This is the text of the speech I gave at the Woman’s Place UK fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Brighton on 23rd September 2019. I have added links and images, but not altered the words.
I’m 50 years old. I’ve been a left wing political activist since I was 12. When I was 15 I spoke in Trafalgar Square for Youth CND, alongside a young MP called Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned against Section 28 and helped set up Brighton Pride. I made the front pages by invading the stage at the Brighton Centre when Princess Di was welcoming a homophobic conference. I’ve had eggs thrown at me in Churchill Square and glass bottles thrown at me in London for being an out lesbian.
But I’ve never been as worried about the consequences of speaking in public about my beliefs as I am here today.
I want to talk about the division that has opened up between many feminist activists of my generation and the current queer activist movement. We should be each other’s allies, but the atmosphere is so toxic that we are hardly able to speak to each other at all.
I am worried that trans people I know and like will feel hurt and will think I am their enemy. I am not. I am worried that I will lose the friendship of people I respect in Brighton & Hove. I am worried that I will be treated as an outcast in some political circles, and that this will make it difficult for me to continue my voluntary activity in solidarity with migrants and with benefit claimants in the city.
I hope people will be prepared to hear what I have to say in good faith. I think it is possible to disagree politically while remaining courteous and respectful. I think learning from each other is more important than winning.
I am worried, but I am doing this anyway, because something has gone very wrong, and I want to be part of helping to put it right.
I’m doing this because I can’t accept that women like Helen Steel deserve to be vilified and ostracised.
Helen Steel is a woman who has spent her life standing up against the destructive power of capitalism and the state. When McDonalds tried to shut her up by suing her for libel, she took them on in an epic court case – and won – earning the lifelong admiration of many in my generation. The state tried to shut her up by sending undercover police officers into her small activist group. Helen has survived being deceived into a relationship by one of these spy cops and is still fighting for justice for herself and other women affected.
But earlier this year, because Helen has spoken out about her feminist views, she was told that her presence made people feel unsafe, and asked to leave a climate protest camp, organised by a group she helped to found. Many other excellent feminist activists have been cast out in the same way.
If you are on the left and you think women like Helen Steel are suddenly the enemy, then something has gone very wrong.
My mum was a feminist of the second wave. She went to women’s liberation movement meetings in London in the early 70s and was part of the campaign to get the law changed to make sex discrimination illegal. Her generation of feminists, along with the organised labour movement, won some hugely important victories. As well as the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, they won the right for women in most of the UK to access safe abortions, they established women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, and they paved the way for better representation of women in parliament, the media and the workforce.
When I came out at 18, it was into an activist movement that took feminist ideas seriously, and incorporated them into our practice. Brighton Area Action Against Section 28 listened to the experiences of lesbians who had broken away from the Gay Liberation Movement a decade earlier and we recognised that the way men and women are socialised means that men tend to dominate the space in mixed organisations. Therefore we made sure that our meetings were chaired by women and our campaign was represented by women in the media and on public platforms.
We rejected the Stonewall model of a paid CEO and professional lobbying, because we knew that real change comes only from below. We were one of the most active and longest-lasting local campaign groups in the movement against Section 28, and Brighton Pride emerged directly from our very political, grassroots, volunteer-run and female-led campaign.
My overwhelming memory of that time is of a feeling of freedom. Being involved in the campaign was an intensely creative and empowering experience of working collectively with other people to make new things happen and demand change. As well as discovering and establishing myself, I learned a lot about how grassroots activism can weave together the diverse experiences and skills of a community to create a sense of solidarity that is more powerful than repressive laws.
I am worried that the experience of being involved in queer activism now is not a liberating one, particularly for young women, female non-binary people and trans men. I hope I am mistaken about this.
