Women’s Rights, Transgender Rights, and Rosie Duffield – An Opinion
‘As long as we have literature as a bulwark against intolerance and as a force for change, then we have a chance … literature is plurality in action; it embraces … a place of no truths; it relishes ambiguity, and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood.’– Caryl Phillips, Brave New Words
In a recent conversation with a lifelong friend, we talked about what had changed over our lifetimes, in relation to what we hoped for 50 years ago. We had met at a time of great hopefulness, amidst burgeoning movements for social justice: the women’s liberation movement, Gay Liberation Front, black power, civil-rights activism, anti-apartheid campaigns and worldwide anti-colonialism; we took part in many demonstrations, including the UK’s first Pride protest. And though the world is still riven with racism, violence, war, misogyny, xenophobic nationalism, poverty and other injustice, it is in many ways a very different place from that of our youth.
One thing that has altered hugely, she remarked, is the situation for trans people, hardly short of a miracle. Julia Serano has described witnessing ‘the slow evolution from the old gatekeeper system — which engaged in pathological science and often harboured antagonistic attitudes towards its trans clients/research subjects – toward what is gradually becoming our contemporary trans healthcare system – one that works in partnership with trans communities, and which increasingly has trans people’s best interests at heart.’
This will chime with many of us. In a similar and overlapping trajectory, the lives of lesbians of our generation have straddled two different eras. From growing up in the 1950/60s and being stigmatised, ostracised, incarcerated, pathologised, seen as predatory, unnatural, perverted and mentally ill (literally: the American Psychiatric Association did not remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders until 1973) with no legal protection against losing children, jobs and homes, we’ve gone to a time when in some countries we have achieved legal rights and are mostly no longer regarded as mad monsters. ‘Woman’ had been synonymous with heterosexual, wife, mother, as per its etymology; biology as destiny. We had to denaturalise meanings which seemed fixed, forge new realities, transform consciousness. As Rauda Morcos, of Palestinian lesbian NGO Aswat says, ‘We built a new language, a new discourse.’ Shame was turned to Pride, transformation created through the alchemy of activism and imagination.
Yet such progress can’t be taken for granted, may have to be fought for all over again when at risk of being rolled back, when gains made are in danger of being weakened. An increasingly polarised debate – or more of a furore, far from a civil discussion – about transgender people has been in the news lately, mostly on the degraded level to which much public discourse frequently sinks: often dismissive of diverse opinions, with people of all positions intimidated or harassed, on and offline.
This is not an overview of this situation, but an individual opinion piece, from personal observations. Readers can find plenty of info online providing various opinions and arguments about recent developments; e.g. this perspective and a thread which one transwoman describes as explaining why almost every trans person in the UK is scared. It is appalling that anyone is made to feel afraid in this way. As if there wasn’t enough to be fearful of amid the daily horrors of deadly pandemic, Brexshit, climate catastrophe, misogynist and racist violence, multiple manifestations of untrammelled thuggery, untrustworthy politicians and venal corrupt government.
It might seem that issues arising from mooted legislative changes could be a matter of rational dialogue and decision-making; however, an initial spark of concern over a potential clash of rights and interests regarding changes to gender-recognition law seemed to morph into full-scale and increasingly virulent belittling and ridiculing of transgender existence. It has been so alienating, many have been wary of popping their heads above the parapet; nuanced discussion felt impossible. There is also a concern that to engage in such a debate legitimises it, as if the validity of some people’s lives was up for debate. Important discussion about women’s spaces has too often elided with abusive, derisory comments implying trans people are deluded, predatory or ill, don’t really exist/shouldn’t be allowed to exist.
For many trans people, their friends and family, this is horribly reminiscent of previous times when open hostility and violence was even more commonplace. It’s painful to revisit the situation of the 1970s, when it was horrific to witness the persecution of transwomen, from attacks and rejection by other feminists to assault and false arrest by police and mistreatment by the courts. A recent resurgence of dogmatic, hostile attitudes revisits the agenda expressed in The Transsexual Empire – a book described by one reviewer on publication in 1979 as ‘the Mein Kampf of transexuals’, with the author’s proposal that ‘transexualism’ should be ‘morally mandated’ out of existence – and is equally chilling. On the assumption of a right of entitlement to dispense such attitudes, many agree with Jacqueline Rose, who wrote ‘I am genuinely baffled how anyone can believe themselves qualified to legislate on the reality, or not, of anyone else.’
Zealous campaigners advocating for the upholding of the sex-based rights of women/LGB people ostensibly also support trans people’s right to dignity and freedom from fear, but nevertheless contribute to spreading a climate of hostility, bigotry and endangerment that taps into longstanding prejudice. It would be disingenuous to deny this. A classic example of purporting to seek the prevention of harm yet actually causing it. Ramping up this atmosphere has escalated to a point where some trans people understand their existence to be under threat. The animus expressed toward them seems out of touch with reality. The trans people I know or know of are musicians, award-winning writers, poets, teachers, cooks, parents: people whose existence enriches the world – this is irrelevant of course; you don’t have to be a great person to be entitled to human rights, but the irony is painful. It is hard to see good people being traduced, their existence portrayed as delusional or inauthentic.
