A brief foreword: this essay is the first in a series, written about events in Scotland which explore and champion women’s rights. Each of these events is taking place within the space of a fortnight, and it feels like a turning point in mainstream conversations about sex and gender – worth a spot of feminist documentation. This one describes Meghan Murphy’s talk at Holyrood on Wednesday the 22nd of May, 2019. It is my personal account of the event, and – although I have tried to be faithful to every contribution in letter and spirit – prone to human error. In the next instalment I will write fully about the perspective of Bec Wonders, another Canadian feminist and badass who deserves an essay of her own.
Dedicated to Joan McAlpine, MSP, for her courage.
When Joan McAlpine invites me to the Scottish Parliament, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s a real privilege to receive an invite to Holyrood, and a delight to have the opportunity to hear Meghan Murphy speak. Meghan is the founder of Feminist Current, a radical feminist blog and podcast. I have followed her work for a number of years, and contributed to Feminist Current at the beginning of my life as a feminist blogger. Meghan writes about abortion rights, male violence against women and girls, the harms of the sex industry, misogyny in popular culture, and – increasingly – the competing political interests of women and people identifying as transgender.
Though based in Canada, Meghan uses the platform she has built to highlight feminist issues around the world and amplify the voices of women across different backgrounds. I particularly enjoy the work of Raquel Rosario Sanchez, a bold and brilliant feminist writer from the Dominican Republic who contributes regularly to Feminist Current. Meghan is someone who never flinches from speaking truth to power. She is also a fellow Mean Girls enthusiast. And so I am looking forward to learning from her directly.
Just as I’m about to begin the journey to Edinburgh, my phone pings with an email alert. It’s an invitation to appear on BBC Scotland’s The Nine, subject to change with any major announcements from the Prime Minister. They want me to discuss Meghan Murphy’s visit to Holyrood, and the protests that have been planned as a result.
Until this point I have refused any and all TV requests for two reasons. The first is a deep-rooted fear of the racist, sexist abuse that is directed towards Black women who are visible to the public eye – just look at how Fiona Bruce mistreated Diane Abbott, during her most recent appearance on BBC Question Time. Bruce implied that the first Black woman to be elected as an MP gained a position in the Shadow Cabinet due to a past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. She interrupted Abbott more than any other panellist, and wrongly contradicted Abbott’s statistics. Bruce’s behaviour normalised the constant stream of misogynoir directed towards Diane Abbott and any other Black woman who claims a place in public life.
The second reason I have declined previous TV requests is a strong distaste for confrontational formats that are designed to bring about arguments instead of creating the space for consensus building – again, see BBC Question Time. But The Nine is a new programme on a new channel. BBC Scotland’s representative speaks to me about wanting to host a respectful discussion instead of a rammy, taking a sensitive approach to the subject at hand and those talking about it. The Nine could be an opportunity for a different, less aggressively macho way of hosting public conversations to take root in television. And so I say yes.
By the time I’ve transferred over to the Edinburgh train, the BBC Scotland representative has called to say the segment has been cancelled owing to Theresa May’s latest announcement. They are keen to cover this subject and have me on to discuss it in the future, but think that it’s irresponsible to squeeze something so important into a couple of sound-bites. I agree wholeheartedly, and appreciate the principles that go into making The Nine. When the time comes, I will gladly accept another invitation from them.
This leaves only anxiety about the planned protest, and the bout of Imposter Syndrome that tells me a mistake has been made, my name won’t be on the guest list, and I’ll have to leave the Parliament under a cloud of embarrassment. Neither worry, it turns out, was worth stressing over. I arrive early enough to avoid the protestors, and am ushered upstairs to a conference room without incident.
Before the talk begins, there is a palpable sense of excitement. There is a community vibe that is characteristic of the most enjoyable feminist spaces – although we are in parliament, many of the women here are from grassroots feminist organisations that receive no government funding, or women’s services that receive altogether too little of it. A woman behind me shares out a packet of sweeties. Another woman, when she finds out that there isn’t any catering on offer, goes out to buy biscuits for everybody and offers them round on a tray. In this moment, I am quite literally sustained by shortbread and sisterhood. Looking at the women around me – for it is primarily women here – I wonder how protestors would reconcile their idea of hate-filled “TERFs” with the clear-eyed and generous feminists in this room.
When our speakers arrive, there is a heartfelt round of applause. Joan McAlpine, the MSP who organised this event, opens the meeting by reminding everyone to keep the discussion respectful. She points out that not everybody in this room shares the same views, which is a positive sign about the openness of this conversation. Joan goes on to point out the pattern of women on the progressive left who have devoted so much of their lives to women’s rights being demonised – Linda Bellos, the gay & lesbian rights activist who brought Black History Month to Britain, Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, and Helen Steel, a woman who has shown immense courage speaking out against undercover police officers spying on so-called “left-wing extremism.”
For Joan, the “privacy, safety, and dignity of women” are crucial. She condemns the violent threats and abusive language that have come to define gender discourse online – in particular the misogyny and anti-Semitism directed towards Professor Rosa Freedman, a legal scholar, for her opposition to sex and gender being conflated in the Scottish Census.
Joan herself is resistant to attempts to reframe sex as gender, reminding us that sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. She opposes self-identification policies, highlighting the infamous case of Alex Drummond – a member of Stonewall’s advisory board. Drummond is a self-described ‘lesbian’, despite being bearded and male-bodied. Some would argue it is offensive to deny that Alex Drummond is a woman or a lesbian. To Joan, the risks self-ID policies create around women’s safety are what should be considered truly objectionable:
I find it offensive that any man who has a history of abusing women may declare himself a woman and access women’s spaces without any experience of what it is to be a woman.
