Lesbians Going Their Own Way? A Critical View of the London Pride Hi-Jacking

The Get the L Out disruption of Pride reflects capital's tendencies to fragment and incorporate struggles.

Who are the TERFs?

The ten or so protestors who disrupted this year’s London Pride achieved the attention they received partly because of their noxious views, and partly from picking a soft target. London Pride has long since become bleached of political content, with its organisers framing the event as ‘a celebration, not a protest’. Over 20,000 who applied to march this year were rejected , and group applications have become increasingly strict and bureaucratic. This has resulted in the alienation of particularly marginalised LGBT communities: a successful Black Pride that enjoys strained relations at best with the larger event, and last year organisers initially failed to authorise any bisexual groups at all to the march (although this was corrected after media attention.) By contrast, year by year organisers have never failed in increasing both corporate sponsorship (including BAE Systems), and the presence of the police and military.

It was in this corporatised context a vocal fringe could hi-jack the event, and attract intense media attention.

The same transphobic feminist activists had previously gained little attention with a similar petition to ‘Drop the T’ (in other words, remove trans coverage from LGBT charities and services). Their second petition to instead secede as lesbians from the LGBT movement had attracted only 310 signatures prior to their action. Among younger activists especially, trans inclusion is increasingly assumed as a given. Indeed, the UK’s largest charity for sexual minorities Stonewall recently expanded its remit from mere ‘LGB’ to LGBT (having previously said it was focused solely on sexuality, and not gender identity). With this institutional drift away from trans exclusion, but in the context of a resurgent moment of transphobia across Britain, the same band of haters has rebranded their effort ‘Get the L Out’.

Although participants seem to have barely broken double digits, four groups were involved in the protest: Critical Sisters, Object, MayDay4Women, and the Lesbian Rights Alliance. Three of these groups appear to have an overriding interest with trans people (and especially trans women), with only Object better known for its protests against ‘Lad’s Mags’ and Page 3. Although Object is one of the best connected feminist groups in the UK, its activity appears to have slowed of late. Object had previously been relatively successful in attracting younger women to its old school feminist stance, with its youth wing UK Feminista (which held a conference by the same name which was well attended by activists of various feminist perspectives during the gender revival of 2011-13). This newly revealed hardline transphobic stance, also evidenced in their blog featuring a fringe psychologist discouraging the reader from the prospect of transition, seems unlikely to attract many from this demographic (today’s trans acceptance often plays out as a generational divide.) That Object was unable to draw more than ten women to this stunt does not speak well of the once prominent group’s future.

The three smaller groups involved, Critical Sisters, Lesbian Rights Alliance and MayDay4Women exist solely to oppose trans liberation, and most likely have overlapping membership. The new group Critical Sisters appears to be a new effort to build ties between feminist transphobes and the leftwing of the ‘skeptic’ scene, with its mission statement reading: ‘Critical Sisters are proudly secular and gender-critical. We stand in opposition to man-made beliefs; be that religious faith or the ideology of gender.’ This despite the fact that opposition to ‘gender ideology’ is disseminated globally by the Catholic Church, a strange overlap I have addressed in another piece.

Of all the issues facing today’s lesbians (youth homelessness, the harsh border regime overseen by the Conservative Government seeing many seeking refuge deported after shocking interviews, and the mass closure of services for vulnerable women), this new campaign singled out one lone issue: the threat posed by ‘transgenderism’, which they claimed included cis lesbians being coerced into sex with trans women, and trans lesbianism serving as the driving force behind ‘lesbian erasure’. This peculiar argument might prove difficult for the uninitiated to even understand, but on closer examination its conceptual bedrock is a perfectly run-of-the-mill set of base prejudices, given the cladding of grandiose social theory.

Are Trans Women Straight Men?