This would have no more bearing on Whitstable and Canterbury than the rest of the country were it not for the fact that the MP for the area, Rosie Duffield, adding to the reasons many residents are disillusioned with her, has alienated even more with her behaviour on this issue. Local readers will be aware of the dissatisfaction felt about this MP. With no apparent political experience, qualifications or knowledge, she was installed deliberately to keep socialism at bay through dubious, undemocratic Labour Party machinations. Her alliance with other right-wing lobbies helped ensure we don’t have a Labour government (which has huge implications for women); she was prominent in the egregious witch-hunt deploying accusations of anti-semitism, which continues to cause enormous suffering to those falsely accused. When challenged she has frequently reacted rudely to CLP members, constituents and former supporters, or refused to respond.
The twittersphere is awash with ignorance and silliness, but Rosie Duffield is a Member of Parliament, not simply a member of the public, with a responsibility to all her constituents. As a public servant, an elected representative, in an official role that calls for an adult and professional approach, she is required to use common courtesy in her dealings with others. If her role brings her into contact with issues she knows little about, surely she has a responsibility to become educated, not tweet or retweet ludicrous remarks (e.g., her remark about cervical cancer screening was inaccurate, ridiculing what should have been a straightforward cancer-prevention public health information announcement – a message it is important to spread as widely as possible, obviously).
Failing that, it is not necessary to understand everything: if other people’s realities are opaque to us, we can be empathic, or even be content to dwell in Keats’ state of negative capability: ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ There is no need to be derogatory when we are unable to squash the complexity of life into the limits of our own comprehension. It would be helpful if Rosie Duffield and others with trans-hostile views could learn from the wisdom of the judge in a recent asylum case who affirmed the need to provide legal protection from the hate crimes and brutality enabled by bigotry and ignorance.
Or she could maybe just use lockdown to watch Pose, which portrays with ‘respect, pathos and love both the glamour of the ballroom and the guts of the Aids crisis, transphobia, sexism and racism.’ Whatever, it’s not necessary to lapse into unkindness or contempt.
Ms Duffield’s attendance at Pride events garnered her support from people alienated by the previous bigoted Tory MP; however, many are now thoroughly disenchanted by what is seen as her use of pinkwashing. She has been accompanied at Pride by friends from the so-called Jewish Labour Movement, key players in the lobbying against Jeremy Corbyn and the relentless purge of socialists from the party.
The late Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, whose family members were murdered by the Nazis, remarked of the Israeli regime that there was no point in appealing to its conscience, as ‘one cannot appeal to a vacuum.’ Sadly, so it seems also with Ms Duffield, who rebuffs any criticism, portraying it as unwarranted (I am referring here to political and procedural critique, not misogynist or other abuse, which is unacceptable in any situation whatsoever, as should go without saying).
In the new year, troubled party members and supporters have affirmed that the Labour Party must be a ‘safe and welcoming space for trans members’ in an open letter to Keir Starmer, asserting that Ms Duffield has made the party ‘less welcoming for transgender people.’ Two of her staffers, one her only LGBTQ+ member of staff, have quit her employment citing her “overtly transphobic” views as a main reason for resigning.’ They asked ‘why has no meaningful action been taken to discipline Rosie Duffield? Trangender people just want to live their lives free from oppression, they do not wish to be a pragmatic political issue that senior politicians can choose to ignore when it suits them,’ and demanded ‘that the Parliamentary whip be removed from Rosie Duffield MP and her membership of the party be suspended until she recognises the genuine harm and hurt caused by her views.’ Trailblazing trans activist and author Rachel Pollack views this as ‘a sign of true progress. In the old days, when transwomen were losing their council flats, and their jobs, no one spoke up for them at all.’
Those of us who have worked in the women’s liberation movement to establish women’s spaces and to defend them from funding cuts, who have trans friends and support their human rights, and do not accept that these two principles need be in conflict with each other, have been disheartened by the superficial and vitriolic nature of current ‘debate.’ Feminists, including transwomen, who assert that respect for trans rights, and concern for trans people who experience exclusion, impoverishment and murderous violence, need not in any way compromise a commitment to women’s rights, that it’s not either/or, are wearied by seeing a stream of social-media posts implying we are unaware of the existence of opportunistic predatory misogynists or the need to protect children. If young people are being wrongly pressured to conform to stereotyped gender roles or being mislabelled transgender, if medical malpractice is occurring, it should be properly investigated. Again, matters that could surely be discussed rationally and thoughtfully. But anti-trans campaigning has gone far beyond the aims of protecting women’s spaces and safeguarding children. We have moved into a time where trans people are being denied access to resources and support. Gal-dem, in an opinion piece, stated that a recent High Court decision means that gatekeepers are ‘now further empowered to decide who qualifies for treatment — a process that is inherently demeaning and likely only afforded to those who have the access, time and resources to go to court. Also, it exacerbates existing inequalities in access to trans health care.’
