50.50: Feature

How anti-trans activists forced Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre into lockdown

Hounding of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre’s director part of a pattern of attacks on trans-inclusive feminist groups

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 October 2022, 1.03pm
Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre director Mridul Wadhwa
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Adam Ramsay
  • Warning: this piece discusses transphobia.

Edinburgh’s Rape Crisis Centre had always kept its front door open so survivors could walk in whenever they needed help.

But last autumn, after staff at the centre took advice from the police, the door was shut and locked. And after they consulted with security experts, a new, stronger inner door was added.

When openDemocracy went to interview them, access was through a buzzer system.

“It's only recently that I've really stopped looking over my shoulder or not thinking actively that I could be harmed,” Mridul Wadhwa, the centre’s director, told us. “But that doesn't mean that I don't think I will be harmed. Even now, I do believe that I will be harmed. I believe it is almost inevitable.”

Wadhwa has dedicated the last 14 years of her professional life to supporting women who are victims of sexual violence. But for the last three years, she’s faced torrential abuse including unfounded smears that she’s a sexual predator and numerous threats of violence – all because she is trans.

The abuse began in 2019, when Wadhwa was director of the Forth Valley rape crisis centre in Stirling. It intensified in October 2020, when she launched a bid to be an SNP candidate in the 2021 Holyrood elections, and again when she was appointed director of the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre (ERCC) in April last year.

“It just kicked off that very first day,” she said. “Emails, complaint letters to the board. I think one of them… was signed by quite a few hundred people. So, pretty much from the first day, we began to deal with this onslaught.”

She added: “It was mostly on social media. And it was relentless and endless. And all kinds of people were then retweeting.”

ERCC has shown openDemocracy 55 pages of emails it received at the time, with senders’ details redacted. Almost all misgender Wadhwa and many accuse her baselessly of predatory behaviour. Some are racist.

The letters include numerous threats of vigilante violence. One seems to call for a genocide of trans women. Another chillingly presents the board with a choice of sacking Wadhwa, or seeing transphobes “take matters into their own hands”.

The campaign against Wadhwa was amplified by the press as the abuse spread. “Some of the stuff staff had to deal with was pretty horrific,” says Maggie Chapman, who was chief operating officer of ERCC when Wadhwa was appointed, and is now a Green MSP.

Employees faced “verbal abuse, hate speech on social media and in phone calls”, she told openDemocracy. This took “time out of their day, when they could have been focused on doing the actual work of the organisation, which is supporting survivors of sexual and other abuse”.

Chapman added: “At times, it felt like a flood. Every time the phone rings, you think: is this going to be more abuse?”

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The letters include numerous threats of vigilante violence. One seems to call for a genocide of trans women

Blogger Graham Linehan obsessed over Wadhwa. (Linehan told openDemocracy last year he was not transphobic.) The website Wings Over Scotland attacked her appointment. The Christian Institute website ran a series of articles about her, and the US-based Christian Today and Life Site News picked them up.

By August 2021, thousands of tweets had been sent with the hashtag #AskRapeCrisisScotland as so-called ‘gender critical’ activists denounced the charity for hiring Wadhwa, often repeating myths promoted by these websites and videos. Yet analysis by the Trans Safety Network showed the tweets came from fewer than 250 accounts, and just 30 accounts tweeted almost half of them.

The Times has run seven stories about Wadhwa since May last year, often based on complaints from small groups opposed to trans rights, and the Herald joined the pile-on, while the anti-trans YouTuber Kelly-Jay Keen, also known as Posie Parker, produced a video – viewed by thousands – in which she made a series of unfounded and unevidenced accusations about Wadhwa and her work.

But the first time Wadhwa says she truly feared for her life was when Linehan published part of her home address.

“I spent most of my career working on issues of so-called honour based violence, where you don't know who is going to harm you,” she said. “And that’s exactly how it felt. Because it wasn't going to be Graham Linehan that was going to show up at my home and cause me harm, but some person who I’m not even looking out for.”

Wadhwa and her family were encouraged by Rape Crisis Scotland to move out of their house for a while, but decided to stay.

“I think that would have caused more damage to my children,” she said. “How long was I going to go and stay somewhere? These folks aren't going to show up while our attention is on them. They're probably going to show up months, weeks, years later, because the story's out there. This mythology about me, which is so dangerous, is out there.”

For Wadhwa, though, blame doesn’t just lie with those threatening violence. “I put it down to parliamentarians,” she said.

And it’s not just her who’s suffering.

