Picture credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Artillery Row

No questions about the woman question, please

Activists are even being excluded from conversations about activism

Last Saturday, activist Patsy Stevenson didn’t merely waft past the women protesting outside the Storyhouse Theatre in Chester, she denounced them. In a tweet to her 45k followers, the activist, who was named Harper’s Bazaar Woman of the Year 2023, warned:

Right now there are a group of GC [gender critical people] trying to goad people into getting aggressive so they can film it for content. It’s just outside Storyhouse where I’m doing my talk today, I apologise to any of my followers who have to walk past them, please don’t interact with them.

Beth Rosenberg was one of those Stevenson cautioned her followers against interacting with. She tells me, “There was no plan to be abusive or disruptive. We just wanted to ask the panel genuine questions about women’s rights in the law and how they are being negatively impacted by allowing men into our spaces.”

Predictably, Stevenson and the protestors disagree on the “woman question”. The women, and one man, who had assembled outside wanted to know how activists like those on the panel could claim to advocate for women without agreeing on who is a woman.

In one of those twists that makes you wonder if there is a god, and whether she might have a sense of humour, as Stevenson was sticking the online boot into her fellow campaigners, she was preparing to give a talk on the “essence of activism”.

The 30-year-old shot to prominence in 2021 after being photographed as she was arrested at a vigil to commemorate Sarah Everard, the young woman who was raped and murdered by Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens. The image of Stevenson being carried away by officers went viral and for a short while producers scrambled to have her on screen as the voice of angry young women everywhere. She was awarded compensation in September last year.

The mostly middle-aged women protesting Stevenson are perhaps less easily identifiable, and probably less photogenic. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say between them they’ve clocked-up decades of activism.

At this point the women’s rights activists were barred from the entire event

Initially the protestors were due to take part in the event which was billed as a Women’s Weekend. When they got in touch with organisers they were invited to speak on the panel and to have a stall in the marketplace. On hearing that they would speak alongside a commentator “known [for] her support for men in women’s spaces” the women declined to speak on the panel and requested only a stall. Storyhouse Theatre then told the protestors the venue “is a trans inclusive organisation” that would only partner “with organisations who share our values”. At this point the women’s rights activists were barred from the entire event.

One grassroots women’s rights activist, Cllr Mandy Clare, bought a ticket to one of the events at which Stevenson was speaking. During the Q&A following the talk, Clare politely informed Stevenson that the group she had advised her followers not to interact with were there “because they were disinvited” from the event due to their gender critical views and that they “don’t want to be standing in the rain”.

Clare went on to explain that the gender critical activists were concerned about the rights of disabled people to choose only to have intimate care from someone of the same sex; of female suspects who are detained by the police to be searched by women officers; and for rape victims not to have to refer to their attackers as she or her where those men identify as trans. She asked, whether given statements about the importance of freedom of speech made by Stevenson earlier in the talk, the young woman wasn’t a hypocrite for advising her followers to not engage with the gender critical protesters who had been excluded.

In response, Stevenson said that she agreed with freedom of speech “as long as you’re not hurting anyone.” She added:

What people are doing is being transphobic and perpetuating ideas that are dangerous and lead to trans people being murdered.

The apparent link between the dangerous words of gender critical women and harm done to men who identify as trans was not explained. 

Clare was then ejected from the theatre and, somewhat ironically given Stevenson’s own dealings with the police, Cheshire Constabulary was called. Sadly, Clare didn’t get the chance to pose for a viral photo as she was escorted out of the theatre.

To be clear Stevenson is not the problem; arguably it would be unfair to expect considered answers from someone who is essentially known for being the subject of a photograph. But the wider point stands — why are experienced activists shut out of debates which concern their rights? Why, after the Forstater ruling, scandal over Ilsa Bryson and now the publication of the WPATH files, is it still considered controversial to say human beings can’t change sex?

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