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Taking a stand against bullying and censorship

Helen Steel on the free speech conflict at the 2017 Anarchist Bookfair

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[Editorial note: In five articles ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]), Peace News is documenting the free speech conflict at this year’s (2017) London Anarchist Bookfair, starting with one of Britain’s best-known anarchists.

The origins of the Anarchist Bookfair are briefly recounted here, and the issues concerning free speech are the subject of this issue's editorial here.]

I was in the process of writing a longer article around the events at the Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday [28 October 2017], but I am also trying to stay on top of the rest of my life while dealing with the horrendous bullying of people around me which is underway by some trans activists and allies.

I have been traumatised by my experiences on Saturday and by events since, resulting in a lack of sleep and inability to concentrate.

I wanted to complete the longer article, but as lies are being circulated by those who attacked me, I feel I have to put out a shorter statement now.

When I refer to trans activists in this statement I mean people who are activists on trans issues, I do not mean that all of them were trans, nor that they represent the views of all trans-identifying people.

“Refusing to validate other people’s belief systems is not the same as threatening to harm them.”

For those who don’t know what ‘TERF’ means, it is an acronym for ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’, but whatever its origins it is currently used as a term of abuse to dehumanise women and so excuse violence and bullying against them.

I thank everyone who is taking a stand against bullying and I urge more people to stand in solidarity too.

Those trans activists and allies who are carrying out the bullying can be defeated by growing numbers of people resisting that bullying.

This will facilitate a proper space for the concerns of women and trans-identifying people to be discussed.

Short statement on the facts:

  • The Tories are planning to amend the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to include ‘Gender Identity’ as a protected characteristic in law. This does affect women and as such, women have a right to express their views on this issue.
  • I am aware of three leaflets which were distributed at the Bookfair. I did not actually write or distribute any of them, but I supported other women’s rights to distribute them.
  • The three leaflets that were distributed [are displayed on the Helen Steel solidarity website].
  • None of them call for violence against trans-identifying people, obviously I would not have supported them if they had.
  • Refusing to validate other people’s belief systems is not the same as threatening to harm them.
  • Bullying people to force them to accept your views does harm people.
  • If you think that other people should not be allowed to question your ideology, it makes you an authoritarian NOT an anarchist.
  • Women are oppressed in our society on the basis of our sex, those who deny this perpetuate that sexism.
  • It is a basic concept of progressive politics that oppressed groups have the right to self-organisation and autonomy in their fight against their oppression.
  • I intervened to stop the bullying of two women who had been distributing leaflets about the GRA at the Bookfair and who were surrounded and being threatened by trans activists. Women’s voices have been silenced throughout history, which is why so many people have internalised misogyny and the assumption that women’s concerns are unimportant.
  • Half an hour later, I was surrounded for over an hour by a baying mob of around 30 trans activists who shouted misogynistic abuse in my face and at others, and who would not leave me alone. This included: ‘ugly Terf’, ‘fucking Terf scum’, ‘bitch’, ‘fascist’ and more. That kind of behaviour should have no place in anarchism or any other progressive politics.
  • Despite that provocation, I did not at any time threaten or assault anyone. No trans activists were threatened by anyone else in my sight or hearing.
  • While I was surrounded, I saw a man’s hand moving towards my face and when it was within inches of my face I blocked it and pushed his arm away. He then started shouting that I had assaulted him and I should be thrown out.
  • Some of those in the baying mob tried to stoke anger and division by calling me a snitch, making false claims that I had filmed them assaulting a feminist at Speakers’ Corner [in central London] and had handed that footage to the police. Footage of the incident is available and actually shows me intervening to protect the victim of the assault, not filming it. The videos embedded in this article [link given below] show what actually happened, please do watch them and see the truth for yourself.
  • Their claim of ‘snitch’ in the circumstances is obscene in any event – when you assault women you do not get to claim the moral high ground by complaining that they have reported your behaviour to the police.
  • Those in the mob asserted that the leaflets setting out women’s concerns about the GRA should not be handed out because they amount to violence against trans people. They then used this to justify actual physical violence and intimidation.
  • They didn’t care about the distress caused to others in close proximity, including children. Nor did they care about the trauma they cause to women by surrounding us, threatening us and using violence to silence women’s voices, repeating the patterns women face throughout our lives when reporting sexual harassment or assault or other sexist behaviour.
  • Women’s experiences are always erased – we are asked what were we wearing at the time, what did we say and do. Always the message is; as a woman it’s your fault, shut up. So what’s new here?
  • It is absolutely ludicrous that anyone could think that the behaviour of the mob was justified in any way by my actions or those of other women. That is victim-blaming. People need to take a reality check.
  • Progressive people need to call out sexism, male dominance and violence and stop protecting sexist behaviour. Those offering support to bullies need to stop appeasing sexist behaviour.
  • Nonsense claims equating feminism to fascism are an insult both to feminists and to those who have endured racist and state violence under fascist regimes.

Of course I believe that all trans-identifying people have the right to live their lives free from harassment and abuse, as does everyone. But I note the double standards that while women are repeatedly told to explicitly affirm that right, there is never a requirement on those advocating for trans issues to acknowledge the level of violence and harassment that women face or to state their opposition to sexist abuse, or to challenge the outrageous statements made by some trans advocates which repeatedly deny women’s experiences and silence women’s voices. This is a power imbalance based on the long-held expectation in society that women should be subservient.

It is notable that a statement issued a few days ago, calling for groups to boycott the Bookfair in future, makes no mention of sexism or of women’s rights or for the provision of women-only meeting spaces.

There is no acknowledgement at all that women are subject to oppression, sexual violence and harassment on the basis of our sex. It appears that those who have signed the statement are in denial about women’s experiences in much the same way that the rest of society is. Only the recent and snowballing reports of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, parliament and via #MeToo [on social media] have started to awaken people to reality. It is time those who signed up acknowledged that reality too.

The Anarchist Bookfair organisers do a huge amount of work to facilitate an amazing event which allows thousands of people to learn about alternative views and experiences of oppression and to discuss ways to improve society for the benefit of all. The self-entitled mob attacking women for leafleting thought they had the right to dictate who could say what in that space rather than arguing their views and listening to the counter-arguments to develop critical thinking. They need to think again.

I am lucky to have so many friends and comrades who put themselves in the line of fire to protect me. I thank them for this, especially those who were assaulted and abused. I also thank everyone who has sent messages of solidarity and support which are enabling me to get through this horrendous experience. I include in my thanks those trans-identifying people and supporters who may not agree with my views but who recognise the importance of women being able to speak too and who are resisting the intimidation they face from people claiming to act in their name.

I want to add that a couple of people have commented that while they agree with women being able to speak on these issues, they feel that in a few places the wording used is not helpful.

The problem with requiring leaflets to be perfectly-worded before they can be distributed is that it excludes very many people from being able to express their opinions. Only the confident will feel able to speak.

It particularly excludes those born female who are generally socialised from a young age to keep quiet about their views and so who are less confident about expressing them. Perfection is certainly not a qualification used to prevent men from speaking. And ultimately, who decides what is right? That is the purpose of having debate, so we can all clarify our thinking.





Helen Steel is a long-time London-based activist known for the McLibel trial and for Police Spies Out Of Lives. Her blog is here: https://helensteel12.wordpress.com/.
The video of the Speakers’ Corner incident can be seen in this article: www.tinyurl.com/peacenews2671