It is March 2020. For several months now I have been trying to write something — anything — about the so-called “trans debate” in my Guardian column. But if I ever slip a line in about female experience belonging to people with female bodies, and the significance of this, it is always subbed out. It is disappeared. Somehow, this very idea is being blocked, not explicitly, but it certainly isn’t being published. My editors say things like: “It didn’t really add to the argument”, or it is a “distraction” from the argument.
Distraction has always been a triggering word for me. In a good way. My PhD supervisor told me I was “a woman of too many distractions”. This was because I was venturing into journalism, frustrated by the dead language of academia. She also asked me whether having a grant made any difference. It turns out that my distractions were paying the rent, as they have been ever since.
Even though I’d been writing for them for decades, editors consistently try to steer me towards “lifestyle” subjects for my column. One even suggests that I shouldn’t touch politics at all. And yet I won the Orwell Prize for political journalism the year before. This was for articles on Brexit and war remembrance, among other things.
Maybe they were steering me away from certain subjects because they thought they were dealing with some mad old bint, or maybe they were scared and had been indoctrinated into the cult of righteousness that the Guardian embodies. At its best, the paper deserves to see itself as a beacon of the Left, but lately it has been hard to define what the Left consists of beyond smug affirmation. During the Corbyn years the paper had a difficult job to do: support Labour but to be honest about Corbyn and his cronies’ monstrous failings.
Of course, not every editor is nervous; but the anxiety around certain issues remains tangible. It has often been this way and none of this is new to me. Bad columns don’t come from bad opinions, they come from a lack of conviction. Readers know that instinctively, so to steer writers away from what they want to write about is a strange thing for an editor to do.
But, then, journalism has been in a strange place lately, unsure of itself and what it should be doing and giving itself away for free. A case of low self-esteem one might say, but not in my paper which makes journalists redundant even as it pays moderators to delete comments calling me a cunt under one of my columns about Scottish independence. Have I got issues? More than enough to go round.
My relationship with the paper has always been slightly odd, I guess.
Strung out to cry
Now, six months on, I have resigned. And I am still trying to work out why I have been treated so appallingly.
My hurt is obviously minuscule compared to so much of what has happened in the world. It’s a flesh wound and I shouldn’t make a fuss. But, do I look like a doormat with Welcome written on it?
There were no such upset letters organised regarding the various hot Tory takes about difficult subjects that we sometimes publish. Seumas Milne even reprinted a sermon by Osama Bin Laden. What about that? Not a word. So what did I do that was so terrible? I stepped outside the orthodoxy.
Perhaps I need to put my denunciation into a larger context. At the end of the year one reflects, right?
When I was first at the paper, in the 1990s, there were no women on the Comment pages. My column featured in the “Women’s pages”, which was seen as Features. The editor at the time, Peter Preston, took me out for an awkward lunch after I won Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards and said: “It must be nice to be a lady columnist. You can write about painting your toenails.”
I had been meaning to raise the idea of an actual pay rise, but I had no idea how to do it. I don’t understand middle-class people and money (not that Preston was middle class but certainly his environment was totally bourgeois). So when he asked if there was anything he could do to make me happier, I just blurted out: “Give me more money.”
Preston’s power lay in silence. He had, after all, spent time in an iron lung. His ability to not speak was quite something, and I admired his refusal to make others comfortable. In one way. But I may as well have just farted loudly. I had made some awful faux pas: asking to be paid the same as men who were not as good as me. That was the end of the meal.
The thing is, I had found out I was being paid less than half what my male counterparts were earning. So I got an agent. She wore very short skirts and had a way of rattling her BMW keys that seemed to unnerve men. The one and only time Preston ever called me was to frantically beg — no uncomfortable silences — that he would never have to see her again. Result.
