If you’re a first time visitor, please start here.
In late 2015, my teenage daughter Jessie declared she was transgender and the experience tugged us into a rabbit hole of Orwellian double-speak and general insanity. I read so much during that time and it was such a vast learning curve that I felt compelled to bring all the threads together in an article. I was especially struck by the exponential surge in the number of teenage girls who were ‘identifying’ as boys, usually young lesbians and usually after lengthy sessions on social media.
After Jessie desisted, I wanted to share what I’d read as well as what I’d learned and eventually I finished writing an article which contained over 100 links. Jessie added a short postscript of her own and I was delighted when 4thwavenow published it in December 2016 under the title ‘A Mum’s Voyage Through Transtopia – a tale of love and desistance’.
Before you ask me any questions; before you critcise or praise my stance on transitioning kids, or the appropriation of womanhood by men, please read that. It’s where it all began.
After Jessie re-realised she was a girl and things settled down at home, I expected to put my time in Transtopia behind me and move on. Instead I became more fascinated- and angry- with the culture of misogyny and homophobia which underlies transgender theory.
For without stereotypes there can be no ‘brave transgender children’. Without the dolls and the pink tutus, a love of glitter, a gentle nature and a will to dance, what could possibly make girls of the little boys of ‘My Transgender Summer Camp’? What other than her love of Batman, karate and jumping around could make that short-haired, fierce little girl into a boy trapped in a female body? A feeling? How does a boy feel? How does a girl feel?
Without sexism, there can be no transgenderism. Without the idea that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way to be a boy or a girl there would be no need to beguile and medicate these kids in an attempt to make them ‘fit in’. Our current culture of blind affirmation is not doing anyone any favours. It is nothing short of abusive to tell a child that they are ‘wrong’, that they have been ‘born in the wrong body’ or that medication and surgery can make them into the opposite sex. Affirming a trans-identified child- and many of these kids are LGB, autistic, have suffered trauma, abuse or loss, or have co-existing mental health issues- is to set them down a path to becoming a life-long medical patient.
This first step down this pathway begins with agreeing with a confused girl that she is a boy. 21st century kids who undergo social transition young frequently progress to puberty blockers. Children given puberty blockers almost always go one to take cross sex hormones. This combination leaves a child sterile and without sexual function.
What would have happened if I had affirmed my child when she told me she was a boy?
I would have called her by her new name and ‘he/him’ pronouns.
This would have told her that I believed she was not a girl, that I thought she had been ‘born wrong’ and needed fixing in order to be her ‘authentic’ self. It would also have affirmed her delusion, every day.
I would have paid for her to see a private therapist.
Most private therapists will tell you trans-identified children become suicidal if not transitioned. The reality is, there is no data to support the idea that they are more at risk than any other child being seen under child mental health services.
I would have accessed my child cross-sex hormones.
Don’t believe those who tell you about lengthy waiting lists. If you are broke and follow the NHS route, yes. If you’ve got a couple of hundred quid spare, you can get hormones for your child quickly and easily. Gender GP is just one of the services that has prescribed testosterone for girls as young as twelve. Before we jump to blame the parents, consider: is it any wonder parents resort to this when they’ve been told their child may kill themselves otherwise?
Girls on testosterone often develop acne and male pattern baldness. They grow beards. The beards, baldness and deepened voice are irreversible. They are also at higher risk of heart attack and other diseased and illnesses. Most doctors recommend a hysterectomy within 5 years of being on testosterone.
Top surgery would be next.
Why wouldn’t it be? By this point everyone would have been using my child’s new name and pronouns. Everyone would be agreeing with her that she was a boy. She would probably be using a binder, with all the health risks that entails. It would seem like natural progression to have an elective double mastectomy. In the USA, girls as young as 13 have undergone this procedure.
She might have chosen to go on to have phalloplasty, where the skin of the arm is stripped to form a tube of flesh that’s attached between the legs. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong with this procedure.
And there we would have it.
My dysphoric child would have been left dependent on drugs and the affirmation of others to maintain this illusion for the rest of her life. And you know what? She could still never be a man.
Mention the presence of men in women’s prisons and most people will assume you’re talking about the guards, not the inmates. Tell somebody that there are male prisoners being held in women’s prisons and it’s quite likely that they’ll look at you as if you’re mad. Add that in some cases women are expected to shower and change with these men, and you can bet that look intensifies.
When you inform them that there are rapists in women’s prisons… well at that point they start thinking that you really must be mad. Because it couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Not here.
But there’s one little bit of information that supposedly makes all the difference and suddenly makes it all alright. These particular men say that they are women. They claim to ‘live as women’ and believe they know what it is to feel like a woman, as if there is one uniform experience of womanhood outside of biology, and as if, if there were such a thing, a man might somehow comprehend what it might be.
In fact, if there were such a thing as ‘feeling like a woman’ and if a man could know what it was then it would cease to be a shared experience of womanhood and become ‘an experience shared by some people’.
But we aren’t allowed to talk about that.
A bit about prisons
“In general, females appear to be substantially underrepresented throughout the CJS compared with males. This is particularly true in relation to the most serious offence types and sentences…”
Twelve of these are women’s prisons and two of those twelve, East Sutton Park and Ashkam Grange, are ‘open’ prisons.
A third of female prisoners report a history of sexual abuse and over half report experiencing domestic violence.
Prisons are not, nor have they ever been, segregated by gender identity. It is not a woman’s gender identity that leaves her vulnerable to male violence and sexual assault.
Men make up 96%of the total prison population and nearly one in five is serving a sentence for sexual offences. There are approximately 13,000 male sex offenders in prison.
There are fewer than 3,200 women in prison and fewer than 100 are serving sentences for sexual offences.
A 2020 Ministry of Justice report titled Women and the Criminal Justice System, released statistics showing that, in 2019, 98% of those charged with sexual offences were men.
But transwomen are women…
If ‘transwomen are women’ then they should follow female patterns of criminality, right? But they don’t. Trans-identified men (aka transwomen) follow the same patterns as other men.
In October 2017 the organisation Fair Play for Women (FPFW) produced a report, later confirmed by the MOJ, which showed that approximately half of transgender prisoners are located in sex offender units or category A prisons. You can peruse the FPFW ‘Prison Archives’ here.
In 2018 the BBC submitted FOI requests to the Ministry of Justice and was informed that 60/125 transgender inmates in England and Wales were serving time for sexual offences. 27 were convicted of rape, plus a further five of attempted rape, and thirteen were convicted of possessing, distributing or making indecent images of children.
Inmates with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) were not included in the data.
A Swedish study of trans-identified people who had undergone ‘surgical and legal sex reassignment’ Dhejne et al. (2011) concluded that men retained male patterns of criminality post-transition. This was also true of their propensity to commit violent crimes.
The nuances of this information, while important when examining the bigger picture, are not needed to reach the conclusion that trans-identified men (transwomen) are, at very least, no less of a violent or sexual threat to women than any other men.
It is really important to make it clear that nobody is claiming all trans-identified men are rapists and sex offenders, any more than they are claiming that all men are rapists and sex offenders.
Acknowledging the reality of this is neither misandry nor transphobia.
Fixing the figures
Often the crimes of trans-identifed males are reported in the press as ‘women’s crimes’. Sometimes their arrests are even recorded as women’s offences, because many police forces admit they use ‘gender identity’ when recording crime data rather than sex.
FPFW submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests in 2019 and found that:
“…police commonly record self-declared gender identity instead of birth sex; even when the crime is rape. This means suspected and convicted rapists are recorded in official statistics as female if they no longer wish to identify with their male birth sex.”
Even when a sexual threat is not involved, crime figures are twisted when male crimes are recorded as having been committed by women.
Take the example of 35 year old Zoe.
Zoe is an ex-police support officer with a ‘disturbing’ fascination for weapons. Zoe built a bomb and hoarded a cache of illegal weapons including a stun gun. Zoe is actually a bloke called Kyle. Lincolnshire police have recorded his crime as having been committed by a woman.
Kate Coleman, of Keep Prisons Single Sex (KPSS) says, “Males and male crime are hidden in the female data and statistics. This has serious implications for the accuracy of statistics and service planning and development.”
“This means that if a man arrested on suspicion of rape says he is a woman, it will be recorded in the female statistics. We think this is wrong. Sex is an important variable in analysing crime. We think that data on offending should be recorded by sex. We think this is vital for service planning throughout the criminal justice system.” KPSS
So crime stats are one thing.
But men in women’s prisons?
Surely not… I mean that would be insane, right?
protest outside the Ministry of Justice
How do you get a Gender Recognition Certificate?
A Gender Recognition Certificate sounds very grandiose and important but is relatively straightforward to obtain. You do not have to be on hormones. You do not have to have had, or plan to have, any kind of surgery. You can be in possession of a perfectly well-fuctioning penis.
You do have to be 18 or over, have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, have lived in your ‘acquired gender’ for two years and be willing to say you’ll never change your mind.
Applying for a GRC by the standard route (there are other ways) can be done online and costs £5. The cost was cut from £140 in 2021 to help make the process ‘simpler and much more affordable’.
What does it mean?