But I have been listening to young women who have detransitioned, desisted or reidentified as women in the last few years, and one of the repeated themes of their stories is that within the trans community they felt that only only one path was available to them as they sought to understand themselves. Here are a few examples of statements I have seen from young detransitioned women, in the UK, in the last year:
“I knew I was a boy because I meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria – a strong rejection of typically feminine toys and typically feminine clothes, mostly male friends, a sense that my feelings and reactions were typical of boys, the desire to be treated as a boy. When I spoke about these experiences to older friends, or in online chat rooms, the message was affirming. Nobody encouraged the idea that it’s okay to be gender non conforming, Instead, friends and healthcare practitioners alike ‘affirmed’ my gender. Yes, you are a boy” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-medicalization-of-gender-non-conforming-children-and-the-vulnerability-of-lesbian-youth-10d4ac517e8e)
“Internalised homophobia and misogyny can play havoc on your mental state. I was a vulnerable person and I saw this one option that fit, no one talked about how dysphoria can have other causes.” (https://twitter.com/tjdetrans/status/1139505371972886530)
“I wanted to find ways of dealing with my gender issues that aren’t medically transitioning, and those ways weren’t presented to me. The only solution that was presented was chopping your breasts off, injecting yourself with hormones and becoming a man.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CjeGgSRBcI&t=7s)
“It’s like my entire life for seven years has been dominated by my gender dysphoria and wanting to avoid it as much as possible by Passing, so much that I stopped being myself. Now I’m realising that my life doesn’t have to be constrained by having to pass. It’s so liberating.” (https://twitter.com/detransing/status/1127265875382419456)
If you are a movement for liberation, and your female activists feel that their involvement is constraining their possibilities, then something has gone very wrong.
During the New Labour years, while I was busy with young children, Brighton Pride became more and more commercialised and less and less political. When we organised a weekend of activities around a protest march in 1991, none of us could have predicted that it would become the massive corporate spectacle it is today.
Under Stonewall’s leadership, the LGBT movement has abandoned the feminist analysis of marriage as a key site of women’s oppression, and embraced large corporations and celebrity endorsements, until our community, with its radical, creative, subversive culture has become nothing more challenging than a market segment.
Slowly, I picked up a habit of holding my tongue. Nobody wanted to hear about how marriage is bad for women when there was a gay wedding fair to go to. What was the point of reminiscing about grassroots alternatives when we seemed to have achieved mainstream acceptance?
But it seems clear to me now that because we let that silence fall, young lesbians coming out into today’s queer activist movement are cut off from the experiences of lesbian feminists who came before them. In fact, older lesbian feminists are explicitly positioned as their enemies, while massive corporations are presented as their friends.
If you are a liberation movement and you think that Barclays, Aviva, Tesco, and Proctor & Gamble are on your side, then something has gone very wrong.
When my youngest child was 11, I started writing and thinking about politics again, as the impact of the Coalition government’s austerity programme began to hit.
I was inspired by the working class women leading campaigns against the Bedroom Tax in the north of England and the young single mums of Focus E15 in London. Since 2010, at every level, austerity has hit women harder, and women have been – as usual – expected to patch up the gaps in our shredded safety net.
Some of the most important gains made by feminists of my mother’s generation are under threat. Funding cuts are leaving refuges vulnerable, while at the same time women’s options are being severely restricted by benefit cuts and caps. Women are terrified that their children will be taken into care if they stay in an abusive relationship, but denied the financial means to leave. So far in 2019, at least 72 women in the UK have been killed by men.
We still need places of safety for women. But Stonewall, in 2015, recommended to the Women and Equalities Select Committee “A review of the Equality Act 2010 to include ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic and to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces”.
Just to be crystal clear, the exemptions they are referring to are the ones which allow service providers to exclude male people from some facilities and services, even if those male people have changed their legal sex by acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate. The example given in the Act’s explanatory notes is this:
“A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.”
Feminists of my mum’s generation created safe spaces for female people to escape male violence. Spaces where women could have some respite, could share their trauma with other women who would understand, could begin to heal and make their way back into the world stronger. From nothing, women built up these services and kept them going over decades.
