This is the ninth part in my series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. It’s dedicated to my dear friend Rosa Freedman, as thanks for our wonderful conversations about feminism and faith.
I’ve been thinking about faith recently. Faith means a lot of different things to different people. When I think of the word faith, it’s Red Dead Redemption 2 that springs to mind first – specifically, the outlaw Dutch Van Der Linde screaming at his followers to “have some goddamn faith!” as he makes increasingly erratic decisions that jeopardise their lives. But for my grandmother, a committed Catholic, faith has a wildly divergent connotation. She doesn’t think of a video game, she thinks of church.
Faith has, at times, been a point of tension in our relationship. When I left the church aged twelve, against her wishes; when I came out in favour of abortion at fourteen, beginning to develop feminist consciousness; again, when I came out as lesbian in my early twenties, expressing the view that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. She’s a devout Catholic. And I’m a radical feminist. We do not see eye to eye on many social issues. But we don’t have to in order to hold love and respect for one another, or to connect in a meaningful way.
Faith has brought my grandmother a great deal of comfort over the pandemic. She livestreams mass from her younger sister’s church, and often calls me over to catch a glimpse of the aunt for whom I was named. There is also an adorable little Black girl being fostered by members of the congregation – not knowing her name, we refer to the child as “that wee cutie” – and the sight of her often prompts my grandmother to share her recollections of when I was small. These are not unpleasant experiences, despite her belief and my lack of it. Listening to the priest in the background as I go about my about my morning is akin to ASMR. It’s relaxing, so long as I didn’t listen too closely to the sermon’s contents.
I don’t agree with the beliefs or tenets of Catholicism. Yet I still set up mass on YouTube whenever my Nana asks. Every Sunday without fail, and on a number of week days too. Why? Because I’ve long outgrown that puerile Richard Dawkins school of atheism that dictates every mention of organised religion must turn into a debate. But also because I’m a grown woman who recognises that different beliefs – even when contradictory – can peacefully coexist. Maintaining this belief in the current political climate has been a challenge.
With Stonewall pedalling the line of “no debate” when it comes to gender identity, and the Scottish Government having abdicated all responsibility to facilitate open-spirited public discussions around their proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act, the situation only ever seems to get uglier. In England, academics such as Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix “have been threatened with violence, disinvited from speaking and even blacklisted” for the supposed thought-crime of “asserting that there are two sexes — male and female — and for insisting that some spaces are legally allowed to be organised according to sex and not gender identity.” Selina Todd, an academic specialising in feminist and working-class histories, needs security to attend her place of work after threats made in the name of transgender rights.
Here in Scotland, the poet and programmer Jenny Lindsay has been subject to a sustained campaign of smears and targeted harassment. That her latest collection explores themes of menstruation and sexual violence was – in the eyes of some – sufficient evidence for Jenny to be condemned. Joanna Cherry – an openly lesbian politician opposed to self-ID – was threatened with corrective rape by a young man belonging to her own political party, the most extreme example among the tide of abuse she has received. Despite urging from 120 SNP women, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon failed to publicly condemn the targeting of Joanna Cherry.
Ann Henderson – only the second woman to hold the position of Rector at the University of Edinburgh – spent most of her tenure being slandered by students after sharing a tweet encouraging legislators to attend a Fair Play for Women meeting on her personal Twitter account. And Julie Bindel, when she spoke about women’s rights at Edinburgh Uni, was attacked as she left the premises. We had an hour-long security briefing before that event. And only the intervention of security guards prevented Julie from being beaten. Edinburgh’s vibrant community of feminist activists, organisations, and commentators remained almost entirely silent on the matter.
“There had been a protest outside earlier, but that had gone so he was obviously waiting for me. He was shouting and ranting and raving, ‘you’re a fucking cunt, you’re a fascist bitch, you’re a fucking TERF’, and the rest of it. We were trying to walk to the cab to take us to the airport, and then he just lunged at me and almost punched me in the face, but a security guard pulled him away. I got my phone out to film him for evidence and he went for me again. It took three security guards at this stage to deal with him.”Julie Bindel, in The Scotsman
I could go on. The list of women deemed hateful and therefore hate-worthy for acknowledging the consequences attached to our sex only ever grows. And it is always women. The beliefs of a left-wing woman who believes that sex is the material basis of her own oppression are met with stronger backlash than the views of a right-wing man who actively upholds the oppression of women and trans people both. And I do not think that is a coincidence. Who wins, when feminist women are so viciously targeted? Patriarchy, of course.
I do believe that a better discourse around gender is possible. And perhaps maintaining that faith is foolish, given all the evidence to the contrary. I have lost a great deal more than I have ever yet publicly admitted because of my contributions to gender discourse. But radical feminism is fundamentally a politics of hope. So, I will continue to write, to speak, to connect the dots between how all of these women have been mistreated and the wider socio-political context of patriarchy. And I will do it in the hope of reaching some point of connection with people whose views on gender do not align with my own, so that these words might serve as a bridge towards mutual respect.
Faith is a word that crops up regularly in gender discourse. More specifically, whether an argument is made in good or bad faith. I promise that every word I have published or spoken on this subject is made in good faith. I also recognise that there are bad faith actors on both ‘sides’ of this discussion, which is why some may be reluctant to believe me.
On one hand, there is an extreme fringe of Gender Critical women who believe that trans-identifying people are predatory fetishists. On the other, there is an extreme fringe of transgender rights activists who persist in framing women they deem so-called ‘TERFs’ as legitimate targets of violence. In my previous work I have drawn a connection between “punch a TERF” rhetoric and physical attacks made against Maria MacLachlan, Helen Steel, and Julie Bindel. I will not rehash that argument (though I do absolutely stand by it). What I will say instead is that the extreme fringes of both ‘sides’ of the schism surrounding gender do more harm than good, bringing cruelty and prejudice to a public conversation that is already fraught with tension.
