Kellie Maloney being interviewed on ITV's Good Morning Britain, 13 August
Show Hide image

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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war