'So polarized and so toxic': Groups clash over gender self-identification


In a patch of sunlight outside a hotel in the English seaside resort of Brighton around 60 protesters hold placards, wave flags, and shout “Trans lives are not a debate!” and “Trans women are real women!” Passersby stop. Some take photos. Drivers sound their car horns in support. Other people try to access the hotel’s entrance, which is lined with demonstrators.

The events of July 16 were just the latest skirmish in an increasingly tense and occasionally violent dispute around gender rights. The demonstrators from LGBT groups were calling for a right to independently change the sex recorded on birth certificates, which they say will avoid degrading bureaucracy and medically intrusive conditions, such as requiring the medical approval of two doctors.

A legal proposal to allow this is currently being considered by the UK government.

Those trying to access the hotel were attending talks on gender rights hosted by Woman’s Place UK. The feminist group formed in 2017 held the meeting during an ongoing global uproar about gender roles and rights, and says it is hoping to promote women’s voices during the government consultation into furthering transgender rights.

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Some women’s groups fear that the government proposals would put cisgendered women in danger and undermine their rights. They are concerned that harmful “men” could access vulnerable women in female spaces such as women’s domestic violence refuges and prisons.

Recent reports from the Daily Mail and BBC that a transgender prisoner sexually assaulted four female inmates in a women’s prison has spurred on such fears.

"Trans lives are not a debate," protesters outside Brighton's Jury's Inn shout into megaphones. They are demonstrating against a meeting of what they see as an anti-trans group, Woman's Place UK. Photo by: Lydia Morrish/WikiTribune
“Trans lives are not a debate,” shout protesters wrapped in flags and holding placards outside a Brighton hotel. Photo by Lydia Morrish. Credit: WikiTribune. License: CC 0

However, there is little to no evidence (The Guardian) that men have falsely declared themselves female to access women-only spaces in Ireland, where self-identification has been enacted since 2015.

The hostility in Brighton, the unofficial LGBT capital of the UK, underscored the confrontational nature of this debate. In 2017, the British government proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow transgender people in England and Wales to change their legal gender without the medical certification which is required currently.

Under the proposals people with gender dysphoria – which if untreated can lead to anxiety, depression, self-harm or suicide according to the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association – could independently change their gender.

An official consultation on the reforms, which is accepting submissions until October 19, has revived already polarized opinions in what has been described as a “culture war” (Economist). Meanwhile, wider issues on gender rights and violence against the transgender community in the U.S. and worldwide extend far beyond the English seaside.

A ‘toxic climate of fear and intimidation’

In Britain, both sides accuse each other of online threats and physical intimidation.

Trans activists have become “cultish,” Maria MacLachlan, a prominent and controversial 61-year-old feminist who critiques the trans rights movement on her website, told WikiTribune in a London cafe.

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She described experiences of being assaulted during a confrontation between transgender and feminist activists at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in 2017 (The Guardian). Activist Tara Wolf was convicted of striking MacLachlan and was fined £150 ($195) (The Evening Standard).

MacLachlan was suspended from Twitter in July 2018 after what she calls “one of those nasty little squabbles.” Twitter said MacLachlan’s post violated their guidelines against hateful conduct.

A protester in Brighton holds a sign reading "Not a debate," alluding to the discussions going on about gender in the UK after government proposals to make it easier for transgender people to change their gender. Photo by: Lydia Morrish/WikiTribune
A protester in Brighton holds a sign reading “Not a debate,” alluding to the discussions going on about gender in the UK after the government proposed to make it easier for transgender people to legally change their gender. Photo by Lydia Morrish. Credit: WikiTribune. License: CC 0

The Woman’s Place UK Brighton event relocated after its original venue pulled out after being contacted by “objectors” to the group.

An email ahead of the event sent by the organisers to attendees said: “There is clearly a concerted effort being made to prevent gatherings that discuss the possible impact of GRA reform on women.”

But protesters demonstrated outside the hotel until attendees had departed. One demonstrator, who asked to not to be named for fear of harassment, said people in the gender debate are on “different planets.”

“It’s not a divide, it’s completely different worlds,” they said while holding a sign reading: “Not a debate.” She described Woman’s Place UK as a hate group.

‘Gross misrepresentation’

Meanwhile Woman’s Place UK said it is not transphobic, and wants to be able to host events and speak publicly about its members’ concerns with self-identification and women’s rights.

A Ceesay, a 38-year-old organizer for Woman’s Place UK who helped arrange the Brighton event, told WikiTribune that it is a “gross misrepresentation” that the group is anti-trans.

“They will hear a soundbite that props up their worldview without actually going critically looking and reading and appraising our literature and our speakers,” she said. “There seems to be no willingness to really hear and understand our perspective, which is sad and frustrating…”

Ceesay added: “The rights of women and girls, lesbians, trans identifying people are too important to be discussed in a climate of fear and intimidation.”