Hostility and derision has extended into many areas; the recent refusal to change the birth certificate of a transman’s child to enable him to be registered as the father was claimed by some as ‘a victory for common sense’, whereas to others it seemed more like non-sense.
Is it really beyond the wit of the British bureaucracy to devise documentation that reflects the realities of today’s families? Space to record data for policy purposes could be included, for those concerned with statistics re natal biological sex. Or must official certification remain forever rigidly heteronormative/anti-trans?
In 2018 the London Pride march was disrupted and held up by anti-trans lesbians, in a protest which appalled even people who don’t go to Pride, who find it depoliticised and commercialised, or don’t identify with the umbrella term LGBT+. We found it hubristic, totally inappropriate, and contrary to Pride’s celebratory collective spirit. Amongst thousands of people attending there must have been those who have fled their home countries to seek asylum, or their communities here, because of persecution, and some of them will be transgender. They should be welcome and safe. Already dealing with the Tories’ anti-immigrant hostile environment policy, they should be free from insult or harassment at the one time when LGBT people are in the majority, taking over the streets in a carnivalesque reversal of normativity. The action overrode the event’s plan, which was to have been led by NHS unions trying to save services from privatisation. Holding up the march made thousands wait in exhausting heat, with the disrupters able to then not only join the march but in effect lead it, which led to the absurdity of an LGBT march being led by anti-T protesters. This was noted positively by the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, which of course has its own reasons for policing gender; in a dangerous liaison some feminists have rightly drawn flak for cooperating with such anti-marriage equality, anti-abortion rights, right-wing institutions.
‘The greatness of literature lies in its capacity to communicate the experiences and feelings of human beings in all their variety, affording us glimpses of the boundless variety of humanity.’– Carlo Rovelli, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness
Whether or not the inclusive LGBT+ terms suits everyone, it’s likely that when the crunch comes – male supremacist, white supremacist, fascist, right-wing and religious fundamentalism – as it has in many places, those who resist or don’t fit into the rigid dualism of the roles of masculinity and femininity, those cornerstones of heterosexism: lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, trans people, women exerting our right to control our own bodies and sexuality and fertility, or anyone Othered for failing to submit to patriarchal control and compulsory heterosexuality, may all be classified as gender traitors. Treated similarly to, and overlapping with, disabled people, older people, poor and unemployed people (i.e. ‘useless eaters’, the Nazi synonym for Tories ‘economically inactive’), and with People of Colour in all groups being hardest hit, we will be demonised as trans people were in Donald Trump Jr’s rant that helped foment the mob attack in Washington, when a transwoman was reported as having to flee from the mob inside the building.
So we face the choice of human solidarity with one another, and of deciding whether or not to be bystanders when other groups are persecuted. Excising one section of a coalition negates the imaginative, open-hearted ideas expressed by the writer Otamere Guobadia, when questioned about his hopes for the future: ‘… queerness does away with our binaries, our bizarre fixation on fixedness … Queerness is evidence of more. It is a peek into the cauldron at the beginning of the universe. Evidence that we, in acting purportedly “against nature”, might ourselves expand it. It is evidence of the divine. Queerness is water from the stone, Lazarus from the depths, something from nothing.’
It’s striking that the world of literature often offers a generosity of spirit and depth of understanding not often found in political discourse, is more hospitable, caring and imaginative than the ‘real’, everyday one we live in, with its constraints and hardening of borders. Science fiction and many other writers, authors as various e.g. as Arundhati Roy, Elif Shafak, Armistead Maupin, Banana Yoshimoto, have envisaged vastly different possibilities. To take a couple of examples, Shafak’s life-affirming 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, set in Istanbul, creates a home for marginalised people whom society considers expendable – ‘foreigners’, trans women, gay men, prostituted women, disabled women – a place wherein all are respected and valued, humanity and individuality restored, a chosen family of love. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness also conjures a welcome to ‘this place where we live, where we have made our home … the place of falling people.’
When the author Pat Barker recently remarked on Radio 3 that writers ‘delight in the complexity of the world,’ she invoked a capacity for joy, an ethical principle and a way of being that all can share or aspire to. This suggests that it’s possible, while working for progressive political change, not to Other anyone else, collude in anyone else’s oppression, or add to the sum total of suffering in the world, but to prefer to follow Margaret Atwood’s advice: ‘Rejoice in Nature’s infinite variety!’
© Frankie Green 2021
Frankie Green lives in Whitstable and has been taking part in various political activities since the 1960s anti-apartheid movement, the Vietnam war, the Gay Liberation Front, the Women’s Liberation Movement and Palestine Solidarity Campaign. She helps run a feminist music archive (https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk) and collects stuff on a blog (https://frankiegreenvariouswritings.home.blog)
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