I met Claudia in a pub in Hackney in 2003. I was researching diagnoses of transsexuality at the time, and a mutual friend introduced us. I had thought, as I do now, that the notion of being “trapped in the wrong body” was deeply sexist and conservative; we should all be able to present how we wish, whatever sex we are born into.
Dressed head to toe in black, her hair swept into a glorious silver-grey chignon, she told me she was “in mourning” for her former lover David, who had not died but left Claudia many years ago. Describing David as “a cross between George Best and Jesus Christ”, Claudia told me her life story.
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Born male, Claudia grew up on a run-down estate in Glasgow, where she was mercilessly bullied for being gay. Then, in the early Eighties, Claudia met David, who soon announced he was “not gay” and that therefore Claudia “must be a woman”. She had genital surgery in 1986.
“I changed for all the wrong reasons,” Claudia told me. David walked out a year after the operation. Claudia and I became firm friends and remain so to this day. I later wrote about her for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, but the editors decided not to put the article online, so it was not widely read.
Not so my now-infamous column in the Guardian, entitled “Gender Benders, Beware”, in which I railed against a trans woman who had tried to have a rape crisis centre in Vancouver shut down by tying its staff up in years of litigation. The fall-out was immediate; the Reader’s Editor received more than 200 letters of complaint, many as a result of lobbying by trans activists. (He would later distance himself from the article, claiming “it abused an already abused minority”.)
I began to receive death and rape threats by email, as well as messages that I was “being watched”. I was used to my feminist views being unpopular: those of us who name and blame men for violence towards women are often warned to keep quiet. But nothing could prepare me for the misogyny of extreme transgender activists.
Despite the hostility, I contacted a number of trans people to see if they were willing to talk. Over the years I had debated countless prominent activists at public events. It was always respectful, warm and, in some cases, truly enlightening for both sides. I kept in touch with some of my opponents and friendships were formed.
In 2007, I was asked by the BBC to take part in Hecklers, a live radio programme with an aggressive format. I was asked to put forward my view — that sex-change operations constitute unnecessary mutilation — before an audience of doctors and transgender people at the Royal Society of Medicine. Two trans people, a gender clinician and Peter Tatchell were put up to argue against me.
I was convinced I would mess up, and was too scared to invite my feminist allies to watch. But I survived, and afterwards stayed for a drink with several of the audience. Two individual trans men came up to me, lifted their T-shirts and showed me their double mastectomy scars. A trans woman told me that before transition and hormones she was being “poisoned by testosterone”. There was no animosity, except for the fact that Claudia, who had insisted on coming along to support me, was cruelly snubbed by her own community. Solidarity never extends to those who speak out against the transgender doctrine.
The following year, I was nominated for the Journalist of the Year award by Stonewall for my work on anti-lesbian violence. I had no interest in the nomination, which had come from the public as opposed to an internal vote by the charity. But when the gay media decided to go absolutely berserk about my nomination, I changed my mind: I had to go, despite the fact that I had long made public my view that Stonewall prioritised rich gay men over lesbians.
Soon social media was awash with petitions, open letters and plans for a demonstration at the event. There was talk of how to storm the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the event was being held. But Stonewall held firm.
The crowd greeting me on arrival was loud and aggressive. My name was plastered over dozens of placards, and “Bindel the bigot” was being screamed through loudhailers. Once I had managed to enter the building, I was told by one of the judges that I was the clear winner, but the panel had received strict instructions that I was not to be given the award. So it was given to a heterosexual agony aunt.
The impact of that decision would extend far beyond the handing-out of a mundane prize. It galvanised the modern day trans-rights movement: the old guard — such as Press for Change founders Christine Burns and Stephen Whittle — started to be dismissed as irrelevant and too conciliatory, with the younger blue-fringe crew declaring themselves the new overlords.
