On my way out of Edinburgh University last week, where I’d just delivered a speech on how feminists should resist male violence, I was attacked by a shrieking “transgender person” (to cite the term used in a Scotsman headline). Had it not been for the three burly security guards surrounding me, I would have been punched.
I usually use female pronouns to refer to trans women, as a courtesy. But this is a courtesy I won’t extend to someone seeking to hurt me physically. This was a man—specifically, a misogynist who’d become notorious under the (since deleted) Twitter handle TownTattle. He was deeply offended that I’d been allowed to speak. That’s why he wanted to hurt me: for being a woman who opened her mouth.
The event at which I’d appeared was called Women’s Sex-Based Rights. It focussed on the threat to women-only spaces and organizations posed by gender activists who seek to erase any legal distinction in regard to the treatment of male- and female-bodied individuals. In the run-up to the event, trans activists and their allies (mostly men who are highly woke, as popular slang would have it) had been claiming that the meeting would cause harm to trans students, and that I would be promoting hate.
Before we took the stage, speakers were given an hour-long briefing by the university’s security team. We were told what would happen if the stage were stormed by protesters, or if it became necessary to vacate the venue. This is what it now means to advocate publicly for women’s rights.
As I arrived at the venue, I was greeted by a protest group shouting slogans such as “No TERFS on our turf.” For those in the enviable position of being unaffected by the campaign against women’s rights, “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist,” a misogynistic term of abuse that now is routinely deployed against women who do not believe that men can merely “self-identity” as women for purposes of, say, accessing women’s locker rooms, rape-crisis centres and single-sex hospital wards. Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest sporting heroes of all time, recently has been mobbed by the anti-“TERF” crowd because she dared to criticize male-bodied trans women being allowed to compete alongside females athletes. There is even pressure to buy the line that trans women get periods, and that they need cervical smear tests.
The reason the slur “TERF” has become popular is that it gives misogynists a tool to abuse and punish feminists without the stigma associated with such crude epithets as “bitches.” They can still pretend to be progressive and, as UK-based newspaper columnist and “trans ally” Owen Jones puts it, on the “right side of history.” The term generally is applied only to women, such as me, whose progressive, feminist ideals cannot be explained away as a symptom of right-wing hate or bigotry. It is telling that there is no equivalent popular acronym or neologism to describe actual haters of transsexuals, such as religious fundamentalists and homophobic bigots.
One of the most hideous manifestations of this movement is the popularization of such memes as “Punch TERFs,” which present violence toward women as a cool hipster hobby. And it has led to real misogynistic violence. In 2017, a British trans activist in his 20s violently attacked 60-year-old Maria MacLachlan as she was on her way to a feminist meeting. One of Wolf’s supporters, when asked by MacLachlan if she thought it was okay that that she had been punched and kicked by a man, responded, “It’s not a guy. You’re a piece of shit and I’m happy they hit her.” (Indeed, one of the calling cards of anti-“TERF” extremists is that they seem far more concerned about protecting pronouns than human bodies.) Earlier that year, trans activists stormed the opening of a feminist library in Vancouver, accusing the organizers of being not only “TERFs” but also “SWERFs” (Sex worker exclusionary radical feminists) before destroying books, tearing down posters and throwing wine on the walls. It was with all of this in mind that I had my guard up when I left last week’s Edinburgh University event in the company of Professor Rosa Freedman, a human-rights expert and fellow speaker. That’s when I was lunged at by the hater shouting “you’re a f***** c***, you’re a f****** bitch, a f****** TERF.”
My attacker, “Trans Tattle,” already was infamous for threatening feminists in the past. Yet reporters who cover such issues often tread gingerly in describing trans activists who engage in or encourage attacks against women. Sometimes they even suggest that these people have been provoked into violence. In my case, in fact, much of the coverage focussed on the fact that the day before my speaking event, the school’s entire LGBT+ committee resigned in protest.
“Jonathan MacBride, who was the co-Chair of the university’s LGBT+ staff network until the entire committee’s resignation this week, said the university had not consulted with them before approving the event,” read one report. MacBride also complained that the university failed to “give out any statement of support of its trans staff and students.”
In one particularly absurd salvo, MacBride claimed that “Instead of supporting us, supporting our position, [the university] chose to censor us.” That’s right: He is using the word “censor” to describe the decision to permit women to talk about feminism.
In fact, activists had spent weeks trying to get the event cancelled. “We are members of the University of Edinburgh staff and student community concerned about the rise of transphobia on our campus,” some declared in a petition. “We write this statement to unequivocally condemn transphobia. The recent announcement of a transphobic ‘Women’s Sex-Based Rights’ event hosted by Edinburgh University Moray House on the 5th of June is unacceptable. We are calling for this event to be cancelled immediately.” It is to the university’s credit that they denied this request, and even instructed the staff who were behind the campaign to stop putting out potentially libellous claims about the speakers.
The LGBT+ site, Pink News, which often is so misogynistic in its editorial policies that it’s known as Penis News to many lesbians, ran a report with the headline, “Julie Bindel misgendered a trans woman who she claimed ‘physically attacked’ her.’” The slant on this was so widely mocked—see the comments under this Tweet—that the editors later felt compelled to change it to “Radical feminist Julie Bindel claims physical attack by trans person.”
But it wasn’t enough to marginalize me. Pink News also tried to release the online hounds on a British MP, Diane Abbott, a black woman who has been subjected to all sorts of appalling racist and sexist abuse online. When she heard about the attack on me, Abbott tweeted, “Horrible. Hope you are now OK.” This apparently raised red flags among Pink News editors, who viewed it as evidence of anti-trans heresy. And so the site tweeted out—I am not making this up—”Diane Abbott asked if Julie Bindel was okay.”
Pink News is an extreme example. But even much of the mainstream press and social-media commentary on this issue seemed more focused on avoiding accusations of transphobia than covering an attack against a woman appearing at an event oriented toward protecting women’s rights. (A notable exception was a fair and accurate report in The Scotsman.) A number of Tweeters celebrated me almost getting a good kicking, while, paradoxically, also downplaying the incident because I hadn’t actually been brutalized. The hypocrisy here is rather rich, since anyone who questions trans orthodoxy routinely is accused of causing “literal violence” if they commit any one of a long and growing list of thoughtcrimes, such as misgendering or “deadnaming.” The very people seeking to shut down the Edinburgh University event even accused me of “putting lives at risk” because I make a distinction between trans women and natal women.
A century ago, suffragists were beaten and imprisoned for asserting their rights as women. Their attackers were conservative reactionaries who hated the idea of women being treated as equals. It is shocking to see this same spirit of misogyny re-enter the marketplace of ideas through the back door of faux-progressive trans orthodoxy. Many liberals—including feminists and lesbians—have been cowardly in calling out this noxious phenomenon, for fear of being called transphobes. It is time for all of us to be vocal in the face of this new threat to women.
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