Stirring up hate

“It’s more frequent now, I’ve noticed,” says Athol.

They are talking about recent experiences of transphobic violence while out in Paisley, in the west of Scotland, including attempted physical attacks – “seven or eight” incidents in total.

“In the last couple of years, it’s got dramatically worse for trans folk,” they add. Athol is non-binary and describes themselves as “very visibly queer”. “It’s something you can’t really escape. My [queer] friends around Paisley have all experienced it.

“The media has played a very, very antagonising role. It’s creating a very dangerous time for trans people to exist in.”

Beth Douglas, who is trans, also told openDemocracy about times she’s been assaulted for being trans.

“In the past,” she said, “people would have said something under their breath. Now, they’re more confident to shout, to push you around.”

These experiences aren’t unusual. A recent survey of young Scottish trans people showed 49% had been targets of hate crime.

Before the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, every major party had committed to making it easier for trans people to get legal acknowledgement of their gender through a document known as a gender recognition certificate. When the proposals were consulted on in 2017, 60% of respondents were in favour, including all major LGBTQ+ and women’s groups. The objections came primarily from Christian conservative groups both in the UK and overseas – in the US, Canada and Australia – and also from a small number of fringe women’s groups.

In 2018, the Scottish government proposed asking new, voluntary questions about sexuality and gender identity in the upcoming 2021 census. Joan McAlpine, an SNP MSP, convened the committee overseeing the changes.

A recent survey of young Scottish trans people showed 49% had been targets of hate crime

Redacted correspondence released to openDemocracy under Freedom of Information laws shows someone – their name redacted, but likely to be McAlpine given her role – pushing for civil servants to ask anti-trans voices to give evidence, while mainstream women’s rights organisations go unmentioned. In the correspondence, someone involved in the committee proposes seeking the opinion of ‘Scottish Women’, a blog run by one anti-trans activist. (Eventually, representatives of four groups gave evidence: two who supported the changes and two who didn’t. McAlpine declined to comment when approached by openDemocracy.)

After the committee meeting, a coalition of Scotland’s main women’s sector organisations wrote to McAlpine describing the evidence given by one of the groups, For Women Scotland, as “misleading”, pointing out that many of the group’s concerns were based on misunderstandings of what census data is used for. “It is not used to generate information on the pay gap, or in the design of violence against women or health services,” they wrote.

But many of the myths the group promoted stuck, and popped up again and again as the Scottish government tried to pass equality legislation.

In January 2018, after significant campaigning from the trans-inclusive campaign group Women 50.50, a new law came into force that required all public bodies in Scotland to aim for 50% of their board members to be women. For Women Scotland launched a court case complaining that trans women could theoretically be included in the target. In 2020, the group managed to raise nearly £200,000 to challenge the government’s trans-inclusive definition of ‘woman’ in court, with crowd-funded donations from all over the world. It was one of the biggest fundraisers for a court case in Scottish legal history.

Scotland has 129 public bodies, with a total of 788 board members. Trans women make up an estimated 0.3% of the population. If they were proportionally represented, they would have around two of those seats. A Freedom of Information request to Scotland’s ethical standards commissioner reveals no evidence that there are any trans members of public boards in Scotland.

This wasn’t For Women Scotland’s only legal intervention. A review of Scottish hate crime legislation in the same year had proposed the banning of stirring up hatred against protected groups, including trans people. In a submission that denied non-binary identities were real and suggested that being trans was a ‘fetish’, For Women Scotland admitted it was “highly likely that our organisation will be legislated out of existence if this bill is to become law”.

Proposed legal amendment

A new Scottish law was proposed in December 2020 to give survivors of sexual assault the right to request a medical examiner of a particular gender.

Former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont proposed an amendment replacing the word ‘gender’ with ‘sex’ – a distinction that one mainstream women’s organisation told openDemocracy was “legally meaningless”.

Rape Crisis Scotland opposed the amendment – “because we said this will not make any difference,” says Sandy Brindley, its chief executive, “but also, as with many of the arguments of the gender critical movement, it created a solution to a problem that didn't exist. As far as we know, there is not a single trans woman forensic examiner, which is what they were trying to exclude. The issue was male examiners. Women are still routinely examined by male examiners post-rape.”

Green MSP Andy Wightman ended up resigning from his party in order to support the amendment, and The Scotsman newspaper published false claims about Rape Crisis Scotland, which it was forced by the press regulator to retract, in correspondence seen by openDemocracy.

These attacks on Rape Crisis Scotland risk causing real damage, says Brindley.

