Women have long been natural allies of movements fighting for the right to live without fear of sexual prejudice. So how have feminists and transgender activists become enemies in an increasingly fractious public debate?
The source of the tension lies not between the communities themselves, but in the misguided ways in which governments and organisations have responded to the new landscape of gender identity.
This week, the Wellcome Collection, a medical museum in London, found itself besieged on social media after announcing that promotional material for a new four-day events programme would refer to “womxn”, rather than “women”, in the name of “inclusive diversity”.
Many women rightly took umbrage at the fact that men were not subject to similar linguistic creativity. The museum was eventually compelled to make a very public apology and reverse its decision. This clumsy attempt at inclusivity bears many of the hallmarks of other attempts to respond to the growing awareness of fluid sexuality.
The expansion of individual rights inevitably leads to conflicts between different groups. Some of our greatest social advancements have involved changes that many citizens have found uncomfortable and challenging. But unlike previous struggles, the conflict between feminists on the one hand, and transgender and non-binary activists on the other, is not a challenge to the power of a dominant group.
Feminists who have fought their whole lives to amplify women’s voices feel silenced. Meanwhile, campaigners for the rights of transgender and non-binary people feel their burgeoning empowerment is being compromised, and their identity de-humanised. The result is an acrimonious public conversation, with battle lines drawn in a way that leaves little opportunity to stake out common ground.
While feminism has undoubtedly made huge advances over recent decades, the representation of women continues to feel fragile. Hard-won victories over equality of opportunity and reproductive rights seem provisional, subject to endless negotiation.
Now women are finding that the single-sex spaces they have forged for themselves, at great cost, are being carved up in the name of transgender and non-binary inclusion.
In 2016, for example, the decision taken by the Barbican cultural centre in London to convert some women’s toilets into “gender neutral” facilities prompted confusion and chaos, with enormous queues snaking round the foyer during performances. Instead of addressing the already insufficient provision of female cubicles, and in addition constructing a number of gender-neutral bathrooms, the Barbican’s impulse was to transform women’s private spaces.
A social media furore forced it to back down. The Barbican issued a statement admitting that its approach had “limitations”. The vitriol and animosity that festered as a result could have easily been avoided if the centre had not turned the practical expression of gender identity into a zero-sum game.
Public bodies have also struggled in their efforts to translate our evolving understanding of gender into policy. The consultation around the 2021 UK national census considered whether gender questions should be removed altogether. Doing so would have been disastrous for women, who already suffer from disproportionate data gaps.
Similarly, the news that transgender and self-identifying women with histories of sexual violence had been allowed to transfer to female prisons understandably provoked public outrage.
Policies made with the best of intentions can have destructive unintended consequences. The ham-fisted application of new conceptions of gender identity can damage the promotion of both women’s and transgender rights. It can also entrench the idea that they are somehow mutually exclusive.
While individual rights are the backbone of liberal democracies, they should not be elevated over the wellbeing or safety of society as a whole.
Many women regard sexual rights as human rights, and support the recognition of fluid gender identities. It is institutions and organisations that continue to think in a binary way. Rather than creating more space for difference, they apply new policies in a way that breeds resentment and fear. The result is a mutually destructive debate in which civility and respect are increasingly absent.
As the government’s public consultation on reforming the 2004 Gender Recognition Act comes to a close, it should be mindful that pitting citizens against one another will only polarise and divide our societies further. Nobody wins in a rivalry of rights.
The writer is the director of the Centre for Social and Political Risk and a research fellow at the London School of Economics
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