The end of 'no debate'
And now that we accept that talking is not 'literal violence' - where are we going to go from here?
It’s been a bit of a historic week. For far too long we have been told that we may not discuss anything about the possibility of tensions between the rights of women to single sex spaces and the wishes of men to be identified as women -as to do so is ‘literal violence’ or ‘seeking to erase trans people’ or ‘denying their rights’, or whatever hyperbolic protestation comes first to mind.
But on Tuesday November 16th a discussion went ahead at Middle Temple about conversion therapy, despite the objections of 100 (anonymous) signatories to a letter of protest - no one died. And today Nancy Kelley, CEO of Stonewall agreed to be interviewed on Woman’s Hour. And again, no one died.
But what we have now are the seeds of how these discussions can move forward, where we can identify the areas of disagreement and the nature of those disagreements. Some I think we can resolve, some may be more difficult. But as James Baldwin said - not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
At the end I set out what I hope is a reasonably fair and accurate summary of what was said, but you can listen to the actual interview via BBC Sounds.
First - grateful thanks to interviewer Emma Barnett. I have made some very caustic criticism of the failure of Woman’s Hour to step up in the recent past, most notably their failure to interview Maya Forstater, but with this interview, all is forgiven. The difficult questions were put - and put again - and somewhat answered. But it wasn’t done with hostility, but with calm persistence. Faith is restored. This is what we need the BBC to do, and it was done well.
So now we have shown that it is possible to talk about these issues, like rational adults - what have we learned and where is this going to take us?
What have we learned?
Firstly, that the Employment Tribunal hearing involving barrister Allison Bailey, is going to be very interesting indeed as Kelley was at pains to point out that Stonewall did not see itself encouraging organisations to take any particular steps (despite Barnett pointing out that organisations were in effect paying Stonewall to mark their homework).
But the key take away points were in my view these
that Nancy Kelley believes transwomen are ‘literally’ women
free speech should be restricted in certain places - such as the workplace - if it causes ‘harm’ to others.
I won’t go into huge detail here about the philosophy behind the importance of free speech or the reasons for why some restrictions are justified - if you wish to know more, a good place to start is the Free Speech Debate project website. I can summarise speedily if probably crudely by saying that the right to freedom of speech is fundamental human right and essential to any healthy democracy. Without freedom of speech, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes flourish and scientific inquiry risks withering. However, it cannot be a completely unrestricted right - most jurisdictions will fetter ‘free speech’ if it is used to incite imminent violence, is used to harass an identified individual or to spread harmful lies about them.
So immediately we can see that there is a ground where legitimately we may need to discuss how the fetters to free speech operate and when they are deployed. And this I think will be central to how the debates and discussions continue.
Kelley was very keen not be drawn into answering whether or not she believed JKR or Professor Stock were transphobes because of things they said, which they were entitled to say, even if JKR was ‘echoing’ transphobic views at time. She put the emphasis on the ‘harm’ perceived to those who listened to those views and didn’t like them. This made them feel ‘unsafe’.
She made the entirely uncontroversial statement that of course we should all have the right to enjoy lives and workplaces free of harassment and abuse. But that clearly skates over the crucial issue of what exactly harassment and abuse entail.
Where do we go from here?
I suggest we are going to need to really drill down. The statement that trans women are ‘literally’ women is akin to a statement of religious faith, just as Catholics belief that a wafer and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Nancy Kelley and Catholics are entitled to their belief and I have no right to abuse or threaten them because of it. But equally, they have no right to demand that I stop thinking that their belief is unfounded, and I reject it. Kelley of course makes the distinction between what we think and what we say, which is valid. I appreciate I would have no right to demand that a religious colleague engage with me in a debate in the workplace where I set out at length my contempt for those who believe in gods. But what if there is a discussion about setting aside a conference room as a shrine to a particular god and I have an objection to this? Are my views not then to be heard because it will make the religious employees feel unsafe? What does this even mean? Unsafe in what way?
The EAT in Fostater’s case said that misgendering which was ‘gratuitous and indiscriminate’ would likely fall foul of the demands of the Equality Act. I suspect we are going to need to see some more legal cases to get a true sense of where the line is drawn. But a subjective feeling of being ‘unsafe’ because someone is questioning your belief in a god or a gender identity cannot, without much more detailed examination, become a reason for fettering freedom of speech.
But thank you Nancy Kelley for stepping up. I hope this can be the first of many public discussions and the horrible climate of the last few years will in time, seem like a distant and unpleasant dream.
Summary of discussion on Woman’s Hour on 18th November 2021.
This is not a transcription but hopefully a fair and accurate precis of what was said.
Like the introduction - 'you could be forgiven for thinking that all it campaigns about is trans rights' Formed as lobby group in 1989, devastated by infamous section 28 that banned 'promotion' of homosexuality. Stonewall fought for its appeal and equality for gay people.
now it has begun to campaign on trans rights, gaining both praise and 'strong' criticism for is stance on gender identity. It runs 'work place inclusion schemes' covering 25% of workforce, more than 250 are public bodies. Some have left - the BBC, Ofcom, Channel 4 and the EHRC.
Asked NK why she wanted to do the job - as a lesbian my life absolutely transformed by work of Stonewall. Married and adopted two children, illegal until recently. An amazing opportunity to make things better for LGBTQ+ people.
EB steers it back to the T and the BBC pulling out of the Stonewall schemes, citing concerns over impartiality over debate about when trans and women's rights clash. Does NK agree BBC needs to be impartial?
NK definitely agrees our national broadcaster must be seen to be impartial but she doesn't agree that being part of a work place inclusion programme was having any real impact on impartiality - and thinks the BBC also agreed!
NK says the Diversity Champion scheme works with Diversity Teams in HR departments to access training, like support from any other charity.
EB - but the BBC pulled out. Is impartiality possible when you are being lobbied and PAID to be lobbied?
NK - did participation in scheme have an actual impact or was it perceived to. We do two different things. We want change and support inclusion, have separate team to engage with media and politicians. Want world to be better for LGBTQ+ people.
EB - but these two separate teams are part of the same organisation, who believe in the same things and abide by the same rules?
NK - we believe in the same thing.
EB - BBC pulled out of 2 things - surely you see a conflict of interest when marking BBC's homework?
NK - difference between workplace inclusion and editorial decision making (in light of the 'pronouns debate'). We encourage all sorts of things, like sharing pronouns and we notice it and say 'that's great!'
EB - but you don't just comment on it! you MARK IT!
NK - absolutely, its a benchmarking tool
EB - and that's way business PAY to be part of it.
NK - absolutely this is all about businesses who want to be more inclusive and we give feedback.
EB - but if this is about perception, by marking homework, you are giving a perception of approval.
NK - i do understand. But what BBC actually DOES in terms of coverage does not indicate any sign of being 'aggressively pro trans'.
NK <chuckles genially> 'I reality I don't think we have had any influence over editorial policy!'
<pause now for hysterical laughter, ahahahha and breath>
NK - we would love to have more influence, on how LGBTQ+ stories are covered by everyone!
EB - <slowly> you would love to have more influence over the BBC
NK Of course!
NK - we would love to have more influence in the world!
EB - we are talking about an employer who has just left your scheme? You are bleeding the boundaries.
NK - regardless of how engaging with employers, always will be interested in progressive changes, job of Stonewall
NK - we give feedback we advise, we don't mandate. People can act or not. That is good practice, it is inherently tolerant
EB would Scottish Gov have moved up or down the index if they hadn't removed the word 'mother'?
NK - I think you are referring to a couple of years ago in FOI request? (yes). We aren't interested in removing or erasing the word mother. When we offer guidance on inclusion we offer 'additive language' - mothers AND pregnant people - gender neutral language or say 'you'
NK - that was a historical document
EB <chuckles contemptuously> it was only two years ago! you are making it sound like 10
NK - it was taken out of context. Conversation was about options.
EB - but in same FOI showed Scottish Gov could have added other words but Stonewall pushed them to remove ALL gender terminology.
NK - we were talking about a range of options in meetings with Scottish Government.
EB - just to be clear, they still use word 'mother' in its maternity policy and could be marked down?
NK - no, scheme will not mark them down.
EB - can you see why some women feel this approach is erasing their identity and rights?
NK - I definitely see and understand that perspective. We want an inclusive outcome.
<pause here for further laughter>
NK - focusing on language is not right way to do that.
EB - with all due respect, your organisation has people focusing on language right now.
NK - of course, I mean focusing on one type of language. Give people choices.
NK - I would be really upset if my children didn't call me mum. I absolutely understand why word mother is so important to so many of us
EB - do you believe a person can change their biological sex?
NK - I definitely believe a person can change their sex characteristics, that's the purpose of a medical transition
EB - that wasn't my question. You can of course have surgery and hormones - can you change sex?
NK - I don't believe, no one believes that trans people's bodies are identical to cis people's bodies.
EB - cis is not language lots familiar with.
NK - we only need to use it when talking about differences
EB - so can you change sex?
NK - If that is everything that goes into making a sexed body then no <??????>
EB - you believe that if lesbians do not want to date transwomen they should consider their prejudice and you compared it to anti semitism.
EB - no right to express harmful and damaging belief.
NK - that is a quote from me but not talking about dating as a lesbian. Its a clumsy quote about how rights of free speech can conflict with workplace protections.
EB - Take point about context. Trying to get a flavour of your tolerance. More words of yours back to yourself about lesbians - no one should be pressured into dating but if you are writing off entire groups, worth considering how societal prejudices shape your attractions
EB - huge issue for some women. they say calling them prejudiced is wrong.
NK - want emphasise, completely core to my belief that no one should EVER be pressured into dating or sex. difference between saying 'you might want to think about something' and 'you are prejudiced'.
NK - it is possible to have dating preferences which are about prejudice.
EB - but you are not just random person, you are CEO of Stonewall and have influence. Floating word prejudice, is a powerful statement.
NK <unhappily> I am really happy with what I said. Didn't intend to label dating choices right or wrong. Thinking how we choose to date as lesbians, I do believe TWAW so wouldn't make that exclusion.
EB <incredulous> Do you believe that literally or metaphorically?
NK- literally (!!!!!!)
EB - I ask because belief is not the same as fact and gender critical views qualify for protection. has this changed Stonewall's approach?
NK - many beliefs protected. Can hold GC belief without expressing them in way that harms trans people.
NK - its about how we express views.
EB - its about how people can talk in the current climate as they wish to. Is JKR transphobic?
NK - I have no idea! I have never met her
EB - you don't have to meet her. She expressed her views.
EB - is she a transphobe for saying it the way she has said it
NK - I have read things JKR says which are harmful in terms of impact on trans community.
EB - our listeners need to know what CEO of Stonewall thinks about one of the most famous and successful women in this country
EB - is she a transphobe or not?
NK - she has expressed views that can cause real harm
EB - what has she said? This strikes to the heart of it. What she said causes harm.
NK - when we talk about ideas based on concept that trans people are a risk - JKR points as this.
NK - whether that is her intention I don't know. Sure it isn't.
EB - but what if assertions are based on actual cases. Concern about having people who are not biological females in refuges.
NK - <blusters> - important that everyone is offered a service. JKR would want to be in a refuge that excludes transwomen and those services exist.... wrong to say this as when not about our own feelings but the risk posed by another
EB But those two things are the same!
NK - a world of difference between a woman seeking accommodation in a refuge and saying I don't feel safe around transwomen - she should get support.
EB - she was imagining that situation.
NK - but to extrapolate when you have such big reach... reinforces stereotypes
EB - we haven't been able to distill what IS transphobic. You are saying woman at refuge, that is ok. But she can't say the same thing if she has millions of followers?
NK - haven't said people can't say things <???> they can believe and say what they choose.
NK - but this is the balance between our right to free speech and the protection of those with protected characteristics. At the workplace, interact closely, but other contexts like public debate, must less tight coupling.
NK <chuckles> - no one is going to bring an Equality Act case on anything I have said, I hope! but are some of views JKR express, do they echo common forms of transphobia - yes!
EB - Prof K Stock who resigned after 18 years after sustained campaign over her view that TWANW - should she have been fired?
NK - I don't want to comment about the case because I don't know anything other than has been reported <???>
EB - you must have been familiar with it
NK - i don't know anything more than in press. Critical thing here is that everyone should be able to work in environment free from abuse. Universities must balance with legal requirements about free speech. When in tension, complicated.
EB - Universities who have subscribed to Stonewall, which contributes to this climate.
NK - I don't think we have anything to do with the specific circumstances in Sussex. Staff and students raise concern over KS over long time.
NK - their perceptions about whether it felt safe to work or learn in that environment. Difficult to balance their perceptions and KS.
EB - you are a leader of an organisation hoping to guide policy. Did she do anything that meant she should have been fired? Is KS a transphobe?
NK - I understand why you want me to answer the question but I simply don't know the answer to the question
< o yes you do Nancy. You just know how it will sound>
EB - Other trans students and trans people stood up for her and said all she had done was express her views.
NK - we don't comment and don't get involved in that kind of HR decision making <the @BluskyeAllison tribunal next year is going to be SO interesting>
EB - posters on the wall, Stock out - not saying you are responsible but this is real and this is happening. What do you attribute it to?
NK - I have a lot of empathy for Prof Stock. I experience similar things... people violently disagree and do many of the things ...
EB - like what?
NK - on line abuse, hate mail, protest. As a human I would never want to deny these are really distressing experiences. But I don't know what the content of any of the complaints were so I don't want to stray into talking about things I don't know about.
NK - it is important that we protect free speech and everyone's right to safe workspaces. Decision making about that balance is for individual employers.
EB - its anti bullying week. Anything you want to say to a listener having a hard time at the moment?
NK - we know that 50% of LGBTQ+ children are bullied because of who they are or have LBBTQ+parents. Everyone is doing everything they can to change that and make it better - so important for children to reach out and speak.
EB - finally. Is it something that you are enjoying or enduring, being in the public eye?
NK - most days its a job I enjoy and some days its a job I endure. None of us should have to put up with online abuse. Have stable, cosy house with loving wife and take comfort from home.
EB - thanks for having the discussion. a lot of very important ground covered.
NK -<chuckling> thank you
So. they managed it. Well bloody done. No one died. No one was 'harmed'. Difficult questions asked and - somewhat - answered.
Let's hope we don't waste anymore time. Let's keep on discussing how we square this circle; the right to speak against the need to protect people from harm in the workplace. @threadreaderapp please unroll.