The madness of our gender debate, where feminists defend slapping a 60-year-old woman

It seems swivel-eyed to condemn rhetorical “attacks” and blithely ignore physical ones.

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You would have thought that a feminist getting punched in the face would be reasonably large news – particularly if her attacker had boasted online earlier of wanting to “fuck up” some feminists, comparing them to fascists. But the conviction of the person who attacked 60-year-old Maria MacLachlan at Speakers’ Corner last year didn’t trouble the pages of the Guardian, where I would normally expect to hear about something that veers close to being a hate crime, or the LGBT website Pink News. Why? A clue comes in the fact that MacLachlan was slapped by a 26-year-old transgender woman called Tara Wolf, who explained to the court that MacLachlan was a “TERF” – a term commonly used to stand for “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, ie one who doesn’t believe that trans women are “real” women, but which Wolf defined as a “trans exterminatory radical feminist”.

The implication was that MacLachlan, now 61, wants all transgender people dead – something that seems absolutely barking until you realise this is quite a common accusation in activist spaces. The feminist group Sisters Uncut, which has done great work protesting the closure of domestic violence services, somehow looked at the case and decided that Wolf was the real victim. It used a hashtag – #freetheshewolf – and called for a protest outside Hendon Magistrates’ Court, asking for support for a “trans woman targeted… and harassed by TERFs, transmisogynists and cops”, adding: “Attacks on trans lives will not be tolerated.”

While I have no doubt that Wolf has faced prejudice and bullying due to being trans, it seems swivel-eyed to condemn rhetorical “attacks” and blithely ignore physical ones.

Grooming gangs

Most people have taken one look at the current debate over gender and decided to read about something less inflammatory, like the Israel-Palestine conflict. But we should all be concerned about what’s happening here, because it demonstrates how intensely polarised our media climate has become. Reporting on a single case is now taken as evidence of being “for” or “against” an entire class of people.

It’s the same attitude that hampers coverage of grooming gangs or terror attacks – the initial new report is followed by a moment’s imperceptible pause on both left and right to see if it’s the “right” sort of perpetrator, and whether the story therefore fits their particular narrative.

I find it grimly funny when the likes of Katie Hopkins or Nigel Farage rush to make a point about Islam, before turning Trappist when it turns out a bomber is a right-wing fanatic instead. I probably don’t notice enough when “my” side does it too, highlighting only the cases that best advance its own agenda. And if I’m honest, when I see that a newly convicted child rapist is white, I feel relief – because then we might have a discussion about male violence, not get stuck on “communities” or religion. Many so-called progressives were dismissive of MacLachlan’s account of the incident (which was also witnessed by Janice Turner of the Times) because it was inconvenient to their narrative. She was lucky that video footage existed showing the assault.

High on supply

The Wolf affair also demonstrates another alarming phenomenon: the left getting high on its own supply of self-righteousness. “Some feminists have a different conception of gender to me” gets smudged into “some feminists talk about me in ways that I find offensive” and on to “some feminists are basically Hitler, trying to eradicate people like me”.

Once you reach the last statement, then of course you can slap a woman and still think of yourself as a good person. She wants to kill you; a mere punch is self-defence. (I’m not exaggerating about the language. The Edinburgh branch of Action for Trans Health tweeted the day after the attack: “Punching TERFs is the same as punching Nazis. Fascism must be smashed with the greatest violence to ensure our collective liberation from it.”) Luckily, sanity prevailed in some corners: immediately after the attack, the trans activist Shon Faye tweeted: “Whether this is true or not – physical violence against women (cis or trans) even by women (cis or trans) is unacceptable.” What’s astonishing is that anyone following the debate would know this was a brave thing for her to say.

Goodies and baddies

As for the lack of reporting, there’s a simple reason. The LGBT press sees its role as a cheerleader rather than an interrogator, particularly in the age of social media, where feel-good stories travel at the speed of a Facebook share. The liberal media, too, wants every narrative to have clearly defined “sides”, and adjudicating between the right of trans people to protest speech they find offensive and the right of women to live their lives free from the threat of violence is, clearly, deemed to be too difficult.

Reporting the assault presumably feels too much like casting your lot in with American social conservatives, who have filled the space vacated by hysteria over gay men with hysteria over trans women. But is it really so hard to say that trans people deserve the right to live free from discrimination and abuse, but not the right to punch women with whom they disagree?

TERF troubles

What led to the attack in the first place? A group of women had gathered to discuss proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act, which will allow everyone to “self-define” their gender, rather than going through a drawn-out process requiring a medical diagnosis. Many of the feminists opposing the reform regard me as a rank collaborator, because I agree that it is possible for men to become women and vice versa. Mysteriously, that doesn’t stop the other side calling me a TERF. All this proves is that the word is meaningless, even before the likes of Tara Wolf casually redefine it to suggest that feminists want to exterminate them. 

Editor's note, 20 April: The piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Pink News covered the original incident, but not the conviction of Tara Wolf. 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge