An annual book fair that has served for more than three decades as the most important meeting point for the British anarchist movement has become the latest casualty of widening splits over the issue of transgender rights.
Organisers say that they no longer have “the appetite or the energy” to stage next year’s London Anarchist Bookfair, following fraught scenes at the event last month. A group of feminists were confronted by other activists who accused them of distributing “transphobic” leaflets that promoted prejudice against transgender people.
The acrimony follows highly publicised splits in universities, women’s organisations and political parties over the issue. Lily Madigan, a 19-year-old who has just won a vote in Kent to become Labour’s first women’s officer from a transgender background, has been at the centre of a row within the party.
The executive committee of another constituency Labour party resigned this month in solidarity with Anne Ruzylo, a women’s officer who claimed she had been the focus of complaints by Madigan and others.
This weekend it emerged that Madigan is applying to join the Jo Cox Women in Leadership programme, launched after the murder of the MP to encourage female participation in politics.
Meanwhile, the Women’s Equality party has confirmed that its executive committee is considering complaints about one of its members, Heather Brunskell-Evans, an academic whose invitation to speak at King’s College in London was cancelled after she took part in a discussion on transgender issues on Radio 4. On the programme she called for caution to be exercised in relation to children who expressed confusion over their gender. Brunskell-Evans said the party told her that three members had alleged her “conduct” on the programme had “promoted prejudice against the transgender community”. She is also alleged to have said on Twitter: “we have to #ROAR about the harms of transgenderism for children and young people”.
The leaflets handed out at the Anarchist Bookfair suggested that predatory men might be among those who choose to call themselves women, and might abuse the system by gaining access to women-only spaces such as refuges. Trans activists say the issue is being used by opponents – some of whom they label “terfs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) – to sow the seeds of hatred.
The increasingly angry disputes follow government proposals to streamline the process for how people can change their gender, under the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). A public consultation is to be held on speeding up and demedicalising the process, with the current need to be assessed and diagnosed by clinicians seen by some as intrusive.
Choosing whether one is a man or a woman is a matter of self-identification, trans activists assert. Some opponents of the GRA have warned that this may lead to young, vulnerable people making decisions they later regret. Others have suggested that self-identifying undermines the status, rights and experience of biological women.
The rows “are going on within all sorts of social movements”, said Helen Steel, the veteran social justice campaigner known for her role in taking on McDonald’s in the 1997 “McLibel” case.
Helen Steel. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Steel, who is among those caught up in the book fair controversy, said that until now, discussion had “taken place in a bubble that has agreed with itself”. She added: “Now that those ideas are actually going to be translated into law, other people are becoming aware of those proposals and say, ‘hang on – can we have time to consider the implications properly and let women have a say in how our lives may be affected by these changes?’”
She said she had been left traumatised by her experience at the book fair, claiming she was surrounded by a “baying mob” after intervening to stop the bullying of two women who had been distributing leaflets about the GRA.
“I have been aware that women have been bullied on this issue for a long time now but, until it happened to me, I was not aware of the extent of the bullying and am shocked by it,” Steel said. “I have been an environmental and social justice campaigner for most of my life. In all that time, I have never experienced such a toxic environment.”
Opponents of Steel and the other feminists assert that to have allowed the distribution of the leaflets was to create an environment in which transphobia was encouraged, discriminating against a group of people who already experience high rates of suicide, poverty and persecution.
“The contents of the leaflets are not simply a ‘perspective’ or a ‘viewpoint’ but are a form of ignorance, violence and aggression directed specifically at trans women,” said a joint statement in the name of a range of anarchist and activist groups and individuals. It criticised the book fair organisers for offering protection to people who were “promoting transphobic hate speech”.
A 27-year-old anarchist and trans person who hosted a talk at the fair said she was disappointed in the decision of the organisers, which she said reflected their inability to show a united front against leafleteers.
“But I’m disappointed in so many people criticising them into that position too,” she added.
“The book fair situation shows the need for people to pick a side – that not picking a side is just not good enough. However, it also shows the need for proper organisation. What happened at the book fair itself was not led by trans people. I can’t stress that enough. And it didn’t happen at all as how I would have liked to have seen it.”
Alexandra Becker, founder of Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists – one of the groups that signed the letter criticising the organisers and leafleteers – insisted that the latter were a fringe group within feminism.
She said: “Unfortunately there is a tendency among certain groups on this topic to create fear, to whip up emotions that say things that are not representative of a very vulnerable group of people who are the victims of violence.”
However, Becker added: “I think there have been splits already and people have gone off to do their own thing. It’s not clear what they are doing because often they are not coming out to support feminism in other areas.
“The [feminist] movement, other progressive movements, the parties, the anarchists are moving on, though, and there will just be people who will be left behind. It’s not possible to hold on to how things were in the past, and there will not be room for you in the progressive movements.
“Racism, sexism and antisemitism are things we don’t tolerate – so this is the same.”
Others in the anarchist community are now discussing how to create new events next year that they say would be more inclusive.