When Meghan begins speaking, she is like a breath of fresh air. Despite the abuse and threats that have been hurled her way since she became vocal about the differences between sex and gender, she betrays not a flicker of fear. Her voice is steady, her words rational. Meghan starts by defining each of the terms she uses. By ‘sex’ she means biology; whether an individual is male or female. “When I say gender, what I mean is the stereotypes and social roles that are imposed on men and women because of their sex.” By woman, Meghan means “adult human female.” By man, “adult human male.”
More controversial is the phrase “gender ideology.” It’s not an expression I have ever used, because I expect the average person who identifies as trans is more worried about the challenges of rejecting the gender role they have been socialised into since birth than imposing an ideology on anybody. But what Meghan says makes sense. She defines ‘gender ideology’ as the belief that it is possible for someone to be born in the wrong body or change sex. And like a great many feminists , she completely rejects the label of ‘cisgender’. By saying there are women naturally suited to the feminine gender role, a person argues that there are women who are naturally suited to the oppression enacted within patriarchal society.
I do not use the term ‘cis.’ I do not have a gender identity. No-one does. I refuse to define myself by a set of stereotypes used to oppress women.
As a feminist, Meghan believes that we should encourage all people to step outside of traditional gender roles. She wants to live in a world where how we define ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ isn’t limited to a restrictive set of sex stereotypes. A girl is still a girl when she plays with what are labelled boys’ toys. A boy is still a boy is he wears clothes that are classed as girl’s clothes. And vice versa. With this, I am in complete agreement. “Gender under patriarchy is not our friend, is not liberatory, and not to be embraced.”
As the literature handed out says, male free spaces exist for a reason. Meghan points out that single-sex spaces were created in the understanding that women fear men because men are a threat to our safety.
Feminists fought to build transition houses [shelters] for women fleeing domestic violence, and are now being told single-sex spaces are discriminatory. Funding to Vancouver Rape Relief, Canada’s longest running service, was cut after an orchestrated complaint challenging the fact they don’t allow males to train as counsellors or access the shelter. The city pulled their grant for public education about relationships and health, which VRR provided to everyone – male or female – for free.
Meghan says that “there’s no reason why we can’t protect the rights and provide services specific to people who step outside of the gender boundaries attached to their sex while acknowledging sexual dimorphism.” This is a good point. In Britain, women of marginalised ethnic and religious backgrounds have made it their life’s work to build specific services. Southall Black Sisters, Jewish Women’s Aid, Imkaan, Hemat Gryffe, and Shakti are all examples of this vital work. Why not also build services specific to trans and non-binary identified people?
Often, conversations surrounding gender a directed towards feelings. This is not necessarily a bad thing – holding compassion across difference is something I consider key to feminist praxis. However, as Meghan points out, not all feelings are ascribed equal value in this discussion:
If we’re going to talk about feelings, I want to know why the feelings of women don’t matter. What about the feelings of girls who don’t want to see a man’s penis as they change? Survivors of male violence who are afraid to share shelters with male-bodied people? Women competing against male-bodied athletes in sport? We’re putting women and girls in danger to accommodate the feelings of a tiny minority of people. We can treat people with dignity and provide them with the services they need without throwing women under the bus.
Meghan finishes to great applause. Joan opens the floor for questions. I ask how Meghan manages to keep going the face of intense misogynistic abuse, violent threats, and being treated like a pariah. I have a lot of time for Meghan’s politics, but her resilience is what has truly inspired me tonight. Her response: get offline and go to the bar. On a more serious note, Meghan recommends having a solid community of women.
Johann Lamont MSP observes that feminists have spent years fighting for the right to recognise and identify predatory males. She makes a neat analogy: just as criticisms of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church aren’t about saying all priests are predatory, talking about the risks of self-ID isn’t about framing transgender people as a threat. “Predatory men understand how to create a space for themselves with vulnerable people. All of history shows us how devious violent men can be.” And self-ID policies are ultimately exploitable.
Inevitably, the subject of Scotland’s women’s sector is raised. To avoid putting anyone on the spot, I will not name any individual women or the organisations for which they work. A representative from one women’s org is struggling to find ways to voice concern over self-ID. The women’s sector is massively underfunded, and no organisation wants to be put in the same predicament as Vancouver Rape Relief.
A woman who works within this organisation – let’s call her V – told us that women accessing this service want single-sex spaces. When the organisation asked for their views, women accessing the service expressed anxiety over sharing communal spaces with anyone male-bodied. V talked about the potential for further traumatisation, as the overwhelming majority of women are accessing the service as a consequence of experiencing male violence.
According to communications Joan has received from women spread across various organisations, single-sex services are effectively provided in the everyday – but messages coming from the top of certain organisations are causing some women to self-exclude over reservations about accessing a space operating with the policy of self-ID. This is hugely worrying.
Still, there is cause for optimism. Women holding a broad range of political perspectives have found consensus in this area. Politicians representing different left-wing political parties are a part of the audience, receptive to what Meghan has said. While women are at risk of public shaming, abusive messages, and threats of violence for echoing Meghan’s views, it is clear that many are unwilling to cave in and fall silent.
Joan McAlpine opened by talking about some of the abuse she had received for differentiating between sex and gender in her feminist analysis. But as she closed, Joan talked about the cards and messages of thanks women from across the length of the country and breadth of the political spectrum had sent her. I’ve decided to send Joan a thank you card of my own.