Lesbian marches, male violence and finding ways to move forward
In August, the women of Get the L Out UK were asked by police to leave the Pride Cymru march, with the police citing concern for their safety and telling them that they were causing ‘confrontation’ with trans rights activists on the march.
Last Saturday, there was a planned Lesbian Strength march and rally in Leeds. For various reasons, including planned protests against the day’s activities but also including logistical factors relating to the period of national mourning that was in place, it was decided that the rally would go ahead without the march.
We were not at the first of these events, but we were at the second. Although we will describe our experiences, everything we’re going to say in this article is expressed with our support and gratitude for the work of the women who organised Lesbian Strength. The police officers present worked to keep everyone safe, as did the security team and stewards, and there was a lot of goodwill on the day between attendees, organisers and the police.
The purpose of this piece is to turn our focus to the culture of male violence which dogs every event at which lesbians attempt publicly to assert our rights. The removal of lesbians from Pride Cymru was greeted by comments that lesbians (previously one of the central groups at Pride) should arrange our own marches, or alternatively should draw no attention to being same sex attracted, with the very basis of our sexuality now deemed to be ‘transphobic’. The fact that Lesbian Strength, organised for and by lesbians, was then subjected to a protest from trans rights and antifascist groups, shows that organising our own march is in fact anything but acceptable to those who are intolerant of lesbians.
At Lesbian Strength, the cancellation of the march did not placate the trans rights activists. The rally was able to go ahead and was a successful event, but the TRAs remained a short distance away and had to be contained throughout by a large police presence. For the two hours of the rally, they chanted, shouted and kicked against a metal railing, with each and every new chant being started by male voices.
We were glad of the robust police response at this rally, which meant that we and other women felt safe despite the near presence of these aggressive men. Looking at Pride Cymru and Lesbian Strength, both events involved conflict between a low risk group for aggression and violence (lesbians) and a significantly higher risk group (male protestors). At Pride Cymru, the police decision was clearly that the low risk group should be removed in order to reduce or remove the threat from the higher risk group. Although the police response at Lesbian Strength was more supportive than this, we must guard against the establishing of any expectation that women can be removed from events in order to placate aggressive men, a path which leads directly to the practice of women staying at home for our own safety.
Following Lesbian Strength, one of the protesting groups, Leeds Antifascist Network, published the following image on social media. The image is clearly a violent one, showing a protestor making an aggressive gesture while burning a Lesbian Strength placard.
On one social media website, the post containing this image received the following response left by a parent.
We have removed the parent’s name here because we have no interest in doxxing or causing any undue harassment of an individual. Our point in showing the comment here is to illustrate the success with which TRA groups have justified and even normalised the use of violence and aggression towards women. The image above is one that we would expect to be shocking and concerning for a parent of children attending this protest, but the comment shows that the image did not raise any objection and that the parent supported the presence of teenage children at the protest.
For years, led by organisations like Stonewall, there has been a highly successful communication campaign framing trans-identifying people as a persecuted, vulnerable minority, and anyone expressing gender critical beliefs, the right to be same sex attracted, or concern at the loss of single sex spaces and services, as bigoted and transphobic. Women and lesbians concerned about our rights are portrayed as violent aggressors, in a direct reversal of reality. This strategic campaigning has been so successful that it appears that images depicting violence against women are no longer perceived as shocking, or at least that they seen as being justified in some situations, including protests against lesbians.
To have any hope of changing the narrative that has been created so successfully by Stonewall and others, we will also need to be strategic. We need to maintain a focus on the level and extent of male violence involved in trans rights activism, a movement which is increasingly defined by male entitlement, domination of women’s spaces, aggression, and repurposing of every term we have to define and describe our experiences as women and lesbians.
We offer here some thoughts about approaches we support in highlighting that what we are facing is, far from being a campaign for basic rights for a marginalised group, a de facto men’s rights movement. We believe that a feminist response is needed in order to keep our focus on the nature of this movement and its consequences for us as women. Our priority will always be to work alongside lesbian and feminist groups and individuals.
We also want to be focused in our criticism of the TRA movement, a movement which includes many powerful and privileged figures, but also has a lot of support from young and less privileged people. As we were walking away from the Lesbian Strength rally last weekend, we became aware that we were surrounded on the pavement by a group of young people who had clearly just come from the protest against us. Although this group was still buoyed up by the protest, at no stage did they make any gesture towards us; their demeanour was excitable but not threatening. We would want always to keep the focus of our criticism on those with power to control the TRA narrative, while being open to the fact that some TRA supporters will in time change their position. There are leading figures who have clearly benefited from their positions of power within the TRA movement and we have no interest in building any future relationship with these people.
To build a stronger case for our events and activities to be supported by the police and the wider public, we have to be able to demonstrate the need for them. In the lead up to Lesbian Strength, we heard from a few women who wanted to go but were nervous about attending, because of the threat of male violence. We were also told a couple of times that we were brave for attending. Before we even attempt to address the issue of bravery in relation to being a lesbian in the UK, we want to note the astonishing scenes of bravery we have seen in footage of women protesting against forced hijab in Iran in the last few days, and to maintain a sense of perspective.
Although we think that there are indeed many brave women involved in our movement, we want to be careful with language that could potentially lead women to think that only certain types of woman will survive going to things like Lesbian Strength. We’re more than happy to stress that we are not particularly brave; it’s more that we’ve reached the point where we feel we need to do something. It makes us despair that there is so little out there for lesbians at the moment, and that there is the ever-looming threat that with one wrong move, or one piece of ill-thought through or ill-intentioned legislation being passed, we could find ourselves losing the basic right even to attempt to organise events and activities for lesbians. We also think it’s unsustainable for the core group of women who turn up at each and every event to keep shouldering things on their own and having little support. There needs to be more of us.
We’re happy to be the un-brave, the next wave of women who can try to bolster our numbers. While it will always be an individual decision for any woman regarding which types of event she feels she can go to, we’re always open to conversations about things that might help. We’re happy for any woman to stand with us rather than going it alone, and we’re big on making the kind of arrangements that women have always made to keep ourselves safe on nights out.
We know that it is daunting for women to start speaking up and being present in an area that is so dominated by depictions of male violence, and yet keeping our heads down in the hope that this will all go away is not an option. There is a confidence trick being played on us. The TRA movement is sending out images depicting threatening behaviour, while still attracting support from teenagers who go along in the knowledge that they will be kept safe, fed and watered, all the while framing groups of women as aggressors and bigots. This cannot be allowed to stand.
We’ll be attending to represent our concerns as lesbians at the Women’s Rally in Edinburgh on 6th October, organised by For Women Scotland in response to the proposed gender recognition reforms in Scotland. If arranging to say hello to someone on the day will make it easier for any woman to attend, or if you would like to talk to us about any future events, please get in touch.