Kellie Maloney being interviewed on ITV's Good Morning Britain, 13 August
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Kellie Maloney, Newsnight and the debate the transgender community refused to have

On 11 August, I was asked to appear on the BBC’s Newsnight with two other transgender journalists. Hours later, they pulled out - amid a welter of accusations that I was a "violent transphobe" who does not believe in trans people's "right to exist". As a trans woman myself, is what I have to say really so unsayable?

On Monday 11 August, I was asked to appear on the BBC’s Newsnight with two other trans activists and journalists, Paris Lees and Fred McConnell. In light of Frank Maloney’s announcement that she is well into the process of gender transition and is now known as Kellie Maloney, we were going to discuss what it means for someone to "identify as a woman".

A researcher from the BBC approached a number of feminists, including the journalist Julie Bindel and the broadcaster Gia Milinovich, asking them to participate. Both declined because, in Milinovich’s own words, “anything even slightly ‘gender critical’ or with a feminist analysis will [be] met with death threats . . . that’s the real story.” The researcher then asked for suggestions, adding: "Should say we're not looking for hostilities."

I put myself forward and I was invited to debate on "What are the issues that you have with someone identifying as a woman?" from the point of view of a trans woman who supports a gender critical approach informed by feminism.

The gender critical approach establishes that "being a woman" is not a matter of an individual’s identity. Someone who is gender critical recognises that trans women are biologically male (and trans men are biologically female), that human beings are sexually dimorphic, that we are all subject to sex-based socialisation from birth. These are not value judgements; being biologically male is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is morally neutral.

This feminist approach views gender essentialism as the basis of women’s oppression, which as an extreme example would include violence (by men) against women. This is not to say that all men are violent, rather that male socialisation has violent aspects (like female socialisation has aspects that are, to quote a phrase, "sugar and spice and all things nice"). I therefore view gender as a harmful social construct which divides power unequally. I think of it as a hierarchy, with the sex-class "male" at the top.

The gender critical approach is by no means a generally accepted analysis among other trans people. For example, Paris Lees argued last week in The Independent that "Kellie Maloney has always been female", which is clearly at odds with gender critical feminist analysis and my own position as a gender critical trans woman. On the basis that being trans is defined using terms such as "gender identity disorder" and "gender dysphoria", I am probably beginning to sound like a turkey who is in favour of Christmas!

Back to the story. At around 6.45pm on the day, I was advised that I would be debating these ideas with Paris Lees. (I presume Paris received a similar email.) As the evening progressed, a section of the trans community had taken to Twitter to protest my presence in this debate, describing me as “a self-hating transphobic trans woman” and a “bigot”. These accusations were also directed at members of the show’s production team, and had reached Paris and Fred. One activist had called producer Toby Bakare a "piece of scum" for inviting Milinovich to discuss gender on the show.

I offered to make my own way to the studio to join the debate, however the BBC insisted on sending a car for me and this arrived around 8.30pm. At 8:48pm, Paris tweeted that she was “not prepared to enter into a fabricated debate about trans people’s right to exist/express themselves.” I arrived at the studio around 10pm. I was taken to make-up and then asked to wait in the Green Room. At 10:09pm Fred tweeted that “thanks to this awesome trans community” he had avoided a “TERF-filled trap” ("TERF" stands for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist"). At around 10:20pm I was informed that because both Fred and Paris had withdrawn from the debate, it was cancelled. I was advised that there had been "misinformation" spread about what the debate was to be centered on.

So, what was it that had led to the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs programme dropping a section on what it means to be trans and trans identity itself? An exchange on twitter had journalist Jennie Kermode stating that she was “Shocked that #Newsnight has decided to debate whether or not trans people have a right to exist. How would that go down about another group?” 

This was never on the agenda (why would I engage in a metaphysical discussion of my own existence? Trans people do exist!) and the show’s editor Ian Katz responded that the show “was never debating whether trans people have right to exist . . . that's a ludicrous misrepresentation”’ and “it was an item considering the impact of Kellie Maloney announcement on attitudes to trans people, and trans identity.”

