A propaganda war has been playing out in Manchester’s iconic Gay Village since the beginning of October.
It centres around the government’s consultation on proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, that would make it easier for trans individuals to legally change their gender on their birth certificate.
— Sobering Maid (@SoberingMaid) 17 October 2018
Venues such as OnBar, Bar Pop, and Cruz 101 have all been plastered with flyers and stickers bearing slogans such as “Woman = Adult Human Female” and “Women Don’t Have Penises”.
In response the venues started a “No TERFs on our Turf” campaign.
The offending stickers are the handiwork of the mysterious #Stickerwoman, a shadowy guerrilla tactician waging an international info war, whose tags can be found on lamp posts and public transport as far apart as Norfolk and New York.
Twitter has been abuzz with talk of #Stickerwoman since August but she has been operating in Manchester since October, papering public bins, symbolic bee statues, and the toilets in Oxford Road station.
The slogans used are widely considered to be discriminatory to Trans people, whilst the word TERF (which stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) is considered a slur by some.
The ongoing battle of slogans, playing out in the real world and on social media, is a battle between two groups with vested interests in the outcome of the consultation.
DIGNITY AND AUTONOMY
Lee, the vice-chair of national transgender charity Sparkle, is very much in favour of the proposed changes.
“We support everything in the consultation, we support the simplification of transgender people’s ability to obtain a gender recognition certificate.
“We basically support bringing more dignity and autonomy to the process because at the moment it takes a long time and a panel of people who you’ve never met before decide whether you get one or not.
“We think it’s brilliant that they want to look at people who identify as non-binary, we think it’s brilliant that they also want to take into account younger trans people…under the age of 16 as well.
“It’s [the consultation] been a really difficult process for the trans community especially because it’s amplified all of the hostility which trans people receive on a daily basis.
“When they extended the process…I had trans people in tears on my shoulder saying I don’t know whether I can last another three days because it’s been so difficult.”
However, the reforms are opposed by a number of different groups, notably feminist organisations who think that the changes threaten women’s rights to single-sex services.
Julian, a barrister specialising in human rights and immigration, recently moderated on a panel about the GRA at the 2018 Filia (a national feminist organisation which has no official position on the GRA reforms) conference in Salford.
“The GRA was ground breaking when it came in because it was designed very specifically for that small number of people.
“The problem with it is that it uses sex and gender as coterminous and they’re not.
— Louise (@Loolovestea) 12 October 2018
“So, it says that when you change your gender your legal sex becomes male or female for all purposes so the two are actually used for the same part of the same statute.
“What we now have is this much, much wider transgender umbrella is not restricted to transsexuals it includes people whose sense of self, sense of identity is that of a woman.
“So, then we come down to what is a woman?
“And of course, that becomes a very toxic debate because women, a lot of women, feel that their right to define their own existence is under threat and transgender people feel exactly the same.”
With so much at stake the debate surrounding the consultation is very bitter, with concerns that free speech was being stifled.
You will not call us fish. You will not call us TERFs…
— Diversity and Equality (@elletorrito) 14 October 2018
Julian was clear about the link in her mind between #Stickerwoman and policing of free speech.
“I think all of the stickering that is being done is part of a proud tradition of publicly declaring a dissenting opinion.
“We have always had politics expressed through stickers, through graffiti, through that…type of display.
“It’s illustrative of the very grass roots nature of both groups.
“I think that when debate is stifled on social media that is a good way to communicate it, and dissent is being stifled, not only from each community towards the other but within the communities themselves.”
Lee on the other hand takes a different view.
“As a representative of Sparkle I have seen a lot of people from the radical feminist side say that the debate’s been shut down.
“It hasn’t, they’ve got platforms in The Guardian, and the Times, and the BBC.
“Nobody is silencing them, nobody silenced them when they were invited into the house of commons, I think it was last week, to hold a meeting just before the end of the GRA consultation.”
He was clear about the “No TERF” (although he prefers to use the term Gender Critical) policies in LGBT spaces.
“I really think it needs to be a safe environment for everybody.
“If I thought that somebody was promoting hate speech in my venue, which is what the police have considered some of these actions to be, then I would have to ask them to leave.”
Meanwhile Julian was more ambivalent about “No TERF” posters in response to #Stickerwoman.
“What’s a TERF? I mean the first time I was called a TERF was because I wrote a very dry legal article saying that misgendering was bad manners but not a criminal offence.
“Some people on the much more radical side said I was a handmaiden…and some on the trans activist side said I was a TERF, so it’s terribly easy to get called one of those even if you are neither trans exclusionary nor on the definition a radical feminist.”
The GRA reform is over now, but the raw emotion of the debate won’t go away for a while and will doubtless resurface when the results are announced next year.
Moving forward though, as Julian pointed out, reconciliation is possible.
“I think that part of the problem is that women have only relatively recently gained the right to a number of different protections, trans people more recently than that.
“Until each group feels adequately protected it will continue to feel as though an advance by one group is into the territory of the other and that can’t be allowed to happen.
“So, what I would like to see is a solution that does not pit those two communities against each other.”
The posters and flyers act as real-world emblems of these emotions, part of a fight between two groups who have fought hard for their rights, and springing from a debate full of ambiguities like the legal definitions of sex and gender, who’s a TERF, and the line between dissent and discrimination.