Spurious claims and scantily sourced assertions abounded in the material handed out for Get The L Out. Little evidence was presented for the association of trans women and ‘lesbian erasure’, besides a few decontextualised social media posts. These tweets and statuses, marshalled to condemn all trans people, were the bold, bald assertions one might usually expect of internet activism: propositions directed toward a vague, likeminded crowd in order to develop a shared worldview. The core claim against trans women is near inscrutable, unless the reader grasps that the agenda of the group is depicting these women as men:

Promotes the rights of heterosexual males who “identify” as women and lesbians (despite most of them still retaining their male genitals) over the rights of lesbians to choose their sexual partners.

This reduction of womanhood to genitalia presents trans women as, in reality, “heterosexual males”. This claim is not only false, but internally inconsistent: for a trans lesbian to be a heterosexual by the standards set by these TERFs, she would have to be not only exclusively sexually interested in other women, but exclusively other cis women. Any interest in other trans women would render her (from the ‘gender critical’ viewpoint), a bisexual.

This convoluted dilemma is very much at odds with the reality that many trans lesbians exclusively date each other (a well known matter the most recent ContraPoints video amusingly introduces in a relationship between a highly strung intersectional transfeminist and a ‘communist catgirl’.) Not to mention so-called ‘MTF4FTM’ relationships, in which trans people of differing genders date. (Presumably both trans people and ‘gender critics’ would agree that these unions should be considered ‘heterosexual’.) In their haste to tar all trans women as sexual predators, these ‘gender critics’ have risked introducing inconsistency to the point of incoherence to their exclusionary perspective. Get The L Out rely on a scaremongering account that speaks against trans lesbians as a folk devil, while ignoring all other variations on sexuality available to trans people, and our partners.

Further problems arise from this discursive effort to escape discursive boundaries. The pamphlet strictly defined lesbians as strictly ‘adult females attracted to other adult females’, as a consequence tacitly excluding intersex women along with trans women from legitimate claim to lesbianism. Interphobia and transphobia are near inevitable bedfellows: once womanhood is reduced to not having a penis (as this document implies), the stage is set for the current regime of partial clitoral amputation faced by many intersex infants across the western world. Once again, ‘gender critics’ displayed their standard approach to intersex rights: insisting that they be separated from trans liberation, and then focusing all energies on opposing trans people, and none on ending Intersex Genital Mutilation, or other offences against our basic claim to dignity. This heedlessness towards us is sadly all common across all divisions within the LGBT movement. In reality, there are many intersex women (both male and female raised) who identify as lesbians, and strike up exclusively lesbian relationships. By the logic of trans-exclusionary ‘gender critics’, their partners would have to be coerced into identifying as bisexual.

Bisexuals also seem to disappear completely in the account provided by Get The L Out, strangely given that bi communities experienced ‘erasure’ of their own at last year’s London Pride. So far as I’m aware, no bisexual groups have proposed a divorce from the LGBT movement, and Bi Pride UK released a statement denouncing the transphobic hijacking in no uncertain terms.

Get The L Out finally referred to trans politics as a ‘conservative movement’, surely a surprise to the many right wing politicians across the world who have bitterly opposed trans rights, such as the Trump administration which has taken measures to ensure trans people are excluded from the military, and that trans women will be again thrown into male federal jails.

The only correct claim to be found in this propaganda material was the complaint that Lupron (a drug most commonly associated with voluntary castration programmes for incarcerated US sex offenders) is in use by the contemporary medical establishment. Although its close relative Andocur is in much wider use in Europe, I have been informed by trans people in several nations (including the UK) that they’ve encountered this drug being prescribed to trans women as a means of suppressing testosterone. Lupron’s use is almost certainly inadvisable, and indeed the use of all anti-androgens seems increasingly outmoded. But the trans movement is hardly directly responsible for the prevalence of unnecessary medication, with this instead being another display of incompetence by an under-informed medical establishment. Indeed, transgender activists have challenged the existing healthcare regime and striven for great autonomy for trans people both in their political actions, and writings.

