Profile: J.K. Rowling, striving to stop Starmer nailing his colours to the fence on trans

16 Mar

When J.K. Rowling was 14 years old, she heard about Jessica Mitford, who “had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War”, and “charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her”.

By Rowling’s account, “It was the camera that captivated me.” Mitford the upper-class Communist became her heroine, and many years later, in 2006, she reviewed Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford, for The Daily Telegraph.

The idol of a 14-year-old cannot always withstand the mature and sceptical gaze of a 41-year-old, as Rowling by then was. But in this case there was nothing to worry about:

“Decca’s letters sing with the qualities that first made her so attractive to me. Incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.”

People who have not been following Rowling’s battle against Sir Keir Starmer and other Labour politicians on the vexed question of trans rights might suppose this to be a case of a famous author who dabbles for a day or two in Twitter without understanding what she is getting herself into.

Such a view would be gravely to underestimate Rowling. Like Mitford, she likes nothing better than a good fight. She has been deliberately, not accidentally, provocative, for she enjoys danger and is convinced of the justice of her cause.

At the end of last week, Sir Keir visited British troops in Estonia. While there, The Times reported, he said that “trans women are women”, and when asked to define a woman, replied:

“A woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women, and that is not just my view — that is actually the law. It has been the law through the combined effects of the 2004 [Gender Recognition] Act and the 2010 [Equality] Act. So that’s my view. It also happens to be the law in the United Kingdom.”

This provoked a series of furious tweets from Rowllng:

I don’t think our politicians have the slightest idea how much anger is building among women from all walks of life at the attempts to threaten and intimidate them out of speaking publicly about their own rights, their own bodies and their own lives. 1/3

Among the thousands of letters and emails I’ve received are disillusioned members of Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems and the SNP. Women are scared, outraged and angry at the deaf ear turned to their well-founded concerns. But women are organising. 2/3

Now @Keir_Starmer publicly misrepresents equalities law, in yet another indication that the Labour Party can no longer be counted on to defend women’s rights. But I repeat: women are organising across party lines, and their resolve and their anger are growing. 3/3

Rowling speaks as a woman of the Left. She is a friend of Sarah and Gordon Brown, and gave the Labour Party a million pounds when he was leader.

Nobody could accuse her of being pro-Tory. Harry Potter, her most famous creation, spends his holidays being persecuted by the ghastly Dursley family, who live in Privet Drive and read The Daily Mail.

She has said that in 1994-95 – when as an impoverished single mother, having fled with her daughter, Jessica (named after Mitford) from her short and abusive first marriage, she was writing her first Potter book – it was Labour’s proposals for lifting single parents out of poverty which appealed to her, and Tory moralising about marriage which disgusted her.

Before the 2010 general election she wrote a piece for The Times in which she said that since becoming rich, as she did soon after her first book was published in 1997, she had not changed her mind. She still could not stand the Tories.

During the Barnard Castle affair in May 2020, when Boris Johnson stuck by his adviser Dominic Cummings, the official Civil Service Twitter account published a tweet which described the Government as “Arrogant and offensive”, and asked: “Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

Rowling wished to know the name of the official who had posted this rapidly suppressed tweet, so she could pay him or her a year’s salary. She denounced Cummings’ “indefensible hypocrisy” and described Johnson’s behaviour as “despicable”.

While the trans row is not at the front of the public’s mind, it poses a mortal danger for Labour, opposing as it does two groups which believe themselves to be in exclusive possession of the truth, while their opponents are plunged in unforgiveable error.

Trans activists maintain that men who know themselves to be women should be able on their own authority to declare themselves women. They are inclined to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being transphobic, an offence placed on a level with racism, i.e. unforgiveable.

Rowling and co hold that sex is a biological given, and say it would be intolerable to allow access to women-only spaces to men who claim to be women. Many traditional feminists are outraged that their hard-won women-only spaces might be invaded in this way.

The majority of public figures, confronted by such a contentious issue, where one is liable to be denounced in bitter terms if one adopts a clear position, try to keep their heads down. (So too many commentators. Here is a ConHome interview with James KIrkup, one of the few journalists to have followed the story.)

No less a figure than Tony Blair has warned, “Keeping your head down is not a strategy.” He went on to say:

“On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or J.K. Rowling is not going to win.”

