Last Wednesday the University of Edinburgh platformed a panel discussion organised by the university’s Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership. The speakers invited were women often referred to as “TERFs” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), although the term continues to be debated, to discuss what they call “sex-based rights.” Such rhetoric can be used to deny trans people the right to identify with and be validated in their gender. The Student had the opportunity to discuss the panel event, the rally organised by the Student’s Association outside, and the media response thereafter with leading trans and LGBT+ activists at the University of Edinburgh.
The event has been described by The Guardian as a “feminist” event. Many would argue that feminism must be intersectional for it to be true. Hazel Sanderson, 4th-year Physics, who is the trans officer for the LGBT+ Pride Society and was one of the speakers at the rally organised in opposition to the panel event says she is a “proud feminist.”
“Feminism to me is about the equal and fair treatment of all people. This includes acknowledging not only gender inequality but also the intersection and interaction of different identities and the oppression these groups face. Not all women have the same experience of womanhood.
“Policing gender expression and femininity to gate-keep feminist spaces puts all women at risk of being excluded. Asking ‘what is woman enough?’ alienates all varieties of personal experience, and detracts from the issues we should be confronting,” Sanderson added.
The event focused on the future of women’s rights. “Surely the move should be toward a future which is more inclusive of diverse and marginalised identities?” Sanderson said. “These voices are usually excluded from these discussions altogether. Continued advancements in our understanding of gender and sexuality will affect the way our society interacts with Sexual Health rights. For example, recent moves in medical circles to discuss pregnant people and people who menstruate recognises and includes trans identities. This allows for easier access to healthcare, without removing them from the discussion about rights that fundamentally affect their lives.”
“The ideas popularised by exclusionary feminists – that trans people negatively affect the development, and would not support our fellow feminists in efforts for equality in these areas – are blatantly untrue.
“I believe the event was dishonestly represented. All five speakers have been labelled as transphobic and have made their stance very clear both on social media and in their published work. Any event which truly aimed to hold a fair and open discussion would have a more diverse panel and would platform a range of voice. Instead, five speakers, all presenting small variations on the same brand of radical feminism and trans exclusion, discussed building a ‘future’ in which my identity wouldn’t exist.” Sanderson commented.
Not all called for the cancellation of the event. Sanderson wanted the equal representation of different women: “I don’t think the event should have been cancelled. I do believe that the university should have stepped in to ensure that the event was more balanced and that trans and non-binary students felt safe on campus, especially following an increase in public displays of transphobia across Scotland.
“Everyone has the right to their own opinion and the ability to share and discuss, but no one has the inherent right to a platform for their ideology, nor freedom from criticism. In an institution, like ours, there is also a necessity to limit the impact – both emotionally and physically – on the marginalised. I disagree with the idea that trans people should have to justify their existence in any forum. It is negligent of the university to platform guests who have been broadly criticised for promoting hate speech, with one of the speakers even making several homophobic remarks about gay men during the ‘discussion’.
“Online and at events like these we see a constant regression to an ideological argument that actually avoids all of the practical issues. The majority of medical and psychological science has made it very clear that trans people exist, but radicals like Bindel have been accused of want to invalidate and deny trans identities, masked by faux academic feminism. Falling back to this ‘debate’ delays discussion on trans rights. Trans people should not have to prove their identity. This constant questioning is simply a stalling tactic to deny trans people their fight for basic equality.”
The Edinburgh University Students’ Association trans and non-binary officer Elliot Byrom, who attended the event, commented on his experience: “The event made me feel incredibly uncomfortable as a trans person. At various points trans people/the trans community were referred to as mentally ill, confused, violent enforcers of the patriarchy, and ‘single-minded, ideologically driven lobby[ists]’, among other unsavoury comments. There was also a lot of vague talk about the importance of protecting women’s rights from being overridden by trans rights, and misinterpretation of or simply ignoring current legislation. Trans people and men were also consistently referred to as though they were the same group. I was also startled by the homophobia expressed by Julie Bindel against gay men towards the end of her speaking time.
“I and another trans young person both asked questions during the Q&A part of the event. I found the way questions were conveyed to the panel, with the chair paraphrasing her interpretation, completely undermined the attempt at discussion. I also found the answers lacking, often wandering into unrelated topics and generally not engaging with the actual queries posed.
“I do not condone making trans women (or any trans or nonbinary person) sit in front of an audience and defend their right to exist, however, the event would have been much improved by the presentation of varied perspectives. If the panel had been balanced by other feminists, it may have been possible to have some productive discussion. As it was, the event was full of inaccuracies that went unchallenged.”