Another part of not knowing my place was that I also asked to be moved from the Women’s pages to the Comment pages. They offered a Monday slot which would mean I had to work on Sundays. As the only woman in the section, and single parent to boot, I asked them if they had ever heard of equal opportunities. Again I was not only unclubbable but unspeakable. No movement was possible. Madly, I suggested that Hugo Young be moved. I didn’t even realise he was Jesus in the hierarchy, floating above us all.
Watch Suzanne Moore’s interview with UnHerd’s LockdownTV:
The truth was, and remains that I never fitted in at the Guardian. The personal becomes political at the moment you never feel clean enough. I was always somehow inappropriate. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas said, dirt is “matter out of place”. Matter out of place. I know this feeling. I would describe it as an essential part of my political formation, this knowledge that I could scrub myself raw and it would never be enough.
Back then, I was in the office a bit, but was never given my own desk and grew bored hearing conversations about cricket and having various guys yell the names of Oxbridge colleges that I hadn’t been to at me. Telling them that I had been to a polytechnic was information some of them basically couldn’t compute.
The only people who were nice to me were Will Hutton and Richard Gott, who I was very fond of, although it turned out he had taken “red gold” from the KGB and he had to resign. A shame really, but not unfamiliar to me as I had worked at Marxism Today, which it turns out had similar “funding issues”. Let’s not go there now. I liked Richard because he would tell me fabulous stories about finding Che Guevara’s body one day and the next talk about a great Spanish fashion designer. The politics guys were dull, living on Planet Westminster. Plus ça change.
Listen to Suzanne Moore’s interview with UnHerd’s LockdownTV:
Fickle power-crazed harpie that I was, though, I got poached. I love that word. Off I went to The Independent, enticed by Andrew Marr’s exciting vision of having no news on the front page. Also there was no question that I wouldn’t be on the Comment page. It was great working there, I loved it, though it was all to go tits up.
The relevance of this? This was my original sin. No one leaves The Guardian. I had left the cult.
It was to get worse, as when I left the Independent, I went to The Mail on Sunday. The Indy was collapsing and The Mail on Sunday offered me a bit more money and many more readers. I thought it would be interesting to talk to the people who would decide the future of the country and I was bored with preaching to the converted.
Plus, there was the challenge of doing a tabloid column. This is much harder than long rambling pieces: The Times’s Matthew Parris told me so, bless him. The great and the good told me again that I was making a terrible mistake and I would lose my voice. This was another denunciation of sorts. Once again I was in the headmistress’ office chewing gum and telling my teachers I didn’t need them. I left school at 16 because rules did not interest me. Reading did.
This new idea, though, of talking to floating voters appealed. Politically. The very idea! And yet they were the ones deciding who was in power. They are now the ones the Left still despises while needing to win over. The Left could not and still cannot represent those whose “false consciousness” stops them from seeing the true and rightful path.
I cannot say how much I despise this way of thinking, having grown up in a Tory-voting working-class household. Don’t ask me to hate those I love in the name of socialism.
Mind you, clearly at one point I did think just like this. I wanted them all executed and joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in this hope.
Then I grew up. Not much, it must be said.
Now I was at The Mail on Sunday I was no longer pure. The dark side had claimed me. This was utter bollocks but it’s the way so much of the Left thinks, in binary terms. Electoral politics, which could be about persuasion, instead becomes a series of war games.
The Marxist philosopher Eric Hobsbawm, of all people, thought it a good idea for me to talk to “Middle England”. Middle England is a fantasy in my book. An imagined community. Still, my contract said I could write what I liked and that was honored. Anyway, I presumed it was a temporary job, like all jobs in journalism. I didn’t even start hackery till I was 30. I had a life before that. Thank god.
I lasted for several years at the Mail on Sunday, although I hankered to write longer pieces, which I did elsewhere. The lesson I learned was that I could get through to the paper’s readers on almost every social issue except immigration, where I could make no headway. This was to become key to so much of what has followed since. Facts are not feelings.
