Tatchell on trans rights and free speech

(© Getty)

This blog has not, until now, touched upon the issue of trans rights. In part that’s because, like many others on the left, we find it a “difficult” issue involving questions of a scientific, psychological and philosophical nature that we do not feel qualified to pronounce upon with any authority. Also, because trans rights campaigners on one side and “gender-critical” feminists on the other, clearly feel very strongly about the issues, often to the point at which rational discussion becomes impossible. Clearly, trans people must be treated with respect and their very real concerns about abuse (verbal and physical) and discrimination, taken seriously. But does that mean that feminists who have concerns about women-only spaces and similar matters, should all be dismissed as bigots who are not worth even debating with? The case of Kathleen Stock, Philosophy professor at Sussex University, has brought these issues to the fore and made them impossible for us to ignore any longer (Coatesy has dealt with this case in some detail and in an even-handed manner here, here and here). Even if you find Stock’s views repugnant, it is surely unacceptable that students and others are calling for her dismissal. Peter Tatchell, a pioneer champion of trans rights, but also a principled defender of free speech, discussed many of these issues back in 2015 when he came under vicious attack for defending the right of feminists “critical of aspects of the trans agenda” (as he put it) to be heard. Tatchell’s statement doesn’t answer all the questions, but it seems to us to be a good starting point.

Protest against anti-trans feminists but defend their right to speak

By Peter Tatchell, 17 February 2015

Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong

Transgender issues have become the latest free speech battleground. A letter to last Sunday’s Observer expressed alarm at attempts by some trans activists to ban their feminist critics from speaking at universities and other institutions. It was signed by over 100 left, feminist and human rights activists, including myself.

The letter cited attempts to ban Germaine Greer, Kate Smurthwaite and Julie Bindel. It noted:

“No-platforming used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat….You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic.”

I disagree with the trans and sex work stance of some feminists. I did not draft the letter and would have worded it differently, with a robust defence of the human rights of trans people and sex workers. However, despite the letter’s imperfections, I concluded that the defence of free speech outweighed my reservations. I signed the letter, somewhat reluctantly.

I accept that some trans people, having suffered a lifetime of victimisation compounded by the negative views of several leading feminists, were upset by the letter. But it was never my intention (or that of other signatories, as far as I know) to offend trans people or cause them distress. I am sorry if this is the way some of them feel about the letter and my name on it.

For me, free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. It should be defended without exception, unless it involves threats, harassment or incitements to violence.

The most effective way to defeat bigoted ideas is not by proscription but by challenging and exposing them – and by presenting better, non-bigoted ideas. That’s why I’ve often accepted invitations to debate homophobes, misogynists, transphobes and anti-Muslim zealots. The feedback I’ve received nearly always suggests that they’ve come out of such debates damaged and discredited.

This was the case when I did a BBC Radio 4 debate on trans issues against Julie Bindel many years ago. Trans activists say she’s transphobic and should not be given a platform. As a result, she’s been banned from speaking at some universities, even on non-trans issues (the latter exclusion seems particularly excessive). But far from gaining from the platform she was given, Bindel emerged from the BBC debate with much of the audience rejecting her point of view. This experience confirmed to me that exposing transphobes in debates is more effective than no-platforming them, as well as being more democratic.

The appeal for open debate, rather than censorship, was the gist of the Observer letter. It seemed a reasonable point to make: that a minority of trans activists are using the same no-platform tactics against trans critics that were once used to silence trans people. Double standards?

In their defence, trans campaigners say that free speech does not oblige anyone to give anti-trans feminists speaking engagements or media time. Quite true. Not being invited to speak is not necessarily the same as being banned. Our letter was not demanding that every institution must give a platform to feminists critical of aspects of the trans agenda. It was focussed on instances where there were attempts to get a person blocked or disinvited.

When I signed, I had no inkling of the gigantic hostile twitter-storm that would break within an hour of publication last Saturday morning and continue non-stop for three days.

Although used to being assailed and vilified, I was stunned by the vicious and often untrue nature of the twitter attacks – and by the sheer volume. A colleague estimates that I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments from Saturday to Monday. They ran from 8am to midnight, continuous and relentless. At peak times, there were 30-40 comments a minute.

Some were fine: critical but polite and fair. Many were hateful and abusive: homo, foreigner, misogynist, paedophile, nutter and so on. Others were threatening: “I would like to tweet about your murder you f*cking parasite.”

Most tweets completely misrepresented what the letter said and my personal record of support for trans people for over four decades. It is one of the largest and most vituperative onslaughts in my 48 years of human rights activism.

It prompted me to tweet: “Today’s #trans twitter storm about a letter has provoked more responses than any of my tweets about the MURDER of trans people. Priorities?” This just provoked more hostility. Some riposted: We never asked you to tweet about trans murders (as if I am only permitted to tweet when they ask me to). And: We are tweeting about these killings and don’t need your help.

