It's a funny old world on Mumsnet. Drop into the UK's biggest parenting forum at any given time and you'll find that no topic is too obscure for its collective wisdom. Sub-forums exist for everything from gardening and pet care to politics and spot-popping, and debates on the AIBU (Am I Being Unreasonable) forum make Question Time look like child's play. Mumsnet may have been founded after CEO Justine Roberts let Boris Johnson disastrously house-sit for her, but in the decade since it's evolved into a discussion forum for everyone – male or female, parent or child-free. Well, almost everyone.
I worked at Mumsnet for six months on the editorial team in 2015. It wasn't my job to moderate the forums, but I'd read them. When a discussion praising Caitlyn Jenner's gender transition popped up and I was instructed not to include it in our daily news round-up, I was a little surprised, but I don't remember users' conversations spiralling into the sort of blatant transphobia you can see now in threads about the North Carolina bathroom bill (which has just been declared in breach of the US Civil Rights Act).
"Are you saying it shouldn't affect us if a man walks in with cock and balls and expects us to just go about our business?" asked one user. "Where are these studies that prove trans women are more vulnerable to suicide and murder and all the rest of it? I've never seen anything convincing compared to the stark statistics on the female victims of male violence," wrote another. OK, if we have to: a 2013 report by the National Coalition of Anti Violence Programs in the US found that trans women were almost twice as likely to experience sexual violence as non-trans people. In the UK, a third of trans people will experience abuse of some sort and hate crimes against trans people have been recorded on the rise each year between 2011 and 2015.
"I think transphobia and trans issues are discussed online in a way that often involves a lot of cisgender people [whose experience of their gender matches with the sex they were assigned at birth] talking as if trans issues are so alien, that they're basically just thought exercises," says trans stand-up comic Bethany Black. "Every mainstream news outlet, left or right, approaches trans rights as if there are two sides to it. Like our rights to exist and not be discriminated against is in some way trying to take rights away from cisgender people."
I started a discussion on Mumsnet in the media requests forum, inviting users to share their thoughts on trans women, and a trend emerged. Lots of posters sounded offended by me inviting responses from "cis and trans" users, although my phrasing wasn't meant to antagonise; I just wanted to give all genders a chance to respond. Many users shared a belief that trans women posed a physical danger to them or their children, and felt that acknowledging that trans women are women would somehow undermine their own identity.
"Many of us are concerned about the damaging impact of gender stereotypes on our children, and the safety of our daughters if this ridiculous proposal is enacted," said one user. "Also, I think it's hard to convince women who've struggled to get pregnant, been pregnant, given birth, breastfed... that biology is a social construct and oppressive gender stereotypes are real".
"I don't want my daughters put in a situation where they have to share hospital wards with men," said another. A third forum poster told me over email that "once you have had the surgery then you have the protections and the rights of access. Until then, you are whatever gender is evidenced by what is between your legs," although she did write that "the bathroom bill is flawed and ultimately impossible to police. You must use the bathroom that corresponds to your sex at birth. How exactly does one pass the test?" The crux of the issue, though, as pointed out by another poster, is that "[Mumsnet] is one of the very few mainstream forums where you can freely express gender-critical views."
Forum users don't like being censored, as the backlash against ex-Reddit CEO Ellen Pao last year proves. Pao deleted various subreddits including /r/beatingwomen and /r/shitniggerssay, which are exactly what they sound like. Cue a change.org petition for her firing that attracted over 200,000 signatures. Pao apologised and stepped down. Anonymity can naturally make forums home to extreme views, and a hotbed for discussions on the limits of freedom of speech. But funnily enough, it didn't take long for my Mumsnet thread to disappear, with the deletion message citing "privacy concerns". I tried to log back in and couldn't; it looked like I'd been banned.
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I asked Mumsnet for their official policies on dealing with transphobia, and to clarify if I'd been banned for asking users about the way they discussed trans women. I was sent this statement: "Mumsnet Talk is not a pre-moderated forum; our policy is to keep intervention to a minimum and let the conversation flow. That said, we will always delete reported posts that break our Talk Guidelines which (among other things) say that transphobic posts are against our rules.
"Our team consider each report carefully and take decisions on a case-by-case basis. Issues relating to transgender are a relatively new area for many members of the public, and the use of language is hotly contested in some quarters. We aim to encourage civility and respect on all sides while allowing space for thoughtful debate; on the whole we believe this is a better route to mutual understanding and compassion than censorship."
That's an admirable mission statement, but it doesn't quite tally with me being booted off the site. There's a gulf between misunderstanding what it means to be trans, and declaring that a trans woman's "mangina is made from a colon". Terminology like this sits in between posts about disobedient five-year-olds and maternity wear, and seems at odds with the community ethos of the site. But hey, I did warn you about the site's funny old world.
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