Today, gender ideology — the belief that who a person feels they are is more important than the material reality of their body — is firmly in the ascendent. Activists like to claim that the only people who have a problem with this are “Right-wing bigots”, because it keeps things simple to suggest that this is a good (gender ideology) versus bad (Right-wing bigots) issue.
Yet I know a lot of non-Right-wing, non-bigots who are extremely angry at how things have shifted. My friendship group consists mainly of thirty-something to fifty-something progressive women, all, like me, lifelong Labour, or Liberal Democrat, or Green voters, all teachers, or civil servants, or writers, or lawyers.
You can — and many do — dismiss these angry women as irrelevant middle-aged mums, or just a bunch of Karens, but they do not fit into the “Right-wing bigot” pigeonhole, however much gender ideologues try to squash them in. As a result, many on the Left would prefer that this debate about gender, with older feminists on one side and gender ideologues on the other, was not happening at all, because it doesn’t fit into the good versus bad dichotomy with which the Left frames the world.
Many transgender people have said how much they have hated being the subjects of political and online debate over the past five or so years, and who can blame them? Yet this issue is not just about them. Debates about gender rights are also debates about women’s rights, because activists are asking, essentially, for the abolition of women’s sex-based rights. This made and makes no sense to me, not because I think that trans women are terrible people, but because women’s sex-based rights exist for a reason.
For the first time in my 20-plus years of being a liberal journalist, I felt completely isolated. I knew I could make my life easier if I just reverted to being the good girl and shut up. “Be kind,” women were told by gender ideologues: be good girls, don’t ask questions, just nod and say what we tell you to say. You don’t want to be mean, do you? But how can you be a writer and not write your doubts about something so important? How can you be a journalist and not ask questions? Occasionally a professional peer would send a text saying that they agreed with me, but they couldn’t say so publicly because their editor wouldn’t like it, or their teenage kids would shout at them, or it was just too stressful.
Trying to convince myself that I was wrong and the gender ideologues were right was like trying to convince myself that one plus one equals a unicorn. How can you shut your eyes to your own experience and say something that makes no sense? Apparently some people can, but I could not.
It was astonishing to me how quickly universities, publishing houses, NHS services, political parties, newspapers and TV networks capitulated to the gender ideologues, who were often not even trans themselves. Mainstream newspapers were suddenly using ideological terms like “cis”, a term which endorses the highly dubious belief that we all have an innate gender identity, and “top surgery”, a tidy euphemism for an elective double mastectomy. NHS services would talk about “cervix havers”, “chest feeding” and “pregnant people” (although prostate-havers were, notably, still men). ITV made a much-publicised drama, Butterfly, about a little boy who decides he’s a girl because he likes to wear make-up and jewellery, because clearly a boy playing with make up needs some kind of medical intervention — and what else is a girl but jewellery and lipstick?
I have seen some people refer to gender-critical feminists as bullies, but I have never seen a gender-critical feminist call for writers to be no-platformed, words to be banned, books to be pulped, or articles to be deleted from the web. Gender activists do all of that as a matter of routine.The double standards are ludicrous: you can now say any old garbage about women, but anything that even questions gender ideology will be anxiously second-guessed and overly edited into oblivion, no matter how many facts and even genuine feelings are behind it.
I see Left-wing feminist writers being funnelled towards Right-wing publications, simply because Left-wing ones are too anxious to stay on The Right Side of History to publish them. This makes it easier for the Left-wing bullies to discredit them, but it does not make what they’re saying any less true.
I have learned that there is something worse than people telling me I’m a bad person, and that is allowing bullies to reframe the world, to dictate what we can all think and to define my reality. They might have triumphed over some institutions, but they haven’t triumphed over me. It turns out life is much better when you’re no longer the good girl.