5. The Debate

5. The Debate

Chapter Contents

Undertaking the interviews was the most rewarding part of the research and I quickly discovered that there were willing participants offering me the opportunity to represent their varying perspectives. The data focused in on the untouched debate regarding gender reform and transgender ideology and any impact this may have on the MVAW sector. The following two chapters represent the rich data acquired from both the interviews and the online ethnographic research. Due to word count limitations I had to reduce the quotes from the data, as such I have provided the removed evidence as supplementary data (see Appendix H). The results chapters meet the aims and objectives of this research. Chapter five discusses the topics relating to the overarching debate on the proposed changes to the GRA (2004). Chapter six offers a representation of the silencing of feminist discourse and the impact on the MVAW sector, both as a movement and in terms of service provision. The following two thematic chapters include a discussion relating to the literature.

Table 3 displays the nodes organised and filtered in order of how the following chapter on “The Debate” were merged. Through thematic analysis, parent nodes were developed into the main themes and subsequently the child nodes became the subthemes.

The Proposed Changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004Politicians and GovernmentThe LeftSelf-ID
Why CampaignFeminism and Women’s Rights Transgender Rights Movement
What is a WomanAdult Human FemaleTranswomen are Women
Table 3 Themes and Subthemes for the ‘Debate’

As reflected above, the overarching themes within this chapter were developed further and are represented in subthemes, and discussion relating to the findings runs throughout the chapter. This chapter is presented by first exploring the data in relation to the proposed changes to the GRA (2004), with subthemes on ‘politicians and government’, ‘the left’, and ‘self-ID’. I then move onto why participants campaigned on either side of the debate, with the subthemes, ‘feminism and women’s rights’ and the ‘transgender rights movement’. The next section of the data analyses the results of the question, ‘what is a woman’? With subthemes labelled ‘adult human female’ and ‘transwomen are women’. Finally, I summarise the chapter findings.

As discussed in the Methodology Chapter, analysis of the online ethnographic data was applied after the main themes emerged from the thematic analysis of the interviews. The online ethnography is interspersed with the interview data. Some themes had no supportive ethnographic evidence, and Table 4 represents the percentage split of analysed content between the interviews and the ethnographic data, where the latter was captured.

 A : S Dillon (@SuitorAnne) ~ TwitterB : Interviews
1: Feminism, Women’s Rights and Activism2.13%97.87%
2: The proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 200414.34%85.66%
3: Transgender Rights movement10.04%89.96%
4: What is a woman6.18%93.82%
5: What Is A Woman Question33.02%66.98%
Table 4 Coding Matrix Nodes Represented in Chapter 5 (row percentage split – interviews v online ethnographic data)

The parent nodes of ‘what is a woman’ and ‘what is a woman question’ were collapsed together, as will be explained later in the chapter. As mentioned in the Methodology Chapter, the feminist participants were split into group A and the pro Self-ID participants are represented in group B.

The Proposed Changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004

The interviews started by asking: “what is your understanding of the proposed changes to the GRA 2004”? Most participants had a good understanding of the reforms:

My understanding is that they would remove the current link to medicalisation and treatment…and allow people to self-identify gender. (P3A)

Well largely around the self-identification issue and the de-medicalisation of transitioning…to move to a situation where you have to self-ID. (P6B)

However, there were a handful within the pro self-ID cohort who were unclear on the proposed reforms:

Not a huge amount. (P10B)

As far as I understand it is about removing the requirement for passports (P12B)

It is perhaps surprising that a couple of participants on the pro self-ID side were unaware of what they were campaigning for. The feminist participants, on the other hand, had a much clearer understanding of the de-medicalised approach in the reforms (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016, pp. 79-80), as discussed in chapter two. As was evidenced in chapter three, this is likely to be because the consequences of speaking out against transgender ideology are severe (Woman’s Place UK, 2020c). If you are going to take that risk, it stands to reason women would want to be very clear about their argument:

You have to be very determined and know that you are right to do this…it is not for people who are not sure about things. (P8A)

Government and politicians

Participants expressed strongly held views on the position of the government and politicians. On most topics in a democratic society, we expect politicians to represent both sides of a heavily contested issue, but the consensus from participants on both sides, held that UK politicians had been remiss in how they had dealt with this topic:

They have been extraordinarily cowardly. (P13A)

No! (laughter)… I think the government and all political parties have had abject failure on all fronts it is absolutely shocking. They have not done the very minimum that we should expect them to do which is to consider everyone’s rights… (P7A)

I am not sure about them creating a healthy debate. It is very convoluted like everything with parliament at the moment. (P2B)

This last comment was a reference to the time at which the interviews were taking place, which coincided with another heavily contested and divisive debate for the UK, namely Brexit. It is noteworthy that politicians did not shy away from the toxicity of the Brexit debate, and some positively thrived on its divisive nature (Smith, 2013). However, politicians overwhelmingly appeared unwilling to foster debate around gender reform, unless to show unrelenting support for the proposed changes (Gimson, 2018).

Although there was relative consensus on the belief that elected officials had not dealt with the debate well, the reasons participants gave were understandably more varied. Feminist participants felt strongly that this was a result of sexism and misogyny and, as was evidenced in chapter two, the pattern of silencing and excluding women from the debates since 2004, regarding gender reform (Jeffreys 2008, p. 328) have continued:

I don’t think there has been any help from any political party, there has be demonisation and marginalisation of women’s concerns. (P8A)

The woman and equalities parties are cross party groups…they represent women…. But…society is programmed not to listen to women, and they are no different from anyone else in that respect… [they] dropped this bomb which female women’s organisations have been trying to pick up. (P6A)

Perhaps unsurprisingly some of the cohort of pro self-ID participants felt that politicians’ inadequacies were for different reasons:

I suspect the poor civil servants who thought this was going to be a quick win…or that we are not such right-wing bigots… I think the government, were maybe naïve or ill-prepared. (P13B)

I just thought quite early on, they have done this whole consultation to make a nod and pay lip service to communities that are demanding their rights. We have got an increased visibility of trans rights movement and they want to be seen to be doing something about that increased visibility, so they whipped up all this concern, knowing that this probably won’t go anywhere anyway. (P4B)

The Left

Aside from the objections to politicians, the political persuasions of feminist participants came out very strongly with most of them reporting being either involved in the Labour party or trade union movements. Similarly to the women of the second wave (Echols, 1989, p. 3; Hanisch, 2006 p.1; Mckay, 2015, p. 28, 34, 36; Zaretsky, 2013), these participants felt let down by the inherent sexism on the left, and this theme was presented heavily in the ethnographic data with 58% of the analyses on the topic of ‘The Left’ being attributed to ethnographic data. Figure 7 represents the prominent words via a word cloud from the analyses of interviews and online ethnography under the child node labelled ‘The Left’, with women’s rights being central to the discussions of Labour party members.                         

Figure 7 The Left Node Word Cloud

Feminist participants reflected that they had devoted large parts of their careers and their lives within the left, and this was clearly an emotional journey:

It is a crisis really, it is a personal crisis as well about our politics, because we have done a lifetime of socialist thinking that the left cares about women and it is just so shocking and it still is, every day… (P8A)

This debate has created conflict in the Labour party. However, unlike other factions within what is proudly proclaimed a democratic party (“How We Work – The Labour Party”, 2020), those who speak out against gender reform are immediately accused of being part of anti-trans hate groups, including being attacked at party conference (Morning Star, 2019). Participants reflected these issues:

It has affected the Labour party so much and trade union movements. (P13A)

If we get Corbyn then we will roll back. Then we will get our heads kicked in because the violent backlash is increasing… (P16A)

It was not just the feminist participants who had issues with the left. A participant in the pro self-ID cohort expressed their discontent:

I am so, so pissed off with the Labour party about this… It is outright stupidity and laziness and not researching the issues properly. Somebody hands them an easy soundbite. (P5B)

Towards the end of data collection, a hashtag emerged during the 2020 Labour leadership election, which evidenced the growing unease with the party’s treatment of women. The two main hashtags that trended through the online ethnography with reference to ‘The Left’ were #LabourLosingWomen and #ExpelMe.

Figure 8 The Left Node – Expel me/Labour Losing Women Online Ethnography Hashtags Word Cloud  

Figure 8 represents the word frequency search under the online ethnographic hashtags of ‘Expel Me’ and ‘Labour Losing Women’. The hashtag ‘Expel Me’ refers to four of the five main Labour leadership campaign candidates, signing a twelve-point pledge card from the ‘Labour campaign for Trans Rights’ (“Labour Campaign for Trans Rights”, 2020). The pledge called on the expulsion of party members who hold ‘bigoted and transphobic views’ and declared the grassroots feminist activist group, Woman’s Place UK, a ‘trans-exclusionist hate group’ (Mason, 2020). The female founders of Woman’s Place are veteran Labour and trade unionist campaigners, and the Woman’s Place campaign is rooted firmly in respectful leftist dialogue and analysis (Woman’s Place UK, 2019b). The hashtag ‘Expel Me’ referred to a response letter the founders had written, they ended the letter with “defend us or expel us” (Tunks, Serwotka & Green, 2020). This resulted in many Labour voters taking to Twitter to stand in solidarity with Woman’s Place UK, under the ‘expel me’ hashtag. Ethnographic evidence gave an indication of the level of anger during this time:

All those amazing women who paved the way for this generation and who built the women’s services we depend on would today be called bigots/terfs/transphobes and expelled from the Labour Party. You are a bunch of self-sabotaging clowns   #ExpelMe (Tweet 1)

Women’s rights should be at the heart of the Labour movement. We firmly reject the allegations that women’s and LGB rights groups advocating for our sex-based rights are transphobic or hateful #ExpelMe #SexNotGender.

(Tweet 2)

There were those that agree with the expulsion of these members from the Labour party, and the counter hashtag that emerged was ‘Expel Them’: 

#ExpelThem is a fantastic idea. Cut out the rot. (Tweet 3)

You can report any Labour member for a transphobic statement through this link. Let’s #ExpelThem (Tweet 4)


As evidenced in chapter 2, the reforms look to simplify and de-medicalise the current process and make it easier for those who identify as transgender to be acknowledged in law as the sex of their choice (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016, p. 13 (39)). Participants’ views on self-ID were captured in detail. Unsurprisingly, all the feminist participants were staunchly against the adoption of self-ID both in legislation and policy, this latter point will be explored in more detail in chapter six. Feminists felt very strongly that self-ID would clash with their ability to protect their sex-based rights:

I object to self-ID because I do not think that a feeling should give you a legal characteristic. It is not feelings that put you in legal categories… (P6A)

The whole trans debate would be irrelevant if women were not oppressed…If we had got rid of that, the trans thing wouldn’t matter. But whilst women are in every aspect of their life discriminated against because of their sex, we can’t ignore that. (P12A)

In addition, participants expressed the offence it caused them when asked to redefine the parameters of their experience as females, evidencing the link between the erasure of women as a sex class, and a direct link from the influence of the Yogyakarta Principles on policy and legislation in chapter two (Jeffreys, 2008, pp. 328-329):

…one of the things about being a woman is the lived experience…there will be enough generalised experience where living like a woman means something and then you have people who identify as a woman two days a week that haven’t had that lived experience and because of their privilege their voice gets counted as a woman’s voice…I think there is a dishonesty about that actually and a disregard for the hard facts of what being a woman is, and to disregard them is a real insult. (P7A)

Some pro self-ID participants were fully supportive of self-ID as a concept and in practice, their positionality was in line with Yogyakarta Principles notion of protecting a person’s gender identity (International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), 2007, p.6):

I support Self ID…you identify as however you identify, I think I don’t see a problem with that…I think that people that identify as a woman even if they haven’t been through the process, whether they are intending to or not. It is how you feel in yourself. (P1B)

Absolutely! I think given that this is a self-diagnosed reality…they are not doing this for fun. (P9B)

However, whilst the feminist cohort did not deviate from their objections to self-ID, many of the pro self-ID cohort were more nuanced in their support of it, the parameters of self-ID were not fully in line with the blanket Stonewall demand, “acceptance without exception” (Stonewall, 2016). This nuance will be explored in more detail in chapter six.

The ethnographic data set revealed the prevalence of online discussions regarding self-ID from both sides of the debate:

Being pro Self-ID is the fringe view. This from the #MayaForstaterCase2019 is jaw dropping. A witness says that if a white woman- Rachel Dolezal- if working for CGF (Forstater’s former employers) said she was black she would “in reality” be black. (Tweet 5)

This is the MP who defended the rampant transphobia on Mumsnet as ‘free speech’! I guess we can wave goodbye to #GRA reform! I notice that the anti-trans “gender critical” cult are already piling on to this tweet to demand their “sex not gender” ideology is enforced! (Tweet 6)

The tweet coded (Tweet 5) references the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identified as black and worked for years as a black civil rights activist. She claimed her self-declared ‘black identity’ was valid and she could identify into her preferred race without apology (Aitkenhead, 2017). Just ten days before the Dolezal case, the former Olympian, Bruce Jenner had come out as a transwoman and appeared in Vanity Fair as Caitlyn Jenner (Bissinger, 2015). Legitimate questions were then asked, if Jenner could identify as a woman, why could Dolezal not identify as black? Being transracial could be argued to be as legitimate as being transgender, however, as Brubecker (2016) evidenced, the majority of the cultural left felt that the Jenner and Dolezal cases were not comparable as race remains a more closely policed category than gender, with the argument remaining that Dolezal chose to be black and Jenner simply was a woman (Brubecker, 2015, pp. 427 – 429). Participants from the feminist cohort also referred to transracial issues as a comparison to self-ID of sex:

If you can self ID as a gender, why can’t you self ID as a race or anything else for that matter. (P10A)

I asked her specifically how this was different from black face, how this was different from Rachel Dolezal and me asserting that I was black, and she could not or would not answer me. (P14A)

What we saw with Rachel Dolezel, who made a career out of not being black, that is lunacy! (P3A)

This throws into question the claims of identifying into any category one wishes (J L, 2019; Wright, 2019): it is not out of the parameters of liberal solipsism to claim status of transition into another species or to identify as disabled (Davis, 2011, p. 4). If the category of sex and gender is designed by trans ideologues to promote the narrative of being born in the wrong body (Stock: in The Guardian 2020 – Understanding the Fight over Trans Rights, Part 2, 13:00 – 14:35), it stands to reason, as feminist participants pointed out, that self-identification of race does too (Brubecker, 2015, p. 431).

Why Campaign?

To find out more about participants’ reasons for campaigning I asked, ‘What made you get involved in the campaign for the proposed changes to the GRA 2004’? A word frequency search (Figure 9) reveals the top 50 words of no longer than five characters, centre the words, ‘women’ and ‘trans’:

Figure 9 Why Campaign Node Word Cloud

Figure 9 represents the main reasons why participants became involved in the gender reform debate, with the feminist participants largely referencing women as their focus and pro self-ID participants referencing transgender people’s rights. The following section discusses the position from participants regarding their involvement in the debate and their views on both feminist and or trans rights activism.

