writing by renee

Censorship, big money, blackmail and backlash: Why more New Zealand women aren’t speaking out on gender identity

Image: Jade Praerie, jadepraerie.tumblr.com

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Last week, I was offered a chance by TV One’s Q&A to present a feminist take on the question of gender identity. Q&A ran a six-minute segment focussing on the plight of Penelopy Mansell, a trans-identified male who has put a Wellington women-only gym under the spotlight because it is a space that he believes he has the right to access. Revive Gym has been under significant pressure and public scrutiny since Mansell approached them out of the blue – for doing nothing but offering a much-needed service for females.

Q&A producers quickly discovered that the issue in question goes far beyond the gym in question and the tired old terrain of “bathrooms”. The Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill is currently being debated by a select committee in parliament, and Green Party proposals on this Bill, as well as many submissions, ask that sex self-identification become a one-step process. This means that any man would be able to visit a Justice of the Peace, say that he is a woman, and have his birth certificate changed without question, cost, or court processes. What this amounts to in effect, is a total legal redefinition of sex, similar to what women in the U.K. are seeing under the Gender Recognition Act.

So, one thing I was asked when I spoke to Q&A was why more women are not speaking out on gender identity. I think this question is even more pertinent now that the segment has aired, and some of the backlash has already reared its head, so this article is my response to that question.

There are four main reasons why more women are not speaking out on gender identity in New Zealand. Women are being silenced through widespread media censorship; intimidated by the huge corporate and political backing behind transactivism; blackmailed by being blamed for violence and suicide rates, and subjected to intense backlash if we so much as ask questions. Censorship, big money, blackmail and backlash – those are the reasons why more women are not speaking out on gender identity in New Zealand, and I am going to discuss all of these in this piece, with emphasis on the blackmail and its claims.

First is the media censorship. In the panel dicussion that followed Q&A’s gender identity segment, former National minister Wayne Mapp presented the lack of debate on gender in New Zealand as though it reflects well on us. In actual fact, this lack of debate is the result of an extremely repressive and uncritical media that allows detached and uninformed commentators like himself to do all the talking. From the New Zealand Herald, to Stuff, Radio New Zealand, The Wireless and The Spinoff, New Zealand’s media refuses to hear from gender critical feminists on the issue of gender identity, while constantly promoting gender self-identification. The media is failing to do the job of critical investigation, and even failing to fulfill a far more minimal requirement of being “balanced”.

This one-sidedness is justified by the idea – and promoted by liberals like ActionStation’s Laura O’Connell Rapira, who appeared on Q&A’s panel – with the rationale that “trans people are some of the most marginalised” in the country.  This leads to the second reason women do not speak out more on gender identity: that claim of marginalisation is not true, and Rapira was being disingenuous. While she made her statement, Rapira was seated next to a former National minister proudly proclaiming his support for a Labour MP who was featured in Q&A’s gender identity segment, in turn supporting proposals that the Green Party are spearheading for gender self-identification. Transactivism has the backing of all political parties.

What’s more, transactivism has corporate backing from Air New Zealand to ANZ Bank to Fletcher Building and Starbucks. The substitution of gay rights for transactivism now sees Pride marches replaced with fully sponsored parades. Just listen to the list of sponsors for 2018’s Auckland Pride Parade being rattled off at 14:00 on this livestreamed One News footage here. Then, alongside corporate and political backing, gender identity doctrine is underpinned by postmodern theory. So it finds support in universities, where it is now possible to do all kinds of postdoctorate study related to gender-identity, as long as the study is not critical of gender. Indeed, feminists have written extensively about postmodern theories of gender as a backlash to the Women’s Studies departments that were set up in feminism’s “second wave”, in the 1970s and 80s. The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism is a notable anthology.

Off the back of this postmodern theory, all New Zealand student associations are now in favour of gender identity, most often vociferously. Otago University has replaced its Women’s Week with a “Period Week”, and this year the campus “feminist” organisation printed thousands of stickers saying “Boys Bleed Too” to spread around campus in celebration. As if a “Period Week” did not involve enough erasure and dehumanisation of women already.