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and one of Labour’s most experienced frontbenchers, nevertheless sought, the other day, to keep her head down, saying when asked to define a woman:

“I think people get themselves down rabbit holes on this one… I’m not going to get into rabbit holes on this… As you can see I’m avoiding going down rabbit holes because I just think this is pointless.”

If Cooper’s view had prevailed, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would never have been written.

Such evasiveness infuriates Rowling. On Tuesday 8th March, International Women’s Day, Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, was asked on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 to define a woman, and said:

“There are different definitions legally around what a woman actually is . . . you’ve got the biological definition, legal definition, all kinds of things.”

Pressed for Labour’s definition of a woman, Dodds replied:

“I think it does depend what the context is, surely. You know, there are people who have decided that they have to make that transition. Because they live as a woman, they want to be defined as a woman.”

Rowling tweeted:

“Someone please send the shadow minister for equalities a dictionary and a backbone.”

She also tweeted a picture of Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP who agrees with her on the trans issue, and provided the caption for it:

“This is what a woman who owns a dictionary and a backbone looks like.”

And as it was International Women’s Day, she tweeted:

“Apparently, under a Labour government, today will become We Who Must Not Be Named Day.”

My literary adviser (I have not read the Potter books) points out that Voldemort, the villain, is most often referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Rowling has 13.9 million followers on Twitter, Sir Keir 1.2 million and Dodds 73.3K. Of the three, Rowling is undoubtedly the most entertaining.

For she is not just an avoider of questions or a creator of soundbites. She is prolific and audacious. Some authors, having sold 500 million copies of their most famous series and seen it translated into 70 languages, might be tempted to rest on their laurels.

Rowling would be bored to death by such a life. Rather than emigrate to some sunny tax exile in order to preserve as much of her fortune as possible, she married a Scottish doctor, bought a house outside Perth, had two more children, went on writing books, and set up charities devoted to such causes as multiple sclerosis (from which her mother died), social deprivation and orphanages in Ukraine.

In June 2020 she wrote a piece about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues, in which she said of her decision to support Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who had lost her job for what were deemed “transphobic” tweets:

“I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.

“What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.”

Rowling was born in Gloucestershire in 1965. Her parents had been in the Royal Navy, and were both 19 when she was born. This was not a gilded, Mitford world, but the house was full of books. She went to Wyedean comprehensive school, where she was head girl, and from there to Exeter University, where she read French, which included a year in Paris.

She always wanted to be a writer, but like most people with that ambition, doubted whether it would be possible. After various unsuitable jobs, such as bilingual secretary, she found the first Harrry Potter story taking shape in her mind on a train journey.

There is a directness in Rowling’s manner which is found in few politicians. She goes for things, and on the trans question she has gone for the whole lily-livered Labour leadership.

If and when she gets them to stop nailing their colours to the fence, she will have done them a service.

Profile: Stonewall, a once brilliantly successful campaign group which now seems to be committing suicide

10 Jun

While agonising over how to begin this profile, I was rung by a friend who, on hearing of the subject on which I was working, declared:

“I hope you will say we are sick of being dictated to!”

That is not how I had thought of starting, for I am more timid and tactful than my friend. But it is actually quite a good jumping off point.

Stonewall finds itself in crisis because it has changed from an organisation which sought, with brilliant success, to persuade and to carry people with it, into one which insists on imposing a far from popular line.

The voluntary principle has been replaced by compulsion.

Nancy Kelley, since last summer Stonewall’s Chief Executive, recently compared gender-critical views to anti-semitism. In other words, anyone who maintains, as gender-critical feminists do, that “biological differences between the sexes make the continued provision of female-only spaces necessary”, is a disgraceful person.

Trans activists have set out to intimidate and silence the feminists, who in turn are appalled when trans women assert the right to enter female-only spaces, including women’s refuges, dormitories, prisons and sports facilities.

When Keir Starmer was running for the Labour leadership, he signed up to the list of ten pledges presented to the candidates by LGBT+ Labour, promising he would “campaign with you for the changes rightly prioritised here”:

“I will campaign to reform the Gender Recognition Act to introduce a self-declaration process… I believe that trans women are women, that trans men are men.”

A large number of feminists who think of themselves as Labour supporters find themselves without a leader who can articulate their concerns.

Not that Sir Keir is alone among politicians in preferring not to get involved in the debate.

Several influential Conservatives indicated this week to ConHome that they simply did not wish to play any part in the discussion.