Feminism, Women’s Rights, and activism

For feminist women they were clear why they were campaigning against the reforms:

My rights and my daughters’ rights were about to be taken away. (P11A)

Because I work with women subjected to men’s violence, I strongly believe that women have a right to have services provided by women and in a single sex environment. (P1A)

Pro self-ID participants campaigned for protection of transgender people’s rights and against the perspective of transphobic commentary from those who opposed gender reform:

I was really concerned about the impact that some campaigners, who probably have legitimate concerns, but the language they were choosing to use was becoming very harmful to my trans siblings. (P14B)

Trans people exist, anyone who has worked with trans people knows that they exist… what has happened there has been a fear stirred up and a hatred of trans people. (P9B)

It did not come as a surprise to me that many of the participants were used to activism and some had spent lifetimes fighting against social injustice. Although I had two distinct groups of participants, ‘Feminist’ and ‘pro Self-ID’, the naming of these was for my ease in distinguishing the groups. It did not mean that the pro self-ID participants did not identify as feminists, many did. The difference between the theories of feminism were unsurprising, with nearly half of the pro self-ID participants basing their preferred feminist theory as intersectional, while radical feminism was the theory most feminist participants were aligned with, with its link to the MVAW sector also being noted:

I think I would see myself as a radical feminist who comes from the violence against women’s movement so that’s more of an understanding of feminism that is grounded in our treatment as a biological sex class. (P3A)

Although I did interview two participants who identified as radical feminists in the pro self-ID cohort; one participant was very clear that she would be careful about publicly stating this:

I would have called myself a radical feminist in the past, but partly because of the tone of the debate…and how radical feminism is described now, you have to be careful. (P8B)

This comment was of interest, as discussed in chapter three, the acronym TERF, refers to ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; if the academic discourse discussed in chapter three was relied upon (Hines, 2010, p. 599, 608), we could assume that all the feminists interviewed were staunch anti-trans radical feminists, but this was not the case. Some references were made to socialist feminism and a few were clear that they did not want to pigeonhole themselves into any feminist perspective. Not concerned with the academic context, some feminist participants felt no need to associate with a feminist theory, they expressed exactly what feminism meant to them:

I have just always described myself as a feminist. I was at a luncheon a while ago and they were all sat round talking about theoretical stuff and I just sat there and thought I just don’t want fucking men in my bathrooms! (P4A)

I used to say radical feminist but these days I just say I am an actual real proper feminist…Because why is radical seen as an off shoot, when that is feminism…faux feminism you know ineffectual feminism like liberal feminism and feminism for men, neo-liberal feminism, you know it isn’t feminism. (P2A)

Although it could be argued that the influence of radical feminist anti-trans rhetoric influenced the position of feminist participants (Hines, 2010, p. 599, 608), what mattered more than an academic context was the reasoning for the conflict. Feminist participants expressed the motivation of transgender ideology being misogynistic and directly clashing with the feminist project (Jeffreys, 2018):

A small level of gain has led to more and more demands and the root behind that is a deep misogyny. I think the way we are spoken to by these transwomen belies misogyny and the way they are aggressively backed by young men shows a hatred of feminism. (P16A)

That is just straight out misogyny, this isn’t about femaleness or women’s rights at all, in terms of what motivates those people, I would go for casual or deliberate misogyny…the deliberate ones concern me much more. (P3A)

Both groups of participants referred to the patriarchy but for differing reasons, for feminist participants the patriarchal nature of the move to take women’s spaces was obvious:

As a radical feminist it is important to bring it back to the patriarchy, this is about men regaining their power over women and how better to regain their power than to convince everybody that women are not what women say they are, and that they can also be women, if they say they want to be. (P10A)

It feels like the attempt to dismantle women-only spaces are not just this one issue; it is just patriarchal. (P12A) 

Ethnographic data supported the notion of misogyny and patriarchy as a driving factor for the proponents of gender reform:

The ‘misogynists trap,’ as I called it, is a sexist trick or deception that persuades men that, because they don’t consciously hate, dislike or fear women, it isn’t egregious patriarchal bullshit to try and redefine women against their consent to serve male people’s interests. (Tweet 7).

In contrast, pro self-ID participants references to patriarchy fit with the postmodernist ideals of queer theory and the linguistic idealism of knowledge discussed in chapter 3 (Jones, 2018; Merlingen, 2013):

Without viewing men as men and women as women you can’t have a patriarchy. So, when you are coming from that space where you are the other or opposite you are still operating under that system…Unfortunately, it is because of the patriarchal system that someone needs to identify as anything at all. (P3B)

Feminist participants did not detract from the practical need for women to assert and define their female boundaries, whilst having to live within the parameters of a dangerous patriarchal world:

If women lose the right to say what their boundaries are…then women have no rights. Women have to have the right to say no, no further, not here, not now and if anyone can identify as a woman it completely takes that right away. (P7A)

Several feminist participants reflected that the broader issues of the transgender ideology was a backlash against feminism and against women:

We are fighting over our right to define who we are as human beings…it’s beyond a tragedy, if this a backlash it is the worst one, I have ever seen. (P3A)

My personal opinion is that we are going through a backlash against women, and it feels very profound to me…I have never faced this type of vitriol or personal persecution that people have felt they have got the right to put me through. (P8A)

One pro self-ID participant also referred to a backlash, but from the perspective of transgender people and their movement:

The movement has come into the media and it is more visible and so we are going through this journey that social movements go through…it will get a backlash…and so they are saying…why are you adding to our hate by singling us out and laughing at us or pointing at us…when a large proportion of society is doing that anyway, and not for anything political but just because they want men to be men and women to be women. (P4B)

What has occurred over the last few years provides rich evidence of important distinctions that need to be made when advancing transgender rights, and the subsequent clash with women’s rights. Feminist participants expressed this:

I don’t see the gains that would allegedly be made by the trans community as cancelling out the harms that would undoubtedly occur to the female community. (P6A)

Encouragingly several pro self-ID participants acknowledged there were clashes between women’s rights and transgender ideology, recognising the importance of this:

I think I don’t have a problem with transwomen saying they are women; I do have a problem with cis women not being allowed their own choices…(P6B)

When you see trans activists saying…that transwomen should be allowed into an event for the sexualisation of women because they may have felt feminine when they were younger, I just think No. You are picking the wrong battle there…one minority group should not be bashing on the heads of another minority group. (P4B)

Transgender Rights Movement
Like all social movements the transgender rights movement is divergent and vast in its representation. During discussions, the trans lobby groups featured strongly in terms of their role in this debate. Figure 10 offers an analysis of the prominent 50 words used within the interview data on this theme, evidencing the clashes between ‘trans’, ‘women’ and the concept of ‘gender.’

Figure 10 Transgender Rights Movement Node Word Cloud

Feminist participants’ views of trans lobby groups was not favourable, and they expressed concern with their influence on government and policy capture in wider institutions:

Stonewall has had quite an audience as had Gendered Intelligence, so this sort of thing has been going on for a while in workplaces, so…in some areas they got hold, prior to us challenging them. (P13A)

These policies are very easily snuck in by a very small number of very vocal activists. On the back of a sympathy narrative, which is not at all sympathetic to women, in fact it is very aggressive. (P16A)

The government has been lobbied for a long period but then of course what gave it support was the women and equalities committee report which happened to be the first inquiry that they did and the staff there took a particularly pro-trans stance and advised the committee that they didn’t need to call as all witnesses any of the women’s organisations. (P14A)

For some in the pro self-ID cohort the issue of lobbying for gender reform was a simple aspect of respecting a transgender person’s identity. Participants made references to the issues being influenced by a media misinformation campaign rather than lobby groups:

Rather than it being a medical issue, a mental health disorder, to a recognition that it is just another aspect of human being. They needed to take it away from that panel, to de-medicalise it…So, when you take the hyperbole out of it, the government was responding to the need of a very marginalised part of society. (P9B) 

There was a lot of misinformation that was coming out and I think, you know, a lot of people put trust in the media. (P1B)

However, some from the pro self-ID cohort were aware of the types of activism carried out by some trans activists, and there was an understanding that the result would be damaging for the women’s movement:

The trans activists that are saying…you are a fascist if you do not want all toilets to go unisex overnight, maybe in the future world…when we are all just human beings. I worry that the logical conclusion from the trans activist side is to just make everything gender neutral anyway, which is of course, what the government wants. It is a great way of getting rid of the women’s sector. (P4B)

There was a recognition that the boundaries of what it means to be transgender are much wider than previously established, with trans lobby groups campaigning to remove the terminology ‘transsexual’, from the Gender Recognition Act 2004, to encompass the wider transgender umbrella (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016, p. 3). Feminist participants felt that nuance needed to be distinguished:

I think the trans community is divergent isn’t it. Especially the difference between transsexuals and transgender. (P15A)

I suspect many policy makers and MPs, hear the word trans and think transsexual, but we are not in that landscape, the transgender umbrella would cover me as a woman who does not perform ‘gender’ in stereotypical ways. (P3A)

However, for one pro self-ID participant the widening bandwidth of the trans umbrella was not a problem, when asked whether they accept the whole umbrella represented now, they were unequivocal in their support:

Yes, I do. (P1B)

Moreover, for this participant the wider expanse of transgender definitions was not a problem:

…no, I don’t see any difference, from my perspective, I think if someone identifies as a woman, they are a woman. (P1B)

Given the expansion of the trans umbrella it was encouraging that participants were aware the root causes of this change were led by queer theory. The academic relevance of queer theory had not gone unnoticed from the participants on either side of the debate:

I was really interested in Judith Butler when I was studying sociology…even though she has totally drunk the academic kool aid, you know, the theory is so marvellous, “‘I’ve just forgotten the fucking world!” (P3A)

…we can’t pretend we are there already, that has always been my problem with queer theory…and some of the tools that we will need will be about respecting and understanding other people’s experiences…and you have to understand why a woman will have a response to a man, even if that person is not a man. (P4B)

Ethnographic data also evidenced the rejection of queer theory:

To my middle-class male ex comrades who believe that #sexnotgender is ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’ I say fuck you. Fuck you again. Go fuck yourselves. Your Queer Theory belongs in the grave. Not female children. Once again. Fuck you. (Tweet 8)

The problem we are dealing [with] is huge…and institutional sabotage of investigations and inquiries and uncritical endorsement of queer theory are clues not to be missed. (Tweet 9)

It is widely accepted that the feminist movement’s goals are rooted in a fight against discrimination against women and conversely, the transgender rights movement’s aim is to fight transphobia. Participants views on transphobia were interesting to dissect, for pro self-ID participants they were directed to women who were raising their objections to self-ID:

…not all of that was tied to the GRA, some of it was opportunistic, ‘ooo, we are having this conversation about trans people, I happen to hate trans people, I am going to use this as an opportunity to platform my hate’. (P14B)

The women’s activist side…the rhetoric seems to be transphobic. (P3B)

It was important that this was not lost in the debate and I was encouraged that the feminist cohort were keen to point out their views on transphobia and transwomen in particular:

They are definitely discriminated against so need protection. Their protection should not be at the cost of women’s protection. (P15A)

I wouldn’t want any trans person to be afraid of walking between the tube stop and home, you know, I don’t want anyone to be frightened. (P1A)

For feminist participants there was a clear distinction made between trans activists and trans people:

I think to see the trans activists…the trans Taliban as I will call them, as distinct from the vast majority of transsexual people who just want to get on with their lives is very important. (P2A)

Discussing the reasons why participants campaigned for or against gender reform, revealed a delineation between forwarding the rights of transgender people and protecting women’s sex-based rights, and feminist participants were clear that their actions were not about transgender people, but against the wider extremes of transgender ideologies (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 331). This was a significant part of the findings: the interests of marginalised groups should not outweigh each other; the problem is that in this debate there has been an unprecedented clash. If transgenderism was viewed as a completely separate category to the male-female binary – rather than on a continuum (Beresford, 2014, p. 763; Butler, 1990, p. 2), then perhaps these debates would not be occurring because women’s rights might not be affected. It is not automatically the case that other discriminated against characteristics neatly operate in isolation, or that there is no dispute between the interests of different groups; as Crenshaw highlighted, oppressions are heightened through race and gender (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 139-140) and intersect, but policy attempts to improve the lives of one marginalised group has not ordinarily had such implications for another marginalised group (Fair Play for Women, 2020; Jones & Mackenzie, 2020, p. 7).

I was encouraged by the care with which the feminist participants wanted to ensure that transgender people were not discriminated against. They were fighting to protect their rights as women, and it could be argued that this is not transphobia, but feminism in its most basic form. The clash appears to be between lobby groups and trans activists, who are, in the views of feminist participants, moving to redesign the boundaries within which women’s rights exist. Although some pro self-ID participants rightly pointed out the wider aspects of transphobia from some campaigning against gender reform, there was an acknowledgment from both cohorts that women’s rights must not be compromised in place of protections for those who identify as transgender. When the definition of a woman leads to even more contentious arguments, it is unclear how these clashes will be settled, which is the issue I turn to next.

What is a Woman?

“War is Peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” George Orwell – 1984 (Orwell, 1989 p.19)

Figure 11 What is a woman? Online Ethnography Screenshot, June 2020

The preceding section of this chapter represents the thread that runs through the whole debate. Once self-ID becomes law in any jurisdiction it changes the definition of what a woman is, in every category. As will be evidenced, this seemingly innocuous question and the subsequent answer throws the debate into the perfect storm, with dangerous consequences for those who get the answer wrong.

In phase one, I coded within the node ‘What is a Woman’ and this provided me with the overarching data I was expecting. At the point of analysis I realised that I had not adequately captured the responses to the specific question, I therefore went back to a fourth phase of coding and directly analysed this question – this method is known as eclectic coding (Saldańa 2016, p. 213). What resulted was an extra parent node with underlying child nodes under the theme, ‘What is a Woman, question’, these nodes were collapsed together. Tables 5 and 6 evidence the parent and subsequent child nodes of ‘what is a woman’ and ‘what is a woman question’, respectively, and are separated to visually identify the attribute value contributions:

 A : Feminist:Feminst = FeministB : Pro SelfID:Pro SelfID = Pro Self ID
1: What is a woman7664
2: Biological essentialism13
3: Biological sex33
4: Cisgender05
5: Denying reality10
6: Female Erasure10
7: Gender Stereotyping106
8: Language06
9: Pronouns31
10: Sex v gender55
11: Sexual Dimorphism32
12: Sports80
13: TW are TW31
14: TWAW1611
15: Women v Men Socialisation12
16: What Is A Woman Question1817
17: Adult Human Female92
18: Bio41
19: Feels like a woman05
20: Female40
21: Identifies as a woman03
22: Woman is gender03
23: Woman is perception01
Table 5 What is a woman? Coding matrix query with attribute values
 A : Feminist:Feminst = FeministB : Pro SelfID:Pro SelfID = Pro Self ID
1: What Is A Woman Question1817
2: Adult Human Female92
3: Bio41
4: Feels like a woman05
5: Female40
6: Identifies as a woman03
7: Woman is gender03
8: Woman is perception01
Table 6 What is a Woman Question? Coding matrix query with attribute values

We can see from Table 5 ‘What is a woman?’ emerging in the first round of coding that the main topics of conversation were, ‘gender stereotyping’, ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘adult human female’. As is present in table 6 the child node ‘what is a woman question’ offered an opportunity to explore these discussions in more detail, and in coding round 4, I made this a parent node. The prominent topics within this aspect of the interviews detail the differing definitions of being a woman, with ‘adult human female’ being the most prevalent, but other references offered more nuanced discussions supporting the ‘identity’ and ‘feelings’ of the category woman.   

The ethnographic data provided a rich representation of the online discourse in relation to the definition of a woman. Table 7 below represents the percentage data split of the online discourse against the interview data, evidencing that the ethnographic content provided references to, ‘adult human female’, ‘transwomen are women’ (TWAW), ‘biology’ and ‘language’.

Table 7 What is a Woman and what is a woman question? Coding Matrix Interviews and Ethnographic data split.

The question posed may appear quite innocuous to those outside of the debate, however, when I asked participants the initial responses were noteworthy. The first response from many participants on both cohorts was laughter, a response that gives some indication to the importance and contentious nature of the question:

That is a very large question isn’t it. (P3A)

I am not even going to go there; it is too tricky! (P7B)

Adult Human Female

100% of the feminist participants responded to this question with the dictionary definition or by referencing the word ‘female’. The pro self-ID responses were more nuanced, as expected, however, there were some surprising findings; three of the pro self-ID cohort also used the same descriptors as the feminist participants. The most common response from feminist participants to the question ‘In your opinion what is a woman?’ was ‘Adult human female’ as can be seen from the word cloud in Figure 12, below: 

Figure 12 What is a Woman Question Node – Adult Human Female Word Cloud

An Adult Human Female! (P11A)

There is no reason to define a woman as anything other than an adult human female. (P16A)

As stated, not all participants who described a woman as an adult human female were within the feminist cohort:

Well, an adult human female. (2)

It’s an adult human female! It is so fucking obvious isn’t it! (9)

Both the above participants worked within the MVAW sector and both had been part of the Stonewall research (Stonewall & NfpSynergy, 2018). The coding of their participant data has been changed to further protect their anonymity, these participants were anxious about being vilified for not describing transwomen as women, as referenced in the evidence of public figures in chapter two (Bindel, 2020c; Murray, 2017; Yorke, 2017; Allerdice, 2018; Turner, 2018). As referenced in previous chapters, the Stonewall (2018) research evidenced no issues with trans inclusion in female-only MVAW spaces. I was therefore surprised that these participants chose this language to define women. I wrongly assumed, because both participants were in the pro self-ID cohort, they would be unlikely to use this descriptor, but as will be discussed in chapter six the responses from those who were part of the Stonewall report were more complex than expected. Other references to a woman being defined by biology or under the category female were made by the feminist participants:

Well for the purposes of recording our sex-based oppression you know we have to stick to the term woman; I would use female… there is no ifs and buts about it. (P2A)

It is the biological definition. You can only be born male or female and a woman is born female. (P5A)

The evidence from the ethnographic data supported the notion that a woman is an adult human female:

An adult human female is a woman and a biological reality! Dress however you like, identify with whichever gender you want, but your sex does not change! #IStandWithMaya  #ThisIsNotADrill. (Tweet 13)

This #istandwithmaya stuff is mental, she tweeted that transwomen cannot change their biological sex and has been sacked for it. Of course, they can’t, surgery changes gender but there’s no medical way of changing your fucking chromosomes, what she said was just a fact. (Tweet 14)

The hashtag ‘I Stand with Maya’ evident in the ethnographic data above, is in reference to Maya Forstater who lost her job for speaking out against gender reform, as detailed in the introduction chapter (Forstater, 2019).

Participants are aware of how contentious an answer to the question of defining a woman can be: a dictionary or scientific definition is deemed transphobic and pro-self ID participants touched upon their reasons for the offence this caused them:

…you know that woman equals adult human female; that dog whistle dictionary definition which seems perfectly reasonable from the outside, but what you are trying to say is that there are only specific women who are women. (P12B)

I find woman equals adult human female to be transphobic – not inherently, if that is the dictionary definition of the word woman…But the problem is the inference of the word female, the inference that the group is using it as assigned female at birth, or contains a certain form of genitalia or chromosomes… (P14B)

Pro self-ID participants’ views on scientific definitions of sex descriptors fit the queer theory narrative described in chapter three (Butler, 1990, p. 2):

…you can have female biology and be a man or you can have a male biology and be a woman and you can feel like a woman but also still define yourself as a man. (P14B)

…you see biological sex in itself is not necessarily the best way to understand the concept of being trans, because what is biological sex. I can show you a picture that goes from seemingly from a vulva on the outside to a penis on the inside…every single one of those has excess chromosomes, what is biological sex? (P9B)

Participant P9B’s argument supports the narrative referenced in chapter 3, by claiming trans identities share the platform of those born with disordered sexual development (DSD). This is a common tactic used by the transgender ideologists to assert that biological sex is not dimorphic (Fausto-Sterling, 1993; Fausto-Sterling, 2000; Whittle, 2000, p.17).

When one believes the queer theory argument that sex is a social construct the mantra ‘transwomen are women’ is an easy claim to make. It is also a masterstroke campaign tagline, whether a person believes it to be true or not and is widely taught as the mantra to repeat if one does not want to appear transphobic. 

‘Transwomen are women’

Figure 13 What is a woman? – Transwomen are Women Online Ethnography Screenshot, July 2019

The participant data did not disappoint on the discussion of this widely known phrase. Understandably views from both sides were relatively polarised. Feminist participants rejected the mantra:

Either the lobby groups are seriously deluded where they actually think that it is ok to repeat transwomen are women and not look at any hard evidence or facts…I don’t think people are that thick to actually believe this stuff. (P10A)

Everything we know about predatory men is being abandoned at this moment for no other reason than that transwomen are women and if you accept that mantra it means that you cannot allow for the possibility that any of them are abusive men under this label. (P13A)

Where we are now is an unquestioning “transwomen are women” policy which is trotted out all the time because it is for government ministers…I show you Pip Bunce on a day he chooses not to be a female I don’t think you are going to recite that mantra quite as easily as you did 10 minutes ago…it is an argument that is solely about identity…and you have to act like you really believe me. (P3A)

Pip Bunce, mentioned by P3A, is a senior director at a leading financial services company, Credit Suisse. On some days of the week Bunce dresses in women’s clothing identifying as Pip. Under the current transgender umbrella, Bunce earnt an award on the Financial Times top 100 women in business list (McShane, 2018).

Figure 14 What is a Woman? – Pip Bunce Online Ethnography Screenshot July 2019

Bunce identifies as non-binary and accepted an award reserved for women in an industry that is male dominated. The ‘transwomen are women’ mantra extends to non-binary identities, evidencing the morphing of what constitutes being a woman under the expanding transgender umbrella. P3A assumed that most people would not agree that Bunce is a woman (see figure 14), however, I asked P1B whether they thought that Bunce was a woman and they stated quite unequivocally:

Well, from my perspective, yes. (P1B)

P1B’s views were supported by other pro self-ID participants. General responses to the question, ‘What is a Woman?’ were based in the descriptor of an individual’s feelings and identities:

Anybody who deeply feels that they are a woman. (P10B)

If somebody tells me that no matter how male they look, they feel like a woman, I allow that they are a woman. (P14B)

In supporting the ‘transwomen are women’ mantra, pro self-ID participants referenced the definition of a woman as outside of biological parameters:

I know you said biological, but for me transwomen are women… (P1B)

I think with radical feminism some of the original transphobia from the 70s, that kind of thinking that you can’t be born with a penis and then become a woman has fed down into the current arguments. (P3B)

The above comment is in line with the assertion from scholars that the anti-trans feminist rhetoric of the 1970s has been hard to dispel (Hines, 2019, p.146).

There were nuanced responses regarding language from some pro self-ID participants when they explained the word ‘woman’ refers to gender rather than sex:

I think a woman to me is gender. Sex is what you are born with and gender is what you do with it, or what other people do with it perhaps more to the point. (P13B)

Well woman is a social term, woman is a set of stereotypes, just like man is a set of stereotypes, so woman is a set of stereotypes around being feminine, caring, passive not masculine… (P4B)

I explored this with P4B in more detail, although they felt that the word woman means very little in terms of biology and that ‘transwomen are women’, they did agree that transwomen are not female:

So female and male to me are neutral…so that is why when people ask me are transwomen, women? I say, yes, transwomen are one type of woman. (P4B)

If someone asked you are transwomen female, what would you say? (Researcher)

I would say that transwomen are not born with female bodies, no, otherwise they wouldn’t need to transition from anything. (P4B)

The online ethnographic data reflected the polarised viewpoints under the theme ‘What is a Woman’, many supported the views of feminist participants and presented the circular logic of self-ID:

Reminder that biological sex exists, women are adult human biological females, the retention of #sexnotgender is critical for understanding of women’s issues, & #transfascist ideology obliterates ALL issues that are specific to biological females, rendering all ‘gender neutral.’ (Tweet 10)

No doubt her argument would also extend to “transwomen are women, except when they are Karen White” So come on…either transwomen are women, or they are not. You do not get to pick and choose. It’s not a trans pick and mix. (Tweet 11)

However, there were staunch supporters of transwomen as women in the ethnographic data, with references to biological male body parts being female and anger at those who rejected the mantra:

#GirlDick4Life #NormalizeGirlDick #TransWomenAreWomen (Tweet 21)

Transwomen are women. Translesbians are lesbians. Period.  Full Stop. Shut your #terf ass up.  (Tweet 23)

Discussion regarding the definition of what makes one a woman highlighted the sex v gender debate. Feminist participants, and some pro self-ID participants, were clear about the need to hold onto language that defines a woman as an adult human female, in order to protect and defend women’s sex-based rights (Jeffreys, 2008, pp. 328-329). But the crux of the debate rested on these differing viewpoints, with pro self-ID participants expressing scientific definitions of sex descriptors are transphobic: fitting within a queer theory narrative (Serano, 2017; Whittle, 2000, p.18). The claim that transwomen are women was problematic for feminist participants, they outright rejected the mantra as both offensive and as a means by which predatory men will gain access to women’s spaces (Appleton, 2018; Balinksi, 2014; Bindel, Manning & Powell, 2019; Brean, 2018; Hoggard, 2018; Peebles, 2019; Trans Crime UK, 2019). This is the fault line in the debate. If self-ID is written into policy and legislation, then the answer to the question ‘What is a woman?’ becomes exactly as the pro self-ID group have expressed, woman becomes a feeling, an identity and a moveable descriptor which men can encompass as they like.


To summarise the ‘debate’, it is apparent that all participants perceived politician’s contribution as, at best unhelpful and at worst an abject failure; many feminist women similarly felt transgender rights groups influence on legislation and policy was secretive and pervasive. The views on the introduction of self-declaration as proposed under gender reform were polarised, with all feminist participants being in direct opposition to it, and some in the pro self-ID cohort in full support. However, the acceptance of all self-declared transwomen into female-only spaces were much less polarised, which will be discussed in the next chapter. What can be gleaned from the data thus far is that the debate is undoubtedly a complex one and, as referenced in the introduction chapter, there is tangible evidence of the longer-term impact on MVAW services and spaces (Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon, 2005, BCCA 601, 2005; Women and Girls in Scotland, 2019, p. 16), and I explore this next.