Dani Garavelli: Time to call a ceasefire as gender debate gets nasty

It is odd that a debate involving the rights of two historically oppressed groups in society – cis (non trans) women and trans women – should have bred such intolerance from within. In recent weeks, however, the arguments over sex and gender and how we define them – particularly when it comes to ?all-female spaces, such as women’s prisons and refuges, feminist clubs and sports competitions – have led to exchanges so poisonous they are little short of hate crimes.
Former tennis champion Martina Navratilova expressed concern about trans gender women having an unfair advantage in sport. Picture: David Buchan/Rex/ShutterstockFormer tennis champion Martina Navratilova expressed concern about trans gender women having an unfair advantage in sport. Picture: David Buchan/Rex/Shutterstock
Former tennis champion Martina Navratilova expressed concern about trans gender women having an unfair advantage in sport. Picture: David Buchan/Rex/Shutterstock

So heightened is the atmosphere that individuals and organisations are facing calls to have their life’s work effectively negated for crossing some arbitrary linguistic or ideological line.

Thus Martina Navratilova – a long-standing campaigner for LGBT rights – not only found herself at the receiving end of a string of abusive tweets from trans cycling champion Rachel McKinnon, but was dropped from an LGBT charity because, while accepting people’s right to identify in any way they choose, she disagreed with trans women competing in women’s sport. Previously, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was lambasted for saying she believed trans women who had lived as men had benefited from privilege in a way cis women never could.

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On the other side of debate, the Glasgow Women’s Library – one of the most lauded women’s organisations in the UK – faced calls for a boycott after it withdrew from the Audacious Women’s Festival on the grounds it did not believe the event’s policies on trans inclusion were compatible with its own. Specifically, the library explained in a subsequent statement, it believed it would be required to demand a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) from attendees, as well as making subjective judgments on whether those involved “looked” sufficiently like women.

Admittedly, there are legitimate criticisms you could make about the way all three behaved. Navratilova used the word “cheat” – though she quickly withdrew it – to describe trans women competing in women’s sport and Adichie perhaps underestimated the degree to which trans women are themselves persecuted.

The GWL could arguably have been expected to clarify the AWF’s policy more quickly so the event didn’t have to be cancelled at short notice. But none of them acted out of malice. Navratilova and the GWL have track records in supporting the very people they are now being accused of attacking. They have not engaged in pejorative language. And yet they are still being labelled transphobes and traitors; no distinction is being made between them and extremists like Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, who has appointed himself Guardian of Women, or McKinnon, who appears to encourage pile-ons.

Even if you take issue with their point of view, are we really saying one of the world’s first openly gay athletes, a strong black, female African voice and the UK’s only museum dedicated to women’s history should be ostracised or silenced for expressing their sincerely held opinions? Moreover, what is the impact of this over-reaction on those looking in from outside; the vast majority of the general public, who have no transgender friends are watching this unfold with bafflement.

The last time I wrote about this issue, the hostilities had already started down south. But in Scotland we seemed to have missed out on the worst of it, with feminist groups such as Engender rallying behind the consultation on a reformed Gender Recognition Act, based on self-identification.

If the Scottish Government thought it was in for an easy ride, however, it was mistaken. Unlike equal marriage, there was no public groundswell of support for self-identification, and those with an agenda – particularly an anti-trans agenda – were able to exploit that lack to their own ends.

The first line of attack – and how cynical is this? – appears to have been women-only services, presumably on the assumption that this would be an easy way to stoke fear and division. So one newspaper had a journalist write to Rape Crisis Scotland (and then phone Scottish Women’s Aid) asking for details of trans staff employed at local centres. Both organisations already provide trans inclusive services on the basis of self-identification, though given the particular sensitivities around rape and domestic abuse, extensive risk assessment is carried out on everyone. The organisation says this trans inclusive policy has never caused any problems. But the newspaper’s inquiries have put everyone on edge. Imagine how vulnerable a trans woman, who has worked to protect victims of violence, would feel about having her status and motives questioned. But it also impacts on non-trans service users, who may now be unnecessarily worried about accessing those services just when they need them most.

Equally distasteful has been the way in which men such as Linehan have jumped on the bandwagon under the guise of being allies to women; it’s galling to see his blatant harassment of an already vulnerable community being hailed as crusading feminism. Ditto, the attempt on the part of some men to create the perception that the transgender debate is cis feminists versus trans women, whereas in reality (and unsurprisingly) feminists have many different takes.

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It was this pretence at uniformity that inspired SNP councillor Rhiannon Spear to pen her open letter, signed by almost 500 women, warning that conversations about gender-based issues should not attempt to roll back the existing rights of trans people.

Yet, to my mind, some transgender activists are also acting in a manner that is counter-productive. It is not unreasonable that people should have reservations about specific issues around transgenderism; children transitioning, for example; trans women sex offenders in prison, trans women competing in women’s sport; the collation of sex-related data.

It is possible for individuals to express such concerns without challenging the existence of trans people; and it is possible for people to be trans-inclusive without wanting to erase women. The bandying around of terms such as TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) raises the temperature. The defensiveness around the debate – while understandable – is counterproductive. Even if the concerns raised on, say, trans athletes are exaggerated; even if the risk of opportunists infiltrating prisons is being exploited (and it is worthwhile noting that the story about Soham killer Ian Huntley transitioning was completely made up), it is better in the long-run to calmly demonstrate why they are wrong than to castigate people for honest mistakes.

After all, this debate is in its infancy. Even if some opinions are plain wrong, they need to be aired until everybody gains in maturity and understanding. It is not immoral to seek such reassurance.

The hostile nature of the current debate is driving people further apart and impeding progress. It is human to worry when change is afoot. Like it or not, trying to shut down well-intentioned people is liable to cause a backlash, when the aim is to reach a point where no-one feels their rights are threatened or their identities are at risk.

It’s perfectly possible to achieve that settlement, I think. But both sides need to be willing to call a ceasefire and embark on some kind of peace process.