Number Ten is watching developments carefully, but does not wish to have a public row. Boris Johnson’s approach to cultural issues of this kind, for example to the attacks on Winston Churchill’s statue, is not to intervene until people are pleading with him to do so.

Last September, the Government dropped plans to allow self-identification by trans people.

But a leading Conservative parliamentarian this week told me, on condition that their anonymity would be strictly preserved, that the trans debate is “extremely scary”.

In their view, Stonewall has completely dumped the LGB part of its mission, is now only interested in campaigning for trans, has become “an extremely unfriendly place for women”, and is viciously intolerant of dissent.

This presents, they argue, a danger for the Conservatives too: “The Conservative Party is terrified of another Section 28” – the law passed in 1988, towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.

If the Tories were to become outspoken opponents of trans activists, they could once more come to be regarded as the nasty party.

So for several years, leading Conservative and Labour figures took great care to avoid the subject, as James Kirkup explained to ConHome in October 2018:

When James Kirkup became interested in transgender politics, people warned him that writing about it was too dangerous. He notes that the fear the subject inspires in many MPs of being attacked as “transphobic” has created a vacuum into which transgender campaigning groups have been able to move, and to push for the right of trans people to “self-identify” their gender, without the arguments for and against the reform being tested in rigorous debate.

In this interview, Kirkup says “nobody has really pointed out” that Professor Stephen Whittle – specialist adviser to the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Maria Miller, when it drew up its agenda-setting report on Transgender Equality – is “also the founder of a group called Press for Change, which was the first trans rights campaigning group in the UK.”

This avoidance of the subject is now breaking down. Victoria Hewson and Rebecca Lowe yesterday reported for ConHome, under their joint byline, Radical, some of the horrific information about Stonewall which has started to emerge as a result of Freedom of Information requests.

And Gary Powell recently declared on this site that, as a gay man, the LGBT+ lobby with its “extreme gender ideology” does not speak for him, and warned that we must “stop neo-Marxist identity politics being force-fed to children in British schools”.

Two of the original 14 founders of Stonewall, set up in 1989 in response to Section 28, have recently dissociated themselves from the organisation.

Stephen Fanshawe described in The Daily Mail how he had received a message from someone he “had always considered an ally in the fight for equality”:

“By expressing your views, you have put yourself outside Stonewall,” the terse message read when it landed in my inbox two years ago. Its Orwellian tone might make you wonder what “views” I could possibly have exhibited that would have set me at such odds with the organisation I proudly helped to form three decades earlier, to campaign for the rights of gay men and lesbians in a society that cruelly discriminated against them.

They must, surely, have been hateful and inflammatory? Not a bit of it. I had simply expressed the opinion that proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act for which Stonewall was campaigning — meaning people could legally “self-identify’” as whatever sex they chose, regardless of their biology — had serious implications for the rights of women.

And Matthew Parris explained in The Times why he thinks Stonewall has lost its way:

What is the charity I helped to found doing, getting entangled in attempts to deny free speech at a university? This column should avoid getting into the trans debate itself. My single, tight focus is on this question: why Stonewall?

There’s something perversely 20th-century about linking gays to trans. Gay men do not want to be women. We like being men. I doubt that being a lesbian is about not wanting to be a woman. Our issues have nothing to do with identification or changing our bodies: we know what we are and nobody disputes it. Most gay men would strongly resist the suggestion we’re boys who want to be girls. I can’t think of anything I’d like less. The whole history of the gay liberation movement is inseparable from what people do rather than what they are. Central to trans concerns is being, not doing. The one thing that links gays and lesbians with trans people is empathy with anyone excluded, oppressed, marginalised or rejected. Indeed this was what influenced some gay groups into supporting the 1984-5 miners’ strike, and Stonewall was perhaps drawn into the trans arguments because a group was fighting for what it considers to be its rights.

Stonewall, founded by a group of activists who met at the house of the actor Ian McKellen in Limehouse, in the East End of London, achieved in its first 20 years or so a series of legislative triumphs. It was named after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, which erupted when members of the gay community in New York fought back against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, and which led to the Pride marches which continue to this day.

In its original typewritten manifesto of 24th May 1989, Stonewall announced:

A Parliamentary Group has been set up to consider new, proposed or potential legislation on issues that may particularly effect lesbians and gay men; and to work with MPs and legislators to ensure equality.

