The quiet cancellations

In the fearful climate of cancel culture, women and girls lose out — again

Artillery Row

Fifty miles down the coast from Brighton, Portsmouth might seem an unlikely candidate for the next bitter battle line in the so-called “gender wars”. Dominated by its biggest employer — the Royal Navy — some of the most deprived areas in the UK sit alongside pockets of Hampshire affluence. Of what interest are the ever more complicated micro-identities of the blue-fringed genderqueer demisexual, to this working-class naval city? On the face of it, none. But Portsmouth is a case study of the disastrous impact on women and girls — particularly those from working class and/or ethnic minority communities — when a small but loud lobby of self-designated “progressives” is given free rein to shut down any discussion or activism devoted to them.

This weekend, the largest annual grassroots feminist conference in Europe will take place in Portsmouth, organised by the charity FiLiA. Over a thousand women and a few men will hear speakers from around the world on a huge range of topics: domestic abuse, women and disability, the sexualisation of young girls, maternal health, the political participation of migrant women, women and religious fundamentalism, and lesbian spaces, to name but a few. 

“Trans activists” have prevented grassroots work benefitting women and girls

Some of the speakers are women who have something to say about the erosion of women’s rights in the name of so-called “trans inclusivity”. As predictable as someone with he/them in his pronouns turning out to be a boring bearded heterosexual man, a protest has been organised against the FiLiA conference. Organised by independent local councillor Claire Udy, “Standing Against Transphobia” makes the usual accusations that trans people’s lives are in danger if women meet women to talk about male violence and how to fight it, or if they dare utter the opinion that “people who menstruate” is dehumanising towards women who have spent millennia being reduced to their bodily functions and told that they are shameful. 

The protest is a culmination of a concerted attempt by single-issue activists such as Udy to stop the FiLiA conference from ever taking place, including mounting a campaign to pressure the venue into cancelling the booking. But the real story here is not the visible protest and the (failed) attempt at cancellation. It’s not even the vicious, defamatory social media campaign run against FiLiA, or the vile abuse screamed at a FiLiA volunteer and survivor when she tried to speak at a Reclaim These Streets event in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder. Rather, the story that needs to be a wake-up call to everyone is how “trans activists” and their “allies” have actively prevented FiLiA from doing grassroots work to benefit the women and girls of Portsmouth — and how this has taken place with the complicity of local institutions and elected representatives. 

A year-long series, which FiLiA was due to run alongside the Play Youth Community youth groups within Portsmouth City Council, working with girls excluded or at risk of being excluded from school (a group highly vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation), was cancelled. This was purportedly on the basis of accusations of “transphobia” against FiLiA, even though the series had nothing to do with transgender issues. A member of the Red Cross in Portsmouth actively prevented refugee and migrant women from participating in the FiLiA legacy project and Book Club. This would have enabled these women to access confidence-building and skills development workshops, as well as exchange with authors from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds with long experience of challenging racism and sexism in the UK. The Red Cross individual refused to share details of the events with local women and lobbied other service providers to also boycott them, again based on spurious accusations of “transphobia”.

When FiLiA started organising in Portsmouth, local institutions should have welcomed the forthcoming event with open arms. Instead, some of Portsmouth’s most marginalised women and girls have been prevented from accessing support. The hostile resistance to the conference has contributed to creating a climate where women are afraid to speak about their rights. That’s “intersectionality” for you.

Institutional commitment to women’s rights is lukewarm 

Since 2019, Labour MP for Portsmouth South Stephen Morgan has persistently refused to meet with representatives of FiLiA, although he found the time to meet with the CEO of Stonewall Nancy Kelly and local artist and trans activist Samo, who has posted in a menacing pose on social media about acquiring a new “TERF toy”: a baseball bat painted in the trans flag colours. A Freedom of Information Request submitted to Portsmouth City Council by FiLiA in July this year is still without any response, despite formal deadlines coming and going. A complaint has been logged with the Information Commissioners Office. 

Anonymous complaints were made to the University of Portsmouth in an attempt to stop a FiLiA representative from speaking at a seminar on 11 March 2020 about sexual harassment of women; they were dismissed by some decent academics, and the event took place. But as I found out when I spoke at a WPUK meeting at the university in September, which the university grudgingly allowed to go ahead but did not allow to be filmed, institutional commitment to free speech and women’s rights is lukewarm and nervous. 

This is how cancel culture works. It’s not the big, high profile event that gets “cancelled”, but the whispering behind closed doors, the insinuations, the fear of being “tainted” by association, the opportunities that never take place, the conversations that never happen. And who loses out? Once again, it is women and girls, sacrificed in the name of a supposedly “progressive” agenda that in reality is the same age-old misogyny.

Who is responsible? It’s too easy to blame a handful of attention-seeking “activists” with their increasingly wild demands. Those whom we need to scrutinise and call to account are the political parties, the public institutions and the universities that are either enabling or failing in their duty to stand up to these bullies. We need to recognise that women’s rights are human rights too, and support women’s freedom of assembly, association and expression under the Human Rights Act.

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