Sorry, Newsnight. When your researcher rang up yesterday and said, “We’re planning a debate on whether it makes sense to talk about ‘brain sex’ regarding the Kellie Maloney news, would you like to come on?” it was wrong of me to say childcare commitments were stopping me. I mean, finding someone to look after my children at short notice on a weekday evening is a pain, but I’ll never know if it would have been possible because I didn’t try, and I didn’t try because just the idea of going on national TV and discussing gender in any kind of critical regard made my soul shrivel like a salted snail.
What I should have done was send the Newsnight researcher a link to this post I wrote in March for the New Statesman, describing the way no-platform tactics have been turned on gender-critical feminists by trans activists in order to stall the discussion of issues not related to trans rights, including male violence against women. Or I could have linked to this post on my own blog from last month, describing how in a very petty, one-click way, I was no-platformed by a self-styled trans ally who used the charge of TERF to get something I said about (yes) male violence against women un-retweeted.
On the other hand, I know the researcher spoke to a lot of radical feminists yesterday, and none of us were willing to go on the show. Several explained precisely why they would not be able to contribute, detailing the death threats, intrusions into their private lives and general hostility that they knew would result from publicly taking on any of the shibboleths about “brain sex” or “always being a woman” that have become established in mainstream trans activism. So the miasma of unpleasantness that attends this issue was probably obvious. (As an illustration: when I wrote the NS piece on no-platforming, I fully expected the most vicious part of the response to be around a pro-Israel pundit I mentioned. It was not. The backlash from trans activists and allies was forceful enough to make any controversy regarding Gaza imperceptible. That, I think, is fairly impressive.)
Finally, though, Newsnight tracked down someone willing to speak from a gender critical perspective. That person is Miranda Yardley, and she is a trans woman; also booked were Paris Lees (a trans woman) and Fred McConnell (a trans man), which means that potentially, there could have been three trans people, all on Newsnight, all discussing what being trans means to them. That – as QueenThingy points out – could have been a tremendous win for trans visibility. Could have been, because it didn’t happen. First the word got out, then the pressure went up: Newsnight was accused of being a “hotbed of TERFery” and of “debating trans people’s right to exist”. Lees dropped out, then McConnell did too. “Guyz I think we just made a false @BBCNewsnight debate about trans people’s existence not happen. A hit, a very palpable hit,” tweeted McConnell (quoting a double-speaking nobleman conspiring to murder the prince in Hamlet, which probably doesn’t mean anything I’m sure).
The debate had been no-platformed out of existence. Now, you might agree with the decision Lees and McConnell made to pull out of the discussion – although if you do, I recommend reading what Yardley was actually planning to say. (Spoiler! She does not dispute trans people’s right to exist or express themselves. In fact, though I hesitate to speak for her, as a trans woman I imagine she’s very much in favour of her own existence.) I, however, think the collapse of this discussion was disastrous. Questions such as “is gender an identity or a class system?” or “are you a woman because you feel like one or because society recognises you as one?” and even “what does it mean to ‘feel like a woman’ anyway and why does it matter?” are all very much alive, and of very great importance not just to trans politics but to feminism – and indeed to anyone interested in what gender is and how it relates to sexual equality.
If such questions can’t be debated, the politics of gender will become a collection of deathly platitudes, flat chalkmarks on the ground outlining where the corpses of ideas were left. In fact, if you want to see what writing about gender with nothing but dead thoughts looks like, why not try Paris Lees’ Independent article on Maloney, in which she declares all discussion about whether Kellie Maloney was or wasn’t a woman while living as Frank (and thriving in the notably not-that-woman-friendly business of boxing) off-limits, because gender is “a profound conviction that defies explanation”. Oh OK then. If you say it defies explanation, I suppose we shouldn’t even try. It all makes me wonder: if some people are so anxious to shut down the discussion of what gender is, what exactly is it they’re afraid to hear?