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What’s wrong with Woman’s Place UK?

There have been few more bitter struggles on the left in recent years than the conflict between those who support trans inclusion and those who style themselves as Gender Critical and refuse to accept that trans people should be socially or legally treated as their aquired gender.

At the heart of this row has been Woman’s Place UK (WPUK), a group of socialist women who have held many high profile meetings discussing the rights of transgender people. These meetings have drawn heavy criticism and furious protests from those supportive of trans people who claim that the organisation is transphobic. Woman’s Place have hit back at these accusations, claiming that the protests have been an attempt to silence or censor women who just want to talk about how trans rights might impact on women. More specifically Woman’s Place insist they are not transphobic and are supportive of trans rights. Recently this conflict has intensified after three of Labour’s female leadership candidates signed a pledge which explicitly referred to the group a “trans-exclusionist hate group”.

WPUK was formed after the Government announced plans to make it easier to change legal sex by amending the Gender Recognition Act. Whilst it remains unclear after two years of stalling whether the current administration has any plans to pursue this, WPUK have grown into an organisation which now appears to oppose everything from the current evidence based trans healthcare provision for young people to trans inclusion in sport.

Much has been written about the dubious transphobic fringe that has accompanied WPUK’s meetings and which has rarely been challenged by the group. At it’s most extreme, the Gender Critical movement has claimed that trans people are all either sexual fetishists or mentally ill gays and lesbians, that Queer Theory is paedophile plot, that a trans cabal has secretly ‘captured’ government institutions, and that cautious and rarely used medical treatment for trans teenagers is equivalent to experiments carried out by Nazis in concentration camps. Current darling of the Gender Critical movement Harry Miller, an ex cop and former supporter of Tommy Robinson, even recently compared the LGBT Pride flag to the Swastika.

Whilst WPUK may claim not to share these opinions it is clear that many of the people who have handed the group thousands of pounds in donations and ticket sales are quite committed to promoting to this kind of anti-trans rhetoric. Without this support it is unlikely WPUK’s profile, or bank balance, would have grown as it has. Until WPUK stand up and loudly denounce transphobic conspiracy theories, and make it clear those who propagate them are not welcome at their events, then the organisation is likely to be viewed with deep suspicion by most trans and gender non conforming people.

But of far more concern is what this organisation is actually campaigning for. WPUK want to introduce laws that go far beyond the bathroom bills which have been so fiercely contested in Conservative states in the US and which would make the lives of trans people – and those whose gender is non conforming or ambiguous – almost intolerable. In a recent open letter to Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy, WPUK founder Ruth Serwotka, lays out their demands:

“Our views are that current equality law must be protected, that the current sex exemptions in the Equality Act must be upheld, understood and enforced.
Is that “hateful”, “harmful” or “offensive” – or grounds for proscription?”

Now on the surface that all sounds pretty benign. Of course women’s spaces need to be protected in a world in which male violence is endemic. And trans women, who equally face this violence, deserve that safety as well, and the current law reflects that. However neither Ruth Serwotka nor WPUK believe trans women should be included in that protection.

Currently the Equalities Act prohibits discrimination based on Gender Reassignment. Guidance from the EHRC is quite clear that trans people should be able to use toilets and changing rooms in line with their aquired gender and in fact this has been normal practice for decades. The act does however allow some leeway, in which a trans women may be excluded if it is a proportionate means of enforcing a legitimate aim. Equality experts have stated that this should really only be done on a case by case basis. Government guidance gives the example of rape counselling in which the presence of a trans woman may make some other women feel uncomfortable and prevent them from being able to take part. These are the ‘single sex’ exemptions to which Ruth Serwotka is referring to. As they are both voluntary and discretionary they cannot be ‘enforced’ without weakening trans rights under the act. This is something WPUK are quite openly campaigning for, although they use the language of strengthening women’s rights rather than weakening trans rights, presumably in an attempt to mask their true agenda.

And in case there is any doubt then the demands of WPUK are laid bare in this speech in which they discuss their demands in more detail. The speaker is quite clear about what the group want and equally clear that this should apply to all single sex spaces including toilets:

“The law must be strengthened to ensure that all women who want or need single sex spaces (including toilets, health provision accommodation, prisons, sports, sexual and domestic violence services) are able to access them without resorting to extraordinary measures. “

She then goes on to state what should happen to those organisations and businesses who still permit trans inclusion:

“The law needs to be tightened up and it needs to be enforced; enforced to ensure that female-only spaces and services in this country are protected. Business and organisations should face fines or legal action if they knowingly, and deliberately flout the law.”

The only state in the US to successfully introduce a Bathroom Bill was North Carolina. It turned out to be a disaster which nearly bankrupted the state due to widespread protests and boycotts and was largely repealed two years later. But even this law only made it illegal for government institutions such as schools to permit trans people to use toilets in line with their aquired gender. WPUK go much further than this. They appear to want to make it a crime to offer trans inclusive toilets or services even if an organisation or business wants to. And WPUK practice what they preach, inisisting, quite possibly illegally, that on the rare occassion a trans person turns up to their events then they must use the toilet in line with the sex they were assigned at birth.

