The Great British TERF War: Why the debate over human rights for trans people has continued to dominate UK mainstream media and divide British feminists.
The Great British TERF War illustration by Ashton Attzs.
Life

Inside the Great British TERF War

This is how the debate over human rights for transgender people ended up dominating mainstream media, poisoning newsrooms and dividing British feminism.
illustrated by Ashton Attzs
16 June 2020, 8:00am

In North London there are man-made swimming ponds that attract people from across the city, regardless of the weather or time of year. The passion of its regulars is captured in The Ponds, a British documentary about the lives of swimmers at Hampstead Heath. “The things that life throws at you are so painful,” a woman explains on a bench, “then to get into water that’s two degrees centigrade is nothing.” Another woman in her 70s shares that swimming in the ponds at 7AM on her 70th birthday gave her a new sense of strength.

The film was released in January 2019, exactly one year after a tumultuous period for the Ponds. In 2018, it became a real-life site for the “trans debate”, where the rights of cisgender women appeared to collide with the rights of transgender women. (In an email, one of the filmmakers told me that “things are pretty sensitive down there right now” and he can’t speak on “the trans issue”.)

The timeline went like this: in December 2017, the Daily Mail published a piece announcing a war at the Ladies’ Pond. A regular user was quoted as saying they saw a “male-bodied” person using the ladies pond. Prominent women’s rights activist and Pond user Julie Bindel, agreed that for anyone other than cis women to use the pond – for those “pretending” to be a woman – was “completely unacceptable”.

The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA), a voluntary organisation of women who promote the interests of women using the Pond to the local council, swiftly put out a statement in support of trans women using the Pond. The following month, its members met to discuss the issue. According to one KLPA member, confusion and unease erupted among some members as a direct result of the Mail article, despite the reality that trans women had been swimming in the Ladies’ Pond for decades.

Other publications began to run stories on this issue and in May, a small group of women protested by entering the Men’s Pond – some wearing mankinis and fake beards. It was part of a campaign organised on Mumsnet called #ManFriday, which encouraged participants to “self-identify” as men for the day to protest trans rights. LGBT charity Stonewall criticised the “toxic” media debate surrounding the Ponds, and highlighted that trans women were legally allowed to use the pond already due to the 2010 Equality Act.

The Ladies’ Pond is not a unique site for these tensions around transgender people. It includes many of the factors that have dominated debates around trans rights: bodies, public space and the safety of cisgender women. But it is surely no coincidence that the Pond is enjoyed by the London arts and media elite: its clientele include Esther Freud, aforementioned Julie Bindel, Emma Thompson and Kate Moss. It is, quite literally, on their turf.

In February 2019, the New York Times published an op-ed with the headline “How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans”. The lead image was the Ladies Pond sign. It immediately translated the very particular and peculiar Britishness of our anti-trans sentiment for a progressive US audience, for whom trans rights is an unquestioned tenet of human rights and feminism. (This reputation was solidified this month, when Harry Potter author JK Rowling doubled down on her tweets about trans people with a self-published essay originally titled “Terf Wars”.) A number of mystified US publications have spent entire articles questioning just why the UK is so transphobic. “TERF ideology,” one Vox article declared, “has become the de facto face of feminism in the UK.”

“There’s this fantasy that the British are not narcissistic like Americans – we would never be so arrogant as to come up with an identity for ourselves and force other people to comply with it,” says Dr Sophie Lewis, the feminist theorist and geographer who wrote the NYT op-ed. “‘What an incredibly vain, American notion. Here in England, we call a spade a spade, men are men and women are women.’ This is itself a form of identity politics.” It is the British self-fetishisation of being no-nonsense.

Trans-exclusionary protests and strategies were appearing IRL, particularly at feminist events. And yet the Ponds became, perhaps unfairly, the singular focal point for British transphobia. Nicky Mayhew, the co-chair of the KLPA, repeats that the Pond is for all women, including trans women, and that as far as she knows, no Ladies’ Pond swimmers engaged with the Men’s Pond protest: “The media has made transgender issues so inflammatory.”

