Magazine article The Spectator

Why Are Women Campaigners Being Silenced?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Are Women Campaigners Being Silenced?

Article excerpt

Why are activists trying to silence a campaign group?

How hard is it for women to talk freely about sex, gender and the law? Not very, I used to think. I'd heard about a few no-platforming incidents on campuses, where speakers including Germaine Greer were blocked from appearing because of their views. What I hadn't realised was just how far the problem has spread. In the past few months, I've discovered firsthand that political debate is narrowing for everyone -- and that fear and intimidation are being used increasingly to curtail free speech.

I am one of a small group of women who get together to discuss proposed changes in the law on sex and gender. We're called Woman's Place UK. But because of the content of our discussions, certain activists want us closed down. They're doing their best to make it happen. The managers of the venues we book are harassed, our attendees are abused, our organisers are threatened. For our most recent meeting, held in London last week, we had to disclose the location only a few hours before it started, just to be safe.

And it's all because we want to ask questions about changes which could have serious consequences for us as women, for our children, and for society as a whole. We want to talk about gender and the differences between men and women, and whether or not the law should be rewritten to allow people to change their legal sex more easily. The government says it is committed to making 'self-identification' easier. That means whether you are legally male or female is purely a matter of choice. It would be nothing to do with your biology or your socialisation. At present, there are rules: to designate yourself female you need to live as a woman for at least two years and have your transition confirmed by a doctor. Some see this as unreasonable, and object to having what they see as a matter of personal identity 'medicalised'.

The MPs pushing for reform hope to amend the 2004 Gender Recognition Act to mean that any man who declares 'I am a woman' will have full access to all the rights, protections and places that women have fought for and won over the past century. Some of the momentum for this reform comes from the Women and Equality Select Committee, which is led by the Conservative MP Maria Miller. As well as backing self-declared gender laws, this committee has also proposed that laws allowing some services and jobs to be reserved exclusively for what we call natal-born women should be removed. It was the combination of these two proposals that rang alarm bells for many women. So we started asking questions.

Should someone born and raised male, who is therefore reasonably perceived as male, be included in spaces reserved for women -- changing rooms, domestic violence shelters and prison wings? How would the changes affect women of certain faiths who rely on single-sex exemptions to enable them to access services they might otherwise have to avoid? Should all-women shortlists (used by Labour and the Lib Dems) be put at risk by including people who are legally male, purely because they say they are a woman?

Most transgender people, I am sure, are as decent and kind and open-minded as anyone else. But a small, aggressive group of activists -- not all of them trans, by the way -- want to establish a new norm of debate: that anyone who disagrees with them, or even asks questions, ought to be silenced, sacked or both. …

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