Why Are Some Feminists In The UK Freaking Out About Trans Rights?

The protesters who hijacked and led the London Pride parade over the weekend represent a worrying trend of anti-trans feminism in the UK.

Is there anything that hails the start of Pride more clearly than the roar of engines from the self-proclaimed Dykes on Bikes? There’s the low grumble of hot steel held between the powerful thighs of lesbians and their friends and lovers, who have long been the much-loved unofficial openers — and protectors — of pride marches across North America.

But not so here in London, England, where on Saturday, Pride in London found a very different group usurping its lead: anti-trans protesters.

Around 10 people held up Pride in London, London’s annual pride parade, by standing on the giant rainbow flag that’s traditionally carried at the beginning of the march — before organizers gave in and allowed them to lead the march themselves. Waving signs saying things like “Transactivists Erase Lesbians,” the protesters shouted slogans targeting trans women and highlighting the hashtag “#GetTheLOut of Pride” as they led the parade down its route to Trafalgar Square. One of the protesters shouted, “A man who says he’s a lesbian is a rapist,” according to Gay Star News. The group also distributed leaflets that accused trans activism of “coercing lesbians to have sex with men.” Pride in London staff and volunteers, as well as police officers, appeared to do nothing to intervene — though live video released by Pink News showed Pride in London staff working to prevent journalists from filming the protesters.

@PrideInLondon PS the red lined stuff on the leaflets #GetTheLOut were handing out is lies, and hateful. If accusing an entire minority demographic of being rapists & forcing transition on women isn't the living breathing definition of 'hate speech' WHAT IS. https://t.co/5ok6W3LuLs

Pride in London has come into criticism this year for strictly limiting the number of organizations and their members who could march in the parade, rejecting some 20,000 applicants, according to cofounder Peter Tatchell — which makes the sudden addition of an unregistered hate group and the lack of attempts to remove that group puzzling at best. (Other Prides around the world, including in New York and Los Angeles this year, have been similarly criticized for limiting numbers of participants.) Mayor of London Sadiq Khan had been intended to lead the London parade in celebration of 70 years of the NHS, Britain’s national health care service, but the protesters were moved ahead of him by Pride in London organizers.

Over the weekend, Pride in London released two public statements regarding the incident. The first cited “hot weather” and “safety” as reasons why organizers decided to let the anti-trans protesters lead the parade. Their most recent statement condemned the hate group’s actions as “shocking and disgusting,” but they continued to defend their decision not to remove the unregistered group from the parade. Pride in London’s cochairs have not responded to a request for comment on this story.

This latest stunt at London Pride comes as anti-trans bigotry in the UK has reached a fever pitch. Both left-wing and tabloid media have flooded the country with constant attacks on transgender youth. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed News reported that BBC staffers were sending each other anti-trans messages in private group chats. Other groups of anti-trans feminists have begun a project, called #ManFriday, which involves pretending to be trans in order to ridicule trans rights — seen in a recent incident in which they invaded a men’s pool and were escorted out by police. And yet another hate group, Transgender Trend, has been raising funds to distribute anti-trans propaganda to schools as a neutral-sounding “resource pack,” in a similar style to crisis pregnancy centers duping women seeking abortions. Meanwhile, Britain’s left-leaning Labour party has become embroiled in controversy surrounding their decision to allow trans women on all-women short lists, which are intended to increase the number of women MPs in the United Kingdom.

Anti-trans feminists have been whipped up into a fury by proposed changes to trans rights legislation in Britain.

So why is the UK losing its mind over trans people? Anti-trans feminists, accusing trans women of invading women’s spaces, and anti-trans lesbians, angered at trans women being welcomed into the lesbian community, have been whipped up into a fury by proposed changes to trans rights legislation in Britain.

Last Tuesday, alongside releasing the results of a massive National LGBT Survey, the government opened consultations to reform the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 — the piece of legislation regulating how trans people can legally change our genders. The current legislation requires trans people to jump through numerous hoops to “prove” that we’re “trans enough.” These hoops include getting a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, living two years in our “acquired gender." The legislation also allows for a “spousal veto,” which means that disgruntled or abusive spouses can hold up the process. The law also doesn’t allow for the recognition of nonbinary identities. And finally, all of this evidence must be submitted to a secretive panel of strangers we’re never allowed to meet. The GRA as it currently stands lags behind more progressive legislation in countries like Argentina and Ireland.

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, known as TERFs (though they consider this term a slur), believe that reforming the GRA would allow trans women, whom they characterize as men in disguise, access to women’s bathrooms, women’s refuges (shelters), and other women’s spaces — beliefs explained in the literature handed out by anti-trans protesters at Pride on Saturday.