Mayhew seems sincerely perturbed by the scale of publicity it got, attributing it to the high-profile women who use the ponds. “It was something that was whipped up out of nothing, really, out of a trivialisation and a really uncompassionate desire to make headlines. I would prefer not to see that being whipped up again, because there are people out there who appear to have nothing better to do than to try to make other people’s lives more uncomfortable and painful, which I think is despicable.”

But friction over the Pond is a modern take on a years-long story; or rather, a one-sided slow-burning war between the British media and the small percentage of the public who are transgender.

A lifeguard on duty at Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond. Photo: Caroline Cortizo / Alamy Stock Photo

When trans writer and critic Juliet Jacques grew up, there was little information available for those wishing to transition. This was the 90s, the era of lad culture and beer and Oasis. By the 2000s, comedians were still regularly making jokes at the expense of trans people. In BBC comedy Little Britain, Matt Lucas played a Thai bride named “Ting Tong” who is later revealed to be a “ladyboy”. Right-wing tabloids called trans people “trannies” (Daily Mail) and focused on sex change or trans pregnancy shock stories with headlines like “Womb man” (the Mirror) or “Bloke: I’m having a baby” (Daily Star).

Jacques worked in a series of office jobs in Brighton and watched certain gains be made around trans legal rights: the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004 and treatment was provided on the NHS. She asked herself: “If the government is doing us less damage, which other social institutions are doing us damage? And a lot of people hit on the media at the same time. We’d all grown up with wall-to-wall transphobia in the media and it was never seriously questioned.”

Indeed, the media posed a large roadblock in the fight for trans rights. “In the Guardian in particular, it was journalists like Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer setting the terms of the discussion,” Jacques said, of what inspired her to move to London and take up journalism. In articles from that decade, Greer calls trans women “a ghastly parody” while Bindel describes a trans woman as a “man in a dress”. This existed without much in the way of actual trans voices.

It was in this climate that Jacques began writing a Guardian column about her experience transitioning, believing the publication to be a good place to change the minds of the average reader. The majority of her writing, on issues from hormones to clothing, was published between 2010 and 2011, but continued sporadically until 2012. In a penultimate column documenting her gender reassignment surgery, Jacques writes of her recovery at her parents home. To pass the time she listened to the radio: “One afternoon, the DJ plays Joy Division's ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which was constantly on my stereo during my alienated youth. As I hear its opening bars, the entire transition, from my childhood gender dysphoria to this pain-filled moment in the house where I grew up, 20 years later, replays itself in my mind, and suddenly I'm in waves of cathartic tears.”

It was a touching and informative insight into the life of an estimated one percent of the population. “Plus I realised quite quickly that I could get quite a lot of politics into it,” Jacques says. The column had impact: it was longlisted for an Orwell Prize in 2011 and was the springboard for Jacques to get her book deal for Trans: A Memoir, the first autobiography from a British trans writer in decades. But Jacques retreated from the media; the Guardian continued to publish pieces she felt were transphobic and she received personal abuse in the comment section.

“I ended up unwittingly shouldering the burden of representation,” she says now. “I got burned out, and couldn’t really do it anymore, then you had people like Paris Lees coming through, who was a lot more able to handle the bigger platforms.”

Only months after her decision to pull back, Jacques and other trans people saw two major moments in British anti-trans history. In January, Julie Burchill wrote an Observer column “attacking” (the words of the paper itself, in a later apology for printing it) transgender people, calling them "screaming mimis", "bed-wetters in bad wigs" and "dicks in chicks' clothing". The piece, which was removed online, was written in defence of her friend and fellow writer Suzanne Moore, who had written that women were too often expected to look like a “Brazilian transsexual”.

“I realised I wanted to have a voice when I saw a piece by Germaine Greer in the Guardian calling trans women ‘ghastly parodies’ of women"

Then in March, a trans teacher named Lucy Meadows died by suicide. This came a few months after the Daily Mail printed a column by Richard Littlejohn about Meadows’ transition and return to work. The scaremongering piece, which misgendered Meadows numerous times, had been published in December the previous year and was swiftly and silently taken down from the website. Over 41,000 people signed an online petition demanding that the Mail fire Littlejohn. He was not fired, but an inquest into Meadows’ death found she had called the Press Complaints Commission over the press harassment and the coroner chastised the paper for the attempted “character assassination” of “ill-informed bigotry”.