As I live in North London, when I moved to the Mail on Sunday, most people I knew who had read me regularly in the Guardian or the Indy thought I had just died. Actually I had gone from a readership of 300,000 to two million. Some of us didn’t need the arrival of social media to know about bubbles. Some of us couldn’t see a bubble without wanting to burst it. It’s a class thing.
At one point I was writing columns for both the Mail on Sunday and the Guardian (somehow, neither audience noticed) and eventually a new editor arrived at the former and wanted changes. That was fair enough, so I recommitted to the Guardian.
Back to the nest
Back among the righteous. Now, in the North London playground, other parents would talk to me — I became a “Guardian Writer” again. Resurrected somehow, absolved, I was more and more aware of the conservatism that was rising, politically and culturally.
We were being enveloped in beigeness. Especially women. When I had taken my older children to school in the late 1980s and 1990s, we had all just dropped them off and hurried to work. By 2010, mothers hung around the playground: “Lattes or pilates?” They didn’t have jobs, and made cushions. They had husbands, dogs and camper vans. Violin lessons were a thing and no one seemed to notice that the school had been ethnically cleansed. This was the work of property prices. They thought David Cameron seemed nice. This is, it’s true, a class issue, and something that’s particularly noticeable in my corner of North London. But there was definitely a wider move in modern conservatism to push women back into the home.
The electoral coalition that had brought Labour to power was collapsing. I didn’t find this out from Planet Westminster — for all my sins, I met and lunched Cameron — but from the playground. He will be prime minister I told the pol guys at the Mail. They put this down revoltingly to me fancying him. How could a woman know such things otherwise?
During my time at the Mail on Sunday there was no politician to whom we did not have access. They knew they needed that paper’s support. I have dined with every Right-wing bogeyman and every Labour bore you can imagine.
Going back to The Guardian brought another challenge. What should I be doing? I would describe my approach as: lobbing in some Molotov cocktails, some cultural analysis and some jokes. Not to buy into groupthink and in the end . . . entertainment. People should want to read what you write. I know this is verboten: actual pleasure. I chose not to go into the office. I still did not belong, having strayed from the true and rightful path.
Some debates had remained the same, some had changed. The Labour Party seemed to be imploding. Again. So I returned to my real passion: cultural politics and good old-fashioned feminism.
In 2012, I contributed to an anthology of essays edited by the great poet and journalist Cathy Galvin. The theme was red. My piece was about the need for female anger and it was called “Seeing Red”. Feminism had become way too polite and we were going backwards. Fast.
The essay was about how and why women should be angry. I quoted the Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee: “Anger is like water; the shape it takes comes from the container you put it in.” Let it flow, I said. How little I knew.
The book came and went and the following year 2013 my essay was reprinted in the New Statesman. It contained this line: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape — that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
That was wrong — in that it was of its time. Now it’s a different body shape: the Kardashian ribless tits and ass. But hey, let’s roll with the times.
Suddenly I was inundated with tweets about the murder rate of Brazilian transsexuals which is appallingly high. Many of them are forced into sex work (I prefer the term prostitution but the new feminism likes to pretend all jobs are equal when they clearly are not. “Phoebe got four A-stars but hopes to become a sex worker” is not something you hear often.) But it’s true I had carelessly used a certain phrase to talk about the then fashionable shape for women; slim hips and big breasts. Indeed, transsexual models did appear on catwalks.
While I was trying to emphasise the impossibility of the ideals for women, maybe I had been thoughtless. I hadn’t actually killed anyone. Yet the backlash that hit me, online and offline, was like nothing else. And you have to understand I have been threatened in the past by the fascist group Combat 18 for my columns — on multiculturalism, immigration, being pro-choice and in favour of gay rights… My crimes, back then, were “nigger-loving”, “paki-loving”, and “whore”. Sometimes they called me a “Jew”. I had panic buttons installed in my house. I would get phone calls at home with threats saying they knew I had kids so they wouldn’t kill me, just disable me. As ever I just got on with it. What else can you do?
But this time around, after the Red piece, the abuse was from the Left. It was a taste of what would happen in Labour a few years later with anti-Semitism.