But Stonewall would like the law changed, so that these small, safe spaces, made by women for women, are no longer permitted to exist.
Here in Brighton, even without a change in the law, our local Rape Crisis service offers no female only support groups. All their services are open to trans women, on the basis of self-identification.
I am not in any way suggesting that trans women should be denied access to support if they have been assaulted, nor that it is unreasonable for rape crisis services and women’s refuges to provide services for trans women. But I do think it is unreasonable to campaign for the removal of female only spaces, which enable traumatised women to recover from male violence.
If you are a liberation movement and you want to make it illegal for members of an oppressed group to organise independently, then something has gone very wrong.
I am not an enemy of trans people. Nothing I have said this evening is an attack on trans people or a call for rights to be denied to any trans person.
All of us, in fact, have a much more dangerous enemy than each other and that is the growing threat of fascism, fuelled by catastrophic climate change.
At a moment when the human race is finally realising that we are not separate from the earth’s ecosystem, and our poisoning of the air, land and oceans is destroying our own habitat, we are already seeing how that plays out: more wars over resources, more movements of refugees across the world, and – as always in situations of conflict – more rape and trafficking of women, and intensified attempts to control our fertility.
Whatever is in store for us, as we head into the next stage of this national and global crisis, I think solidarity in diversity is going to be worth much more to all of us than the support of multinational corporations. We don’t need to flatten all distinctions between us, we don’t need to deny material reality, and we don’t need to set our minds against our bodies. Instead, we need to learn how to listen to each other and learn from each other.
That means, first of all, that everyone must acknowledge that there is a discussion to be had. We are well past the point where women will accept that our concerns are unspeakable.
The Labour Party should be facilitating this discussion. Let’s identify the common problems we are dealing with, and respectfully discuss how to tackle them. There will be areas where we disagree. It’s OK – in fact it is necessary – for people to disagree with each other. That is how we learn.
Let’s talk together about male violence. Three quarters of violent crimes and 94% of homicides are committed by male people. Feminism has many theories about why that is. I want to hear what young people think about it. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is victimised by the longstanding connection between masculinity and violence.
Let’s talk together about stereotypes and socialisation. How do children learn what it means to be a boy or a girl? What would society look like if we let go of gendered rules, roles and expectations? Does individual self-identification on a spectrum actually make a difference to the way society works?
Let’s talk together about self-organisation. I hope everyone would agree that groups of people who face oppression sometimes need exclusive spaces in which to relax, recover from, and collectively resist their oppression. I think it’s pretty clear that female people are an oppressed group, and need to be able to organise autonomously. If you disagree, let’s talk about it. Bring your argument and make your case. That’s what we do in the labour movement and in the feminist movement.
I regret that I held my tongue for such a long time. I am angry that I was intimidated into hiding my name for a year, when engaging with these issues. Women like me – like Helen Steel, like Linda Bellos, like Bea Campbell, like Julie Bindel – have every right to participate in discussion in the movements we have helped to create. We are not the enemy. Let’s talk.
I’m just back from a refreshing week in the Cornish sunshine. One of the accidental themes of the holiday was discovering a series of stories about individuals who lived their lives in defiance of the conventions that surrounded their status as women, or perhaps simply without reference to those conventions.
Marlow Moss was born in 1889. She studied art, against the wishes of her family, and lived alone in London, Cornwall and Paris. In 1919, she began to wear jodhpurs, jackets and cravats, cropped her hair and changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow. She lived in Paris from 1927 until the outbreak of war, where she found love with a Dutch writer, Antoinette Hendrika Nijhoff-Wind. When the war made it unsafe for her to stay in Europe, she returned to Cornwall and lived the rest of her life at Lamorna, visiting Paris frequently.
The exhibition at the Tate included some heartbreaking letters written by Moss to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during World War II, when she was living at Lamorna and they were at St Ives, just a few miles away. She invited them for lunch and wanted to work with them to promote abstract art in Britain. They never replied.