The US had long since moved on. The “transgender tipping point”, as coined by a 2014 Time cover, had arrived. Actor Laverne Cox, American presenter Janet Mock, rockstar Laura Jane Grace, activist Chelsea Manning and others were thriving in the spotlight. When Jacques talks of writer Paris Lees taking the gauntlet, it felt like Britain’s concession to a wider moment of optimism for the trans movement. Lees had a vivacious attitude and wrote funny and frank blogs for VICE from 2014 onwards, discussing issues such as American conservative attempts to block trans people from using the bathroom of their gender to trans-exclusionary feminism in British media.

As young working class writer, Lees was galvanised in the same way Jacques was. “I realised I wanted to have a voice when I saw a piece by Germaine Greer in the Guardian calling trans women ‘ghastly parodies’ of women,” she says. “It was really upsetting. I was at university and reading newspapers for the first time and trying to be political and realising, ‘hold on a minute, this is supposed to be a nice newspaper, they’re supposed to be speaking up for people who are persecuted.’ It was acceptable to ridicule people like me.”

What Lees did was unprecedented in British media: she worked not just with liberal, progressive publications, but with tabloids like the Sun and the Mirror to offer trans perspectives on gender and related issues. “I’m interested in getting what I want,” she says on this today. “Sometimes that involves making compromises. Ultimately, I want equality for trans people and that involves using accessible language, and writing in places that we may not align with politically. I’m not interested in living in an echo chamber. We have to reach the mainstream.”

Young trans writer Shon Faye was the next to rise to prominence through the Guardian and youth media platforms like VICE and Dazed. In the mid-2010s, when she came out as trans, she felt a cautious optimism about trans rights. Debates about trans rights that typically involved a trans person on one side and someone against those rights on the other were fairly routine, both on TV and in print media. The obvious advantage to this was the obvious visibility: trans people were being seen and heard by British public.

But the debate has remained the same: are trans people who they say they are? “We’ve found that the purpose of the debate isn’t to move the conversation on at all,” Faye says. “It’s to have the same debate again and again and again, almost as if that’s a strategy in and of itself, to keep us debating and to keep a question mark over every aspect of trans lives and rights.” The optimism quickly wore off. “We thought visibility meant people will understand us better and they’ll relate to us better and we’ll be accepted. That doesn’t happen. We don’t have control of the media – the discussion is never on our terms.”

The question suddenly became not one of visibility, but of questioning the visibility given. “We’ve not gone backwards – it’s not like it was before,” says Faye. “Now we’re literally in the news all the time, and in the media all the time, but in the most hostile way. And there’s no way I could’ve anticipated that.”

§

In 2018, the debate shifted into outright toxicity. The consultation on the now-outdated Gender Recognition Act, which allows trans people to have their identity legally recognised, changed everything. Currently, the GRA mandates a years-long, medicalised process for trans people to prove they are trans. This involves psychiatric interviews, medical assessments and a £140 application fee. It also requires them to give two years of proof that they have lived as their “acquired gender” before being approved by a panel of experts.

The reforms suggested by LGBT charities like Stonewall were fairly minimal: the recognition of non-binary identities, no medical diagnosis or presentation of evidence needed and self-determination through a more streamlined process. The media commentary around the subject suggested otherwise. As Faye says: “Suddenly there was a deluge of anti-trans pieces every day. The Mail and the Sun were happy to join in there, but the Times – which is a paper of record – taking a committed level of anti-trans stance... That’s when I realised we were fucked in terms of the media.”

The final domino to fall was the Guardian. To many trans people and trans allies, the one progressive broadsheet in the UK posting its editorial view on trans rights in October 2018 was almost as striking a landmark moment as the overall response to the GRA. Rather than support the fairly minor reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, the Guardian highlighted the differing rights of trans people and women. It concluded with something no one on either side would disagree with: “Social media have unhelpfully amplified the voices at both extremes of this argument. The current divisions are troubling.” Trans activists and allies noted that the editorial was fence-sitting: it didn’t entirely invalidate trans rights, but it did dodge the issue.

Faye – along with other trans writers and readers – was shocked. “That editorial was a slap in the face and a watershed moment for me too, because I knew I couldn’t, in all conscience, work with the Guardian again. I’m self-aware enough to know that people would think I’m a bit of a sell-out, and fair enough. It’s grim to be taking payment from somewhere that the next day may be running something transphobic.”

The editorial stance didn’t come without warning. Concerns had been raised by trans people and allies over tweets and columns by prominent Guardian columnists and writers Hadley Freeman and Suzanne Moore. In a March 2018 Weekend column, Freeman argued against trans women using women’s facilities, implying that the dangers of a move towards self-identification was a danger to the safety of women. She notably calls Mumsnet “a pleasing hotbed of radical feminism” (elsewhere, Mumsnet has been accused of radicalising a whole generation of transphobes, with one Outline journalist writing: “Mumsnet is to British transphobia… what 4Chan is to American fascism”).

According to some Guardian UK staffers, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, distress arose among younger members of staff and those supportive of trans rights. “The editorial was clearly trying to avoid alienating that portion of our readership – but in doing so it created a false equivalence between the two views, as if they were both equally valid,” says one staff member. “This was obviously disheartening for those who believe trans rights should be protected.”

Public-facing opposition to this view was deemed necessary from within the company: two weeks after the Guardian UK view, a response from the US team was published. According to someone directly involved with internal US discussions, a formal letter was written in the US and delivered to leadership in London. Based on follow-up conversations, it was strongly felt by American staff that they should publish their own response, which drew links between the language and ideas purported by the UK’s view and the Trump administration’s desire to deny trans people basic recognition.

Internal unrest has peaked at the Guardian over its coverage of trans rights. Photo: Marcin Rogozinski / Alamy Stock Photo

Internal unrest over this issue peaked with a March article by Suzanne Moore about the “silencing” and “no-platforming” of Professor Selina Todd at an Oxford University event. Black feminist writer Lola Olufemi had withdrawn from the event, citing Todd’s support of Women’s Place UK, an organisation set up to fight for the protection of sex-based services and refuges. It prompted organisers asking Todd not to speak. “Male violence is an issue for women, which is why we want single-sex spaces,” Moore writes. Where, commentators asked, does that leave trans women, to whom the patriarchy proves an even greater risk?

The power of such pieces is in how they speak to cisgender women’s very real pain. Often writers centre experiences such as abuse or rape and then set these up as distinct and separate from the experiences of trans people. As Alison Phipps writes in her book Me, Not You: The Problem With Mainstream Feminism: “Sexual violence is terror; so is the way it is tackled and policed. And (white) ‘women’s safety’ is used to justify violence against marginalised communities.” She later adds: “The investment of sexual trauma in the outrage economy allows the ‘good’ woman (cis, ‘respectable’, implicitly white) to be used to withhold support and resources from the ‘bad’ ones.”

No attempt is made to tackle the economic and social causes that cause suffering for all: when JK Rowling’s abuser was doorstepped by tabloids and made front page news, it is damning evidence of misogyny in the press. It is arguably sad proof that both cisgender and trans women need each other to fight the patriarchy as much as ever. But when single-sex services are discussed in gender-critical pieces of editorial, the politics doesn’t instead focus on better-funded women’s services for both cis and trans women. There is no consideration of where trans women are expected to go.

After Moore’s column was published, LGBTQ activists worked with a Guardian staffer to put together an open letter with more than 200 names of prominent British feminists – many Black or women of colour – as well as Guardian staff who disagreed with it. One sympathetic Guardian staffer said: “It may seem as if we are attacking the company, but it comes from a place of wanting to protect it. In the long run, the newspaper is probably going to be judged for promoting these views, so when we look back on this time in the future at least we will be able to say that there was opposition to them.”