When the big row over anti-Semitism happened, it was strangely no surprise; it had all just finally risen to the surface. I had spent enough time on the far-Left to know how the righteous thought. And it’s not so different from the far-Right. In the name of rights for Palestinians, this most elemental racism was once more permissible. A giant conspiracy theory that places itself on the moral high ground was not discouraged by the Labour leadership. It disgusts me.
Yet the abuse I got over the trans issue was different, and worse than anything that had come before. Social media was beginning to flex its muscles. It was a mindfuck. Twitter was full of people telling me how they were going to rape me, decapitate me, ejaculate inside my head, burn me. This was all somehow to do with the Brazilian transsexual remark. The police came round but they didn’t really get Twitter. They said things like: “Don’t email them back, love”. The worst threats were from people who knew where I lived and said that they would give my then 11-year-old a good fisting.
The sewer was opening, a torrent of women-hatred was pouring out, no one seemed to be able to control it. (Was this helping trans people? Was it coming from them? Mostly I think not.) I made the mistake of losing my temper and insulted my antagonists back. I would not be lectured on feminism or womanhood.
There was a new word. TERF. It posed as an acronym — trans exclusionary radical feminist — but it was used as a slur. On this row went. The label “transphobe” may as well have been tattooed on my forehead. My own history and activism was irrelevant: my years with Act Up, campaigning around Section 28, my lifelong commitment to campaigning for abortion. Nada!
I watched woman after woman denounced as a TERF. Attempted suicides of young trans people were the fault of women like me. The murder of trans people by men was somehow refracted onto feminists. Masculinity is never the problem, you see. Masculinity sets the rules. Women are always the other, the outsiders. Yet suicidal ideation is a growing issue for all young people — I studied counselling and psychotherapy for two years at this time — and suicide rates for young women are rising, too.
The Right Side of History
Why did I speak up? I have no hatred or fear of trans folk. As a feminist, I would argue that gender is socially constructed, and it can be reconstructed.
Under the professions of radicalism and the vitriol and stupidity, though, I was witnessing a new conservatism, the revenge of gender stereotypes. Pink and blue. Girl toys and boy toys. The female role models, such as Sam Cameron and Kate Middleton, were mute. Nostalgia was everywhere dressed up as irony.
During the Aids crisis, I was involved in queer politics, where difference was argued over endlessly. But we were on the same side against a straight world that hated homosexuality and women who wanted equality. Then that world fragmented. The queer alliance was fragile and the theories began to be more important than the practice. When academia moves in, activism moves out.
At the same time, women were getting ahead in the workplace by imitating men and pretending that children didn’t interfere with their wage slavery, now defined as “having it all”. Some act to pull off. I tried and failed. I had three children and worked the entire time. In my entire life, I have had eight weeks’ maternity leave.
Gender roles were becoming more fixed even as gay rights campaigners won the “victory” of gay marriage. I agreed with David Cameron that this was a basically conservative move and it cost nothing, and made people feel somehow that they were a bit modern. Gay rights and feminist campaigners were no longer the natural allies they had once been.
Looking back, I see that by the late Eighties and early Nineties, I had already picked up on something that perturbed me. A denial of female biology, of our ability to name and define our experience. Some of this came from certain strands of postmodern theory where objective reality gives way only to multiple subjectivities. A kind of gender tourism became possible. Everyone could be everything. A new kind of feminism came into being, one in which flesh and blood women and our desires became somehow a bit dull. Feminism without women. Grow a child inside you and push it out of your body and tell me this is a construct. (NB: no one has to have children.)
I believe quite simply bodies exist. I have been there when babies are born. And been there when people die. I know what happens when bodies no longer work…what shall we call my view? Materialism?
As trans ideology came into being, to question this was to question trans people’s “right to exist” — how is that even possible? They obviously exist! — when really we were questioning the ways in which we think about gender and oppression and how complex this all is.
