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Is the trans debate really toxic on both sides?

Is it true that “both sides” of the trans debate are toxic? Kim Thomas takes a look at the evidence.

So why does the “both sides” narrative persist? My guess is that it’s mostly laziness combined with a fear of getting on the wrong side of the trans mob…

“There has to be a lot more empathy and understanding,” Labour MP Wes Streeting said in an interview with the BBC earlier this month, in reference to the trans debate, adding: “And it does cut both ways.” 

Some have welcomed Streeting’s intervention as an attempt to reconcile the two warring sides of the trans debate. But he’s not the first (and won’t be the last) to use the “both ways” or “both sides” argument. Claiming the trans debate is toxic “on both sides” is a way of positioning yourself as the voice of moderation between two irrationally hate-filled extremes. 

So is it true that “both sides” are toxic? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Starting with social media, trans activists like to make their point with threats of violence, sometimes sexual.  Here are some examples: “If every TERF [trans exclusionary radical feminist] on the planet could set themselves on fire, that would be appreciated.” “Can someone lob a brick at the TERF twats protesting at #Pride London. Seriously – fuck off and die.” “Punch all nazis and every terf in their disgusting faces.” “Any trans allies at #PrideLondon right now need to step the fuck up and take out the TERF trash. Get in their faces. Make them afraid. Debate never works so fuck them up.” “Friendly reminder, if youre a terf I’m going to slice your throat actually I Will run a knife through you and sever your spinal cord.” “I want to rape a terf to death then chop its body into pieces and leave them for the crows.” Other tweets are accompanied by gruesome images: one states “If you’re a TERF, you can get fucked with the business end of the barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat”, with an illustration of said bat. Trans Pride was promoted with images of women being hanged in effigy. In selfies posted on Twitter, trans woman Adrienne Cohea stands in a women’s toilet holding a sword.

But that’s just Twitter. What about real life?

Turns out things aren’t so great there either. Maria Maclachlan, part of a gathering of women waiting to be told a meeting venue, was physically assaulted by trans activists. A trans activist at Edinburgh University attempted to assault Julie Bindel – fortunately she was protected by security officers. Veteran environmental campaigner Helen Steel was physically intimidated by a group of trans activists at an anarchist event. At the London Trans Pride march in 2021, signs were displayed with the message “Kill JK Rowling” in red paint. At International Women’s Day demonstrations in France and Spain, women were physically attacked by trans activists. In Spain the activists also hanged a woman in effigy. 

Places where women gather seem to attract particular ire from trans activists. They showed their displeasure with the Vancouver rape centre, and its insistence on supporting only women, by nailing a dead rat to the door and posting violent graffiti. In the UK, the campaign group Woman’s Place UK, in common with other feminist groups, has to keep its public meeting venues secret because trans activists bombard venues with hostile phone calls and emails, and then stand outside the meeting shouting abuse. On one occasion, they issued a bomb threat. On another, they threw water at women entering the meeting. At the feminist FiLiA conferencelast year, protesters held up signs saying “Suck my dick, you transphobic cunts” and wrote “Transphobes can suck on my pink strap” at the entrance to the venue. At a vigil to commemorate women murdered by men, addressed by women from countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, women had to stand on these messages.

Any high-profile woman who speaks out for women’s rights, such as JK Rowling and Rosie Duffield, can expect a barrage of rape and death threats: Rowling says she has had enough death threats to paper her house.  If threats of violence aren’t enough, however, there are other ways to shut women up. Getting women banned from Twitter for offences such as misgendering has been an effective strategy. But why stop there when you can undermine women professionally? Feminist academics such as Professor Rosa Freedman and Professor Jo Phoenix have had speaking engagements at universities cancelled, while Professor Selina Todd has been accompanied to lectures by security after she received violent threats. Professor Kathleen Stock resigned from Sussex University after a campaign of threats and intimidation. Others, such as artist Jess de Wahls and writers Rachel Rooney and Gillian Phillip, have lost work or contracts because of their views. 

The law is another popular tool of harassment. Feminists have repeatedly been subjected to both civil litigation and criminal investigation for their views. Marion Millar was reported to the police and threatened with prosecution for tweeting a picture of a ribbon that supposedly looked like a noose, while Ceri Black is being investigated by prosecutors in Northern Ireland for a series of tweets about child protection. Trans woman Stephanie Hayden has taken numerous legal actions against supporters of women’s rights.  One female trans activist even used the courts against trans woman Miranda Yardley for Yardley’s alleged transphobia (the case was thrown out).

And if all else fails, you can lie. You can claim, for example, that left-wing UK feminists are funded by the American right (they’re not). Or that Maya Forstater harassed a trans colleague (she didn’t have a trans colleague). Or that JK Rowling is antisemitic (she isn’t). Perhaps the most egregious lie told about Rowling came after she posted a Twitter thread inviting parents to tweet their children’s illustrations for her book The Ickabog. Trans activists tweeted pornographic images in the thread. Later, Rowling reflected on her refusal to rise to provocation: “I’ve ignored fake tweets attributed to me and RTed widely. I’ve ignored porn tweeted at children on a thread about their art. I’ve ignored death and rape threats.” Trans activists then gleefully took the quote “I’ve ignored porn tweeted at children” and posted it out of context to make it look as if Rowling didn’t care about the harm to children. Fortunately, Rowling was able to force an apology.

So, that’s the toxicity of one side. What about the other? Proponents of the “both sides” argument will be disappointed to see a lack of death threats, rape threats, physical assaults, attempts to shut down meetings, or people forced out of their jobs. It’s true that there have been a few intemperate remarks on the feminist side. Kate Scottow, for example, once called Hayden a “pig in a wig” and a “racist”. As a consequence, she received a criminal conviction (later overturned). 

So why does the “both sides” narrative persist? My guess is that it’s mostly laziness combined with a fear of getting on the wrong side of the trans mob. Having watched what Rowling has been subjected to, only the very brave are willing to say she’s right. There is also, perhaps, an even deeper-rooted fear, which is that of being cast out of the progressive tribe, of being thought – horror of horrors – “right wing”. 

Let’s not forget what this debate is about. The central demand of the trans rights movement is that biological males who identify as women should be allowed full and unfettered access into women’s spaces:  changing rooms, hospital wards, prisons. Every assault, every boast about slitting feminists’ throats, undermines their claim that they provide no threat to women’s safety. Women are, understandably, terrified. This is not a disagreement between equals, but a sustained and vicious attack on women by a group of profoundly misogynistic men who have more in common with the Incel movement than with the gay rights movement of previous generations.

If the “both siders” are serious about ending the toxicity, they need to get off the fence and stand up for women – before it’s too late.

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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