Help me go to court to protect other people who speak up too
I lost my job over tweeting and writing about sex and gender identity, and sharing campaign material about the negative impacts of the proposed policy of ‘gender self-ID’ on women and girls. I am now taking the organisation I worked for to the Employment Tribunal for discriminating against me because of my beliefs.
This will be an important test case in the UK on whether having ‘gender critical’ beliefs is protected under the Equality Act 2010 (in the same way as other religious or philosophical beliefs). I will be represented by solicitors Slater and Gordon and employment barrister Anya Palmer of Old Square Chambers.
If we can establish this point in law it would help people who are currently afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs or being treated differently by their employer. It would also help people facing discrimination outside of work. For example political parties and membership organisations that suspend people for expressing such beliefs, venues that refuse to host public meetings and social media platforms that discriminate against gender critical feminists would need to re-think their policies or they too would face claims for discrimination.
If you think that no one should lose their job for stating a clear opinion on this issue, please visit my Crowd Justice appeal, donate if you can and ask others to.
The Long Story
About me, and how it began
I worked in London at the Centre for Global Development (CGD). It is a think-tank whose researchers work to influence the world’s major governments, international institutions and corporations towards evidence-based policies to enable international development. It is a place of ideas, open debate and robust disagreements. My research focused particularly on scrutinising political wishful thinking on international tax and illicit financial flows. My colleagues were smart, hard-nosed economists committed to improving the world through evidence and analysis. They were not prone to shielding fashionable ideas from analysis. The institution does not take organisational positions and I thought there were no sacred cows.
I found out I was wrong when I started tweeting about the definition of woman and about the UK government’s proposal for ‘gender self-ID’ last summer.
Like most people coming into this debate, I started by viewing the issue as a straightforward matter of compassion, inclusion and social progress. People should be free to live their life without discrimination or harassment. Vulnerable minorities should be protected. I still believe this.
At the same time I have never believed that women are people who share a common innate sense of ‘gender identity’. Women are people born with female bodies. Womanhood does not depend on dressing, acting or thinking in a feminine way.
In 2012 I had co-founded the campaign Let Toys Be Toys which started on the Mumsnet Feminism Forum. We called on toy companies to stop classifying toys, and children, into girls and boys categories that put limits on what children of either sex should be interested in.
We challenged the promotion of old fashioned gender stereotypes — that girls should only be interested in dolls and princesses while adventures and scientific toys are for boys — but we weren’t paying attention to how these stereotypes were being repackaged into the new idea of ‘gender identity’ — that if a girl child doesn’t conform to gender norms she might actually ‘be a boy’ (and vice versa).
I marched in the first women’s march in London the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration and was buoyed by the sea of women from every walk of life demonstrating against misogyny and for women’s autonomy, including by wearing knitted pink hats in response to Trump saying ‘just grab them by the pussy.’ I was surprised to hear later that some people found these displays ‘transphobic’ because they showed women as people having a vulva, uterus and ovaries. This didn’t seem right. I started to pay more attention to the idea of gender identity, and what it requires of us.
The thing that made me really pay attention was the attack on Maria MacLachlan in September 2017. As video footage showed, a women in her 60’s was kicked and punched by a group of what looked like young men in the midst of a small demonstration. This attack was celebrated by ‘trans rights activists’ on social media, and by organisations such as Action for Trans Health, who argued that beating up this woman was a legitimate part of their struggle because she was a ‘TERF’.
After being shocked by this display of male violence against women under the guise of a civil rights campaign I spent almost another year cautiously discussing the issue with friends, and on Mumsnet, reading analysis and listening to arguments by women such as Julie Bindel, Kathleen Stock, Jane Clare Jones, Rosa Freedman, Lily Maynard, Venice Allan, Posie Parker about the impact of transgender ideology on women’s rights, on lesbians, on vulnerable young people being told they are born in the wrong body and on freedom of speech.
I thought they were brave to speak up.
And I thought what does that make me, if I stay silent?
Taking the plunge on Twitter
I finally plucked up the courage to start talking about my thoughts on my personal Twitter account in August 2018. I have a few thousand followers, who tend to be people who use twitter for serious, nerdy, discussions about public policy, tax and economics (and often about injustices and barriers facing women around the world). I wrote:
I remember how nervous I felt pressing ‘post’ on these four dry, careful tweets.
And then nothing happened.
No one agreed with me. No one disagreed. No one attacked me and called me a TERF. No one retweeted and barely anyone ‘liked’. The issue of whether the legal category ‘woman’ should be completely redefined as an identity rather than a biological reality seemed altogether uninteresting to my social media community of argumentative, progressive policy wonks, academics and international development and tax experts.
I thought maybe I had been too conceptual, too high-level, not specific enough about my concerns. So I tried again a few days later. This time I tweeted the shocking news about Karen (Stephen) White, a rapist who was housed in a women’s prison and sexually assaulted female prisoners.
Again I got no response. No one in my twitter network said they shared my anger. Nor did anyone tell me why I might be wrong to be angry. They just seemed to think it was best not to talk about it.
Finally I thought I might raise a discussion if I asked a direct question that people could relate to in their own professional lives. Many men in my field have made a pledge not to be part of male only panels at conferences, and many of the women call out #manels. So I asked:
This question sparked several threads of discussion and I wrote about 150 tweets over the course of a week, in conversations with around a dozen people. I said things like:
- Women are adult human females. It is not about gender identity, or gender expression or medical treatment.
- I don’t know what the ‘feeling of being a woman’ is. If ‘woman’ is defined as someone who has this feeling I don’t fit the criteria!
- I have a definition of woman — adult human female. It does not come with any expectations or requirements for gendered behaviour. It is clear, well understood & critical for women rights including the right to spaces without male bodies. Why ditch this for something undefinable?
- When men wear make-up, heels, dresses they don’t become women. But the norm seems to be that we should pretend they do to avoid hurt feelings.
- Why does it matter? Because women are discriminated against because of their sex. So we need to be able to name that. Because women need reproductive rights. So we need to be able to name that. Because words spell boundaries for privacy & body autonomy. Because risk assessment.
- I honestly don’t see the difference between Rachel Dolezal’s internal feeling that she is black and a man’s internal feeling that he is a woman (ie adult human female). Neither has basis in material reality.
- Yes people should of course be able to define their identity any way they like. But other people are not compelled to accept it as relating to any material reality.
- I am perfectly happy to use preferred pronouns and accept everyone’s humanity and right to free expression. Transwomen are transwomen. That’s great. But enforcing the dogma that transwomen are women is totalitarian.
- If we define recognising that men are men as transphobic then we undermine safety of women & girls. Being honest does not mean we cannot respect & protect trans people.
The tone of these discussions was one of ordinary discussion and disagreement, but not long after I received an email from HR saying that some staff at CGD, which is based in Washington DC as well as London, had expressed concern. I was told to put a disclaimer into my twitter bio and warned that a lot of people would find my tweets offensive and exclusionary.
I complied with the request to state that my opinions are my own, but said that I stand by my statements, and that, as this is a live policy issue where clarity and debate is needed, I will continue to tweet and write about it.
Despite writing in my own time on my personal Twitter account, over the course of the next few months these tweets, the draft article I was writing and informal conversations I’d had with others were investigated and my future at CGD was thrown into uncertainty. It was eventually found that I had not violated the organisation’s bullying and harassment policy, but nevertheless as a result of expressing my belief, in March this year I was told my appointment as a Visiting Fellow at CGD would not be renewed, even though I was named in a successful funding proposal for a two-year research project, building on the work I had been developing over the previous two and a half years working as part of the team at CGD.
Not silencing ourselves
The uncomfortable silence that my first tweets provoked and the disproportionate organisational reaction to my later tweets are two sides of the same coin.
People who normally defend the right to talk about anything have got the memo that we must not talk about this.
Allowing any idea or group of people to be beyond robust discussion creates conditions for corruption and abuse, and is dangerous for democracy. People should be able to discuss and scrutinise ideas, especially when they are being translated into law, and into medical procedures and decisions affecting children and vulnerable people.
Men who express themselves with a feminine appearance are vulnerable to violence (mainly from other men) and to discrimination. But there are many groups of vulnerable people, and no one characteristic should overrule others. Women and girls, lesbians, gender non-conforming children and young people are also vulnerable groups who have rights and need protections. Women’s and girls’ sports are important. Our institutions, particularly those concerned with human rights and with safeguarding, must protect all these groups. And the only way to do this is if we can talk clearly and openly.
It is crucial to protect the ability of our organisations to communicate and discuss ideas and evidence. We should not give this away easily, even for well intentioned reasons. Those who lead organisations that seek to advance knowledge (and those who fund them in the quest for an open society and social progress) should always beware of the danger of groupthink, whether through social or political tribalism, comfortable respectability or careerism. A culture where people are able to speak up and ask questions is the most valuable thing an organisation can maintain. Without this, everything else is just feeding the overhead.
The mechanisms of silencing ourselves and others are multifaceted. Women wanting to speak about this issue have been no-platformed, ostracised and dismissed from organisations that would normally hold open the space for debate. Many have been removed from social media. Others stay quiet or anonymous in their concerns for fear of damaging their livelihood and career. Some avoid the topic out of a desire to be kind, or because it is controversial and they fear saying the wrong thing, or opening themselves up to being called ‘transphobic’ or hateful. Men often think it’s not their issue to have a view on. Many on the left fear that expressing concern means allying with the right. The debate on social media is fractious and often nasty. Circular and bickering online discussions fill the space left by the failure of think-tanks, academic institutions, politicians and established human rights and women’s organisations to hold open the space for courteous and clear debate.
And when few of your peers will stand up it makes speaking up harder.
Nevertheless women have spoken up, against these odds. New grassroots organisations such as Woman’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women and Feminist Current have marshalled arguments. Stunts such as those undertaken by Man Friday and Standing for Women drew attention and got people talking. Mumsnet refused to yield to pressure to shut down debate, and its Feminist Board became a space where women could think and talk. Parents, detransitioners and transsexuals spoke up. Male allies such as Graham Linehan lent their voice. Media organisations such as The Economist and The Times stepped up with serious analysis and investigations about how policy makers and public institutions are failing to think through the issues.
All of this has enabled hundreds and now thousands of women to stand up for the view that women exist as a sex, that protection for women’s sex-based rights still matters and that the rapid growth in the number of children and teenagers feeling dissociation from their bodies is a cause for concern. And when your peers stand up it makes speaking up easier.
I spoke up because I believe we all have a responsibility to use our voice in whatever way we can. We all pick our battles, but sometimes they pick us.
I am fighting on because I don’t want my story to be a cautionary tale about the high personal cost to women of having the courage to speak up, but instead to try to make it a win for freedom of thought, belief and expression, and for the heart and soul of the institutions that underpin an open society.
Will you support me to fight for justice, against discrimination and for open debate?