It remains so. Yet somehow morality had entered the debate. To be good — ie, modern — one didn’t interrogate the new trans orthodoxy. Sex was no longer binary, but a spectrum, and people didn’t need to change their bodies to claim a new identity. All this was none of your business, and had no effect on your life.
I disagreed. By 2018, the atmosphere was poisonous. A fellow columnist at The Guardian replied to a message I sent about being civil at the Christmas do with: “You’ve prompted the most sickening transphobia, for which you have never apologised, you called islamophobia a myth and you publicly abuse leftwingers.” This person went on to say that I felt insecure “because a new generation of younger leftists have caught the public mood”. I didn’t even understand the accusation of Islamophobia. More broadly, I understood that the possibility of a left-wing government was exciting, but unlike half the paper, I didn’t believe that Corbyn had actually won in 2017. I also didn’t like the macho, bullying culture around him propped up by writers at my place of work.
I complained to my editor about this person at the time but was told that as neither of us were on staff, nothing official could be done. Really?
So there we have it. Here comes the “new generation”: the new Left, same as the old Left. Full of misogyny, utter pricks and those with the emotional intelligence of whelks. Misogyny in the name of socialism. Again.
Ladies who Lurch
Around this time I was in Armenia covering a story on foetal sex selection. Women were aborting female fetuses as they wanted boys. The UN population fund was doing fantastic work there, knowing that as fertility rates drop, sex selection becomes ever more prevalent. This world was a long, long way from those people who think sex is just a matter of personal choice. Foetal scans at 12 weeks mean generations of girls go “missing”. In rural Armenia I visited class rooms of 27 little boys and 5 girls, while at home I was told sex is simply “assigned at birth”.
Other women were now starting to be disturbed by the idea of transwomen with working male genitalia in womens spaces. The idea of the predatory trans person is not one I am particularly invested in, really. We are talking about a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of the population. I am not that bothered about toilets or changing rooms. My youth was spent in gay clubs and with wonderful trans people who looked after me in New Orleans. Refuges, though? Prisons? Surely that can be sorted out and it has to be.
No, what I most didn’t and don’t like is the erasing of female bodies and female voices and female experience and our ability to name it.
What I care about fundamentally is the right of women to meet in single sex spaces and assert themselves as a class, a sex class — one that is oppressed by a patriarchal system. By men, even sometimes the good ones. As for the bad ones, they are the ones who rape and kill trans folk, too.
Feminism has to be able to talk about bodies. Many of the advances women have made in my lifetime — reproductive rights, more choice over how we give birth, discussions of menstruation and menopause — depend on biology, the biology we were now told was irrelevant.
When I walked past the Woman’s Place meeting in Brighton at the Labour Party conference last year, people were banging on the windows. More TERF-hunters. It hardly affected me, I was in a blur of distress about anti-Semitism, and a friend of mine who was dying. Her lung and bone cancer was missed and she had been told to do more yoga. Bodies fail us all in the end.
What sort of people would stop other people meeting, though? What good did it do the cause of trans people, some of whom were present at the event? Why can feminists not organise?
The moral climate had shifted from “trans rights are something we need to discuss and we must support trans people in all the ways we can” to a denial that such rights may at certain points compete with women’s rights. Friends were under threat, no-platformed in schools and universities if they questioned what had become a fixed set of beliefs.
Women who said that they were subject to threats of violence were told they had to suck it up. Any discussion of trans rights had now mutated into a denial of the existence of trans people and therefore actual violence.
Debate became murder
So while I and many others were receiving vile threats, we were somehow also responsible for the awful violence that is meted out to trans people. Social media blurred the conversation: very few trans people are murdered in Britain (around one a year) but the American stats are worse, so these are the ones used. In Britain at least two women a week are killed — estimated at 3.5 during lockdown — but women are never a marginalised group. We have it all!
In the States, trans healthcare is not free, either. So when American feminists tell us we are “behind” on trans rights, it rankles somewhat. Get your own house in order. We live in a country where abortion is free and legal and where health care for trans people, though not perfect, is free; and we have maternity leave. Neither country is perfect.
Various people who had not been there for the fight around Section 28 told us this was a re-run of that era, with trans folk being described as paedophiles and predators in the place of gay men. (As ever, lesbians were somehow invisible. Except the ones who wanted to transition.) This is revisionism. No one was being asked to give up anything for Section 28 to be dropped.
Gay people have chosen how they were to be referred to. In the trans debate, however, women were not consulted about their terms of reference. They are “Cis”. And “Cis” women are higher up the privilege ladder than trans women. We had become the oppressors — a subset of men.
Then came the rise of “non-binary”. Phew! Finally! By any definition of non-binary, this is what I am. The knowledge that since I was a tiny child my inner and outer selves did not match in any way. Knowingly, I upped the signifiers of femininity to be able to use the power of my mind. This was what I got in trouble with Germaine Greer for: hair, heels, tits. To me, just my drag. Presumably it is the same for everyone.
The Bad Column
Which brings us to March 2020. Eventually, I was allowed by a great editor to write about how gender critical women wanted to assert their basic rights. A professor of working-class history at Oxford, Selina Todd, was disinvited from an event. I noted, referring to this incident, that it is women again, never men, who were losing jobs, incomes and public platforms if they spoke up. Many of them were emailing me: not on one side or another, but generally worried. I wrote that I believed biological sex to be real and that it’s not transphobic to understand basic science. To my mind the column was fairly mild.
It was published. The next thing I know there are loads of people on social media thanking me for saying what needed to be said. And then another lot: the “die in a ditch terf” lot, amazingly telling me to die in a ditch. Again.
Seven years of this sort of abuse now, and no one from the Guardian had ever spoken to me about it. I just carried on. Do they care? Why should they? They should care, if they truly want more “diversity” in journalism, but that’s a lie which liberals tell themselves. How can you bring on working-class writers if you damn them for not knowing the codes upon which the media runs? If you won’t tolerate the heresies of outsiders? If — gasp — they haven’t been to Oxbridge?
In the new orthodoxy, where do I fit in? What is my place in the tickbox set of Left beliefs? I was Brexity, though I voted Remain. I want independence for Scotland and a united Ireland. I want England to be England. I don’t believe in the monarchy or the UK. I think biological sex is real… I have never hidden any of these views.
My experience is that I have been censored more by the Left than the Right and it gives me no pleasure to say that. Laziness of thought is my big fear, this unthinking adherence to some simplistic orthodoxy. There are values and there is experience and there are people. Complicated fuckers, all of us. The Guardian. Labour-supporting except for its Lib Dem blip in 2010. Endlessly “good”. Yeah; right.
I was discussed at “conference”, the newspaper morning meeting open to all: editorial, digital, advertising, everyone. (It looks like equality, but some people sit on the floor and others get seats, let’s put it that way.) I never go in to the office, or attend conference, but it was reported that a trans woman developer, who had already resigned some weeks earlier, resigned again that morning, because my words, my column, had made her feel unsafe. According to the news story: “the column was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ the trans employee said, following a series of pieces that pitted trans people against women and against women’s rights.”
Apparently, my fellow columnist Hadley Freeman defended me and I am grateful for that. It appeared to be an extremely upsetting incident for all concerned. I am sorry that it happened. No one will believe that, but I am.
Then came the letter to the editor, expressing dismay about the Guardian being a publication “hostile to trans rights and trans employees”, since three trans people had apparently resigned in the last year. This was news to me. Although I wasn’t named in the letter, it was very clearly a response to my column. Three hundred and thirty-eight people signed it.
Not one of them had the decency to pick up the phone to me. Should The Guardian be a welcoming place for trans people to work in? Yes of course it bloody well should. Should it be a place where we discuss complicated issues? Again yes.