Simultaneously, an emergency meeting for LGBTQ+ Guardian staff members and allies gathered to discuss how best to respond. Most people in attendance were reportedly under 40. A letter to the editor was drafted that afternoon and signed over the following days by more than 300 members of staff. It was also submitted for publication to Buzzfeed, who protected the anonymity of its signatories.

The letter stated that signatories were distressed by the resignation of another trans colleague in the London office, the third in less than a year. The colleague in question had, according to Buzzfeed, received anti-trans comments from “influential editorial staff” and had vocally criticised the publication of Moore’s column – “the straw that broke the camel’s back” – at the editorial morning conference. The letter added that “the pattern of publishing transphobic content has interfered with our work and cemented our reputation as a publication hostile to trans rights and trans employees”.

One anonymous signatory says: “We specifically chose to avoid mentioning the columnist’s name because we didn’t want it to seem like a personal attack – the problem is more widespread – though [Moore] chose to portray this civility as cowardice.”

On 19th March, Moore leaked the letter signed by 338 in full, featuring the names and roles of those who had signed. According to staffers, this came after an email was sent to staff members stating: “It is never acceptable to attack colleagues whose views you do not agree with, whether in meetings, on email, publicly or on social media.”

The sources – one of whom purports to have felt scared about anti-trans activists and trolls and “intimidated” by Moore’s action – also say that the company has not issued more information on Moore’s actions internally, nor has the company checked to see if those named are OK. A signatory said: “I think what happened after Suzanne doxxed us, [that] there were no repercussions for her, it’s testament to the level of power she has in our organisation. There was not even an apology from her for doing that.”

In a statement to VICE, a Guardian spokesperson said: “The editorial remit is to engage with the important issues of the day, and never shy away from difficult subjects.” They add: “We have put a lot of work into diversity and inclusion in the last two years, and we will continue to do all we can to support the rights of trans and non-binary people through our employee policies.”

Why might an internal debate come to this? A newspaper, as many Guardian staffers have publicly pointed out, is not a monolithic entity. While all sources emphasise their love and respect for the company, a pattern emerged: whenever a piece on trans issues was published and sparked heated debate among the public and staffers, concerned staffers would attend the usual morning conference to discuss it. The writer in question and a couple of senior editors might be there to represent one side, and on the other members of the Pride Group – an organised group of LGBTQ+ staff – or younger staffers might contribute their view.

Sources describe a “difficult atmosphere” where concerns about aggravating the wrong person – a senior editor or writer – will impact their own careers. They note that BAME and working class staff, who are widely and openly supportive of pro-trans editorial, feel more at risk of the repercussions of raising concerns. Another staffer says: “You have to consider all that before you build up the courage to speak out.”

“Without wanting to sound too self-pitying, I’ve been targeted very badly in the name of feminism.” – Shon Faye

The reality is that there are relatively few prominent cultural commentators on gender in the UK. But as Dr Sophie Lewis claims, when speaking to VICE, they present a united front. She says that they have risen through the ranks together and have longstanding relationships of some kind with each other. “It’s obviously easy to overstate this because there are structural factors I think as to why the ideological terrain is the way it is, but it’s also just because they’re all mates: Julie Bindel, Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill. These are – in some cases erstwhile working class and radical – highly educated journalistic privileged people. They’re defending each other and doubling down, partly because of the interpersonal ties and also because British class society’s particular texture amplifies the echo chamber element of it.”

Against the unmistakable flavour of a cohesive defence, the very few trans journalists have a narrative of their own. Like Jacques, both Faye and Lees are withdrawing from the media due to the toll it takes on their mental health. This means transgender people are going unheard in the mainstream media, and the debate continues to be had by white women centring their own experience as it purports to trans lives.

Faye has written a forthcoming political non-fiction book about the systemic transphobia in British society and says, quite sincerely, that the hardest chapter to write has been on feminism (“without wanting to sound too self-pitying, I’ve been targeted very badly in the name of feminism”). Lees hasn’t written for a newspaper for the past two years. She’s semi-retired from journalism and doesn’t consider herself an activist anymore.

