I am a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK (WPUK), one of the women’s groups named in a misleading article published on openDemocracy 50.50, “Christian right and some UK feminists ‘unlikely allies’ against trans rights”.
WPUK members are women of the left with long records campaigning on progressive issues. Our supporters include lesbians who feel their identity and rights are under attack. We campaign for women's sex-based rights under the law.
Previously, I was active in the Campaign Against Pornography. I co-edited a book of letters to the British politician Clare Short, written by thousands of women on their hatred of page 3 (a page in the tabloid The Sun which until 2015 featured large pictures of topless women) and its impact on their lives.
As with potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), much of the left’s position was poor on this issue. We were denounced as prudes and told that sexually explicit materials are liberating; you can’t legislate against the dehumanisation, hatred and violence in porn; women just need to get over it.
Those anti-porn campaigns also attracted religious support, including from some right-wing organisations. We made no links with them but we could not stop them from campaigning on this issue. Why did more of the left not engage with women’s concerns? Why did they leave this to the right?
Now, with various reports from unions, NGOs and the government, tackling sexual harassment and violence are mainstream concerns. People like the Conservative party MP Maria Miller are fronting calls for change.
Like many high-profile Tories, Miller also supports the proposed GRA reforms. Yet no-one questions those on the left siding with the right on this issue, despite their different stances on welfare rights or immigration.
WPUK are quoted in 50.50’s article as saying: “The proposed reforms may have ‘unintended consequences for the safety and well-being of women and girls’ as ‘predatory men could demand access to women-only spaces and services’.”
This is a perfectly reasonable position. Women’s routine experience of sexual abuse is being acknowledged at the same time as they are being told they cannot determine what a woman is or where her boundaries should be.
The vilification and denunciation of left wing women with trumped-up charges of alliances with the far right is shameful. For us, this is the latest in a long line of let-downs by the left which seems afraid of debate on these issues. It adds to a climate in which our meetings have been subject to intimidation and threat including by some who call themselves left wing.
It is to the detriment of our movement that – with the few, honourable exceptions of the Morning Star and, more recently, Left Foot Forward – coverage of our concerns has been left to publications like the Times, the Telegraph, the Economist and the Spectator.
It gives the impression that the left is incapable of connecting with women who won’t feel reassured by the Scottish Trans Alliance officer’s claim, quoted in 50.50’s article, that “the proposed reforms won’t affect access to single-sex spaces, which is covered under separate equality legislation”.
After all, this organisation called for the removal from the 2010 Equality Act of provisions that grant some exemptions to providers of single-sex services.
It's only because groups like Woman’s Place UK campaigned to keep these provisions that the government committed to retain them. We demand explicit clarification of how GRA reforms will interact in practice with this act.
Any change to a law must consider the views and concerns of everyone. And while the proposed reforms will clearly impact on the rights of trans people, it must also take into particular account the views of those with other protected characteristics (especially age, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation). We have a responsibility to get it right.
The truth is that our campaign against the proposed GRA reforms is based in material reality and the everyday experiences of women. We will continue to plough our own furrow according to long-held political principles.