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The aversion to some feminist groups has become so strong that Sister Not Cister rejected an interview with WikiTribune on the basis that it would not associate “in any way” with anybody involved with Woman’s Place UK.

Debbie Hayton, a 50-year-old transgender physics teacher from Birmingham, says she receives a lot of hate for what she says are “realistic” and “nuanced” views about transgenderism. “I really regret how this debate has become so polarized and so toxic…It’s just horrible.”

Police observe a crowd of protesters outside the meeting of feminist group Woman's Place UK, as passersby stop to take photos and car drivers occasionally sound their horns in support of the protest. Photo by: Lydia Morrish/WikiTribune
Police observe a crowd of protesters supporting transgender rights outside the meeting of feminist group Woman’s Place UK, as passersby stop to take photos and car drivers occasionally sound their horns in support of the protest.Photo by Lydia Morrish. Credit: WikiTribune. License: CC 0

Self-ID issue ‘mundane and overblown’

In Britain, transgender people can change the sex recorded on their birth certificate if they obtain a gender recognition certificate. This is necessary if they want to marry, adopt, or receive their pension as their preferred gender.

But LGBT groups criticize the process that requires transgender people to prove they have been living as their current gender for at least two years, and have their gender transition confirmed by doctors.

Although the government estimates there are between 200,000 and 500,000 trans people in the UK, only 4,910 trans people have legally changed their gender.

James Morton, the manager of Scottish Trans Alliance, a trans advocacy group funded by the Scottish government equality unit since 2007, says changing the gender on birth certificates should be easier.

He told WikiTribune: “We don’t see it as some kind of an extra right. We see it as just an intrinsic part of being able to live in society and having documents that reflect how you look and identify.”

‘It is a different experience’

Yet some feminist activists say that proposals to make it easier for transgender people to self-declare their gender undermines the rights, experiences and status of cisgender women.

It makes it seem like women “don’t matter,” said MacLachlan.

“You’re not the same. You haven’t had to live in a woman’s body all your life…We’ve got a different experience and it may have been a very unhappy and oppressive experience [for transgender people]. [But] it is a different experience.”

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Men allegedly exploiting self-identification to access women’s spaces is a major concern for Woman’s Place UK and other women’s groups because many of their attendees are survivors of sexual abuse and physical trauma, said Ceesay.

“They’re the ones that are most concerned and upset and worried about the impact of not having safe-guarding around women-only spaces,” she added.

61-year-old Maria MacLachlan says her views have become more entrenched after a "web of lie" circulated about her on the internet after a tussle with a trans protester. Photo by: Lydia Morrish/WikiTribune
Maria MacLachlan, 61, says her views have become more entrenched after a “web of lies” circulated about her on the internet after a tussle with a trans protester in September 2017. Photo by Lydia Morrish. Credit: WikiTribune. License: CC 0

But concerns with self-identification are based on misconceptions, said Morton. He added that the changes to the GRA to allow it is “mundane” and has “blown up to be much more significant than it is for the wider world.”

Hayton believes the process needs to change, but she says self-identification is not a “progressive way forward.”

“If society loses confidence and thinks anybody can get one of these things just by turning up and deciding we feel a bit girly then we all come under suspicion,” said Hayton.

A 2018 YouGov poll with Pink News found only 18 percent of the public thought that people should be allowed to change their legal gender without a doctor’s approval.

When advocacy meets free speech

Disagreement over the boundaries of free speech and accusations of censorship have cause further friction. MacLachlan said that it seems like trans-rights groups “want to shut you up.”

Outside the Brighton hotel, protesters discouraged people from taking photos. Others questioned journalists about their intentions. Many rejected interview requests and appeared hostile to questions.

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Morton of Scottish Trans Alliance said that there are many reasons why trans people are reluctant to speak to the media. These include fear of harassment from anti-trans groups, to exhaustion with continuously debating the legitimacy of their identity and rights. He said a significant number of journalists are “framing articles in ways that amplify prejudice and undermine trans people’s existing legal protections and social acceptance.”

Morton said articles from publications such as The Sun and The Spectator contained offensive language or misrepresented trans people. Broadcaster Sky News received a backlash from trans rights groups when it described the issue as one of “gender wars”. The head of the Trans Equality Legal Initiative (TELI), described the Sky News coverage as “fake news.”

“Some trans people just want to be able to go to work, go to the toilet, come home, go for a swim in the gym without feeling constant fears about being told that they don’t deserve the same rights as other people,” said Morton

He added: “People aren’t wanting special rights they’re just wanting to be able to live their lives in dignity and privacy.”

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