The impact of such legislation would reach far beyond trans people, not least placing additional strain on low paid front line workers who will be expected to guess what genitals someone was born with under the threat of their employers being prosecuted. In practice, most businesses would be likely to remove toilets and changing rooms altogether if they are not legally obliged to provide them rather than risk being prosecuted because someone managed to get into the wrong toilet. It is astonishingly authoritarian and it would not just harm the lives of trans women, but gender non conforming and ambiguous people, Intersex people and of course trans men – quite possibly most of all. Many in the Gender Critical movement seem perfectly relaxed about this with regular WPUK speaker Kathleen Stock declaring masculine appearing women being quizzed about their sex assigned at birth as an acceptable but regrettable cost in the fight to keep trans women out of women’s toilets and changing rooms.

WPUK are not the only Gender Critical organisation who hold this line. Fair Play For Women (FPFW) who are closely linked to Woman’s Place and have been represented at many of their events, have published a guide to service providers on how to keep trans women out of women’s changing rooms. FPFW have decided that excluding trans women from women’s spaces is already perfectly legal despite both case law and guidance from the EHRC suggesting otherwise. To enforce this policy FPFW suggest that shop assistants and others may sometimes have to query someone’s gender and demand to see a birth certificates before providing entry into female changing rooms.  If they are not able to provide one then FPFW recommend they should be excluded from the space. The implications are horrifying for all gender non-conforming people who would be expected to produce their papers on demand should any shop worker, security guard or cop insist on them. The potential for homophobic, lesbophobic, misogynist and indeed transphobic harassment is chilling.  And a society which demands those who are gender non-conforming should face on the spot ID checks is unlikely to stop there as history all too ominously warns us.

The struggle against bathroom bills in the US has been hard fought but ultimately successful even in the most conservative states (for now at least). Peer reviewed evidence has shown that trans inclusive policies, where they have been introduced, have not led to increased risks for women. One religious group has even conceded that dire warnings of bathroom predators – abusive men who pretend to be trans women to access women’s toilets – were largely concocted by the religious right.  In the UK this same struggle has been masked by support from some feminists whose arguments however are little different from those contrived by anti-LGBT forces on the right of the Republican Party.

When pushed on the damage to trans lives that rigid trans exclusionary policies such as bathroom bills would cause then many Gender Critical activists will mumble something about third spaces for trans people. WPUK members have said they would support trans only spaces and services, yet no-one ever says how this should be paid for. It is hard to imagine, at a time of sweeping austerity and women’s services under threat due to a funding crisis, that those in the Gender Critical movement would genuinely support billions being spent on refitting every set of public toilets and changing rooms in the country to accommodate a third space. It’s equally hard to believe this is something the public would support. It certainly ain’t likely to happen anyway under a cost cutting Tory government. All bathroom bills would be likely to achieve is either forcing trans and gender non-conforming people to compromise their dignity and safety or prevent them from accessing public facilities at all. That’s why people are pissed off with Women’s Place.  And whether you regard the group’s rhetoric as transphobic or not, it is surely not unreasonable to question whether those fighting for authoritarian policies that would make the most conservative bible belt Republicans blush have any real place in the Labour Party.  Not that I give a shit about the Labour Party.

It is a tragedy that this fight has broken out at a time when the UK is lurching towards the right and austerity is biting as hard as ever. It is understandable that many women, including trans women, are frightened that demands being made by the opposing side will leave them vulnerable to violence from men. And let’s not be in any doubt, it is male violence that is the fucking problem here. But bathroom bills will not prevent this. All they will achieve is further isolating and stigmatising an already marginalised group and serve to socially punish gender non-conformity. If WPUK really want this then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to call for them to be open about their intentions instead of hiding behind vague statements about sex based rights and strengthening the Equalities Act. If they genuinely support the kind of bathroom bills that have done so much damage to LGBT people in other parts of the world then perhaps it is time for them to make that clear.

And finally you might be thinking who the fuck am I to stick my oar in. One thing this debate does not need is more male voices who are largely unaffected by any of these issues. So here’s the thing. I have lived with gender dysphoria my entire life. Sometimes I have hidden it, in more recent years I have lived kind of a double life. If I was younger and hipper I’d probably have some exciting new term to describe my gender identity but I’m not young and hip. I recognise that I have not had the lived struggle of women, and I include trans women in that. I do not, as yet at least, live it every day and maybe never will. That doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a fair amount of shit for being perceived at times as a woman, trans woman and gender non conforming man.  And I do think trans women are women, and that trans men are men and that non binary people are valid, and that only we can be the judge of our own gendered experiences and identities, whatever the fuck gender identity is. There is so much about this we don’t understand and neither science nor philiosophy as yet have any of the answers. All we can do is fight for a world where we all live in as much comfort safety and dignity as it is possible for humans to achieve. That means doing all we can to confront male violence however we describe or experience our sex and gender. It also means working class people uniting against our exploiters and putting an end to the brutal economic system called capitalism that seeks to turn us against each other in a desperate scramble for resources whilst the rich look down on us and laugh. And they are laughing. No-one has done more to ferment this split than the right wing press and the forces of both capital and conservatism.

But that’s enough of that, this blog was never about me and it’s not going to start being now. Unless you know me personally I am not taking questions.  In truth this conflict has been the main reason I went quiet for a long time. And that started to feel like cowardice and I didn’t like that but I honestly don’t know whether I’ll get back to regular posting or not. Sorry to everyone I’ve lost touch with, I am slowly dragging myself out of the shadows. In the meantime can we please get back to some good old fucking class war and start to make the bastards scared of us again.

~Johnny Void

This piece was first published at The Void blog. You should check it out, for it is excellent.

Photo: Guy Smallman

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