Oh dear. Why reject and alienate allies? Surely a tiny minority like trans people need non-trans supporters to win the rights they seek?

I couldn’t win whatever I said. If I did not support trans issues I would be accused of prejudice and neglect. When I did support them, I was condemned for uninvited interventions and disempowering trans campaigners.

My solidarity with trans people began in the early 1970s when most people ignored or opposed trans rights. On the weekend, some critics told me that my backing for the trans community is condescending, fake, patronising and not wanted; that I am attempting to dictate, hijack and dominate the trans agenda.

These naysayers claim to represent the trans community but I doubt they do. I suspect they are a small vociferous minority of trans people and non-trans allies.

Gratifyingly, I have received messages of support and commiserations from some trans activists. They understood that the Observer letter was about free speech, not an assault on trans rights and campaigners.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of people who accused me of “attacking” the trans community; claiming that I “advocate for our oppressors’ voices over our own.” That’s nonsense. The letter did not defend the views of anti-trans feminists. It contained no attacks on trans people or trans equality.

Some critics said that by signing the letter I have sided with anti-trans bigots and am complicit with “opinions (that) lead to (trans) people getting killed.” The suggestion that our calm, temperate letter will provoke anti-trans hate and violence is absurd.

I have not endorsed any anti-trans opinions. I simply defended free speech for feminists who I disagree with, which is what genuine freedom of expression is all about.

Others condemn me for “knowingly” co-signing with “notorious transphobes.” Not true. When I was asked to sign up, I was not aware of who else would add their names. Yet I am now being condemned via the McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.

Regrettably, a crucial sentence in the letter was cut, for space reasons, without my knowledge or agreement. It read: “Some of us have disagreements with the views expressed” (by feminist critics of trans people). I was not happy about that cut because the deleted words made it very clear that some of the signatories are strong trans allies and advocates.

Another rebuke was that the letter was an attempt to “silence” trans people. This is pure fabrication. The letter opposed attempts to silence feminist critics of trans people, not the other was around.

Trans activist and former Cambridge City councillor Sarah Brown was one of many people who alleged that the letter writers wanted to stop protests against “trans oppressors.” She tweeted: “You signed a letter castigating members of discriminated against minorities for exercising their right to protest.” No Sarah. The letter was not against protests. It was against bans and censorship. I’ve supported pickets against transphobes, including against anti-trans feminists.

Another criticism was that I am a privileged, white, non-trans man and therefore have no right to an opinion. As I replied: “I am the son of a factory worker. I left school at 16 to help support my family. Some privilege!” This just provoked further abuse and ridicule.

A few people accused me of hypocrisy because I have supported the banning of extremist clerics and ‘murder music’ reggae singers. But this was not because they were merely homophobic. It was because they advocated the killing of gay people; thereby crossing the red line of incitement to violence.

Despite being burned by zealots in the twittersphere, nothing has changed. I always have and always will support free speech and the human rights of trans people and sex workers.

4 thoughts on “Tatchell on trans rights and free speech

  1. I agree whole heartedly with your own opening paragraph and in general with Peter Tatchell’s arguments (I speak as someone who dared to come in and canvass for him in the Bermondsey by-election of a seeming millenia ago). And whilst I can point to the ‘usual suspects’ from the right and the red / diaspora (Toby Jones, Paul Embery et al) there are plenty of people supporting Kathleen Stock (like Bea Campbell and Joan Smith) who I have met, known and respect. A letter to The Times today, whilst obviously influenced by the LGB alliance and critiucal of the UCU stance, has some of the former, there are also many who clearly are of the latter camp.