Once you have a GRC you have ‘become’ the opposite sex in the eyes of the law.
Currently, the presumption is that a man with a gender recognition certificate must be put in a women’s prison. There are nine such men in the female estate.
If he has a GRC, it no longer relevant to the MOJ if a man has a penis or if he’s had it removed. It doesn’t matter whether he’s doing time for compulsively shoplifting JoJo bows or multiple rape. He is assessed ‘as a woman’ and in almost all circumstances, into the female estate he goes. I say ‘almost all’ because we do know that there has been an exception made to this, and that there is one man with a GRC who is held in the male estate.
However, the MOJ’s current policy also allows for men without a GRC to be housed alongside female prisoners.
Looking at it statistically: less than 1% of trans-identified men without a GRC are housed in women’s prisons. This rises to 90% of those who have obtained a GRC.
“Where a male who has been convicted of sexual offences obtains a GRC, the risk assessment tool that is used for adult men convicted of sexual offences can no longer be used. This is because this risk assessment tool is not for use with women.” explains KPSS.
The MoJ says a male prisoner is only held in the female estate if the risk posed to women in prison is ‘manageable’… we believe that no male prisoner should ever be held alongside women in prison.” KPSS
One in fifty??
A man who says he’s a woman but doesn’t have a GRC can still ask to be housed in the female estate. Most of the time the powers that be say ‘no’, which is a bloody good job as currently there appear to be a whopping 158 men in prison who are claiming to be women.
One in fifty male prisoners currently claims to identify as transgender and within some communities that figure rises to as high as one in ten.
You can read more facts and figures around this in the HMP and Probation Service Offender EqualitiesAnnualReport 2020/21 here.
While this article does not address the situation in Scotland, which does not follow English law, it is worth noting that earlier this year Dr Matthew Maycock of Dundee University reported research results suggesting that some trans-identified men ‘revert to males‘ when they leave Scottish prisons. One woman told him, “He (the prisoner) wanted to be in this hall because he wanted to have sex with loads of lassies.” Another said, The last one to get out, back living as a man. The one before that got out, back living as a man.”
Two other things worth taking a moment to reflect on at this point are that the government of England and Wales has recently made the process of applying for a GRC ‘simpler and much more affordable’ and that once a man has a GRC he is a woman in the eyes of the law and must be placed in a women’s prison.
Currently it is believed that there is only one male without a GRC housed in the female estate. However, the population of trans-identifed males in prison (excluding GRC holders) has grown by 22% since the last data collection point in 2019.
“That’s significant growth,” Kate Coleman of Keep Prisons Single Sex tells me.
“This is a growing issue that the Prison Service is going to have to accommodate. The men’s estate needs to step up to meet the needs of this small, but growing, cohort.”
I wonder, does it seem like such a huge stretch of the imagination to consider that non-GRC holding men may soon start bringing court cases against the MOJ ?
After all, if ‘trans rights are human rights’ means anything, it surely means men should be put in women’s prisons if they want to be.
Women in men’s prisons?
As far as we know, there are no women, with or without a GRC, held in men’s prisons. There are believed to be 39 trans-identified women in the female estate. For obvious reasons, these women are not put into the male estate and there are no reports, that I could find, of women prisoners requesting to be put into the male estate.
We also know that theoretically a woman could be held in the male estate if she was considered to be a high enough risk: such a high risk that it wasn’t possible to assess her under the current MOJ guidelines for women.
Think Jessica Jones’s mum. Or even Jesscica on a bad day. It doesn’t happen for obvious reasons.
I could find only one such case in England, that of sisters Marian and Dolorus Price, who were held in Brixton prison after being convicted for their part in the 1973 car bombings in London.
Politics were at play: the sisters went on hunger strike, demanding to be moved to Ireland, and were force-fed in the English prison system. A 1974 House of Commons debate concerning the women records a Mr Lipton asking, “Will my right honorable friend bear in mind thatBrixton was never intended to accommodate women prisoners?” and a Mr Fowler replying that, “…the prime concern must be that these prisoners remain under maximum security conditions.”
The Prices were eventually moved to Ireland.
A bit of history
Elizabeth Fry, tireless reformer, mother of eleven (!) and founder of the ‘British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners’, played a large part in securing the 1826 Gaols Act, which mandated both for sex-segregation of prisons and for the provision of female warders for female prisoners.
This was not so inmates and custodians could bond over their identities but an attempt to protect women from sexual exploitation and abuse- and to a certain extent it worked.
“Fry’s work not only ensured that female officers were appointed to watch over female prisoners, but in many public institutions in Britain at least, no male authority figure could have access to poor and vulnerable women without the presence of a female chaperone.” wrote Rosalind Crone for BBC History magazine in 2017.
Nearly 200 years after the Gaols Act, we appear to be walking backwards.
As transportation became less of a practical solution to getting rid of unwanted, mostly prostituted or impoverished women, the first convict prison for women opened in Brixton. It remained as such from 1853-1869 and held up to 650 women. Women often moved on to the Fulham refuge halfway-house before being released, the plan being that in theory they could better find jobs in service, a refuge appearing a more reputable prior abode than a prison to a prospective employer.
Fast forward a hundred years and in January 1947, HMP Askham Grange was opened. It was the first open women’s prison in the country. In 1979 two prisoners, Jenny Hicks and Jackie Holborough founded the Clean Break Theatre Company, which still runs today.
Another excellent organisation, one which works to bring art to prisoners and the art of prisoners to those outside prisons, is the Koestler Trust.
Ahem. Back on piste, please.
Men in women’s prisons – how did we get here?
It used to be that in order to be placed in a women’s prison, a man had to have undergone ‘sex reassignment surgery’ – ie had had his penis removed – before he was convicted and sent to prison.
In 1999, sex change surgery became available on the NHS after the Appeal Court decided that gender dysphoria was a legitimate illness. This meant that men in prison were also entitled to this treatment. After such surgery they could be moved to women’s prisons.
“The Prison Service has given the go-ahead for six prisoners, including a murderer, a kidnapper and an armed robber, to undergo sex changes on the National Health Service.” reported the Independent in 1999.” The decision follows a legal challenge by one of the prisoners, who has been fighting an eight-year battle to change his gender.”
John Pilley, fighter of the eight year battle, did undergo surgery and was moved to a women’s prison. Seven years later he changed his mind. By 2018 he had detransitoned and moved back to the male estate.
Following a judicial review in 2009, Karen Jones, who strangled his partner and later attempted to rape a shop assistant, won the right to be housed in the female estate.
KPSS explains the paradox that arose surrounding this case:
“…his entitlement to surgery could only be met by placing him in a women’s prison. His right to this surgery had already been established in the 1990s, therefore keeping him in the male estate would have interfered with his legal right to treatment.”
Contrary to popular belief, men aren’t put in women’s prisons to protect them from violent men, they are put there so they can ‘live as women’.
In 2011 the requirement to be placed in the female estate was changed from ‘genital surgery’ to ‘legal gender’.
In 2015, Tara Hudson, who did not have a GRC- but did have eight previous convictions and a penis- was convicted of head butting a barman who refused to serve him and sent to HMP Bristol. The power of the ‘pretty pass’ meant that a petition gathered over 150,000 signatures to have him moved to a women’s prison. Hudson was moved to HMP Eastwood Park, a women’s prison.
Hudson did later attempted to sue the MOJ, saying he had found the experience of men’s prison ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive’.
“Girls show their emotions, they cry and they self harm, but males when they have got a problem, they just let it out with violence.”said Hudson of his time in prison for… er… beating someone up really badly.
A few months before his conviction, Hudson (aka Holly Johansson) told the Daily Mirror, “When I’m modelling for glamour shoots I feel like the sexiest girl alive, no-one has any idea that I’m actually a bloke. I love dressing up and showing off my assets without anyone knowing I’m actually a pre-op transsexual.”
TransCrimeUK reports: “The MoJ reportedly state in court papers that Hudson “is as a matter of biological fact a man” and add that the term ‘transwoman’ has no legal significance. They say they have adopted female pronouns when referring to Hudson only “out of respect for her wishes”.
That same MoJ saw fit to place Hudson in a women’s prison. Why?
The Ministry of Justice’s ‘Review on the Care and Management of Transgender Offenders’ (2016) decided ‘that allowing trans-identified men to ‘experience the system in the gender in which they identify will, in the great majority of cases, represent the most humane and safest way to act.”
This policy resulted in the placing of several more men in women’s prisons which- quelle surprise– led to women being assaulted.
David Thompson / Karen White, “convicted paedophile and on remand for grievous bodily harm, burglary, multiple rapes and other sexual offences against women” was sent to New Hall women’s prison, where he assaulted at least two more women. Infamously, a court was told that one woman, “could see the defendant’s penis erect and sticking out of the top of her (sic) pants”.
In 2018, Fair Play for Womenasked‘after Karen White, what is the government doing to make sure women in prison never get attacked by a male inmate ever again?’ using this startling graphic which quickly went viral.
Thompson was returned to the male estate and under the current MOJ risk assessments, it is unlikely that he would be placed in the female estate.
At the time of the Karen White scandal there were 22 males in women’s prisons. Now there are half as many. While there are currently fewer men housed in women’s prisons, the number of male inmates ‘identifying’ as women is on the increase.
In 2018, the Guardian reported that Thompson/White was ‘undergoing gender reassignment surgery.’ If this has happened, the public has not been told. If he successfully applies for a GRC- for which he wouldn’t even need the surgery- then by law he would have to be moved back to the female estate, right? I suspect I’m not the only one who is both worried and confused.
“The women’s prison population represents just 5% of all prisoners in England and Wales.”reportsFair Play for Women. “Any small increases in the number of transfers of trans-identifying males from male prisons would have a disproportionately large impact on the relatively small population of women prisoners.”
You can read the case studies of some men who are, or were, housed in women’s prisons here.
I’m going to mention just three of them.
One male currently in the female estate is Alan Baker / Alex Stewart (left), a murderer whose penis accompanied him to the female estate at HMP Greenock, very much still attached to his body. There, he took showers with the female prisoners and won the prison’s ‘Miss Fitness’ trophy and the accompanying prizes.
Here, in this women’s prison, he became enamoured of Daniel / Sophie Eastwood- also a convicted murderer and also a man. After they were repeatedly caught being sexually inappropriate in public, Eastwood was moved to the women’s section at HMP Polmut. Stewart remains at HMP Greenock.
Martin Ponting, jailed in the 90s for raping a child and a disabled young woman, began transitioning over a decade into his sentence. In 2017, Martin, aka Jessica, was moved to HMP Bronzefield, a woman’s prison, where he had to be put into segregation after making unwanted sexual advances to inmates.
Ponting is no longer in HMP Bronzefield, as he has recently completed his sentence and been released.
the protest outside the MOJ
The Judicial Review
In 2021 a judicial review was brought against the the Ministry of Justice by an anonymous ex-prisoner who asserted that she was sexually assaulted in prison by a ‘transwoman’ with both a GRC and convictions for serious sexual offences.
On 2nd July 2021 the result of the review was announced. It is an astonishingly ditzy work of incomprehensible woowoo and you can read it here.
The review helpfully explains that “Women prisoners shall normally be kept separate from male prisoners,” but goes on to elaborate, “the population of afemaleprison may includepersons who were born female and identify as such(referred to in this judgment as ‘women’); persons who were born male but identify as female,whether or not they have undergone any alteration of physical characteristics(‘transgender women’);and transgender women who have obtained a GRC(‘transgender women with a GRC’).”
“It is important to the Claimant’s case to note,” it adds, “that both a transgender woman and atransgender woman with a GRC may retain male genitalia.”
It isan important part ofthe Claimant’scasethat many in thefemaleprisonestate, including her,have been the victims of sexual abuse and/or domestic violence during their lives.
The Defendantdoes not dispute thatproposition, andaccepts that women prisoners in general are a vulnerable cohort and thatpast experience of sexual abuse or rape is prevalent.”
Without wading waist-high in the woeful waters of woowoo for too long, the short end of the stick was this: the High Court ruled that it was lawful for the MOJ to house high-risk males in the female estate- despite acknowledging the fact that this may cause female prisoners to “suffer fear and acute anxiety”.
“I’m disappointed that the Court decided against issuing a more robust ruling on the rights of female prisoners in relation to male prisoners who identify as women.”reported Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. “Rights are a pie, the Court agrees, and female prisoners are being expected to give up some of their share to accommodate males.”
“Women’s physical safety is considered,” observes Fair Play for Women, “but their psychological well-being is not. Imagine the mental trauma some women will suffer when forced to share their space with fully-intact male prisoners who are known to have physically and sexually assaulted women.”
A female prisoner told KPSS:
“Being in prison with male prisoners you always feel on edge… we know they are not women… they are physically aggressive and threatening…
Now he is allowed to shower with us women… he moves the shower curtain so we can see his penis…
We have to call them ‘she’ and ‘her’ and have to use their female names… if we don’t, we are punished and lose our enhanced prisoner status.
I can’t understand how anyone can say that imprisoning males in women’s prisons is right.”
Amend the GRA
In January 2022, Lord Blencathr tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill. He asked for a new clause, ’20A: sex-specific incarceration’ to be added to the Gender Recognition Act. This would “ensure that prisoners with a gender recognition certificate who are suspected or convicted of violent or sexual offences are treated as their sex registered at birth with respect to housing on the prison estate.”
“The needs of women in prison matter,” he told the House, “and these needs mandate single-sex provision.”“
If women in prison cannot be guaranteed single-sex spaces, no woman or girl can. Hospital wards, changing rooms, rape crisis centres, refuges and toilets in schools—I am talking about anywhere where women and girls, for reasons of dignity, privacy and safety, require single-sex spaces. I simply say this to my noble friend: if legislation is insufficient at the moment to secure single-sex provision for women in prison, all females in this country are left vulnerable.”
You can read the discussion here. The idea of the amendment did receive some support, but not enough, and it was withdrawn.
“This policy of downgrading the rights of biological sex women is heading for the scrapheap of history,” said Blencathr, who said he was withdrawing the amendment, “not because I am wrong but because I cannot win in the numbers tonight.”
In the first months of 2022 a series of protests were organised around English jails. The first of these was the protest outside Styal prison on 29th January.
29th January – Styal
Styal is a prison and young offender institution (YOI) for women aged 18 and over. The buildings were originally an orphanage for destitute children from the Manchester area and became a women’s prison in 1962. Located in Wilmslow, Cheshire, the prison houses around 480 women.
The protest outside Styal was organised by the Northern RadFem Network who were joined by Manchester Feminists and others.
Protestors outside Styal prison on 29/1/22 – photo: Helen Steel
““The prison service have been so busy looking down, rolling the red-carpet out to convicted males wanting to enter women’s prisons. They need to look up and see the red-flags these men are waving furiously in everyone’s faces.” said one of the speakers.
Attendee Kalesi Wolfdescribed the event as ‘a fantastic protest’ with ‘amazing emotional speeches’.
She posted on Twitter:“I took my shield and joined NorthernRadFem to protest outside Styal prison:
12th February – Ministry of Justice
Around 180 protestors gathered outside the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on Saturday 12th February.
The MOJ is located on Petty France (not, as it’s often called ‘petit’ France) about fifteen minutes walk from Victoria Station. It’s a perfectly Orwellian-looking building, 14 floors of soulless concrete, vast and stern, erected in 1976 afterwhich it housed the Home Office until 2004.
“The Ministry of Justice is a major government department, at the heart of the justice system. We work to protect & advance the principles of justice.” – Government website.
While the MOJ isn’t busy at the weekend we’d decided that would be the best time to get a decent turn out for a protest. There had been brief talk of costumes- a fox and a hen in a cage were mentioned- or a giant condom. And dinosaurs too, of course. But it was decided that this serious issue needed a serious protest. So none of that!
If a group of people intend to march dramatically with whistles & bells, waving placards as they go, they are supposed to register with the police. Protesting outside a building, as long as you’re not blocking the way for passers-by, needs no such declaration.
Several women had made placards, or had them printed up; some banners had survived from previous prison protests. About thirty of us gathered at the Wetherspoons at Victoria Station beforehand for some lunch and liaison. After wetting our metaphorical whistles, we walked un-dramatically, while not-waving-anything-or-handing-out-any-leaflets, to Petty France where we were pleased to see another large group had already gathered on the pavement outside the MOJ, in the bright but chilly afternoon air.
A few of the group volunteered to stand outside St James Park tube station, just over the road, and hand out the distinctive pink and white leaflets which we had ordered from Keep Prisons Single Sex. You can see the leaflets elsewhere in this article.
Before the speeches there was much chanting: “No males in female jails!” and “Keep prisons single sex!”
Speeches were made at most of the prison protests; some were written by the women who read them out, on other occassions they read out the words of women who were still in prison or who could not be present. Some speeches were repeated at different events. In this article I have only included the full content of those made outside the MOJ.
Opening Speech: Julia Long
“Throughout the United Kingdom, women’s prisons are currently run as mixed-sex facilities because male prisoners who claim to be women are housed in the female estate alongside women.
The Ministry of Justice says that to keep all these male prisoners who claim to be women – these men – out of women’s prisons would “impermissibly deny them their human rights”. That’s right: male prisoners, including those convicted of the most serious violent and sexual offences against women and including those – the vast majority, if not very likely all – with fully functioning penises, apparently have the human right to be housed with women in prison. A right that – apparently – must not be denied them.
Well, what about women’s rights? What about women in prison? Throughout the criminal justice system it is recognised that women in prison are exceptionally traumatised and made vulnerable through histories of male violence and sexual abuse often since childhood, with alarmingly high rates of mental mental distress, self-harm and attempted suicide. And I do want to say just now that probably some of you here will have seen the report that came out just this week of Foston Hall, a women’s prison in Derbyshire, where since 2019 two women have killed themselves; over the course of a year there were 1,750 incidents of self-harm recorded, and that is with a prison population of 272 inmates.
They said that there are record levels of self-harm and mental distress in that prison. The crisis hotline in that prison went unanswered and untended for weeks, so anyone trying to call that crisis line would get no help whatsoever. They recorded over 1,000 calls to The Samaritans, because those women were not getting support in that estate.
You probably again are familiar with the absolutely horrendous cases of two babies dying, one in a prison cell and one in a prison toilet, because what must have been desperate calls for assistance from those pregnant women went unanswered, with the result that one baby was stillborn and the other I believe died shortly after being born. So what about women’s rights? Before we start indulging absurd demands for ‘gender-affirming items’ for these male prisoners, before we start indulging these male prisoners in their fantasies, what about women’s rights?
What about the rights of women in prison?
We know that ¾ of these women are in prison for non-violent offences. What is the context of that? Homelessness, poverty, male violence, problems with drugs and alcohol usually used as a coping mechanism because of the appalling situations these women are in. So what about women’s rights? Research published last year in the Lancet Psychiatry journal found that almost 80% of the women in prison that they surveyed had experienced significant head injury. In most cases this was the result of years of violence from male partners.
The Government’s Female Offender Strategy mandates a “trauma responsive approach”. (Now isn’t that one of these buzzwords, a “trauma responsive approach”?) Now, can anyone explain to me how it is “trauma responsive” to force a female offender who has been the victim of rape to share prison accommodation with a man who has been convicted of rape?
Last month the government rejected a proposal brought before the House of Lords to create specialist, separate transgender units, away from the female estate. This would have kept all prisoners safe. In rejecting this, the government shows that this is not about prisoner safety. This is about fulfilling the desires of men, which are seen to be more important than the basic needs of women. Women who have no choice in the spaces they use, or with whom they share them. Women who, like all women, have the right to single-sex provision for reasons of dignity, privacy and safety. And women do not feel safe in prison. In that Foston Hall report, 1/3 of the women said that they felt unsafe in that estate. So let’s think about their safety before we start indulging these men and their fantasies.
Now, the Ministry of Justice claims that their current policy is “working well”. But that’s not what women in prison say. Women in prison report sexualised and threatening behaviour, instances of grooming, exhibitionism and assault. They report feeling fear and being unsupported by prison staff who are reluctant to act on their complaints. And again, I think if we just remember those pregnant women calling desperately for help, we can see that we cannot guarantee that women will be supported and listened to when they make complaints about this. Women are told their concerns are transphobic or are instructed that they may not use language to accurately refer to the sex of these men, because apparently this ‘misgendering’ is bullying. Well, putting rapists in women’s prisons looks very much like bullying to me.
“Hello. I’m Belstaffie.
“For twenty years I was employed by the West Yorkshire Probation Service and I specialised in the assessment and risk management of male sexual offenders, both in custody and in the community. I also conducted a number of reports and assessments at women’s prisons in the north of the UK. I worked with transsexual prisoners on the Vulnerable Prisoner Unit at HMP Leeds, so I KNOW that the male estate IS fit for purpose for these men.
When I retired, I thought that my concerns with predatory male offenders was over. That was until the MOJ introduced ‘self-identification’ in women’s prisons for male prisoners.
When I heard that CONVICTED male prisoners were claiming transgender status and ‘identifying as women’ within the male prison estates, I wasn’t concerned, as I know from experience that their needs can be managed in the male estates and often within the Vulnerable Prisoner Units, which are in every UK jail. It offers enhanced support and protection for prisoners rendered vulnerable, by drug debts, sexual offenders, and poor copers.
But …when I read that these men were being transferred to FEMALE prisons, based on their stated gender and not based on their sex, I became extremely alarmed.
I was alarmed because as sex offender specialist, knowing what I know about these dangerous men and their dangerous and harmful behaviours, juxtaposed with the vulnerability of the women locked up in UK jails. For instance 80% of women at HMP & YOI Styal are serving short custodial sentences for non-violent, non-sexual, non-predatory offences, such as social security fraud, shoplifting and for not paying the family TV licence.
In the report released this month by the HMIP called ‘Focus On Women’s Prisons’ the vulnerability of women and teenage girls on the female estates was highlighted as gravely concerning. The Inspectorate reported that prisons were often used as “places of safety” for acutely mentally ill women.
In this report they state the following, “In our inspections we find that the fundamental principles underpinning good staff-prisoner relationships include a clear understanding and application of trauma-informed ways of working by all. These approaches do not have to be complicated; it can be as simple as recognising the effect of traumatic life events on a woman’s current behaviour.”
For instance, survivors of multiple rapes, indecent assaults, child sexual abuse, prostituted women and girls, and domestic violence.
Offences committed by men against them because they were/are female.
Many of the women and teenage girls are victimised long before they are imprisoned. Men’s offending on the other hand, whether they identify as women or not, is INFINITELY more serious, more dangerous and they commit acts which cause far more serious harm.
I liaise with other sex offender specialists in the UK, who are employed by the National Probation Service. A colleague, whom I hold in very high esteem, and I worked out that we have assessed MANY thousands of male sex offenders over a combined 60 years’ practice! THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS. In those combined 60 years of practice, we came up with five female sex offenders, between us. Five! What a shocking ratio!
Assessments based on the offenders SEX are essential if an accurate and robust risk assessment is to be made. And these risk assessments are intended to reduce risk of harm and protect the public.
This policy of Self-ID that the MOJ is implementing, puts the feelings of certain convicted men, who for whatever reason are “identifying as women” over the safe, humane and dignified containment of women and teenage girls.
Anyone that has assessed and managed male sexual offenders KNOWS that they are THE most manipulative prisoners in the system. They are professional manipulators and manipulate not only victims, but organisations and institutions. It’s called ‘conditioning’ and ‘grooming’.
That is why sexual predators are REMOVED from society and incarcerated – away from their Ideal Victim Types (often women and teenage girls), who are often the primary victims of these men and their male pattern violence.
This male pattern violence does NOT diminish or reduce as soon as they don feminine clothing, wear make-up and concern themselves with other gender-affirming items and feminine frippery.
Any male prisoner can now ‘identify’ as a woman if HE should so desire. Therefore ANY male prisoner has the right, under the MOJ policy, to identify as a woman and should therefore be housed in the female estate. They say!
As a retired Probation Officer, as a sexual offender specialist and as a woman-
I KNOW this policy of self-identification is callous, dangerous and inhumane.
Most people in the UK do not know this is happening and that is why we are outside the Ministry Of Justice today, drawing attention to this massive INJUSTICE being played out in the females estates, using already traumatised and vulnerable women as prey for predators.
HMP & YOI Styal was protested on 29th Feb by thirty women representing 6 local northern feminist and women’s rights groups and it was very well received by the general public. There will be more protests at women’s estates across the UK over the coming months, organised by a number of feminist groups in the UK. Please attend them!
LISTEN! Women didn’t start this inhumanity, But we WILL conjure an ALMIGHTY storm, on a NUMBER of fronts to stop this state sanctioned abuse and gaslighting of women and teenage girls in UK prisons.
Thank you for attending this protest against self-identification and thank you for your support for our female prisoners. They deserve Justice like everyone else, but they’re not getting it at the hands of the Ministry of Injustice for Women.
Keep prisons single sex!”
“Today, as an ex inmate, I’m speaking on behalf of my incarcerated sisters, and I hope my words represent their perspectives and fears whilst they are unable to speak out.
Women in prison do not operate in a hierarchy. We innately recognise trauma in one another and we tend to band together and form attachments. Inside, this tendency is amplified because all we have is each other. Of course there are fall outs and shifting alliances, but despite this there is always a stable power balance that remains relatively static. The presence of just one man takes this stability and throws it into chaos. Even if that man is one of the ‘good guys’ the dynamic in a group of women will be irrevocably altered, and they will have to sacrifice the links of comfort and security they’ve been able to build and count on in an otherwise abysmal situation.
We KNOW, however, that these particular men are never, ever, even remotely ‘good guys’. They’re predators. A full 60% of male prisoners presently identifying as transgender have been convicted of sex offences, and knowing the pathetically low rates of conviction, it’s safe to assume these are extremely serious offences. These men know exactly what they’re doing, and so do the prison officers, governors and policy makers that have green lit this disgusting process at every step, allowing them access to some of the most easy targets.
There is not one single aspect of life inside that wouldn’t be adversely affected by having mixed sex facilities. Women will avoid showering in communal washing spaces. They’ll stay in their cells during any recreation time if common areas are dominated by men. They’ll stop going to the gym and stop partaking in enriching activities – this has already happened, in 2018 a male murderer named Alex Stewart was placed in HMP Greenock and proceeded to destroy a women’s fitness tournament. Of course, anyone that had a problem with this was labelled transphobic and thusly dismissed.
Male and female prisoners are VASTLY different demographics.The female prison population is just 5%, and we’re imprisoned overwhelmingly for non violent offences. This cannot be overstated. We are not the same as male criminals, we do not share anything like the same offending pattern. Ministers and legislators know this damn well and flagrantly disregard the already scant wellbeing of women to appease the whims of manipulative men. It is utterly contemptible that the women bearing the sharp end of this abhorrent capitulation are the ones most in need of protection.
This mad idea that men magically become women on their say so is a nefarious lie, and this twisting of reality is making its way into legislation and the highest echelons of lawmaking. The analogy of foxes in henhouses has never been more apt. HOW has it happened that rapists, child molesters and murderers are being given a state sanctioned free pass to continue abusing? Who the hell let this happen?
We’re here to hold to account every person that implemented this dangerous nightmare, and urge them to consider the devastating consequences of their actions. We want nothing less than a total reversal of this awful policy. We demand the removal of every single man from women’s prisons, recognition that a mistake of unfathomable magnitude has been made, and a promise that this can never, EVER happen again.”
This is a statement from Vicky, a former prisoner:
“I was on the same wing as a TW who was in for a violent crime. A lot of the women were scared of him. He was quite rude and because of his prison job he kind of lorded it over the women. He was ‘untouchable ‘ in our eyes, as if you said anything to or about him you would get a warning or nicking. Many women lost canteen and/or association for stating the fact he was a man, and that they felt uncomfortable with it. Our cells all had showers which I’m grateful for as if they didn’t I know if have ended up down the block as I know the prison would have let the TW use the showers at the same time as us.
What really annoyed me was the fact officers bent over backwards to accommodate him. One woman was actually moved to a different cell so he could have his friend move in to that cell which was next door to his.
I was padded up with an East European woman who spoke limited English, she’d never been inside before and was put in with me as ‘I knew the rules etc” and could help her. She needed help with everything from canteen sheets to bail apps. The jail didn’t help at all but would do anything and everything to help the TW.
One day an officer overheard a conversation between me and her about men in prison (my padmate was scared and it was hard to explain especially to ease her anxiety as she was a trafficking victim). We got a warning there and then and a short while later our personal officer came to see us. We were called transphobic, bullies and the prison did not tolerate it! I said the prison was meant to be trauma informed but that this was BS as you aren’t putting women’s safety first, and the fact the jail knew I’m a victim of rape and violence at the hands of men, and my padmate was a victim of trafficking. My personal officer basically said it’s no excuse to bully another woman! There was no bullying it was a private conversation. I said I wanted to put a complaint in but was told if I did it would make my stay very uncomfortable. I was told this a couple of times during my sentence.”
In March 2021 FDJ, a female prisoner, brought a judicial review against the Secretary of State for Justice. She had been sexually assaulted by J, a male prisoner who identifies as transgender and has a Gender Recognition Certificate. J was serving a sentence for serious sexual offences against women and was held in a women’s prison with her. FDJ challenged the lawfulness of the prison policies concerning the allocation of transgender prisoners on the basis that they unlawfully discriminate against women and misstate the law.
This is her statement:
“Being in prison with male prisoners, you always feel on edge. You know something could happen at any time. We know they are not women. They are physically threatening and aggressive. I was sexually assaulted and I am not the only woman who has been. They haven’t had surgery and they expose themselves. One of them had been told he couldn’t shower at the same time as us women. He made a formal complaint and said this was a breach of his human rights. So now he is allowed to shower with us. And because he now has that right, the other males have that right too. There’s only a shower curtain between us. He moves the curtain so we can all see his penis when he is washing himself or shaving his legs. This is disgusting and I think it is disgusting that the prison allows this.
We can’t complain about anything. They are very well protected and it feels like our rights as women just don’t count. We have to call them ‘she’ and ‘her’ and have to use their female names. If we don’t, we are punished and lose our enhanced prisoner or D-Category status. It is horrible to do that to women.
I am very upset that I lost my legal case. I can’t understand how anyone can say that imprisoning males alongside women is the right thing to do. The prisoner who attacked me was convicted of the most serious sexual offences against girls and still has his penis. How can the government say that putting him in prison with women is the right thing to do? It’s not. I am out of prison now. But I think about all the other women still in prison who have to live with these males. This is dangerous, disgusting and wrong.”
protest outside the Ministry of Justice
On 26th February there were protests outside three prisons: Styal, Low Newton and Downview.
26th February- Styal
Protestors again gathered at Styal, on the same day as the protests outside Downview and Low Newton.
“Back at Styal prison for another protest against male prisoners being put in women’s prisons & against MOJ proposals to allow male officers with a GRC to strip search women,”tweeted Helen Steel.
“This is a breach of women’s privacy and dignity. #NoMalesInWomensJails#KeepPrisonsSingleSex”.
The protestors, she said, were supported by “many more who couldn’t make it to a protest, but who oppose the violations of women’s privacy, dignity and safety caused by forcing them to share confined spaces with males.”
In Belstaffie’s speech, she quoted Styal’s own figures.
“Eighty percent of the prisoners in this prison are serving short custodial sentences for non-violent non-sexual non-predatory offences such as security fraud, shoplifting and for not paying the TV licence.
Men’s offending on the other hand- whether they identify as women or not- is infinitely more serious.”
“If these policies remain unchallenged,” Rebekah told listeners, “the women’s estate will be overburdened with opportunistic men demanding transfers, using the untouchable veneer of self-ID.” You can hear Belstaffie’s speech here and Rebekah’s speech here.
26th February – Low Newton
A small group gathered outside Low Newton Prison on 26th February. Low Newton is a closed prison and YOI in County Durnham. It was originally a mixed remand prison and housed male young offenders until as recently as 1998, since when it has been women-only. Or so Wikipedia tells us.
Here is a message from Molly, a dog who attended the protest.
“Hello, I’m Molly, This is me with my adult human. She is a female, like me, and this picture was taken at a protest I took her to. Can you imagine why we were there? Well, you see, humans build great big kennels called prisons, Then they put naughty humans inside. We went to this big kennel. It is supposed to be for naughty females. But sometimes naughty males can get into the female kennel. We think this is risky, especially as, like me, many of the women in prison have been badly treated in the past. We decided to hold a silent protest.
So the humans held up notices saying “Keep Prisons Single Sex” while I looked determined and serious. We stayed for half an hour. Then it was time for walks and treats and other nice things. We want adult human females to have their own kennels, not to have to share lavatories and showers, even cells, with adult human males who could harm them. That’s just wrong. Barking mad, don’t you think?
So I say ‘Keep Prisons Single Sex’.”
26th February – Downview
HMP Downview is near Sutton on the outskirts of London. The main building opened as a men’s prison in 1989 and was originally the nurses’ home for nearby Banstead hospital. It became a women’s prison in 2001, closing in 2013 and reopening again in 2016, with the closure of Holloway.
In March 2019, the MOJ announced a new plan – E wing within the prison would be used solely to house trans-identified men. Fair Play for Women published an interesting and informative piece about E Wing, titled, ‘Prison bosses put transgender sex offenders into female prisons because they need “association with other women”.
This does not seem to have worked out so well. The unit is currently believed to be standing empty.
In 2019 a group of us protested the decision to house men in E Wing, so this wasn’t the first time I had visited Downview. You can read about the first protest here. Once again we were lucky with the weather: the weekend beforehand there had been storms and high winds. Saturday dawned a little chilly but bright.
Downview is certainly not as accessible as the Ministry of Justice, so we didn’t expect to match the numbers who had attended the January protest. Anne & Julia were kind enough to give me, my placard and my big blue banner a lift out to Sutton, which I hugely appreciated as I am not really ‘on their way’ at all.
As the prison came into view we could see we weren’t the first to arrive. Eventually there were about forty of us gathered on the green by the visitors’ centre and we moved over to the gates where the speeches took place.
Julia Long and Anne Ruzlyo spoke, and Vikki and Aja read out the words of female prisoners. Later Vikki told me:
“Listening to, and reading, the former female offender statements was really hard. I was aware that after the protest I could choose where I went and what I did. Women in prison don’t have this choice. Women in prison are already highly traumatised: that they are forced to share any space with male offenders is appalling. It’s clear the feelings of men are being prioritised over the safety, dignity and privacy of women. It has to stop.”
During the speeches a car pulled up and out jumped Jen Critical, the amazing Terven Priestess, who had come from the distant Northlands to lead us in some singing.
It was very moving listening to women singing, especially in this context. I had thought it might feel a bit awkward but I was totally wrong: it felt quite raw and emotional. We later heard that some of the women inside could hear us. We sang ‘You’ve got a Friend’, ‘Something Inside So Strong’, ‘I am Woman, Hear Me Roar’, ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Bella Ciao’.
Then Jen sang a couple of her own songs, which are pretty damn amazing. You can hear my favourite, ‘T.E.R.F.’ here and check out her ‘Terven Priestess’ YouTube channel.
6th March – Low Newton
A second protest took place outside Low Newton prison on March 6th. It was a small and silent protest, a solemn occassion.
“Today, women worldwide have been protesting about men being put in prison with vulnerable women. Members of @NorthernWomens1 took part in a silent protest at Low Newton in Durham as part of the campaign.”
Liz Panton, who attended the protest, told me:
“We are sick of this nonsense! We have got women in prison for petty crimes who don’t need to be there – who is looking after their children? Women in prison with very serious mental health problems who are supposed to be in hospital for their own safety – but there are no beds, so they get put in prison. Everyone has been telling the government that they are already sending far too many women to prison, women who should be serving community sentences or who haven’t even committed a crime and should be in a psychiatric hospital for their own safety. Women who have been in prison with these so-called transwomen have told us how it just takes one of them to frighten them all into silence. This is obscene and it has to stop.”
12th March – New Hall
“The idea that males are entitled to use female only spaces if they are vulnerable to attacks by other males is effectively using women as human shields. Females are put at risk to make males safer. Instead prisons need to prevent violence within the male estate.“ tweeted Helen Steel, on the day a group of protestors gathered outside New Hall prison in Yorkshire.
New Hall prison is where Karen White spent his 3 month foray into the female estate. White is back in the male estate, and we are assured that such a case could not happen again. But how much are these assurances worth? When newspapers report male crimes as having been committed by women; when police forces report male crimes as having been committed by women, when rapists and paedophiles are referred to as ‘she’ and the Ministry of Justice decides that it’s ok for women to “suffer fear and acute anxiety” as long as men’s feelings are validated- forgive us if we aren’t sitting too comfortably. And that’s just those of us on the outside.
“I can’t understand how anyone can say that imprisoning males in women’s prisons is right.” – female prisoner
This has become part of a broader political issue for many of us. The invasion of women’s spaces by males is taking place in our sports, changing rooms, leisure centres and a hundred other areas of life. No sooner have we begun to take our single-sex spaces for granted than they are being infiltrated as we watch in disbelief. But most of us are at least afforded the luxury of walking away. Women in prison cannot do that. And women in prison do not want trans-identified males in their spaces. This is clear even in the reports of those who believe they belong there.
Dalton Harrison, a trans-identified female (transman) who did time in New Hall, believes that trans-identified men should be placed in the female estate, but acknowledges that many of the other women felt differently.
“When the first rumours circulated that trans women were entering the prison, there was uproar… women were shouting and saying it was wrong; that trans women only come over to our prison because they wanted to rape women or get an easy ride inside… others were expressing concern and often anger that they had been abused and didn’t want to have ‘men’ in prison with them and didn’t see them as women… when (the men who had been transfered) first went to the dining hall and sat together some women shouted: ‘Frankland’ (the male estate next door)”
So what next?
As it becomes easier to get a GRC, and as organisations twist and redefine the meaning of ‘gender reassignment’ under the Equality Act – have a look at what the parole board has done here if you need further convincing- women and our allies have every reason to be concerned.
Are our prisons just another glorious playroom for men who wish to fantasise about being women? Is their validation really more important than the safety and well-being of some of the most vulnerable women in the country?
Because words mean nothing when men can say they are women. And women’s rights mean nothing when men can say they are women.
Special thanks to Kate Coleman who answered my endless questions at all hours of the day and night while I was researching this.
They were hush-hush arrangements. We didn’t want the Tate to suspect that there would be a protest. Meeting in a pub on the south bank of the Thames beforehand, we arrived at the gallery in small groups of two or three.
We were there to watch a short film called ‘What is a Woman?‘ by Norweigian film maker Marin Håskjold, in the Starr Cinema. At the end we would stand up at the front and unfurl our hidden banners. One of us would call out, “What is a woman?” and the others would reply, “An adult human female! Art without freedom of speech is propaganda!”
It was a cold but bright afternoon on the Southbank.
Once in the Tate, we milled around in small groups before making our way to the cinema, where tickets could be collected half an hour before the film began.
There was a bit of time to kill before I could pick up my ticket so I went to check on the tiny snail perched on the top of Matisse’s painting of the same name.
I hadn’t seen it since pre-Covid times.
TATE Film, so the website tells us, is focused on ‘expanding the dialogue between art and the moving image’.
This idea of valuing dialogue and communication was continued on a poster outside the cinema.
“Marin Håskjold’s short film focusses (sic) on a discussion that arises in a women’s locker room when a trans woman is asked to leave. While suggesting some of the everyday encounters experienced by people who are trans and non binary, the film opens up space for reflection and dialogue. Followed by a conversation with the artist.”
But why protest?
It is important to be clear about the reasons behind our protest. The issue here was not with the film maker but with the Tate. On one hand we were told that the film would ‘open up space for reflection and dialogue’, but on the other, the usual Q&A session which generally follows a short film showing had been replaced with a conversation with the artist.
That Håskjold was given the opportunity to have her film shown at the Tate is an achievement of which to be proud. The suggestion that both side of the gender debate are explored, either within this film, or in Tate films, events and exhibitions generally, is unsubstantiated.
As one of the protestors told me:
“If the Tate genuinely want to show all sides, then they’ll platform work by a gender-critical feminist film-maker too. Vaishnavi Sundar would be an excellent choice.”
There was a flurry of arrivals as the tickets were distributed. I overheard a woman ask if there would be a Q&A after the film and she was initially told yes. A few minutes later the curator came down and told her that on this occasion there would be no Q&A but there would be a conversation between herself and the artist.
I’d estimate about two hundred people collected tickets, mostly older students. I thought the cinema would be packed when we took our seats, but once everyone settled it was about three-quarters full.
Let the film begin
Women take their seats at the front of the cinema.
The film was introduced by the curator, a woman called Valentine Umansky. I initially had her pegged for a post-grad enby, but I looked her up and I was wrong. She’s older than I thought and has a pretty impressive career behind her already, which makes the whole ‘no debate’ thing that followed even more irritating.
Art as a safe space
Umansky took the stage and opened by telling us:
“One note before we start, which is really important actually- we should probably do this every screening but we don’t- I just wanted to preface this by saying we consider the Starr Cinema to be a safe space, so we will not tolerate any kind of abuses there of any sort and I think it’s really important to start the screening with that.”
Remember that correctly sexing somebody is considered to be abusive in such a ‘safe space’. So there goes that ‘reflection and dialogue’ that we weren’t going to be allowed anyway. Umansky says she doesn’t usually make this announcement: so why now, on this and only this subject? Why should Umansky and a cinema in an art gallery feel the need to declare itself a ‘safe space’? Should we necessarily feel psychologically ‘safe’ in the presence of art?
“Right after the 14 minute film we (Umansky and Håskjold) will have a conversation – just together – to give a bit more context around the film.”
So here we are, preparing to watch a film which is being shown with the ostensible intent of both ‘expanding the dialogue between art and the moving image‘ and ‘open(ing) up space for reflection and dialogue’ . Yet for all the repetition of the word ‘dialogue’ we have been told- twice- that no debate will take place.
Umansky thanked several teams and spoke of the “really strong support we’ve received from our LGBTQIA+ network”.
So much becomes clear once you realise that the Tate is- of course- a Stonewall Diversity Champion. Staff at the Tate are encouraged to join the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and related communities) Network. Job applications are welcome from all regardless of ‘age, disability, gender identity or gender expression, race, ethnicity, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation or any other equality characteristic’. The protected characteristic of sex does not come so near the end of the Tate’s list for nothing: work by women is consistently under-represented in Tate collections. As Helen Gørrill pointed out in the Guardian back in 2018:
“While Tate appears to have a 30% cap on the collection of female artists, its allocation of annual budget is even worse, with as little as 13% spent on works by female artists in recent years. This perpetuates the dominance of male artists in the collections and suppresses the value of women’s work.”
Back to the cinema
Håskjold told us that the idea for the film sprang from the discussion in Norway about simplifying the laws concerning changing legal sex.
“As time has passed… the discussion around gender has been more and more polarised so I feel like it’s really important that we discuss this in a way and meet each other… I’m getting more and more convinced that it’s important to talk and listen to each other regardless of our differences.”
I wonder whether Håskjold would have been open to the idea of a Q&A? Was it the Tate that scuppered that idea? I wonder if she has really explored some of the ideas that critique gender and queer theory? Does she think males also belong on women’s sports teams and in their prisons?
So, as the film is supposed to inspire reflections and dialogue, I thought now was as good a time as any to share my views. I wanted to see it a second time before writing a review and as it isn’t available online free, I purchased it for £3.99. You can do this here if you are so inclined. You can see a trailer on YouTube, here.
The lights go down. The film is set in the women’s changing room at a leisure centre. For the first 90 seconds we hear the sound of running water. Three women focus on washing as they shower naked, or semi naked, in a communal shower area.
The screen goes black and we hear a woman’s voice. We do not see the ‘transwoman’ nor hear him being asked to leave; we join our characters in the middle of a conversation.
There were no introductions, so I make no apologies for giving the characters the names I gave them in my head while I was watching the film for the first time.
“If I saw you naked, would you be a complete woman then?” asks Evil TERF, who is dressed in a black top and tracksuit bottoms.
She faces Blokey and Blokey’s Mate across the changing room.
Blokey’s Mate is small and blonde. She wears tracksuit bottoms, a headband with a bow or red roses and a pale pink spaghetti strap top.
Blokey wears jeans, a white bra and a blonde wig. He says very little, wide-eyed and vulnerable, somewhat in the manner of an oversized fawn. He is very ‘pretty’ in a slightly pornified Barbie doll manner. For someone popping into their local pool for a swim, he’s wearing an awful lot of make up.
“What do you mean?” asks Blokey, all innocence, dropping his eyes and turning slightly away.
“You can see she’s a woman,” replies Blokey’s Mate. We see in the changing room mirror that she gesticulates in the area of his chest.
“Do you have a penis?” asks Evil TERF, having been forced to elaborate.
There is a moment’s stunnned and horrified silence.
“That’s none of your business!” exclaims Blokey’s Mate, in feigned shock.
“It is,” explains Evil TERF. “Many women would be uncomfortable seeing a penis in here. Think of women who have experienced abuse.”
“We are not going to dangle any penis in their faces,” retorts Blokey’s Mate.
Like several others points raised in ther film, the genuine concern raised here falls by the wayside, as if it the feelings of those women are not even worthy of consideration. They are given a voice but that voice is not acknowledged. Instead it is dismissed with an image that manages to be both ludicrous and intimidating. This is a pattern repeated throughout the film, which is sharply shot and polished, but never actually addresses any of the genuine problems raised by the presnce of Blokey.
Evil TERF mentions pregnancy and periods, and then asks “What if I identify as black?”
Blokey smiles and nods, “It’s fine with me.”
“She’s so nice!” gushes Blokey’s friend. “See how tolerant she is?”
Is tolerance a virtue to be valued above all else? Is it really a white man’s place to give his blessing to trans-racialism? What else are we supposed to tolerate? Can you guess?
Evil TERF raises again that there may be women who don’t want penises in their changing rooms.
“They can look elsewhere,” retorts Blokey’s Mate, who seems to have lost her respect for tolerance as quickly as she found it.
A short-haired woman comes in and goes to change out of shot. A woman with a toddler arrives from the pool and asks what’s going on. Blokey’s Mate tells her indignantly, “Everyone is allowed to be here.”
But WHY is ‘everyone allowed to be here’? What’s the point of a female changing room if anyone in a bra is allowed to be there? This was not discussed.
“She’s way more womanly than me!” adds Blokey’s Mate.
Blokey stands silent throughout most of this, occasionally lightly touching his hair or his shoulder or chest.
“Are we going to decide based on our looks? Does it matter how you look?” asks Short-haired Woman suddenly, and Blokey’s Mate looks embarassed and agrees that we should not and it doesn’t.
“But you’re born either a woman or a man,” puts in Swim Mum. Her toddler runs naked through the changing room, so we clearly see that yes, there is already one penis present in the changing room.
Swim Mum mentions an ‘enby’ child at the school where she works and the confusion it causes.
“If she can communicate that as a child you should be able to meet her as an adult,” replies Short-haired Woman, with a Hard Stare. Which sounds good initially, but means… well… what, exactly?
Swim Mum rants about feeling judged, and worried parents, and finally bursts out, “can we just relax and calm down!”
Aha! See? Swim Mum is just another hysterical scary fascist wine mom after all.
“Can’t we just agree that there’s nothing left to discuss?” asks Blokey’s Mate. Blokey has finally encapsulated his ample bosom with what looks like a large tea towel.
“It’s not that simple,” says Evil TERF. “You need more than a dress and make up to be a woman.”
She is next to become agitated, pointing her finger and raising her voice, talking vaguely and somewhat incoherently about how men should be allowed to wear dresses and if only people could look as they like. Something may have been lost in translation. Blokey’s response is to drop the tea towel and once again reveal the now familiar snow-white bra.
“I am here because I am a woman.” replies Blokey profoundly.
What could possibly happen next? Did you guess? Short-haired Woman speaks up.
“I’m a woman biologically but I don’t know what I feel like.”
There’s no avoiding the inevitable conclusion we should have drawn the moment a short-haired, small-breasted woman entered the room – yes, she in indeed of the Enby tribe.
“I can feel like a man. I can feel like a woman.”
“How,” I want to yell at the screen, “can you possibly know how a man feels when you’re not one?” But this and other important issues are not to be considered, either onscreen or off. After all, this is a a safe space.
“I’ve been beaten up for the way I look,” she says.
And suddenly it all feels so terribly sad: the woman who doesn’t feel like a woman because the way she imagines a woman is supposed to look and feel is personified in the form of the man in front of her.
And both believe that there is a certain way that men and women should not only behave but actually feel.
“It’s already been decided what I should look like as a girl. What interests I should have. How I should behave, how I should dress. My entire life is already pre-determined.”
At the risk of sounding a little harsh here, no it isn’t. To a greater or lesser extent, you can say ‘no’ to those things. What you can’t say ‘no’ to is the biological implications of the body you are born into. You can’t identify out of that.
“If I don’t fit into those boxes, what do I do?” she asks.
Enby (my new name for Short-haired Woman) sounds both angry and desperate. Nobody offers an answer.
“Why can’t you just be called ‘she’?” asks Evil TERF.
“Because I want to be called ‘they’!”
Evil TERF is accused of telling people how to live their lives. Then she makes the mistake of correctly sexing Blokey.
“You tell us who we are,” accuses Enby furiously. “Exactly like the patriarchy.”
Yup, you got it. A woman who believes that women are entitled to single-sex changing facilities is doing the work of the patriarchy. When Evil TERF protests, Enby tells her, “to me these are just empty words. They mean nothing.”
Another woman comes over to see what the discussion is about.
“Whether or not I have the right to be here, because I am trans.” says Blokey, sadly.
“You have the same rights as everyone else.” she assures him fluffily.
Enby says she is offended by the words of Evil TERF and that Evil TERF is ‘brutal’. She suggests Evil TERF finds her own changing room, one just for her. Spectacularly, Enby has changed her bra completely since the last shot. She is very angry.
“I think this is getting too silly,” asserts a new arrival. She’s damn right. I am rapidly losing the will to live.
“I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what I am.” repeats Enby.
She seems distressed. Nobody dares reassure her. The room full of women fold their arms and look around at each other and her. The camera zooms in on Swim Mum and she looks, as my sister would say, ‘like a lamb caught in the headlights’.
“What do you think?” someone asks Blokey after a long silence.
“Well, I was actually just going to go for a swim.”
And, after throwing everything into chaos and pitting a room full of women against each other, I presume he saunters off to do just that.
Untangling the web
The shower scene at the start of the film accompanies the titles and takes up a good minute and a half, a full 9% of the entire film, so it’s safe to assume its significance runs beyond maiden/mother/crone and Melusina imagery. There is an eternal water goddess within every woman… but wait… I hear you ask “What about the men?”
The women’s changing rooms and showers are open, so we know that should blokey so desire he could also shower naked in the communal area. Blokey’s Mate assures Evil TERF, ““We are not going to dangle any penis in their faces.” How different would the viewer feel if the opening shower scene had included a shot of Blokey washing his penis?
We are told that the action in the film occurs after a ‘transwoman has been asked to leave’. As Blokey has not left, we must assume he refused to do so. We don’t see who asked or when: no reference is made to the request having been made during the film.
I do not call Høvik ‘he’ as an act of hatred or spite, I do it because it is true. I do it because if women are to claim back our single-sex spaces then we will need to use clear language to do so.
prizes for being pretty
The next thing I’d address is that Mina Alette Høvik, who plays Blokey, really does not look like your average trans-identified bloke. We are all drawn to pretty faces but being a woman is not about how pretty you are, or how much you can afford to spend on plastic surgery.
Initially, Blokey’s Mate refers to how womanly Blokey looks, and that ‘you can see (s)he’s a woman’. With the arrival of Enby her position changes and she says looks don’t matter, but that idea is not explored beyond the inevitable confusion it causes everyone involved.
Access to single sex spaces should not be dependent on how pretty a man is. No wonder Enby was angry if that was the game she was expected to play. What message does it give to women who are not conventionally pretty or performative when the world is so eager to believe that they are not actually women at all?
Consider this. Let’s replace Mina with Danielle (centre). Would the women in the changing room have been so empathic? Would they have embraced tubby little D with his 5 o’clock shadow?
The film placed a lot of focus on Mina’s chest. Now instead of Mina’s pretty white push-up bra, let’s look at the bloke on the right. He’s wearing a bra too. Would he be welcome? All these men think they are women. Who will you welcome to your spaces, all, none or just the young, pretty ones?
Now cast your mind back to that communal shower at the start of the film. How would those woman likely feel if they were confronted with bloke 3 naked in the open shower?
If you are only willing to admit the young, pretty ones, then it’s time to admit that supporting diversity has absolutely nothing to do with your choices. It’s time to admit that you have been taught to accept that womanhood is a costume, a feeling, a mask that a man can pick up and wear. You know what? You’ve been sold a lie.
if a person has a penis
Equating seeing a naked boy toddler in a female changing room with being exposed to the unsolicited genitals of a naked adult male is so leftfield that I’m not suprised that even this film only referred to it in passing. An adult man is not a baby. The two are not synonymous.
Most people are unaware that the vast majority of trans-identified men choose to keep their penis. Høvik makes no secret of having undergone GRS the year after the film was released. But focusing so heavily on whether a man has or has not had his penis removed suggests that if a man has had his penis amputated he does somehow become a woman. Now I wouldn’t disagree that a man who does this has indeed shown his commitment to the idea, but that does not turn it into a reality.
I should add that it doesn’t fill me with confidence that a man is necessarily neither mad nor dangerous because he has had his penis amputated. Am I being unkind? Perhaps. I am being honest. Being nice does not seem to have got us very far.
Am I saying that all trans-identified men are crazy murderous psychopaths? No. Of course note- no more than I am saying that all other men are all crazy murderous psychopaths. But trans-identified men are still men, raised with both the biology and social privilege that entails. Studies suggest that their conviction rate for violent crime is just as high as any other men, and sixteen times higher than that of women.
The truth is that, penises or no penises, single-sex spaces should have nothing to do with gender identity. It is disingenuous to suggest that the only reason women don’t want men in their spaces is becuase they are afraid of rape – as if that shouldn’t be a good enough reason alone! More often than not it is a general feeling of discomfort and loss. We thought we had single-sex spaces, and that we were safe from centering and encountering men in those spaces. We had begun to take them for granted and now it seems we don’t have them any more. Many women feel perhaps it isn’t worth making a fuss about, they don’t want to make a scene… and nobody wants to be called a bigot, receive hate mail or lose their job.
the right sort of tolerance
Both the women willing to challenge the idea that Blokey is a woman are dressed in dark clothing. Both become agitated. While they are given the chance to raise issues, those issues are quickly glossed over and are neither discussed nor clearly articulated.
The association of womanhood with pregnancy & periods get a throwaway ‘whatabout’ from Evil TERF, but the importance of biology is never addressed, as she skips on to asking ‘what if I identify as black?’
As mentioned earlier, Blokey is fine with this.
“Tate,” asks Art Not Propaganda. “Is this sort of racism really what you think you should be platforming?”
“No Muslim women in the changing room discussion of course.”observed Twitter user Di Hunt. “They are not even allowed to enter now that there is a male in there.”
There are many reasons why a woman or a girl might not want a man in their sinmgle-sex changing room.
The safety and concerns of all these women are dismissed, by a woman, with the flippant, ‘We are not going to dangle any penis in their faces’ and ‘they can look elsewhere.’ Her trans friend is ‘so nice… so tolerant...’ but this is a tolerance that is limited towards certain groups.
After careful reflection I would interpret the message of the film as something like this.
“Be nice. He is a woman because he says he is and he looks like a woman and if you are a woman but you don’t look like a woman then maybe you’re not a woman although of course you could be a woman because while it really matters what you look like it also doesn’t really matter at all and anyway we are all exactly what we say we are even if we don’t know what that is. So be nice.”
Back to the cinema
Back at the Starr Cinema, the film was drawing to an end. We knew it would end when the words ‘What is a Woman?’ came up in red lettering on the screen. And then suddenly, there they were.
The audience clapped and as the applause began to die down, the women leaped up, turned and faced the still-seated auditorium.
“What is a woman?” called out one, in a loud, clear voice.
“An adult human female!” replied the others, in unison. “Art without freedom of speech is propaganda!” They stood there a moment, banners aloft, and then turned and walked up the steps to the left of the screen and out of the cinema.
“What the fuck, are you…” one young woman called after them, and I thoght i heard a whisper of ‘transphobes’but the voices trailed off as they realised the women were not looking for confrontation but simply leaving in silence. A murmur ran through the audience and clusters of conversation broke out.
And that’s when I realised that I’d pressed the button on my phone at the wrong time and totally failed to film any of the actual protest… gulp… which means this is the only photo I have to show you.
The last of the women leave the cinema after the protest
(I should say that even though people must have been a bit disappointed that I messed that up, nobody had a go at me and everybody told me not to worry. Which was very nice of them because obviously I felt like a right idiot.)
we’re just taking a break to care for our mental health
Most of the women involved in the protest left, but a few of us stayed behind to hear the conversation between Håskjold and Umansky. There was a break of a few minutes before the conversation started.
“Just a quick note that we’re taking a couple of minutes to digest what just happened,” Umansky told us brightly, “and then we’ll come and have a conversation… we’re just taking a break to care for our mental health and we’ll be back.”
Their mental health having re-established its equilibrium, Håskjold and Umansky took their seats.
Håskjold, who is also a photographer and studied at the Nordlands School of Art and Film, said that she prefers to define herself as an artist rather than a filmmaker as it is less specific and people have less restrictive expectations of her work.
Throughout the conversation they talk about Håskjold’s inspirations, some of her other films and the element of discussion and recurring themes within in her work. Below are just some snippets of the discussion.
Håskjold says the film is a bit like a documentary because it’ based partly around comments she’s seen on facebook and social media.
“Why do these people mean what they mean?” she asks. “Why are they so angry? … what are they scared of? What are we scared of?”
“It’s presented from a very multi-persepctival point of view,” says Umansky of the film. “where you alternate between various viewpoints on the question.”
She went on to call the film ‘open ended’, ‘not too directive’ and to claim Håskjold leaves the end of the film “really open for the viewer to make up their own mind”.
Had we just watched the same film? I found this perspective very strange, as to me the film had seemed extremely biased. If Håskjold had done even a small amount of research she wouldn’t be asking why women were feeling angry and scared about the presence of men in their spaces.
“I don’t want to make propaganda, in a way. I just want people to get a grip of this. How the news is presenting it, the debate is, like, really harsh and polarised… People are really angry and calling a transwomen a man on national television: that’s not… I feel this discussion is really important to have but we have to have it in the right way… we can’t have it when people don’t want to join the conversation.”
“I also agree that we should have this conversation,” adds Umansky, who, let’s remember, has made it very clear to the audience more than once that there is to be no discussion. “That’s why we screened the film and you’re here… to my understanding the main concern of the women that were here tonight was that their voice wasn’t heard in the film, whereas I can’t find a single voice that is not heard.”
While Umansky had no warning about the protest and was not to know that it was specifically concerned with the Tate’s refusal to platform ideas concerned with women’s single sex spaces and rights, this claim seems astonishingly naive if not willfully ignorant. She couldn’t find a single voice that wasn’t heard in the film?
Of the protestors she said, “the Tate is a large institution and I understand that in a sense everybody can feel like it’s a public institution so they have a space to speak. So maybe that’s why they took the stage but in a way I think their voice was already in the film, in a sense.”
Håskjold told us a little more about the actors. She met two of them during her studies and describes them as “the woman that is playing the- sorry for the word – TERF, and the non-binary character.” For the main character, she said, it was more important that the part should be played by a transwoman than an actor. She wanted people to watch the film and ‘not feel alone’.
When she said the word ‘TERF’ a chorus of embarassed little giggles ran around the cinema. They say all voices and concerns are heard in the film and then they call women TERFs, and they laugh.
Back to the protestors!
The protestors were back outside, celebrating; breathing in the fresh riverside air and being photogaphed. @WRNWoman allowed me to share her photos here. The woman on the right is wearing a gorilla mask in tribute to feminist art critics the Guerilla Girls.
I asked some of the women who took part in the protest to give me their thoughts.
“The film was very clearly favouring one side of the argument.” Charlotte observed. “The transwoman character being ‘bullied’ was a passive, vulnerable blonde with big breasts which were on full display, since they were the only one to spend most of the film in their bra. When the non-binary character asked how the others knew she was a woman, they all appeared flummoxed even though it was obvious.”
“It was all very “how could you be against this? Look how beautiful she is and she doesn’t show ‘her’ penis.” said another.
“My reason for being at this protest was to ensure that our young girls continue to have female role models to look up to. The Arts is a passion of mine and the Tate is betraying current and future generations of female artists by making it clear that only woman-hating art is now acceptable.”
“I’ve never protested over anything before,” said a woman who wished to remain anonymous.
“This was the first time and it honestly felt scary. But I felt it was so important to stand up, both metaphoricaly and literally. Our words are being taken away and their meanings changed and twisted… and it makes me sad and angry that we cannot even discuss such an important issue openly, with all sides of the issue fairly represented without being threatened and our livelihoods lost. So I feel my only option is to anonymously protest, to try to protect our words and all women’s rights.
And I’ll add that as we walked out of the Starr cinema, the atmosphere and the comments from the audience (something like fuck off terfs, I can’t remember the exact words) was quite frightening… but I’m glad I did it. I hope my daughters’ daughters will also be glad we did.”
“Marin Håskjold and the Tate argue that the film included “multiple perspectives”, but this belies the fact that all of these perspectives were heavily filtered through the filmmaker’s own.” SistaRealista told me. “Håskjold made directorial choices that make it clear she believes a transwoman – a male, with a penis – should be allowed to openly change in a women’s changing room.”
the most significant question of our time
The protest definitely caused a stir. That night the hashtag #ArtNotPropaganda was trending on Twitter and we were delighted to see that the protest had made the Telegraph, both online and in the newspaper. The article is archived here.
“We are here to say loudly and proudly to Tate Modern that women are adult human females,” a spokeswoman for the protestors told the Telegraph. ““Many of us work with galleries and in the arts, and we know that stating this simple fact can lead to loss of work and harassment.“
“It is not our intention to ‘cancel’ Håskjold’s film – we think artistic freedom is important. But the public deserves better than to only be shown one side of what is the most significant question of our time.”
The Tate responded by saying the film ‘does not propose one perspective on the question of womanhood, but instead considers multiple perspectives,‘ adding of the organisation itself, ‘as always, we aim to be inclusive of all perspectives’.
I leave the last word to some Twitter voices.
But I somehow suspect this might not be the last time we see adult human female activity in the art world…