The last thing I would want to do, as a journalist, is to sue a publication for libel. But after enduring years of distress and provocation from PinkNews, I finally changed my mind. The final straw came in May 2020, I had gone to bed early in preparation for a 5am start the next day. But then my phone started beeping as several WhatsApp messages came through. I flicked through them quickly. Four women, all of whom I knew through feminist campaigning, were alerting me to the fact that there was, as one put it, “yet another ‘horrible’ article” about me on PinkNews. “You are not named but I think it’s blatantly obvious it’s about you.” I turned off my phone and went to sleep.
The next day, I read the article. It referred to high-profile lesbian journalists and was based on an interview with an American woman called Amy Dyess (now known as Beau Dyess), with whom I had briefly spoken a few months earlier when she was planning to come over to the UK to speak at the same event as me. I had cut off all contact with Dyess after I grew tired of her constant slating of a number of feminists I respected — I had heard she was not pleased at being rejected.
“The ‘gender critical’ feminist movement is a cult that grooms, controls and abuses, according to a lesbian who managed to escape,” was the headline of the article. “Looking back on her time in the ‘gender critical’ feminist movement, she is unequivocal: it’s a cult,” the story read. “A cult that groomed her when she was vulnerable and sleeping in her car; a cult that sought to control her, keeping tabs on her movements and dictating what she could and couldn’t say; a cult that was emotionally and sexually abusive towards her.”
“One British lesbian even promised to find Amy a wife, so she could stay in the UK and galvanise the struggling gender-critical movement here,” the article continued. As well as the fact that there are no other high profile lesbian journalists in the UK who had been regularly targeted by PinkNews, this was enough to lead several individuals to identify me. I had come to be associated with the so-called Terf movement and a hate figure — mainly as a result of all that PinkNews coverage. I also learned that weeks earlier, Dyess had made allegations about me on Twitter, including that I had “promised to find her a wife” when she visited the UK.
The next morning I searched my name on Twitter and found that within a very short time of the article being published, I had been identified as the person referred to in the article. Speculation was rife as to exactly what level of criminal behaviour I had been involved in. I was horrified. Even my fiercest enemies recognise that I have been at the forefront of campaigning to end exploitation, coercive control, and all other forms of violence and abuse towards women and girls — for decades — and yet the implication was that I was involved in the abuse of a vulnerable lesbian.
My partner — a human rights lawyer — read the article and was aghast. Neither of us quite knew what to do. I considered my options: ignore it and thereby invite accusations of guilt; deny the allegations, which would be absolutely outrageous and bring about further suspicion; or try to tear it apart in a humorous way. I took the third option. I felt I had no choice because there was so much Twitter chatter identifying me as the subject of the article.
“So Prick News has finally revealed I am a cult leader that traffics vulnerable young lesbians to the UK & matches them with a mail-order bride,” I wrote. “And Talcum X [Owen Jones] is delighted it has all come out. I would like to extend my apologies to the whole of Twitter for my outrageous behaviour.”
My reference was to the Owen Jones tweet plugging the article to his one million followers on the day it was published: “Must read article… about a courageous woman who left the anti-trans cult.”
Over the years, I have swallowed so many accusations of transphobia by PinkNews. But this was on a different level. It was devastating for me to be, as I saw it, implicated in being part of a cult that did all the things I have spent more than four decades fighting against. It seemed to me that the clear aim of the piece was to smear an entire group of feminists as abusers and cultists. If PinkNews felt able to make allegations of sexual abuse and coercive control against me, what and who would be next? I had no choice but to sue.
In its defence, PinkNews says it didn’t intend to identify me. In defamation law, however, intention as to meaning is irrelevant, because the question is what the reasonable reader would take from reading it. It is clear to me that I was identified in the piece.
But I have never — and would never — call myself gender critical. I don’t believe in gender in the way it is used and defined by trans activists, ie that it is innate and overrides biological sex. Therefore, for me to be “critical” of gender in this context would be the same as saying I was critical of god when I am a non-believer. There are some women, both feminists and not feminists, who refer to themselves as “gender critical”, and who came to prominence by railing against trans ideology. Many have never campaigned on any other issue relating to women’s liberation, and so I have little, if anything, in common with them.
I object to extreme trans activism for the simple reason that its goal is to do away with women’s hard-won sex-based rights and women-only provision, such as domestic violence refuges, rape crisis services and prisons. Women-only spaces have historically been critically important to feminists because they provide a space for women to share their common experiences of growing up female and of enduring male violence. A space to freely discuss this without a fear of offending the men in the room is crucial for women’s safety and sanity.
As it turned out, the interviewee, Dyess, had no proof to back up any of her serious allegations, and was soon to publicly denounce PinkNews on Twitter, claiming to have been harassed by a PinkNews staffer and their lawyer over the story, and later for “misgendering”. Dyess soon changed their name to Beau and began to identify as non-binary. In my view, Dyess was used by PinkNews, and, once they realised I really meant business and would pursue the case until the bitter end, seemed to suggest that her allegations were so ludicrous that no-one would take them seriously.
It was also implied that she was not a reliable source. For example, in one letter from PinkNews’s lawyers to mine, they state:
“…the reference to the GCM as a “cult” would plainly not be taken literally and there is plenty of context to show that this use of the term ‘cult’ was Ms Dyess’s opinion and/or merely dramatic licence by her. The Article also could not be clearer that Ms Dyess’ account of her experiences roves widely and consists of an attack on multiple (largely unidentified) women she claims were part of a so-called ‘international lesbian’ network.”
In my view, the article appeared to be intending to slur any and every feminist that PinkNews consider to be a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. In its defence, PinkNews denied targeting me. “The claimant has not been treated any differently from other gender critical feminists who have been regularly mentioned in PinkNews coverage of the highly charged ongoing debate and clashing views between transgender activists on the one side and gender critical feminists on the other.”
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the last thing I wanted to do was to sue a publication. But this time, the article went too far and in the tradition of not standing for, what I saw as, the bullying and vilification of feminists, I felt I had a responsibility, if not a duty, to challenge it. PinkNews and I have now settled the case, and I refer to the joint statement which has been published on the PinkNews website. But it has been a long 18 months.
By sending the first letter of complaint, 10 days after the article was published, I had the expectation that PinkNews would acknowledge the risk and take the article down, or at least mark it as “subject to a legal complaint” as is commonplace in such matters. Sadly they did not, but chose to defend the case for a year and a half causing immeasurable stress and expense. It makes me wonder why they thought it worthwhile.
I sincerely hope that no one else has to go through the appalling experience I did. And given that PinkNews has said that following my case, they are going to review their editorial processes, perhaps that wish will come true.