UK sexual politics have become ‘profoundly authoritarian’ says Beatrix Campbell

I interviewed the prominent feminist amid ‘heated and toxic’ debates over proposed reforms to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act

Nandini Archer
1 November 2018

Beatrix Campbell receives OBE honour from the Queen, 2009.

Beatrix Campbell receives an OBE from the Queen, 2009 | Johnny Green/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Beatrix Campbell is a prominent feminist with 14,000 Twitter followers and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) honour from the Queen.

In October, she was one of nearly 200 people who signed an open letter, published in the Observer newspaper, arguing that debate about potential reforms to the UK’s 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was being silenced.

I spoke with her amid a consultation in England and Wales into these reforms, which would make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. It was extended by three days until 22 October “due to the high volume of responses”.

A previous Scottish consultation also attracted an avalanche of responses – with opposition to the reforms dominated by two groups: conservative Christian organisations, and some women’s campaigns.

Several of these women’s campaigns signed the same Observer letter that Campbell did. Though, for her part, Campbell told me: “I don’t have a problem with the Gender Recognition Act.”

She said: “It’s important to make it as appropriately easy as possible for people for whom their transformation [… from] a woman to a man, is vital to their well-being. You’d want to facilitate that.”

Rather, she said that her concerns focus on sexual politics in the UK and what she describes as “a profoundly authoritarian, dogmatic, culty turn in the representation of sex and gender”.

‘There is no human right to be not offended’

Campbell told me that her “route” into these debates was when Julie Bindel, another well-known British feminist, was “no-platformed” and prevented from speaking at an event organised by university students.

Bindel has been repeatedly criticised for “abusive” “hate speech” and a “crusade against the trans community”. But Campbell has repeatedly defended her. “There is no human right to not be offended,” she told me.

Not allowing Bindel to speak meant that “students wouldn’t be allowed to listen to this woman [… or] challenge her,” Campbell said, asserting: “That’s the point of politics [… for people to] engage in the art of peaceful conflict.”

She also dismissed trans rights activists who have explained why it’s hurtful to have their identities treated as choices that can or should be up for debate.

“To challenge the idea that a man is a woman, if he says he’s a woman […] is represented as exterminating a person, denying their existence,” she said, “which seems to me is an abuse of language.”

And she accused the Green Party of shutting down the “gender debate” too, saying: “I don’t know what planet they live on, but there is a debate.” To be “ordered” not to have these debates, she said, is “offensive” and “bonkers”.

‘I don’t know what planet they live on, but there is a debate’

Campbell said there are lots and lots of people who have a feeling that there is “something very odd going on at the moment” when “a man for 60 years suddenly has a couple of operations and […] is a woman”.

She also pointed to an “interesting critique” by an American political scientist, Adolf Reid Junior, who compared the story of Caitlin Jenner, a trans woman, with that of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as Black.

This controversial comparison has been drawn, and rebutted, before. Though both are “absolutely social constructs,” said Kat Blaque, a Black trans woman, “while my gender has certainly changed, my race will always remain the same.”

Trans rights debates, Campbell claimed, are “at their most intemperate […] in the United States and the United Kingdom. And it’s not an accident. These are the two pioneering neoliberal states in the world.”

Trans identities, she suggested, are “a kind of an exemplar of a neoliberal version of what it means to be human, at its most idiosyncratic, i.e. you can choose! You can choose to be anything you like. Well, I’m sorry, you can’t.”

She said she doesn’t know any woman comfortable with “the eternal obsessive scrutiny of her body”, but “now there’s an invitation – transition, become a boy! Have your breasts cut off. I mean, are we serious?”

“Hailed as a new frontier of human rights and of emancipation, [this] is actually hugely conservative,” she argued. “What it represents is a very conservative, traditional reinstatement of polarised masculinities and femininities.”

‘Well-intentioned and compassionate feminists have been caught up by the rhetoric’

With her arguments, it seems clear that Campbell is speaking to women on the Left with themes that resonate with them: threats to democracy; impacts of neoliberalism; conservative gender binaries.

She appeals for “the battle of ideas” and “democratic debate about some of the great themes of our time”. But, underneath this seems to be the premise that trans identities are chosen, rather than part of who trans people are.

This is a running theme in UK debates, and seems to be what enables people who’d never openly discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation to ridicule, debate and challenge the identities of trans people.

The context for Campbell’s comments is a climate that trans rights activist Paris Lees has likened to previous “undignified public discourse around gay marriage”, which was “just an excuse for people to vent really ugly homophobia".

Amnesty UK’s LGBTI network has described trans rights debates as marked by “unfounded fears” that “feed into the negative rhetoric around trans people”.

“A depressing aspect of the debate,” added journalist Stephen Patton, is how some “well-intentioned and compassionate feminists have been caught up by the rhetoric”, while trans voices have been “remarkably absent”.

‘A heated and often toxic debate’

The government’s gender recognition consultation became “a focal point for a heated and often toxic debate over what we as a society owe to trans people,” wrote a trio of feminist academics in a recent essay published by Verso.

“There is no shortage of unvarnished transphobes who continue to depict trans people as perverts, freaks or monsters,” they said, describing the arguments of reform opponents as “at least in principle distinct from this rhetoric”.

Though they noted how these opponents and racist, anti-immigrant campaigners similarly “leverage” fear of “‘bogus asylum seekers’ or ‘fake’ trans women” and criticise “excessively inclusive or ‘politically correct’ attitudes”.

These arguments have had some success, the essay warned, “in raising doubts about reform among people who are broadly sympathetic to trans rights and who would therefore reject overtly bigoted arguments without hesitation".

Like Campbell, its authors also discussed free speech and neoliberalism. But, they stressed, “the right to ‘free speech’ does not include a right to say racist or transphobic things without anyone pointing it out.”

With neoliberalism “widely agreed to be in crisis and new movements […] across Europe in opposition to austerity,” now is not the time for feminists to “make enemies” with others who are struggling, they added. “We could instead join with trans women in trying to bring about a different kind of society.”

* 50.50 is tracking the backlash against trans rights as part of the ongoing series Tracking the Backlash against women’s and LGBT rights.

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