It’s not possible, from this distance, to apply current labels to someone like Marlow Moss. She didn’t follow expected paths, but made her own way in the world, living by her own lights. For that she found herself excluded, by fellow artists and critics alike, and this exclusion has persisted since her death in 1958. The most complete account of her life and the significance of her work can be found in this excellent thesis by Lucy Howarth.
Just a few miles from Lamorna, another determined individual was living an unconventional life at around the same time. Rowena Cade was the driving force behind the creation of the Minack Theatre. She built it herself, alongside her two gardeners, and worked determinedly on the project from 1931 right up to her death in 1983.
The theatre is built into the cliff face at Porthcurno, with stone and concrete seating and the sea and sky as a dramatic backdrop for each production. It looks both natural and preposterous. The physical challenge of building anything in that location would have been overwhelming for most people.
There’s a frustrating lack of information easily available about Rowena Cade’s life other than her work on the Minack. Maybe she really was that single-minded. Maybe she was fiercely private. Who knows? It seems pretty certain that she was not a person who took much notice of convention.
At the Minack last week, we saw Brighton Little Theatre’s production of A Woman of No Importance, a play that’s all about how women in Victorian society were punished for breaches of convention, while men’s transgressions were forgiven, even celebrated.
Oscar Wilde’s character, Mrs Arbuthnot, didn’t choose her unconventional life. She was seduced and abandoned to bring up her son alone. Unlike Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade, her position as a mother and lack of inherited wealth meant that she couldn’t simply reject society’s norms – instead she had to internalise the shame and quietly create a respectable life for her child.
When the secret is finally exposed and she is expected to accept an offer of marriage from her son’s father – a mere 20 years too late – her defiant refusal is stirring.
It’s easy to see how much things have changed in Britain since 1893, when A Woman of No Importance was first performed. For my children, it’s difficult to comprehend the significance of a child being born out of wedlock. The marital status of people’s parents is simply not an issue for them and their peers.
The difference between the world Marlow Moss and Rowena Cade knew and the one we live in now is also vast. Wearing short hair and trousers is hardly a transgression for women where I live (though women are not so free everywhere, of course).
And yet, these rules and conventions are very resilient. Even though people resist, break, bend and ignore them, they persist and reassert themselves in new forms. What women choose to do with their clothes and hair remains the subject of intense scrutiny and judgment. The tabloid demonisation of large families claiming benefits is a direct descendant of the shaming of fallen Victorian women. Single mothers still find their choices curtailed by being left with sole responsibility for raising their children.
Now the government wants to give Victorian values a boost by attaching a financial incentive to marriage. A £150 tax break for married couples where one partner does not work is a purely ideological proposal. Like Section 28 in the 1980s, it’s more about appeasing the religious right within the Conservative Party than anything else. But the message it sends could have damaging repercussions for people already on the sharp end of vicious cuts to social security.
Being married is not a more or less worthy way of living than any other. Unmarried people – like Mrs Arbuthnot, Rowena Cade and Marlow Moss – have always contributed plenty to society. Imagining – and living – their lives outside of convention is in itself an inspiring contribution.
As Brighton Pride approaches, and the same sex marriage bill inches towards the statute book, let’s not forget our debt to all the outsiders, queers, mavericks, eccentrics and weirdos who helped make the unthinkable possible for us. I think people should be able to marry whoever they want, but it’s more important to me that people should be free to be whoever they want – whatever that looks like.
Last night I watched Amanda Palmer sing this song on Brighton beach, after an exhilarating gig with the most diverse Brighton audience you could possibly imagine. Brighton has always been a refuge for people who needed to escape the stifling conventions of their time and it still is. That’s what Brighton Pride represents for me – not a celebration of some of us being allowed in to the citadel of respectability, but a statement of defiance against all the conventions that aim to channel and restrict people’s lives.