From 2008 onwards, whenever I was invited to speak alongside a transgender activist or ally, the event would face threats of being shut down or disrupted. In 2010 I was invited to speak at “Queer Question Time” at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I turned up to face a massive demonstration of well over 100 trans activists, shouting my name through loudhailers, jostling me as I tried to enter the building. Many of the protesters came inside for the event, and every time I opened my mouth, screamed over me.
The atmosphere became so toxic that one of my co-panellists, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, was forced to say: “I’m sure that you do have people that put you in danger, but I can’t imagine Julie Bindel is one.” From the floor, an object was thrown across the room and hit me just below the eye. I was terrified, even though it turned out to be a lanyard, thrown by a trans woman.
But at least the event had been able to take place. From 2008, the UK National Union of Students (NUS) has included me on its “no-platform” list, alongside fascist groups and individuals. This meant that even when I was invited to speak at universities on male violence towards women and girls, the NUS would threaten to withdraw any financial support it had given to the organiser. Inevitably I would be dropped, publicly, to protect the event.
For many that still wasn’t enough. In 2011, upset that I was still invited to speak at the occasional university event, the NUS Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) conference voted to no-platform me once and for all. The motion summed up their spiteful worldview: “This conference believes that Julie Bindle [sic] is vile.”
And on it went. In Denmark, at a conference on how to end the harms caused to women by the global sex trade, I had to be escorted out of the venue by police officers after an angry mob started to bang loudly on the windows and scream through loudhailers. At another event, in Spain, where I was asked to deliver a keynote speech on rape, I was stopped from going on stage with minutes to spare. I later discovered that a major funder of the organising group had raised concerns about “transphobia, as reflected by the invitation to Julie Bindel to speak.”
I am, of course, not the only activist to be harassed. Over the years, I have made friends with a number of trans people who have also been harassed and de-platformed when attempting to have discussions with feminists such as myself. I’ve interviewed dozens of de-transitioners who have been cast asunder after expressing regret about transitioning. I also know many trans people who are perfectly happy with their decision — but none of them believe it is reasonable to demand that they encroach women-only spaces such as domestic violence refuges, rape crisis services, prisons or hospital wards.
The problem, after all, is not trans people. It is extreme trans activism — a men’s rights movement which has grown out of the backlash against feminism, in particular the type of feminism that seeks to eradicate male violence towards women and girls.
For me, the costs of being targeted in this way have been enormous — and not just in relation to my unpaid activism. The mob follows me around, preventing me from speaking on how to end male violence under the guise of “protecting trans-rights”. Whenever I speak about prostitution, an expertise of mine, I am told that I “clearly hate trans sex workers”, as though everything comes back to that.
Faced with such vitriol, my mental health took a hammering. I began to feel ashamed of the trouble I was causing for those who invited me to speak. I would find myself apologising to them, which they would graciously accept as though they had done something commendable by having me there, despite my decades of active feminism and public profile.
I started to wonder if perhaps I was a monster — and I was ridiculously grateful to those who did not hide or apologise for the fact that they had any public connection to me. My self-confidence fell to rock bottom, as I doubted my abilities, skills and knowledge. On hearing of the latest cancellation, I would end up highly distressed and in floods of tears, knowing that mud often sticks. I was offered a newspaper column only to have it withdrawn after several staff members announced they would publicly argue against my appointment.
I spent years trying to warn my fellow feminists that if they stood by and let them scapegoat me, eventually they would come after every dissenter. First on the list would be the lesbians, because we are a thorn in the side of misogynistic gay men. Yet when I appealed to academics to stand with me and not cancel an event I was speaking at, most turned the other cheek and decided a quiet life was better.
And so now, here we are. The witches are being drowned and the bitches burned at the stake. Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix, Selina Todd and many other women whose names you will never know are being put through hell.
But another, largely hidden cost of this war is the lost opportunity for solidarity. As a young lesbian, trans people were my friends and allies. That is how it should be. Those of us who live on the margins of society, and who are discriminated against, should have each other’s backs. We are all victims of this bloody battle.