It’s three weeks since Leeds City Council controversially cancelled a room booking made by Woman’s Place UK, a group set up to campaign to ensure women’s voices are heard in the debate around proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act.
We don’t yet know the ins and outs of how chief executive Tom Riordan came to the decision – the council has yet to respond to three Freedom of Information requests on the matter. In a way, it doesn’t really matter.
Because it’s clear already that despite its claim to be always in favour of free speech, the council’s action came as a result of it taking sides in the polarised and sometimes toxic debate around gender identity and the law.
Justifying the decision to cancel the event, the council said it had received a “number of complaints from people concerned about the alleged use of controversial and potentially discriminatory language” used at other WPUK meetings. “We would not want to provide a platform for those using hate speech or expressing views which are transphobic.”
The choice the council faced was simple: take the safe option and act on hearsay from partisan third parties about what may or may not go on at WPUK meetings, OR stand up for free speech and endure the accusations of transphobia that would inevitably follow. It chose the former.
Did it make its choice out of conviction or fear? Probably both.
It’s a sign of the times that in making the decision the council feared being labelled transphobic more than it feared being accused of censorship.
It’s not alone.
It’s becoming clearer by the day that we’ve got to the point (in 2018 FFS!) where many employees in civic, public and other organisations up and down the country feel forced to observe a code of silence on the debate around transgender rights.
In the last couple of days, small groups of MPs and academics have stuck their heads above the parapet to express their concerns about dialogue being stifled, viewpoints censored, and individuals harassed, but overall the silence is still deafening.
If Leeds council is genuinely convinced (and sadly it appears to be) that what gets said at meetings of the WPUK is hate speech, where did that conviction come from? Here’s a possible simplistic explanation.
What all the organisations affected by the code of silence – Leeds City Council included – have in common is that for years their management and staff have been receiving policy guidance and training on equality issues from LGB advocacy groups like Stonewall.
Stonewall, in particular, has become so trusted for its long-standing pioneering work for lesbian and gay rights that the accepted national measure of the success of equality policies for any large public or private organisation (Leeds City Council included) is where it ranks in Stonewall’s annual Workplace Equality Index.
By the time Stonewall broadened its remit in 2015 to start campaigning for trans equality, it already had massive reach – over 750 organisations at the last count, operating in every industry and every area of civic and public life. That’s a very effective (and lucrative) infrastructure of influence.
When it decided to put the T into LGBT, its clients throughout the country, Leeds City Council included, will have compliantly and in good faith accepted without question its authority to set the agenda for this new campaign in the battle for “equal rights”.
Why would they have questioned it?
If Stonewall is fighting for it, it must be right. Stonewall has always been on the right side of history. Whatever Stonewall says, goes. Or, as Stonewall recently put it: “What we say is true. Get over it.”
The answers to many of the questions these women are asking could have profound implications for the way society works, not to mention our understanding of science and language.
They include: should all men who identify as women have simple legal access to women’s spaces – their toilets, refuges, prisons, clubs and sports teams? Can someone with a male anatomy who identifies as a woman and is attracted to women claim to be lesbian? Should a 16-year-old schoolgirl be allowed in law to self-identify as a man? Is being a woman no longer about biology but just a feeling or a social construct?
For Stonewall and its establishment disciples in public and private boardrooms, including Leeds City Council, the answer to all those questions is ‘yes’. And that’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions.
What’s really not fine, though, is the new suffocating orthodoxy that comes along with that ‘yes’: that if you’re asking those questions, you’re a transphobe, that if you’re feeling uneasy about, say, the implications of abandoning single-sex spaces you’re guilty of a hate crime.
Councillors and MPs silent
Which takes us back to Leeds City Council, who, we now know, believe that allowing such questions to be asked in a council building would be providing “a platform for those using hate speech and expressing views which are transphobic”.
Leeds City Council, where to my knowledge only one local councillor out of 99 has raised any query about the council leadership’s cancellation of that meeting (if there have been more, please let me know). From the city’s six MPs, not a word. Total radar silence.
All of our local political representatives – irrespective of sex, party or faith – magically and miraculously believe the exact same thing on this most nuanced of topics.
Or they’re too craven to rock the establishment boat.
It beggars belief that in the 21st century such a depressing mix of groupthink and cowardice could be so firmly entrenched at the heart of our local democracy.
Councillors, none of these women you want to keep quiet are trying to wipe out the rights of transgender people to live free from fear, harm and discrimination, but this is a complex subject that’s not going to get solved without calm, open debate.
Your silence – in itself a tacit refusal to admit there’s a debate to be had – is a slap in the face of women in Leeds who just want to talk about their rights and how best to safeguard women and children as the law evolves (which it eventually will).
In the meantime, the council is currently working with Stonewall to finalise its Gender Identity Guidance for schools. Will there be a debate about it in the council chamber? Clearly not, because “controversial and potentially discriminatory language” might get used and views which the council leadership and its advisers have decreed are transphobic might be expressed.
Will parents who might be critical be given a look at what is proposed for their children before it gets enshrined in council policy and moves Leeds up the Stonewall equality rankings? As if.
Will any councillors raise any questions about the guidance, whatever it ends up saying? On current form, no.
Councillors, none of this is going to go away, even if the consultation that closes today is kicked into the long grass. While you sit silent in your debating chamber, scrutiny boards and diversity seminars, in the real world the city is earning itself a sorry reputation. You’re going to have to take notice, listen and talk to your constituents – even the adult human female ones – at some stage.
Why not start now?