A protest about women-only events: can’t there be safe spaces for women?

A stushie in Edinburgh, with accompanying Twitter storm, has exercised my nearest and dearest.  The Audacious Women Festival, as the name implies, might be assumed to have something to do with women: find their tweets at @awfest.  Some of the events are open to all, and some are single-sex events intended for women.  But the idea of a single-sex event has exercised a particular lobby, claiming to represent trans and non-binary people, who have called for a boycott.  Yesterday, Glasgow Women’s Library (@womenslibrary) pulled out of two single-sex workshops they were due to conduct, leaving sixty people without an event at 30 minutes’ notice. Edinburgh Rape Crisis (@EdinRapeCrisis) has pulled a book launch planned for Monday.  Reactions on Twitter have been mixed; it seems to me that more people have condemned the organisations than have supported them.

The offence that the Festival has caused is that the organisers have stuck to the policy on gender recognition advised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: more or less, that they treat people as women when they present as women (the statement has been misread by the Twitterati who don’t understand the purpose of the word ‘or’ in a sentence).   The call for a boycott was circulated by @ClassicsQueer, who holds that that policy excludes “our trans and nb sisters”. [“NB”, for those lost in acronyms, stands for non-binary.]   She attached a document saying this:

I would urge you particularly if you are a cis woman to boycott … A few weeks ago I reached out to them as I was concerned by the ‘women only’ rhetoric and was disappointed to find their response laden with transphobia.  I was told that the events were for people who are ‘publicly accepted as women’ and that they urge me and my friends to consider if other audience members will feel ‘comfortable with your personal identity’ before attending any events.”

Sisters Uncut Edin (I think the word ‘uncut’ is meant to be taken literally)  posted:  “We stand in solidarity with the trans, nb, gender non-conforming and cis allies who have called for a boycott of the festival.”  (Cis, for practical purposes, refers people who still have the gender assigned to them at birth.)  So, on the face of the matter, it’s not good enough to accept trans women as women, which is what the Festival does; there also has to be space for non-conforming, non-binary, non-females, or it becomes the act of a “#terf” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).

The first question to consider is whether it is legitimate to ask for distinct spaces for people of different genders.  The need for women-only spaces is recognised in equality law.  As a man, I accept that women need safe spaces; for example, as a social work supervisor with a student working in Women’s Aid, I wasn’t permitted to set foot on the premises.  Women’s discussion groups have long established the principle that the presence of men changes the dynamics of group conversation. Men, and people raised as men, are socialised to engage in discussion in different ways (and often try to dominate).  The rationale for making a distinction in supportive groups is that people from different genders have different life experiences, and behave differently as a result.  Trans, non-binary and non-conforming people have different experiences again – and have just as good a case for a distinct safe space in their own right; but that experience will not be reflected either in a men’s group or a women’s group.

The second question concerns the criteria used for inclusion and exclusion.  It seems to me that if trans, non-binary and non-conforming can be treated as a unifying category (and that, rather than trans inclusion, is the substance of the protest) we are not talking about conventional distinctions between women and men at all.  Some people extend that to include LGBTIQ+ – but that lumps gender together with sexuality, and in any case we are running out of alphabet. The issue is surely, if I can borrow a phrase from Jonathan Sacks, about recognising and valuing “the dignity of difference” – a principle which applies much more widely than the issues of gender.  But you cannot hope to rely on that principle for yourself if you deny it for others; and that, regrettably, is what the critics of the Festival are doing.

The third question concerns the boycott.  I’m baffled that the people demanding to be included can imagine that this is the way to pursue an argument.  Boycotts are exclusive; they stand at the opposite end from tactics of discourse, argument and persuasion. They are beloved by trolls and bullies.  The trans-activists who made this call are behaving like Men.  This is not what feminism looks like.

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