He added: “we invitd several trans guests. Unfortunately there ws concerted - and intolerant - effort to close dwn discussion”. The reaction to his tweet included suggestions I was a "random transphobe", "openly transphobic", a "violent transphobe". "Why give bigotry a voice?" one tweeter asked Katz. The same person compared me to homophobic American preacher Fred Phelps, and said: "so ask trans people, we actually fucking exist, we're not a figment of the imagination. Fucking lazy effort." Another said: "Perhaps you should check what the law is on transphobia and what your invited guests espouse?"

I think at this point it is worth giving a little bit more information on my background. As I’ve already explained, I am a trans woman. I publish a small music magazine called Terrorizer which covers extreme music, much of which may be described as extreme heavy metal. I am very active within that world and I am known as being a trans woman who gets along in a world that’s very male dominated, not that I would ever deny the male privilege that got me here. The metal scene, like many music scenes, has problems with homophobia, indeed we have just published a significant piece attacking homophobia in the metal scene

Most of that previous weekend, I had spent at the Bloodstock Open Air festival in Derby, where I’d stood in the middle of a cold, wet and windy field telling people all about my magazine. Obviously, when I am doing this, I am conscious that I am standing in front of up to 10,000 people as an openly trans woman. This is hardly erasing of trans identities, in fact it demonstrates that someone who is trans can do things that are affirming and I would suggest that my actions as a trans woman in this world have a positive effect on the image of trans people in wider society.

I suggest that the claims of "transphobia" and "erasure" are red herrings, used to conceal the fact that there is a difference of opinion between me and the people involved in the Twitter barrage (apparently as well as Paris and Fred). I therefore suspect the real reason to avoid this debate is that Kellie’s transition rasies a number of difficult questions, and confronting these is something the trans community struggles to do, not least because they are at the very heart of what it means to be trans.

Kellie Maloney has spoken of “being born in the wrong body”, “having a female brain” and that she has “always known I was a woman”. But what do these statements mean? Do women and men have different brains? (The science would suggest not.) What does it actually mean to be a woman? Can someone who has lived 60 years as a boy and then a man, with all the privileges that entails, really lay claim to womanhood, and then demand unrestricted access to women’s spaces like changing rooms and refuges - spaces that exist for the dignity, comfort and protection of women?

These questions divide trans activists and radical feminists. What are the implications for women of positing the existence of a "female brain" in a society where to be female is to be considered inferior? Should someone be accepted as a woman just because they say they are? Do the rights of a trans woman who has lived as a man for 60 years to not feel intimidated by having to use male facilities trump the rights of women to have a safe space where they do not need to be concerned about voyeurism or sexual violence?

Neither of these are settled arguments. This is not black and white. There is room for nuance and debate. But unless we are able to discuss these issues, our politics will become a dead dogma and never evolve. This is the antithesis of what it means to be progressive and so we find trans women working against women, instead of working together.

This was a great opportunity to show the world that there is intelligent debate to be had around trans issues, and communicate some of the complex ideas and issues at the heart of both feminism and the trans community to a wider audience. It was a chance for three trans individuals to take part in a high-profile televised debate. It saddens me that we were unable to have this discussion: it sends out the message that the broader trans community is so insecure in itself that we are unable to analyse ourselves and ask difficult questions.

As a final irony, after the Newsnight segment was ditched, both Paris Lees and I were asked to write about the experience for the Independent. I filed my copy around midday on Thursday 14 August, but was told the following day that Paris had, again, pulled out. What you are reading now is an expanded version of what I wanted to say then. Is it really so unsayable?

Miranda Yardley is the publisher of extreme music magazine Terrorizer and a trans woman. She tweets @TerrorizerMir

Miranda Yardley is the publisher of extreme music magazine Terrorizer and a trans woman. She tweets @TerrorizerMir.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.