The bad faith actors do so much damage because they intentionally stand in the way of any shared understanding being reached, or consensus being built. For example, when writing about radical feminist responses to gender identity, Sara Ahmed claimed that “there cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table.” Similarly, in an open letter to Mary Beard, Natacha Kennedy expressed the view that “one side is effectively being forced to argue for their entire existence against a group of people… who would like to see us dead.” This hyperbole is as extreme as it is dishonest.
No radical feminist would ever advocate violence against transgender people. I believe that people identifying as trans deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, to live free from discrimination and male violence. And I have never met another radical feminist who would say differently. The radical feminist goal of abolishing gender is not a call for the “elimination” of anybody, as Ahmed describes it. Nor does it involve, as Kennedy tries to make out, wishing harm on anybody. Quite the opposite. Radical feminists want a world without gender so that everybody – whether they’re female, or someone who identifies as transgender – can live a full life that is unblighted by male violence.
When I say that I wish we lived in a world without homelessness, I am not suggesting that all homeless people should be exterminated. Rather, I am calling for the provision of good quality social housing that is freely available to all who need it, including migrants and people seeking asylum; a welfare system that allows every single person to live in dignity and comfort; a dismantling of the class hierarchy that forces people into abject, inter-generational poverty then treats them as disposable.
Similarly, when I say that I wish we lived in a world without gender, I am not calling for the elimination of people identifying as transgender – or women, for that matter, who are also gendered subjects under patriarchy. Rather, I am calling for an end to the brutal system of oppression that exists as both a cause and consequence of male violence. The UK femicide census shows that 1,425 women were killed by men in the space of a decade. That’s what gender does. That’s what gender is: hierarchy that places men at the top and women at the bottom – costing us our safety, our freedom, our bodily autonomy, and even our lives.
Having survived more than one brush with male violence, I would much rather live in a world where it did not exist. On that, Ahmed and Kennedy and I should all be able to agree. Should being the operative word. Both of them chose hyperbole over truth. There is far more common ground between those who do and do not believe in gender identity than the people making these bad faith arguments would have their readers know.
Another example of a bad faith actor is Bex Stinson – Stonewall’s former Head of Trans Inclusion – who published an extraordinary piece on the charity’s official website claiming that “some people simply don’t believe trans people exist.” Her argument is fundamentally dishonest.
Of course people who identify as transgender exist. Nobody disputes that reality, which is proven by an abundance of empirical evidence. Some people, however, question the orthodoxy that dictates people have an innately held gender identity – as Stonewall states in their glossary of terms.
In a way, the concept of gender identity is rather like a faith. I will use the example of Catholicism, because it is the church in which I was raised and the only organised religion on which I am qualified to comment. Some people believe that we all have an innate gender identity, just as some people – like my grandmother – believe that the Eucharistic elements turn into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Other people believe that gender (to borrow Raquel Rosario Sánchez’s brilliant definition) is the social construction of sexist stereotypes, just as there are people who – like me – believe that the wafer and wine are unchanged in nature by the priest’s consecration.
I recognise that the bread and wine exist, just as I recognise that people who identify as transgender exist. While I may dispute the nature of that existence with theologians or queer theorists, I recognise it without hesitation. One need not ascribe to the theories of transubstantiation or gender identity to recognise that the people holding both sets of beliefs deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.
Yes, differences in faith can be a source of conflict. The west coast of Scotland continues to be divided by sectarianism. I grew up hearing nasty rhymes about “Cathy cats” and “Proddy dogs”, malicious comments about “Fenians” and “Huns.” Boys from the local Catholic school and non-denominational (unofficially Protestant) school would constantly fight. And those boys grew into the kind of men who rampaged through Glasgow last month, spreading unrest and violence under the flimsy pretext of a football match’s outcome.
This division based on religion reminds me of nothing so much as the schism around gender. People have done all kinds of ugly things in the name of faith, convinced that they will be remembered on the “right side of history.” Men in particular. That is the commonality between the divides around religion and gender: the conflict in our lives is almost invariably escalated into abuse by violent men.
I am beyond tired of the extremism within gender discourse: of women being hounded out of opportunities to speak or publish, being denied academic freedom, losing out on their livelihoods, needing security guards to do their jobs, being threatened with rape or murder. It is wildly irresponsible to position feminist speech, as opposed to male violence, as the root of harm against those identifying as transgender. And it is unacceptable that the violent misogyny women are now subject to is being reframed as a form of protest. Protest is a resistance of the dominant, patriarchal culture – not a recreation of that culture.
The blame for violence against women and trans-identifying people both lies squarely with the perpetrators: men. And the sooner we recognise that truth, the sooner we can stop wasting vital energy on this conflict and resume the urgent work of dismantling patriarchy. A better, kinder gender discourse is possible. One build upon a foundation of mutual respect. We only have to keep faith. As Angela Davis said: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Ann Henderson. (2021). Reflections on the University of Edinburgh. IN Woman’s Place UK
Jane Clare Jones. (2015). ‘You Are Killing Me’: On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing. IN Trouble and Strife
Jenny Lindsay. (2020). The Anatomy of a Hounding. IN Dark Horse Magazine, Issue 42
I was overjoyed to see a new Sister Outrider article published, and this was exactly what I needed today. Thank you so much for your profound and compassionate thoughtfulness. I pray (within my critically examined and radically hopeful sense of faith) that your ideas spread far and wide–that your insights find their way into more and more conversations about in/equity. Wishing you wellness, strength, courage, and joy!