“I’m planning to leave the country because I don’t want to live here anymore, and I am probably one of the most privileged trans people in the country. So if I’m feeling like this, I can tell you a lot of other trans people are feeling like this,” Lees says. “OK, you’ve got to have your god-given right to keep telling me again and again and again that I’m not a real woman, that’s fine. I just don’t want to stick around and listen to it. I feel guilty because a lot of people can’t do that, but it’s not like I’ve not made a contribution. I’ll always use my voice when I can, but I’m not allowing these people to upset me for the rest of my life. These people never stop, it’s endless.”

Lees half-jokes: “I’m glad millennials and Gen Z get it – part of my activism now is just waiting for people to die.”

§

Some might remember this as a British story of furious debate and outright transphobia. But its key theme is an imbalance of power – one weighted against trans people and present within the internal and external make-up of the media and public life today. British trans people represent an estimated one percent of the population. One in four trans people has experienced homelessness and more than a quarter in a relationship in the past year have experienced domestic abuse. Their plight is firmly a class problem when one in three employers is “less likely” to hire a trans person, and in Ireland, half of trans people are unemployed.

Those who oppose their rights are frequently white, middle or upper middle-class people, or working-class people whose successful careers have afforded them a significant measure of social mobility. They have concerns over being silenced and yet hold large platforms with tens of thousands, even millions, of followers. They appear on Newsnight, radio shows or in reputable newspapers everyday.

Even a global pandemic has not slowed the decades-old debate on whether trans women are women. Father Ted creator Graham Linehan has continued to tweet about trans lives to his over half a million followers every single day. Bestselling author JK Rowling, who has an estimated net-worth of £795 million, was impassioned enough about trans people during lockdown to write a 3,600-word essay about them. At a time when Black Lives Matter is becoming a global movement, domestic violence is growing during lockdown and a recession threatens people's livelihoods – all issues that deeply concern cisgender women and trans women – the news cycle has been sacrificed to the trans debate.

The past week for trans people culminated in the news that Boris Johnson plans to scrap potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act, despite the fact that 70 percent of respondents to the GRA consultation supported trans people having the right to self-identify. The PM is said to be preparing new protections that would prevent some trans women from using single-sex spaces like toilets and refuges. At the same time – and on the fourth anniversary of the Orlando massacre – US president Donald Trump announced that gender-based health protection for trans people would be revoked. All around the world, plans – long drawn up, executed consciously or unconsciously by right-wingers, the mainstream press and a minority of British feminists – are being rolled out to exile trans people from public life.

Meanwhile, the regular swimmers of the Ladies’ Pond are desperate to get back to their water. As hotter months begin, the water is a haven for feeling at one with the world, for dissolving the boundaries between body and earth.

But the romantic light in which the Ladies’ Pond is seen is only a half-truth: it’s a man-made reservoir on a heath with a rich history of who can and cannot access it.

In their contribution to the 2019 Ladies’ Pond essay collection At The Ponds, non-binary critic So Mayer points out that the Heath’s Kenwood House was home in the 1800s to Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an African slave and a British naval officer. A decade after she arrived at Kenwood House, a marsh was drained to add to the reservoirs. Fifteen years later, just before Belle left the house to marry an abolitionist, Thousand Pound Pond (now known as Concert Pond) was dug.

“The fetishisation of landscaped parks created by the aristocracy and maintained by Britain’s colonial expropriated wealth, without any consideration of the history of its making,” Mayer writes on email, “colludes in creating implicit exclusions.” In other words: even the bucolic spaces that anti-trans feminists wish to protect have class and segregation baked into their DNA.

When the Men’s Pond protest happened, the small group was led by one woman – and founding member of the #ManFriday movement – Hannah Clarke. In the Daily Mail coverage of the small event, Clarke was quoted at length as being “articulate, measured in her language, and solidly middle-class”. Her father is a retired Army major, magistrate and Tory councillor; her mother has also been a Tory councillor in the Home Counties for almost three decades. Her husband worked in finance. She’s never protested before, she told the reporter, but finally she has a cause.

_@hannahrosewens_