The media response troubled Byrom. “I’m deeply disappointed that the media have characterised this as a fight between trans activists and feminists. In fact, many of the people involved in the protest and later rally were feminists themselves. I am also disappointed in the lack of balance in coverage of the two events. As far as I have seen, there have been only a few mentions that the protest occurred, with no explanation of it’s peaceful, silent nature, and no descriptions of the following event, which I hear was lovely.”
Many of the articles in national press cantered Julie Bindel, one of the speakers, by mostly including quotations from her and even using her image as the thumbnail image. Sanderson believes that centring Bindel “frames her as a non-aggressor and ignores the alleged history of transphobia in her published work. Coverage shouldn’t minimise the violence of any kind from either side. It also shouldn’t be so naive as to ignore the current social climate: increasing transphobia and exclusionist rhetoric. Glossing over the documented abuse of trans individuals purposely excludes these voices, and promotes the views of trans-exclusionists in their place.
“In reality, Bindel’s opinions are not shared by the majority. But constant press-coverage, fuelled by ‘click-bait’ headlines, creates sympathy for Bindel’s ideology and normalises the inflammatory language she uses to talk about trans issues. This includes constant misgendering, unfounded comments about the ‘inherent’ and ‘aggressive’ nature of certain groups and use of terms such as transexual. Hiding behind small changes in language is a deeper history of oppression against trans people. Bindel is no doubt aware of this.
“It’s sad and frustrating to see column space filled with Bindel’s narrative, and little or no focus on the organisation of students and staff to create a peaceful demonstration, and hold a separate inclusive event. Whilst the campus was host to exclusionary guests, so many in the local community rallied behind their trans and non-binary siblings,” Sanderson continued.
The event was about women’s rights, but as trans women’s rights were attacked, I wondered what role trans men and non-binary individuals have to play in the debate. While Sanderson cannot speak for trans men or non-binary people, she believes that “invalidating trans women pulls all trans identities into question and if people in this community feel safe to stand up against exclusionary ideals then they should do so however feels right to them.
“Having said that, the emotional and mental labour that trans people undergo to engage in these spaces should not be understated, especially when their identity is the topic of discussion.”
To support trans people and not leave the burden for them to carry, what can cis people do? Sanderson has some insight: “I think it is important for cis allies, including cis women, to stand with the trans members of their communities. The majority of cis women I meet are happy with, or indifferent about, my inclusion in women’s spaces. It’s a loud minority that pushes for our ostracisation. When our identity is the question being ‘discussed’ it becomes impossible for trans people to argue for their own inclusion. This is where the allyship of cis people is most valuable: to be the voice in the room that calls for solidarity and respect.”
At the end of our discussion, I gave Sanderson some space to express anything I wouldn’t have considered: “Some trans exclusionary ideologists identify themselves as gender abolitionists. At first, this sounds like a feminist utopia: a society where your gender, or the way you are born, doesn’t affect the way in which you are treated. You have to push past this window dressing, to the more embedded and implicit messages they are writing in between the lines: that trans identities should not exist.
“Our ideas of gender are so entrenched in society, and capitalism, that demolishing these preconceptions would mean overhauling most of modern society. Not really achievable in a ninety-minute panel discussion.
“The persistence of gender stereotypes is both weaponised against trans identities and blamed on them. Trans women are simultaneously abused for not falling into narrow social conventions, whilst being scrutinised for not challenging them. This allows exclusionists to cast themselves in the role of liberator, with trans activism seen as a barrier to social progress.
“If they truly wished to abolish gender they would target those who most openly and publicly uphold those ideals, namely cis celebrities. That they instead personally target trans individuals is very telling of their intended purpose. When has perpetuating oppression against marginalised groups, in this case, trans women, ever served to break down the systems that create it?” Sanderson concluded.
As Rosie Taylor, the Students’ Association’s LGBT+ officer, expressed: “There is no singular expression or experience of gender. Events like these and the media attention they get force trans people to validate and explain their identities, both in public spaces and in the more private spaces of their personal lives and relationships.”
“Opposition to the panel event was not about excluding any voices from the discussion. It was about making sure that all women, trans women included, can participate in the creation of a better, more equal future. Trans women should not be expected to justify their existence in any space. As women, they are a valuable part of the movement for progress, and have historically pushed for liberation and equality even when experiencing violent and systemic oppression.”
Image: Karolina Zięba