The letter made it clear to me that it wasn’t just social media activists who wanted me out of the paper. My fellow staff were gunning for me: time to hand over my job to the young Corbyn crew who spend their lives slagging off the mainstream media but cannot wait to be part of it. Could they write a good sentence? Say something from the heart? Does that matter? Apparently not, they simply think the right things.
The letter was then leaked to Buzzfeed and then the names were made public. I was devastated to find people who I like and had worked with had done this. In 30 years of journalism I have often disagreed with people and had stand-up rows with them but no one has ever done something so underhand as to try and get someone fired because of one column.
I listed the names of my denouncers on Twitter. I read one of them saying I doxxed them, not the case as the names were already in the public domain. I wrote a distraught and emotional letter to the people who I knew, asking how could they do this? What kind of victory had they achieved?
I felt fucking awful. Well, how would you feel if 338 colleagues basically bullied you? But off I went to Amsterdam to do a mushroom retreat because life goes on.
Mistakenly, I thought my editors would stand up for me because that was my experience at other papers; or they might issue a public statement. They didn’t. There was some internal email, and I hear it was discussed at the Scott Trust, which governs the paper. What this means I genuinely have no idea. Nor do I understand what editorial independence means any more. Do they? Not in my book.
This to me was utter cowardice. Shouldn’t you stand by your writers? But on this issue the Guardian has run scared. I suspect this is partly because of Guardian US sensitivities and, partly because the paper receives sponsorship from the Open Society foundation, which promotes trans rights.
This also might explain some of the utter gender gobbledegook we run about how HRT has taught someone to cry and all categories are porous. Whatever.
As a feminist, I have limited interest in all this, in the holes in which other people do or do not wish to put their bits. Sorry it’s rather dull. I am with Foucault in that I don’t believe sexuality is the essential soul or truth of an individual. My concern with this issue is only to do with the rights of women and the welfare of children.
So much of the discussion is about trans women, but the unhappiness of teenage girls must concern us. We have known since 2017 — earlier in fact — that there has been a huge uptick in female teenagers wanting to transition. Presenting to the Tavistock with self harm, eating disorders or suicidal ideation, these girls may end up on puberty-blocking hormones and then go on to have surgery. And for some of them that indeed may be the right thing to do. For others though, it clearly isn’t and to question that is not anything phobic, it is to care.
Why, as feminists, can we not talk about this epidemic of young women who cannot bear their bodies and the thought of what is happening to them: breasts, periods, unwanted sexual attention, the works? Why can you not be a young butch lesbian these days?
In an ideal world, feelings of masculinity or femininity could be achieved without surgery or hormones that may cause infertility. We are far from such a world and I respect the decisions of adults who go through this long, difficult process in often impossible circumstances. Brave, brave people.
My argument to my newspaper, though, has always been if we don’t have this discussion then the Right will, and indeed that has been the case. The Spectator and the Times have covered stories we haven’t, and I have had to write what I wanted to in the Telegraph. Investigative journalism means going into no-go areas. Why can’t we? The liberal Left looks not virtuous but naïve.
Less sexy subjects such as the appalling low rate for rape convictions, the Covid pandemic causing women to lose jobs and be forced back into the home, the complete lack of childcare… all of these things fall by the wayside when the main discussions of feminism appear to be by men telling us men can just say they’re women and if we say otherwise we deserve all the rape threats we get.
There is no actual interrogation of gender and I say this as someone who has written about and studied this subject for decades. There is a simply a belief system.
The Witches They Cannot Burn
For such thoughts, I have been denounced, alongside bigger and better people such as JK Rowling. The words “compassion” and “kindness” are often used by trans activists. Can we all just not be kinder? Well, yes … I never have and never would be unkind to someone because of their gender identity. I reserve the right not to kowtow to certain blokes, though. What I would like is some kindness towards women, some empathy towards our fears and our concerns, but I don’t see much of that. What have you done for us lately?