    Here is the roll call: Julie Bindel, journalist and author; Lucy Masoud, Barrister and trade unionist; Jean Hatchet, feminist activist; Dr Shonagh Dillon; Dame Jenni Murray; Rosie Duffield, MP; Joanna Cherry, QC, MP; Joan Smith, author and Journalist; James Dreyfus, actor; Julia Hartley-Brewer, talkRADIO presenter; David Bridle, founder, Lesbian and Gay News; Karen Ingala Smith; Paul Embery, trade unionist and writer; Belinda de Lucy, former MEP for South East; Cllr Nina Killen, Sefton MBC; Beatrix Campbell, author; Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, chairwoman, Parliamentary Campaign Group childrenandwomenfirst.org; Dr Emma Hilton, research biologist and member of UCU, University of Manchester; Catherine Costello, associate lecturer, Open University; Stephanie Davies-Arai, founder and director, Transgender Trend; Dr Jane Clare Jones, DIrector, Centre of Feminist Thought; Kristina Harrison, trans political campaigner; Nicole Jones, MA student at University of Edinburgh; Prof James Treadwell, Professor of Criminology, Staffordshire University; Professor Michelle Moore, Head of Centre for Social Justice and Global Responsibility London South Bank University and UCU member; Judith Rowbotham, Visiting Professor, University of Plymouth, member of UCU; Neil Oliver, broadcaster and author; Jae D Quinn, MSW, MPH and transexual man; Bev Jackson, former lecturer and trade unionist; Ruth Serwotka, co-founder WPUK, member of Unite; Dennis Kavanagh, non-practising barrister and legal commentator at Lesbian and Gay News; Susie Hawkes, principal lecturer, University of Wolverhampton and member of UCU; Helen Saxby, writer and women’s rights campaigner; Jess De Wahls, artist; Allison Bailey, barrister; Dr Peter Williams, Tyndale House, Cambridge; Sian Griffiths, retired fire officer and FBU member; Helen Steel, former union shop steward and McLibel defendant; Dr Eleanor Scott, retired academic, Universities of Newcastle, Leicester, Reading, Winchester and the Open University; Dr Natalya Vince, Reader in North African and French Studies, University of Portsmouth, member of UCU; Ruth Tweedale, Senior Lecturer, University of Greenwich; Dr Kerry Ashton Shaw, Consultant Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist; Prof Jo Phoenix, Chair in Criminology and Cofounder of The Gender Critical Research Network, The Open University; Laura Briggs, Lancashire teacher and member of NEU; Pilgrim Tucker, PhD researcher, Open University; Kevin Ovenden, Labour movement journalist; Cllr Sue Lent (Cardiff); Sall Grover, founder & CEO of Giggle, The Female App; Rachel Horman-Brown, Solicitor; Kate Harris, Trustee LGB Alliance; Rhona Hotchkiss, Management Team LGB Alliance; Malcom Clark, Trustee LGB Alliance; Conrad Roeber, Trustee LGB Alliance; Dermot Kehoe, Trustee LGB Alliance; Eileen Gallagher, Chair of Trustees LGB Alliance; Alice Bondi, Retired psychotherapist and LGB Alliance; Dr Hannah Quirk, Reader in Criminal Law; Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law, King’s College London; Rebecca Durand, ESOL Lecturer, New City College, UCU member; Anna Melamed, UCU and RCM member. Midwife and Master’s student; Iseult White, Psychotherapist and author; Lisa Mackenzie, independent researcher; Ruth Swirsky, former lecturer at University of Westminster; Irena Fick, York University, the Institute of Education member of the National Education Union; Fionne Orlander, Campaigner; Cathy Devine, Independent Researcher and member of UCU, former Senior Lecturer, University of Cumbria; Dr Lesley Semmens, Senior Lecturer (retired), Leeds Beckett University, Honorary Life Member of NATFHE (predecessor union to UCU); Dave Ward, Councillor; Laura Marcus, Journalist; Lucy Porteous, Teaching Fellow at the University of Portsmouth; M L Quinn, Unison; Dr Helen Rogers, Research Fellow, Liverpool John Moore’s University, ex-member UCU; Fiona Macdonald, Trade Union Activist; Jane Harris, Writer; Ian Acheson, Visiting Professor University of Staffordshire; Claire Heuchan, Author; Andrea Shemwell, University administrator & ex-Labour Party member


  2. I agree with most of what is stated on the question of democratic and academic freedoms and to a degree on the question of ‘freedom of speech.’ However, the main failing of many on the left who are uneasy about boycotts and censoring is that they simply do not grasp the deeper dimensions of language as ‘speech’. There are and alway have been, laws and sanctions against all kinds of speech acts. If a person says ‘give me your money or I will smash your face in’; does this person have a defence on the basis that they were only enacting their right to free speech or were ‘only joking’? A UKIP candidate recently stood on the platform of ‘free speech’ based on the claim that he had the ‘right’ to make rape jokes, especially to women and children. Furedi and his ilk at Spiked simply do not grasp the deeper questions of language. Language as the medium of social interaction, can intimidate, threaten, condemn, enforce fear and so on. To simply say that all that can be left unchallenged and open, under the childish phrase ‘freedom of speech’ is just shallow. Also, it maybe that sundry leftist libertarian types feel that they have the ‘right’ have to babble childish insults and ‘scandalous’ opinions and that no one has the ‘right’ to censure them and that is true, but they do not have the ‘right’ to make others listen to their babble; if people don’t want to have to intake their babble that is their right too. In other words, libertarian types think that they have the ‘right’ to force people to hear and listen to them; they don’t. If one does not wish to listen to gibberish one cannot be forced to do so. One does this by silencing the gibberish for oneself. I recall one of these ‘left’ libertarian types, an RCP member actually, stating at the Miner’s Welfare that that all ‘censorship was wrong’, ‘the liberal notions of offence were childish and cowardly’ and that people should be ‘free to say what they want.’ One of the young miners told him to ‘shut up’ or he would ‘glass him’. He ran away; apparently some kinds of ‘free speech’ truly are ‘offensive’ after all.

    Liked by 1 person

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