On top of this, most women’s organisations have capitulated to the demands of transactivism. That is true of both Women’s Refuge and the National Council of Women (NCW). In fact, the NCW published an urgent press release right after the Sunday Q&A screenings, plainly motivated as a retaliation to the three sentences I had managed to offer on the topic of gender identity and in effort to disociate from “nasty women” like myself. Their “Gender Equal NZ” campaign is based around gender identity ideology, and is sucking much NCW funding.

This press release brings me to the next two reasons why more women are not speaking out of gender identity in New Zealand: the blackmail, and the backlash. The former deserves special deliberation.

The NCW press release, ignorantly titled Feminism and trans rights must go hand-in-hand, responded to a statement I made on TVNZ about the suffragists having fought so that women could make political demands for our sex. NCW responded that “As a feminist organisation that believes in equality for all genders, we find the view that trans rights undermine the work of the early suffragists, troubling.” The release goes on to discuss the rates of violence and suicide affecting “trans people”, with the implication that women with critical statements to make are somehow responsible for this violence. Not very feminist.

This blackmail response is very typically levelled at women who question gender identity critically, and its three claims need to be unpacked. Those claims are that the violence rates affecting trans-identified people are disproportionately high; the suicide rates affecting trans-identified people are also disproportionately high, and that gender critical feminists somehow bear responsibility for both. All of these claims need proper assessment.

The aforementioned media censorship and heavily one-sided discussion means that independent research is very valuable here. In Dunedin, writer and researcher Tim Leadbeater has done thorough and sincere investigation into the violence rates affecting trans-identified people. His investigations show that between 2008 and 2018, there were two reported murders of trans-identified people in New Zealand. These incidents should not be minimised, including through misrepresentation. To state that the murder rate of trans-identified people is proportionately higher than other groups is not confirmed by comparative studies into homicide rates in New Zealand. Organisations like the NCW should also note that these two murders were committed by males, not feminist women, and very likely not readers of feminist blogs.

By contrast, in a piece of supplementary evidence submitted to the select committee on the Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill, Charlie Montague lists the names of just some of the women who have been killed in New Zealand over the last three years. The list is long. It is long enough to mean that no woman should ever have to explain why female-only spaces and refuges are necessary, especially to our own representative organisations. Montague adds that between 2009 and 2015, there were 92 “intimate partner violence deaths” in New Zealand, and that women abused by male partners were the primary victims. She writes that in 2016, 5,461 applications were made for protection orders in New Zealand: 89% of them were made by women and 10% by men. “Women in New Zealand have sound reasons to be cautious of men,” she concludes.

Since it is now clear that the problem of violence against both women and trans-identified people is largely a problem of the male violence that feminists have always fought to resist (yes, including the suffragists), we now need to also consider whether trans-identified males exhibit this male pattern violence. Is there something about being trans-identified that makes men automatically safe for women to be around, including in intimate and vulnerable spaces like safehouses, communal showers and changing rooms – or not? And should we be so assured of our safety that we should accept not being allowed to ask questions, including about changes that even gender identity advocates like Labour MP Louisa Wall admit are “profound”?

International studies show that trans-identified males do exhibit male pattern violence. In New Zealand, Official Information Act requests have revealed that there are currently approximately thirty-three trans-identified males in New Zealand prisons. Eighteen are in for violent crimes, including sexual assault. Seven are in women’s prisons already, and in 2017 alone, four assaults were reported against women by trans-identified persons in women’s prisons.

I cannot imagine a lonelier experience than to be assaulted by a male in a women’s prison, where I would likely have been locked up for crimes of poverty, and would have little or no recourse after being violated. Thinking about what this experience would be like makes my blood run cold. Yet if Green Party proposals pass, then nothing would stop the likes of child sex offender Rory Francis, or rapist Malcolm Platt, from being automatically housed in women’s prisons. Platt calls himself “Morgana”, and had already been imprisoned for rape before he was incarcerated again this year for grooming a ten-year-old girl for prostitution.