Since my denouncement, I have received nothing but support from all sorts of people in private, including many at the paper who are now afraid for their jobs. I didn’t stop writing, I carried on. “Don’t mention the war, Suzanne.” It felt quite schizophrenic, the split between the groundswell of women who are thinking along the same lines as me and the lack of support from the institution I work for.
The censorship continues and I cannot abide it. Every day another woman loses her job and a witch-burning occurs on Twitter. My fear is not about trans people but an ideology that means the erasure of women — not just the word, but of our ability to name and describe our experience. We are now cervix-havers, birthing parents, people who menstruate. On Amnesty’s latest posters to support the women’s strike in Poland, the literal translation from Polish for the thousands of women who were protesting the awful tightening of abortion laws was: “I stand with people in Poland”. Which people? Women forced to give birth on a plastic sheet to a dead baby with foetal defects? Say it.
Nor do I buy the idea that all of this is a purely generational issue. In part it is, sure, but it can at times be an issue of unfettered misogyny and a failure to understand that many women’s rights are fairly recent and always contested.
The Left — well, I guess I mean the Labour Party with its mad insistence on conformity — just stopped listening. As the Corbyn project collapsed, the cultural battle around trans issues became a proxy war of insane proportions. The Labour leadership contenders were ordered to sign a pledge which called Woman’s Place a “hate group”. With the exception of Keir Starmer, they did. “Transphobe” was now a slur to throw at anyone who didn’t keep the faith. You lose the electorate so what happens. Do you reflect?
No, apparently armed with misread Gramsci and a smidgeon of Chomsky you decide you will redefine common sense without persuading people to your side. Calling everyone unconvinced by your politics racist homophobes as an electoral strategy never sat well with me. Call me precious. The utter failure of the People’s Vote told us that, surely? The haute Remain position consisted mostly of telling Leave voters they were idiots.
Likewise, alienating women who are lifelong Labour supporters, because of their refusal to sign away what they feel to be their hard-won rights, is a performative gesture that I am unconvinced provides any actual “wins” for anyone.
Yet this one tiny issue has somehow come to dominate every debate now on feminism. It’s boring. Something has got terribly skewed here. Something has been lost and I am lost in it.
There is obviously bigger and more important stuff to deal with than the issue of the liberation of women. There always is. My hurt at being ejected from cults I never belonged in anyway is not self-pity. That dissolves the moment I have the freedom to speak my truth.
The things I want to talk about — the deep unhappiness of women, the suffocating girdle of masculinity, the ever growing and bleak inequalities, the falling fertility rates which will mean girls don’t get to be born, rape as a war crime, FGM — these things are hard enough to do anyway. To understand that women’s bodies are used and abused however we might feel about them is not a comfortable place to be. Our relationship with our bodies is not straightforward. I am sure it’s the same for many men.
Now that I have personally transitioned — my uterus no longer works, my estrogen has dropped — I have even less fucks to give than I did before. You can denounce me as much as you like but you cannot deny my life’s work of living somehow inside this female body. You cannot tell me it’s not real. It’s as real as it gets.
This, then, is a story about a woman journalist who “made it”, who never thought it would be easy.
This is a story about a feminist who started to see things going backwards and wanted to tell the world. This is not a story about trans people at all. Really it isn’t. It’s a story about not belonging. Not knowing my place.
Sure I understand the clichéd trajectory that as one grows older, one moves from Left to Right. Actually, I would say in my case this is not so: class politics becomes ever more pertinent to me, not less. In these fearful reactionary times, I will not be fearful and I will not be reactionary, but I will centre women and children and the possibility of freedom, as I always have, at the heart of my work.
The consequences of this have been tough in a tough year. The support both within and without the paper for which I write has been huge and I am grateful for it. I remain flame-retardant.
All this is then just a little story about being given a warning to shut up. And refusing to. I have had a lifetime of such warnings. Class will out. This is just something I wanted to tell you about a woman saying no. And the ways we say no.
That’s all it is. That’s the rub.
That’s all it takes sometimes.
This article first appeared on 25 November, 2020