Its central argument, that lesbians and gay men should enjoy equal treatment with heterosexuals, was so strong, and so in accordance with the way the world was moving, that a series of big reforms followed.

These included the lifting of the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces, the equalisation of the age of consent, legal adoption by lesbian and gay couples, the repeal of Section 28 and the introduction of civil partnerships.

In 2001, Stonewall launched its Diversity Champions programme, which had rapid success in recruiting major employers, including banks, retailers and government departments, who wished to ensure that, in the words of Stonewall itself, “all LGBTQ+ staff are free to be themselves in the workplace”.

And in 2011, David Cameron confirmed, as Prime Minister, that Stonewall had been working with the grain of history by declaring his support at the Conservative Party Conference for same-sex marriage, which was passed into law in 2013.

As far as legal equality was concerned, Stonewall had by this point achieved pretty much everything it set out to do. It cast around for a new mission, and in 2014 it decided it had found it in trans.

One can hardly blame trans activists for accepting this huge accession of campaigning strength, and one can see why the people running Stonewall persuaded themselves that instead of winding down their organisation, and putting themselves out of work, here was another injustice which they should be able in the space of a decade or two to put right.

As Parris puts it,

Perhaps the truth is that, after success in our great 20th-century drive for equality, Stonewall was left with bricks and mortar, an admirable staff, a CEO and a fund-raising team and, unconsciously, craved another big, newsworthy cause. Well, sometimes a big army with only small battles to fight does best simply to scale back. I know many gay men have become embarrassed by Stonewall and see (as I do) the paradox that some of its activities are actually damaging the standing of the gay community. We don’t want to be associated with sallies in the trans wars. We want to feel proud, not hurt, not victims. Trans people cannot yet feel that: they need a support group. But that’s for them. Gays (to use the lingo) should not be colonising their issues.

It took a while for politicians to realise that the trans war was not necessarily going to end happily. Theresa May was generally favourable, during her prime ministership, towards the demands of the trans lobby.

Complaints that trans women were demanding the right to use facilities which ought to be reserved for biological women could at first be dismissed as transphobic, a charge all the more convincing because it is sometimes undoubtedly true.

So too complaints that children were being put under unfair pressure to discover that they were unhappy with the gender assigned to them at birth, and to have treatment.

Calm, open discussion of these issues was impossible, and most people felt they had better things to do than court confrontation with trans activists.

But there has now been an unmistakeable change in the political weather. Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, is pushing for all government departments to withdraw from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, which includes 250 public bodies among its 850 members.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Justice will lead an “exodus” from the programme. A  source in the department told the paper:

“It’s a shame, as this was once an organisation that did incredibly important work, but it has totally lost its way and the ministers just don’t think it’s justifiable to give Stonewall taxpayers’ money.

“The department will be just as welcoming to LGBT people as before, but we really shouldn’t be paying thousands of pounds for controversial advice about pronouns and gender-neutral spaces.”

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the employment dispute service Acas have both withdrawn from Diversity Champions “for cost reasons”, a way of circumventing argument about the actual merits of what Stonewall offers.

But Lady Falkner, the new chair of the EHRC, has gone further, declaring in The Times in her first interview since taking up her post:

“Someone can believe that people who self identify as a different sex are not the different sex that they self identify. A lot of people would find this an entirely reasonable belief.”

When the editor of ConHome commissioned this profile, he asked: “Is the Government trying to kill Stonewall?” It seems to me it would be more accurate to say Stonewall is committing suicide.

Radical: While political leaders hide from confrontation, activists are winning the war on self-identification

18 Aug

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regardless of commitments about a summer announcement, Parliament went into recess without any further clarity from Liz Truss on the Government’s plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Nonetheless, there has been no let up in the debate.

It had been expected that the changes to the law that the May government had consulted on – which would have allowed people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, or evidence of having lived for some time as a member of the opposite sex – would be abandoned by the current Westminster government.

In Scotland, reforms of the law to this effect in are still expected to proceed, after having been put on hold during the Covid crisis. But the signs had been pretty clear for months that Westminster had decided against so-called “self-ID” for England and Wales.

In the weeks before recess, however, trans rights activists became ever more vocal in their efforts to mobilise support for self-ID. Publications such as Pink News worked hard, misusing survey data (and misrepresenting the current law), to try to create the impression of a country in which the vast majority of people favoured self-ID, and with it the ability for male-bodied transwomen to use women-only facilities. As ever, mainstream-media reporting too often went along with this false narrative.