“Survivors are being fed deliberate misinformation to make them fearful about accessing our services and that really, really worries me,” she said. “Because what we know is that survivors describe our services as lifesaving. And to think that people are being put off accessing them because of a misrepresentation of what those services are – that really worries me and that really upsets me.”

As with many of the arguments of the gender critical movement, it created a solution to a problem that didn't exist

Sandy Brindley, chief executive, Rape Crisis Scotland

One of the main groups leading these attacks is For Women Scotland, whose Twitter account has repeatedly promoted the hashtag #AskRapeCrisisScotland, and stories about Mridul Wadhwa.

In recent years, the organisation’s Facebook and Twitter adverts describing trans-inclusive policies as a “safeguarding catastrophe” have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

They claim to have distributed 60,000 leaflets arguing against trans women being legally recognised as women, which they have been since 2005. The leaflets make claims such as: “Services which you may wish to be performed by a woman… could be delivered by a ‘woman’ who is actually male.” One of the four such services they list is rape counselling. (When approached by openDemocracy for comment, the group posted a sarcastic public blog in response, implying that our questioning was a ‘witch hunt’.)

“I find this misinformation painful to read,” said Mridul Wadhwa. “I see it as the erasure of my womanhood, denying my existence, my privacy and my ability to contribute to society. I say my, but really I mean all trans women. Their dangerous messaging makes all women who provide services in these settings suspect; their messages seek to reinforce stereotypes of what women must look and behave like, and also suggest that employers must share the personal histories of their female staff.”

The damage to feminist organisations in Scotland extends beyond the rape crisis movement. All of Scotland’s main feminist organisations are trans-inclusive, and all have received significant abuse in recent years as a result.

Catherine Murphy, executive director of Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organisation, Engender, said attacks from transphobes in recent years have included “graffiti to our office, vexatious enquiries, online abuse, and confrontation towards staff at events”.

“This has implications for the wellbeing of our staff and has led to certain changes in how we operate,” she said, “but the main concern we have about anti-trans attacks on feminist organisations is the impact it has on our work for equality.

“Whether we are talking about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, disabled women’s reproductive rights, feminist city planning, or the racism and sexism faced by Black and minority ethnic women, we know that there will likely be individuals that will attempt to misdirect the discussion towards rhetoric against self-identification for trans people.”

This, she added, wastes “vital time, energy and resources”. Murphy describes it as “heartbreaking” to think of the progress that could have been made on issues like abortion, women’s workplace equality, political representation “if conversations weren’t derailed and energy and resources drained in this way”.

Karen Adam, an SNP MSP and vocal feminist who has spoken openly about her experiences of male violence and abuse, and also in support of trans rights, says her office has been graffitied by anti-trans activists, and that shortly afterwards its glass door was smashed, which she believes was likely connected.

“Some people seem to have been radicalised into hatred for trans people,” she told openDemocracy. “It started out as ‘concerns’; it’s ended up being this very vehement position that trans people are the enemy.”

Signs of hope

While the anti-trans movement does seem to have been successful in stirring up hate against this already marginalised minority, it looks otherwise like it will be more of a failure.

In the 2021 Scottish parliament election, the Alba Party, founded by former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond after he fell out with the SNP over allegations of sexual assault, made opposition to trans rights a central feature of its campaign. Local elections the following year saw the Scottish Conservatives follow suit, with leader Douglas Ross saying cis women should complain if they saw trans women in women’s toilets.

Alba achieved just 1.7% of the vote in 2021, while the Scottish Conservatives’ share fell from 25% in 2017 to 20%. Meanwhile, the Scottish Green Party voted on Sunday to cut ties with the Green Party of England and Wales over alleged failings on tackling transphobia in its ranks.

There are signs of hope, too, in the expected passage of Scotland’s long-awaited Gender Recognition Act through the country’s parliament later this month. The 2021 SNP/Scottish Green Party co-operation agreement, which defines the agenda of the Scottish government, included a commitment to make it easier for trans people to gain legal recognition for their gender through the legislation, and in early October the committee that scrutinised the proposed bill overwhelmingly endorsed it.

“Anti-trans actors have emboldened a minority who have always opposed LGBTQ rights to openly attack LGBTQ inclusive education, marriage equality and even events like Pride,” said Scott Cuthbertson, a leading Scottish activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

“As a campaigner for nearly two decades I’ve never seen an atmosphere like this in Scotland. We regularly get posts on social media using tropes from decades ago. While I still feel we’re moving forward legislatively in Scotland it does feel we are moving back socially.”

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