On the weekend of May 26th, Irish feminists celebrated the end of a 35-year battle for bodily autonomy. In Dublin Castle, activists who had dedicated their entire adult lives to campaigning for abortion access wept in each other's arms as results of the referendum were read out. Teenagers who weren't even old enough to vote – and yet canvassed every night of the campaign – roared with relief.
Meanwhile, that same weekend in London, a group of English women were advancing the cause of feminism by prancing around Hampstead Heath wearing mankinis and fake beards, and shouting at bewildered swimmers. The squalid little display was intended as a satirical protest against the proposed Gender Recognition Act, which would allow transgender people to legally self identify.
Man Friday is a group of trans-exclusionary feminists, who oppose self-identification of gender largely on the grounds that they fear men will pretend to identify as women for sinister purposes. To make their tedious point, they encourage members to "engage in acts of manliness" each Friday – to claim in an intentionally spurious manner that they are men. This is intended to highlight what they see as the senselessness of self ID, believing – as they do – that it will inevitably lead to predatory men invading changing rooms to terrorise women.
In fact, they have only ever succeeded in highlighting their own absurdity and increasingly bizarre, atonal pleas for attention.
The Hampstead pool stunt was the third such incident to hit headlines in as many months. In March, Brockwell Lido endured a smaller scale version, when Amy Desir and another Man Friday member attended the evening men's swim. When a confused gentleman asked the two women if they knew it was a men's swim, they responded, "We are men," no doubt with the nerdy smirk of the most irritatingly self-satisfied kooky kid in class.
"Oh really?" he responded, and swam off.
This was the big reaction they'd been seeking, apparently: a moment of polite concern, followed by peaceful co-swimming.
Then, in May, David Lewis – a Labour member who has obviously been told he's just OUTRAGEOUS a few too many times down the pub – decided to join in the fun of systemically mocking trans people. To be clear, David is a cis man. He does not genuinely identify as a woman, in any way, at any time. But he decided that it would be a hilarious and knowing act of political commentary to pretend that he identifies "as a woman on Wednesdays" and attempt to run for the role of Women’s Officer in Basingstoke. Because after all – Ha! Ha! Ha! – being able to self-identify means that trans people can just decide on a whim that they're women or men, as it suits them! This is a definitely-real and not made-up thing that happens! In any event, David was expelled from the Labour Party for being a smug smart-arse, disproving in an instant his essential point that the system is wide open for calculated manipulation.
I'm trying to write down all these examples of transphobic pageantry in a relatively descriptive and straightforward way, but it's difficult not to just scream about how completely stupid they all are, to let out one long sub-verbal wail at the sheer thick-headedness, the time-wasting. Transphobes are quite literally creating a problem that doesn't exist. They are hypothesising about an outcome, creating that outcome themselves, and then trying to use their own creation as proof of its possibility. It doesn't work like that – you can't manufacture the evidence you require to prove a point.
And it's the smugness that irks, too: the self-approbation, the belief that they are meaningfully disrupting society with their oh-so-sophisticated larks, the delusional belief that they’re involved in a movement akin to something genuinely radical and clever in its simplicity, like the Guerrilla Girls. Man Friday have the cheek to describe what they do as "direct action". The same weekend, Radical Queers Resist were in Ireland engaging in actual direct action, covering up the appalling imagery of bloodied foetuses used by the anti-choice "No" side. That’s direct action. And that’s direct action facilitated by a group of overtly trans-inclusive queer feminists.
The Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, who opposes self ID and supports the Man Friday actions, described the Brockwell jape as her "favourite recent news story" in the beginning of a piece arguing against transgender women being allowed in gender-segregated spaces. She goes on to say, in an attack on transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, "Can someone please tell Bergdorf that Irish women are still fighting to Repeal the 8th?" As you can imagine, as an Irish woman, I was delighted to see my rights and opinions being appropriated by someone who never dedicated any column inches to them before, in order to attack a vulnerable minority.
The sheer gall of that took my breath away: implying that putting on a fake beard and going for a swim and a photo-op is the important work of feminism; implying that trans people don't care about Ireland's struggle for reproductive rights; and, especially, the brazen attempt to pit cis women against trans women.
This opportunism seems especially vital to point out, given that Ireland's feminists are overwhelmingly trans-inclusive. In January, English trans-exclusionary feminists went on a lecture tour called "We Need To Talk", preaching against the evils of self ID. They attempted to include Dublin in their schedule, and were told in no uncertain terms to stay away.
"Trans women and men in Ireland have the legal right to self-declare their gender," read an open letter signed by numerous Irish feminist, LGBT and progressive groups, as well as individuals. "Trans people and particularly trans women are an inextricable part of our feminist community. The needs of trans people are part of our campaigns. There is no difference between 'feminists' spreading transphobic and transmisogynist ideas or spreading racism or homophobia. We want no part of it, and we don’t want it here. So yes, we do need to talk."
Trans-exclusionary feminists are powerful in Britain, uniquely so. European and American feminists are often confused by the overwhelming media bias in favour of anti-trans narratives. They gain footing by exploiting fear and intentionally sowing seeds of discord between cis and trans women. They manipulate justified fears of sexual attack to advance their regressive cause. Is it possible that a trans woman will attack another woman? Of course it is, just as it's possible that a cis woman could attack another woman.
What I never see pointed out in this argument is that men don’t need subterfuge to attack women. The idea that they do makes me want to laugh with impotent anger.
Here's the truth: in our society, men can abuse women at will, with a very low chance of suffering any retribution. The day I started writing this article, a man on a bus grabbed me by the throat and breasts for no reason other than his own passing amusement. He did so without any need for a disguise. When we take transphobic discourse seriously, we are validating the idea that sexual predators are an unknown quantity, a shadow in the bushes, a stranger in disguise lurking in wait. Men don't need to partake in some farce involving gowns and wigs and high-pitched voices to attack women – they do it every day.