Perhaps the influence of these activist groups is one reason for the Government’s delay in confirming its position formally, as promised. After all, government departments and quangos, from the Cabinet Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have signed up to receive guidance and training from Stonewall, through its Diversity Champions programme – and Stonewall is a highly political organisation, which has been lobbying the Government particularly strongly on trans issues.

Transactivist talking points have also been adopted by representatives within the Conservative Party. Many common examples of transactivist misinformation can be found in this piece by Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe, for instance – ironically, in a section devoted to “myth-busting”. So it would not be surprising if the Minister for Equalities has faced the pressure of opposition from within the party over her rethink on pushing forward with self-ID.

The EHRC itself joined the fray last week. Not, however, as might have been hoped, to clarify and improve its guidance on the existing laws protecting women that have been the subject of widespread misunderstanding (as seen in the Blunt and Pascoe piece referred to above). But, rather, to publish another tendentious survey, and remonstrate with its respondents who didn’t support transwomen’s access to women-only spaces and services.

Whilst she acknowledged that a great majority of British people broadly support trans people’s rights to live free of discrimination, and do not consider themselves to be transphobic, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, also noted that “people were found to be less supportive of trans people in specific situations”. The specific situations in question included women’s refuges and facilities such as public toilets.

Yet far from acknowledging that there are good reasons, and legal support, for such views, Hilsenrath seems to consider that the people holding them need to be helped to change their minds, by bringing about a better “level of understanding on the key facts surrounding the debate” by “both sides improving the level of discourse”.

This seems, again, rather ironic considering the poor guidance the EHRC has published on the legal facts of the matter. Indeed, although Hisenrath called for a constructive, tolerant, and fact-based dialogue on law and policy, it seems very clear what the EHRC considers to be the “right” outcome of any dialogue.

In a recent thoughtful piece for The Spectator, James Kirkup called for the Government to take the sting out of the issue by first publishing a “drily technical” announcement that: self-id would be dropped, tweaks made to existing processes regarding legal sex changes, to make them faster and cheaper; and, proper clarity provided in guidance on single-sex provisions. Then the “wider issues” of “reconciling conflicting rights and addressing the woefully poor evidence-base on trans issues, should be kicked even further into the long grass, with a proper fact-finding ‘further investigation’ that must report before any major change can come”.

Now, apart from the fact that what Kirkup considers would be an undramatic, “technical” announcement is, in effect, exactly what the trans lobby have been campaigning against – and publicly positing as a “rolling back” of trans rights – this calm approach seems sensible.

However, it comes with risks. Conservative governments have not traditionally been good at making conservative appointments, and trans lobbyists and activists have excelled at capturing public bodies. There is surely a serious risk, therefore, that any investigative commission, instead of fearlessly finding and reporting on the truth in medical and legal matters, would be susceptible to the same forces that have caused scientific papers to be withdrawn, and legal “guidance” to distort the law.

Certainly, however, there is no reason for Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer for that matter, to get personally involved in the unedifying social-media gender wars. But, it is also the case that they should not allow themselves to get caught up in the “both sides are equal” fallacy that the EHRC and others have been perpetuating.

Legal rights associated with sex have become a political matter, whether we like it or not, and a Conservative government should not hide from making necessary political decisions to acknowledge the reality of sex, and the legal and policy considerations that flow from that. In real life, public bodies continue to adopt policies that are in conflict with current law. Yet these decisions seem to undergo little or no consultation or scrutiny – until, as seen with the spate of legal action against guidance to schools, brave individuals stand up and challenge them.

NHS Lanarkshire recently announced an HR protocol , which effectively makes staff changing rooms mixed sex, included people who dress as the opposite gender for “erotic pleasure” under the umbrella of “trans”, and by claims that staff could be discriminating against trans colleagues by “not thinking” of them as the gender they present.  A Labour MSP who tried to hold NHS Lanarkshire to account over this, and who questioned how a medical organisation could propagate the idea of a baby having its gender “assigned at birth”, was met with calls that she should be disciplined by her party.

These are the consequences of political leaders leaving the field. Hiding behind a commission of experts, therefore, in order to avoid offending the groups of highly engaged and influential activists who have occupied that field, would itself be a political decision, and one that seems unlikely to improve the quality of the debate.