The other aspect of the blackmail women face concerns suicide rates. Women are told that the suicide rates facing trans-identified people are extraordinarily high, and that therefore, we should refrain from asking critical questions about gender identity. This makes no sense. First of all, adult males constitute a large group of those who identify as transgender, and the male suicide rate is higher than the female suicide rate, as Statistics NZ reports. It makes sense that among a concentrated group of males who have dysphoria in common, as well as experiences with high-risk invasive medical intervention and surgery, suicide rates would be markedly higher.

The correlation between trans-identification and suicide means two more things. First of all, it means that we should precisely be asking critical questions about the impacts that gender identity ideology is having on people and why it is not reducing suicide risk. We should ask these questions especially while more and more young people are being persuaded to opt into practices like breast binding because organisations like RainbowYouth are actively promoting this practice and its ideology in schools. Secondly, suicide rates need to be accurately assessed in order for the right solutions to be found. The falsification of birth certificates and other documents will mean that both male pattern violence and suicide will become increasingly reported as committed by females. That will make it harder and harder for women and trans-identified people to see the real problem and to address it with the right solutions. Document falsification will actually invisibilise the problems that transactivists say they want us all to address.

Finally, when women ask these kinds of questions, we face intense backlash. The backlash often commences with us being labelled as “TERFs”. This slur is today’s “witch”, and often accompanied by other insults as well as threats of violence, ostracism and loss of livelihood. The NCW press release mentioned above was published urgently as a clear response and effort to dissociate from that “TERF” who was given a mere three sentences to speak on the topic of gender on TVNZ. All I had said on the topic was: “This legislation they’re pushing completely undermines a lot of work that the suffragists did. They fought for the women’s vote because they wanted to give women a way of making political demands that pertain to our sex. We can’t do that once the definition of what a woman is is fundamentally changed.”

After this came NCW’s press release and an attempt to hack into my blog, which I was temporarily locked out of. On Twitter, someone with the handle @insopherable announced that “one news has renee gerlich spouting her idiotic hateful shit today”, while Capital K blasted “STOP ASKING RENEE FUCKING GERLICH’S OPINONS ABOUT ANYTHING SHE’S A NOBODY. A LOUD BIGOTED NOBODY WITH NOTHING GOOD TO OFFER THE CONVERSATION.” Jess added, “Ah yes, Renee Gerlich, the TERF so shit she was run out of Wellington.” Alastair Thompson and Joe Cederwall at Scoop, with whom I sometimes publish, removed the gender critical articles from my author page. This sort of inevitable backlash, which I have experienced much of, was not considered remotely noteworthy in the panel discussion that followed Q&A’s gender identity segment.

In New Zealand, we are increasingly immersed in a climate where gender identity is a mainstream movement with a lot of corporate funding, political backing and media promotion. Women are intimidated out of this conversation, even though it affects every woman’s safety directly, as well as every women’s issue, space and organisation there is – from consent to male violence and rape culture, to the pay gap to abortion rights groups to midwives associations to safehouses, gyms and sports teams. Even the head of the Human Rights Commission, David Rutherford, took license to “creatively interpret” legislation protecting women’s sports in order to defend Gavin Hubbard’s participation in women’s weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games this year. On the Q&A panel, ex-National minister Wayne Mapp endorsed this misogynist and irresponsible behaviour.

New Zealand women need to start working harder, wherever possible, to resist and counter the blackmail used to justify and maintain this culture-wide steamrolling and gaslighting. We need to do that even though we have no organisations left to support us either in speaking out or facing the backlash. There is a reason that the question is always women’s gyms, women’s bathrooms, Women’s Weeks, women’s sports, women’s safehouses, and not the Freemasons or the All Blacks or White Ribbon’s lack of “transmen” participants. Transactivism is part of a backlash against women, feminism, and any progress we have made. We must not allow ourselves to be rolled over so easily, and we need to fight for the sex-based protections, material and legislative, that we have won – and then some. We need to relearn to fight for ourselves as women, in spite of the censorship, big money, blackmail and backlash against us – and the time to start is now.

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