. More generally, there is a branch of scholarship, and transactivism, which views legislation and the state as problematic. By naming something, you essentialise it. So legalising homosexuality, as occurred in Britain in 1967, forced ‘queer’ men to become homosexuals. Try telling a gay man who came of age before 1967 that he was lucky. There are, of course, transideologues and transactivists who are in favour of legislation, where this would further their own right to self-identification. This is not a consistent or coherent ideology. But the antipathy towards the state and legislation is played out, for example, in the demand that birth certificates should not carry a person’s sex, because in doing so they force people into essentialist categories that oppress them. If that was true, we’d expect to find that there was no oppression of women as a sex before 1837, when birth certificates were introduced in the UK. Alas, a quick read of Mary Wollstonecraft, who died thirty years earlier, shows that sadly, sexism already existed.  

Woman is a lived experience 

Many of these nineteenth-century feminists were also active in campaigns for the vote, for women’s trade union representation and for women’s education. Many also worked alongside male comrades in the labour movement, and against imperialism. Differences of opinion existed between feminists. Class and race inequalities that exist in wider society were and are reflected in social and political movements, and we should work harder to overcome this.  It was certainly a movement dominated by white middle-class women, but connections were made with, for example, Indian feminists campaigning for freedom from imperial rule alongside women’s political citizenship. Despite their differences, thousands of women in Britain and across the world found common cause in fighting their oppression. They were able to unite because they understood that ‘woman’ is not a monolithic ‘identity’, defined by an internal essence, but a lived experience, from birth, characterised by women’s oppression by men.  

Alongside these political campaigns, many women established single-sex spaces in which they could be safe from male exploitation, and could collectively create the opportunities that men denied them. They established girls’ schools and women’s colleges, nurseries, maternity clinics – the first in Britain were pioneered by women in the co-op and labour movement – artistic and cultural ventures, and nurtured women’s same-sex relationships.  When you are excluded from the centres of power and oppressed by those who control them, it makes sense to organise autonomously. Exclusion per se is not unfair – we need to understand context, and power. Women’s exclusion of men is not exclusion by a dominant class, as statistics on domestic violence, the sex pay gap and women’s woeful political representation show. That’s why we need single-sex spaces and the right to self-organise.   

Individual choice? 

In contrast to this history of self-organisation, transactivism, like neoliberalism, simply offers us individual choice. We can change our selves but nothing else. Not only is this woefully unambitious and nihilistic, but the doctrine of choice adds to women’s oppression. For it is WOMEN who now shoulder the burden of ‘choosing’ social care for their dependents in the absence of a robust welfare state- and the unpaid labour of care when no provider is available. It is WOMEN who are now spending more time in active parenting than they did in the 1970s – despite also doing far more hours of paid work – because they are expected to ‘choose’ their child’s school, friends and extracurricular activities in order to give them a head start in the great marketplace of life. And if that seems divorced from transideology, let’s reflect on the pressure that mothers face from those who claim that a ‘good’ parent will unquestioningly support their child’s ‘choice’ to transition. Of course, once you’ve lost your breasts and become infertile, ‘gender’ may not feel so fluid after all. Mothers will be there to pick up the pieces when the transactivists and their ‘allies’ have walked away.  

Grunwick strikers Morning Star

Historically, many feminists have fought for the right to act outside gendered norms, and in accordance with your sexuality. But they understood that individual choices over how to behave or describe yourself do not overcome oppression. Feminist movements have. To those who claim feminism achieved nothing more than the dominance of a few white, middle-class women, I say: go tell that to the women who organised against imperial rule in Latin America and Asia. Tell that to those black women who fought for sex as well as race equality in the US and South Africa. Tell it to the Grunwick strikers of the 1970s, those South Asian women who enacted one of Britain’s longest-running industrial disputes and showed that it is possible to forge solidarity across the divisions of sex and race, while respecting the right of women to self-organise. And, frankly, tell it to those white, middle-class women who fought for our right to walk the streets, have an education, and the vote. 

We will win 

Feminist movements are as varied in tactics as they are in membership. Many friends of mine are frustrated that they can’t be more involved in today’s women’s movement, often fearing that the hostility that feminists face will harm their livelihood or families. The past shows us that we need militant action and those who can speak out publicly. But feminism also relies on those who use their work to change hearts and minds; those who write trade union resolutions and articles, and those who give care – hugely undervalued in capitalism and patriarchy – to those in the firing line. And when we look back at the suffrage movement’s awe-inspiring rallies, in halls like this one, we know that every single woman there made a difference.  

I suspect that over the past year we have all had moments of despair – but our past shows that such moments can bring forth glorious movements and lasting change. Five years ago, I would not have dreamed that I would stand together tonight with hundreds of feminists, confident that we are just the tip of a growing, international movement for women’s rights. And by owning our history we have something that feminists in the past did not possess. They rarely knew much about the feminist campaigns that preceded them – that history wasn’t present in schools, universities, libraries or museums. But we do. We know that those feminists who went before us were reviled, as we are. But we also know that they won important victories. The struggle continues, and here, today, on May 20th 2019, we are also making history. Standing in sisterhood with those who went before us, we can say with confidence: we too shall fight – and we will win.