The final comment of the Get The L Out text on medical matters opposes the removal of ‘healthy’ tissue through gender affirming surgeries, which sits strangely with the implicit imputation that trans women who do not undergo Sex Reassignment Surgery have an especially weak claim to womanhood, and lesbianism. Within a few paragraphs, this short text talks out of both sides of the TERF’s mouths, unable to decide if SRS is a pre-requisite for gender legitimation, or unacceptable mutilation. As a refutation of the much simpler statement: ‘trans women are women’, this document strains itself in opposing directions, apparently unwittingly but to the point of incoherence.

So much for this ‘critical’ analysis.

Concretely, Get The L Out’s official statement, distributed at Pride on flyers and later online, both called for opposing the forthcoming Gender Recognition Act, and also this more striking proposal:

We believe that lesbian rights are under attack by the trans movement and we encourage lesbians everywhere to leave the LGBT and form their own independent movement…

This demand is a call for nothing short of a total reorganisation of sexual minority politics, and one it’s unlikely many lesbians will assent to. Indeed, a rival campaign called ‘Keep the L with the T’ rapidly emerged in the days following London Pride, with its members making it clear in no uncertain terms that they did not feel ‘under attack by the trans movement’. Although these ten or so trans-exclusionary activists were successful in attracting a great deal of attention, they seem to have fared less well in winning over any serious number of other lesbians to their cause. Nevertheless, this striking cause for gender segregation (not to mention secession between lesbians and bisexual women) merits some reply.

Trans acceptance among lesbian communities seems to be an international trend, indeed more advanced outside Britain. The European Lesbian* Conference held in December of last year attracted over 500 lesbians from around the world to Vienna. The event had a fully trans-inclusive entry policy, and several members of its steering committee were trans women. The largest lesbian-oriented event in the United States, the Dinah (estimated to attract around 10,000 women to Palm Springs, California), is equally trans inclusive, responding simply to a FAQ on trans-inclusion: ‘Absolutely!’. While a fringe of British lesbian activists might find such developments unsightly, trans inclusion at lesbian-oriented events is becoming a commonplace in the 21st century.

How can we understand the wilful fragmentation this tiny band of transphobes called for? Why has this demand for segregation from the rest of the LGBT movement proven so motivating for a minor, if vocal, fringe of British politics?

The ‘Domestication’ of Dissent

The intra-sapphic splintering proposed by Get The L Out is reminiscent of Ellen Meiskins Wood’s 1981 essay ‘The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism ’.

This piece is best known for challenging the assumption that the political and economic existing as distinct ‘spheres’ was an inevitable human constant, instead demonstrating that such a conception arose out capitalist’s transformation of both workplace, and household.

Having shown this, Meiskins Wood introduced an argument of direct relevance to efforts to prise the LGBT movement apart: capitalism had assured its survival by ensuring its opponents would oppose their economic mode on a non-political basis (that is, making the case for their own conditions being improved within the system, rather than having it overturned), and where political struggles did occur they were limited to particularised and localised disputes.

In labour relations, what were in fact political disputes appeared instead to be economic disagreements. Political struggles which did occur would be invariably local and particular, which capitalism (as an overarching system) would invariably prove able to survive. Without a direct challenge to the political legitimacy of capitalist rule, or collective revolutionary action possible on the part on the particularly oppressed groups in modern society, changes that would play out would be within the terms of the existing order as a whole.

Meiskins Wood’s analysis forewarns us against tendencies for political movements to allow themselves to splinter into disempowered fractals. Much the same dynamic of fragmentation was identified in a classic analysis of UK anti-racism by Ambalavaner Sivanandan. Sivanandan identified how early efforts towards black British liberation stalled in the face of co-option by the state: ‘the continued threat of black struggle, however limited its success, led to state strategies to break up black into its constituent nationalities…’ As the British government moved to demobilise the potential for organised political resistance through its strictly conditional recognition of vying ‘communities’:

The ensuing scramble for government favours and government grants (channelled through local authorities) on the basis of specific ethnic needs and problems served, on the one hand, to deepen ethnic differences and foster ethnic rivalry and, on the other, to widen the definition of ethnicity to include a variety of national and religious groups - Chinese, Cypriots, Greeks, Turks, Irish, Italians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs - till the term itself became meaningless (except as a means of getting funds). This ‘vertical mosaic’ of ethnic groups, so distanced from the horizontal of class politics, then became even more removed by the policies of ‘left’ Labour councils who, lacking the race-class perspective which would have allowed them to dismantle the institutional racism of their own structures, institutionalised ethnicity instead. And it was left to a handful of genuinely anti-racist programmes and/or campaigns, such as those against deportation, police harassment and racial violence… to carry on the dwindling battle for community and class.

With this history of the state’s role in ensuring representational fragmentation in mind, we can consider again the transphobic feminist position. In their emphasis on the separation of groups (lesbians and trans women, with no overlap permitted), these groups are framing themselves as against the grain of the current order, while in fact working toward contemporary capitalism’s tendency to drive apart and ‘domesticate’ political struggles. There is nothing new, in other words, in the desire for a specific identification, with a view towards ensuring greater favour from the state, and clarity for the purposes of securing institutionalisation, and funding. We should not see transphobic political lesbianism as simply a throwback, but as an outgrowth of conditions where political horizons have become limited to collaboration with the state.

As much of a stir as they have managed to cause, Get The L Out are as far from gender revolutionaries as can be imagined, in fact serving as the rearguard of gender segregation. This strange twinning of radical aesthetics with a profoundly conservative political line, has been well identified by Sophie Lewis, who considers the way in which both ‘gender critical’ feminism and sex work prohibitionists draw from strikingly base prejudices:

Cast a look across this tradition of Anglo anti-prostitution and trans-bashing public hate-speech (also known as ‘gender-critical feminism’ or ‘questioning of narratives’) and you’ll find all those shame-filled references to cum and blowjobs, jeering at ‘bad wigs’, imputations of mutilation, butchery, ‘holes’, genital stink, necrosis, and pitiably obvious artificiality, such as lipstick (garish, pathetic and debased), and insinuations (here with added mental-health stigma) of ‘bed-wetting’. Under the guise of standing for something loftier than mere bullying – an end to degradation, an end to ‘gender’ itself – these people participate full-bloodedly in an abusive society’s double-edged shaming rituals aimed at the aesthetics, accessories and body-modification practices of femmes and fags, bitches and butches, queens, sluts, hustlers, and whores.

Splintering of Gender Struggle in Academia

As mentioned, Get The L Out provided no evidence for the trends they identified occurring besides scattered Twitter screenshots. The tone of emergency which impells their writing is hard to respond to, seeing as I remain unconvinced the crisis they describe exists. The tone and approach of the protest was unlikely to win around many supporters. But not all recent efforts to segregate cis and trans women have been so blunt, or overtly extremist. A looser defence of the validity of the ‘gender critical’ stance in feminism with at least an attempt at rigour has been provided by professional philosopher Kathleen Stock.

Stock’s work on trans issues is characterised by an overriding interest to frame trans and cis women as separable groups, in direct competition. Out of distaste for the simpler ‘cis women’ proposes the ungainly ‘women-who-aren’t-transwomen’:

..the field will be clear to have a proper adult discussion that, wherever it ends up, will with a bit of luck fully acknowledge and attempt to accommodate both sets of interests at stake in redefining the concept of woman: those of women-who-aren’t-transwomen (WNT) and those of transwomen (TW).

Stock justifies this clumsily worded WNT/TW distinction as: ‘a way of separating out the two groups conceptually, during discussion, and allowing space to talk about their distinct interests’. This language of vying ‘interests’ is quite telling, reminiscent of the Whitehall lobbyist and their ‘stakeholders’ or ‘interest groups. There seems like no recognition here that trans and cis women might have a shared history, or much to gain through solidarity. The overwhelming priority is a clearly demarcated set of groups, all the better for respective flows of funding, and legislation. The agenda of this segregationist approach has already been identified by a piece disassembling Stock by Aaron Jaffe:

For anyone who has begun exploring the academic conversation in this area, it should be obvious that Stock is hiding the naturalization of people assigned female at birth with the universal “women”, and then contrasting this categorial determination of “women” (rendered: “women-who-are-not-transwomen”) with the outside and other it names, that is, with “transwomen.” If women who are not trans are simply women and not cis women, then the shared struggles of navigating gender relative to assigned sex, a fraught process for all women, is occluded as a space of shared interests for all women, whether cis, trans, or non-binary. In this way, the very terms of the debate…have the effect of precluding equal participation and overstating division.

This urge to conceptually segregate is redolent of the worst of analytic philosophy, as well as the practical matters of NGO politics: in order to secure steady funding streams and designated representatives, oppressed groups must be clearly demarcated, and reviewed. Every oppression must be resolved through designated representatives, and committees producing reports, PowerPoint presentations, and policy proposals.

In contrast to the ‘Feminism of the 99%’ called for by the organisers of the International Women’s Strike , this is a feminism of the professional classes and their self-styled progressives, a feminism that seems in no way out of place when represented on the dignified pages of The Economist.

If this mode of politics can be considered any kind of radicalism, it is a radical strain of liberalism. Social ills and conflicts are identified as existing within or between segregable groups. The woes of the world can be broken down into ‘issues’, amenable to social reform and ‘policy solutions’. This is a contrast to left wing thought proper. In Marx, focus rests always on relations as they arise in the face of society as a totality. And in labour history, strikes have always been mobilised around the principle of solidarity: that an injury to one can be an injury to all. Along the same lines, revolutionary lesbian and gay politics (prior to the emergence of ‘queer’) usually stressed a shared opposition among gender deviants to heterosexual order or regime. It is hard to find a trace of these positions in the emphatic distinctions of today’s transphobic feminists.

This is not to say that the left has always effectively promoted unity over division. All to often, left wing thoughts and actions have fallen well short of their unique responsibility in history. As the authors of the May Day Manifesto had it, in their survey of the failings of the later 20th century left’s inability to bring about western revolutionary change:

What failed to happen, in the early sixties, was a bringing together, into a general position, of the many kinds of new political and social response and analysis, around which local work had been done and local stands made. The consequence of this failure is now very apparent. While the positions were fragmentary, they could be taken, without real commitment, into the simple rhetoric of a new Britain…And then the character of the general crisis, within which these failures are symptoms, can never be grasped or understood or communicated.

Transphobic feminism is an effort to aggravate and entrench exactly these tendencies, disrupting solidarity with slurs, social analysis of historical shifts with appeals to biology as immutable, and genuine dialogue with pre-packaged catchphrases. This fraction is far from unique, stemming instead from an over-arching tendency amongst middle class busybodies to set about resolving social ills one by one. These single issue campaigners pull to pieces functional coalitions of interests, able to confront the state, and accompanying economic order. Transphobic feminists are very much a part of the left: the worst part.

Transfeminism and Lesbian History

While prolonged focus on the likes of Get The L Out or Kathleen Stock might induce despair for collective action among gender deviants, another trend in writing has also emerged in recent years, of transfeminists attempting to repair apparent discontinuities between the history of lesbianism, and our own experiences.

To provide only two examples of this: Andrea Long Chu’s ‘On Liking Women’ includes a defence of Valerie Solanas as an ur-queer figure, and an unabashed account of transition as informed by lesbian desires. Chu’s account of her motivations for transition emphasise the sapphic bent of her, referencing Alice Bechdel’s classic underground comic among other cultural reference points:

I doubt that any of us transition simply because we want to “be” women, in some abstract, academic way. I certainly didn’t. I transitioned for gossip and compliments, lipstick and mascara, for crying at the movies, for being someone’s girlfriend, for letting her pay the check or carry my bags, for the benevolent chauvinism of bank tellers and cable guys, for the telephonic intimacy of long-distance female friendship, for fixing my makeup in the bathroom flanked like Christ by a sinner on each side, for sex toys, for feeling hot, for getting hit on by butches, for that secret knowledge of which dykes to watch out for, for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my god, for the breasts. But now you begin to see the problem with desire: we rarely want the things we should.

Secondly, Joy Ladin’s careful reconstruction of influential lesbian theorist Adrienne Rich is another immersed analysis of a Second Wave thinker that is at once critical, and never unsparing. (It was Rich who coined the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, a term used to dismiss trans lesbianism by Get The L Out.) Ladin considers the figure of the ‘androgyne’ as it appears across Rich’s career (a figure with clear resonances for the rise of queer politics that would follow) which Rich only haltingly developed. Ladin joins with other voices in examining how transfeminism and those opposed to trans identities in fact emerged as an intertwined set of conditions, sharing many core assumptions:

Trans and anti-trans feminists regularly point out that both strains of feminism represent contradictory, mutually exclusive definitions of feminism and gender itself. But as Talia Bettcher argues, these conflicting “stories of the wreck” are intertwined. Indeed, Bettcher’s account suggests that trans and anti-trans feminism grew out of one another, like the hands in M.C. Escher’s famous etching.

Even heterosexual trans women, such as the late writer and HIV activist Bryn Kelly, have engaged directly with lesbian activists in fruitful and mutually enriching ways. As she wrote after attending a community event:

These women – whom my generation, for better or for worse, has (often derisively) labelled “The Second Wave” of feminism – talked a lot about their lives that weekend. The internet is a weird place. People throw up their ideas on the screen, and they are these little scratches of meaning, argument, rhetoric, and while that certainly carries a kind of power, there is another kind of power in being in a room with someone, and experiencing their words, their language embodied, their visible affects, the way they interact (or don’t interact) with other people, and the amalgam of what happens as part of all that.
To break it down really simple: lesbians in the 70s had it hard, and they still have it hard. The women that I met, they were on food stamps then, and they’re still on food stamps now. They were marginally employed then, trying to make art and change that no one understood, and that gets laughed at now. Their old cars break down all the time and there is never any money to get them fixed and they can’t just bike around like they used to. All their spaces are gone: their bookstores, their cafes, their activist centers. They do not recognize what we call feminism as anything like the feminism they know and that has meant to so much to them; and, perhaps not surprisingly, they find our theory and our praxis highly suspect. They all have breast cancer. Some of them have had it a couple times.

These pieces each show the profound engagement trans women (lesbian or otherwise) have made with the heritage of radical lesbianism. This history which has both provided a rich bounty of both thought and institutional breakthroughs to transfeminists, while also existing in apparent discontinuity with it in many obvious ways.

Considering in turn the notion of Get the L Out and the painstaking work of transfeminists, two differing pathways emerge: whereas transphobic feminists have sought to stress the need to segregate groups and interests, recent investigations by transfeminists have emphasised even the commonalities possible to find between their own experiences and histories, and the works of writers with damaged reputations, such as Rich and Solanas. Even trans women who have never considered themselves lesbians have often proven keenly aware of the breakthrough achieve by what’s usually known as the ‘second wave’. This work is matched by scholarship such as Holly Lewis’ The Politics of Everybody, which includes the work done by both transfeminists and intersex activists to present a case for revolutionary gender politics which includes minority perspectives from the ‘ground up’.

While divisive stunts threaten to continue the work of the capitalist system in driving its opponents into particular battles, recent work by trans women reveals the underlying commonalities and basis for solidarity which exist across diverse and disparate sets of experiences. Collective action will require many more of these painstaking acts of repair, even in the face of determined efforts by a fringe of LGBT politics to render us apart, shout down calls for solidarity, and brush over otherwise obvious points of convergence.

For all the battles won by the LGBT movement in recent years, a heterosexual regime still retains a grip on our lives that will not be broken one letter at a time.


Jules Joanne Gleeson (@socialrepro)

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She is the editor with Elle O’Rourke of Transgender Marxism.