I hope these amazing women have inspired lesbians everywhere to take similar action at their local #pride to protest #lesbianerasure & the anti-lesbian bigotry being pushed by transactivists. #GetTheLOut https://t.co/QpREOqDlMD

But these rights are already protected under the Equality Act 2010, and the reform of the GRA would have no positive or negative effect on any other piece of existing legislation. Trans people in the UK already regularly use the bathrooms associated with our genders, and trans women already access women’s refuges and many women’s services without incident. What should have been a fairly innocuous update to an overly laborious legal gender-change process has instead, for some feminists, become the frontline for debate over what makes a woman, who gets to define that, and the evolving landscape of queer language and identity.

Let’s not get it twisted: This isn’t a battle between all cis feminists and trans women. It’s a battle between a small but vocal and politically connected group of anti-trans bigots and everyone else. A coalition of Welsh women’s organizations this week released a statement of solidarity and support for trans rights — making this Welsh-Canadian scream “Cymru Am Byth!” a little too loud in the office. Meanwhile, organizers of London’s Butch, Please lesbian dance party released a statement on Facebook and Instagram condemning the anti-trans protesters at Pride in London titled “Not in My Name.” Europe’s largest LGBT campaigning organization, Stonewall, has criticized Pride in London’s actions and statements, with CEO Ruth Hunt writing, “Pride in London had a duty to act and protect trans people ... They didn’t. They had a duty to condemn the hatred directed at trans people. They didn’t.” Even the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, released a strong statement condemning transphobia immediately following the event.

This small group of hateful bigots here in England finds their roots in early 1970s America. Radical lesbian activists at that time merged with the second-wave feminist movement, starting iconic organizations and events that centered the voices of lesbian feminists. But within these groups, divisions quickly broke out over a number of issues, none more controversial than the existence of lesbian trans women and their place in the women’s movement.

In 1973, trans woman Beth Elliott was subjected to both verbal and physical attacks at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in California after a group calling themselves the “Gutter Dykes” demanded that she be fired from her volunteer position editing lesbian group the Daughters of Bilitis’ newsletter Sisters. The entire editorial staff of Sisters walked out in solidarity with Elliott, but not before the Gutter Dykes rushed the stage during Elliott’s scheduled musical performance in an attempt to beat her (two cis lesbian comedians physically intervened to prevent Elliott from being assaulted, themselves sustaining injuries).

Similar controversies raged throughout the decade, leading to Sylvia Rivera’s iconic speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, unearthed and digitized by trans filmmaker Reina Gossett. At the 1973 event, lesbian Jean O’Leary gave an anti-trans speech, causing Rivera to fight her way to the stage and deliver a now-legendary denunciation of anti-trans bigotry within the LGBT community. “I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail, I have lost my job, I have lost my apartment — for gay liberation! And you all treat me this way?” Rivera yelled at the crowd.

The feminist movement’s internal fight over trans women finally culminated in a 1978 campaign against lesbian record label Olivia Records (now Olivia Cruises) for employing trans woman sound engineer Sandy Stone, which led anti-trans author Janice G. Raymond to write a screed against trans people called The Transsexual Empire, which has served in the decades since as a founding text for feminist transphobia.

Pride should be a space to fight for the rights of all LGBT people, and to celebrate our survival and resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming hate.

While anti-trans sentiment from within the lesbian and feminist communities has continued to be a problem in the United States — anti-trans protesters recently crashed Baltimore Pride — it’s reached particular heights in the United Kingdom. Anti-trans sentiment among feminists here in the UK has long been a problem, inflamed by the popularity of affluent white columnists like Julie Bindel and academics such as Germaine Greer, and taken to dizzying extremes by users of popular online parenting forum Mumsnet. While second-wave feminism has largely lost its luster in the United States, prominent second-wave academics like Greer maintain a strong hold over feminist thought and politics here in the UK. Plus, it seems that all sides of UK media are intent on taking a swipe at trans lives — with even progressive publications like the Guardian giving platform to anti-trans fearmongering. And this isn’t the first time anti-trans bigots have derailed a pride celebration in London, either — they previously attacked London’s Dyke March in 2014 for including a transgender speaker.

With the GRA consultation set to continue into the fall, the anti-trans protesters holding up Pride in London are surely only the beginning of a new wave of hostility sweeping across the nation toward vulnerable trans communities. In such a heated climate, one would assume that LGBT organizations like Pride in London would take a firm and unequivocal stance in solidarity with the trans community.

In spite of a total lack of leadership demonstrated by Pride in London, it’s time for the LGBT community to stand up against anti-trans hate, including from within our own communities. Trans people and their allies within the UK can counter these messages of hate by filling out the Gender Recognition Act consultation available on the UK government’s website. And those only just beginning to learn about trans lives can educate themselves with Stonewall UK’s helpful Truth About Trans FAQ.

Pride should be a space to fight for the rights of all LGBT people and to celebrate our survival and resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming hate, the devastation of the ongoing AIDS crisis, and attempts to legislate us out of existence. It should be a place to feel the flutter of our hearts as Dykes on Bikes roar their engines at the start of the parade, while we commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots sparked by trans street queens like Marsha P. Johnson and black butches like Stormé DeLarverie, working together against police brutality. There’s no pride in hate, and no room for hate at Pride. ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer