A few nights ago, I attended a gathering at which friends and acquaintances were encouraged to mingle and chat. At one point I found myself discussing the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz with a gentleman in advanced middle-age. I pointed out that I was very fond of Cleopatra and Sleuth, and that either one or the other should probably be seen as his best work. Almost immediately, my companion screamed: “Fuck you, his best film is All About Eve. You’re a brainless cunt and you should be killed.”
Of course, this didn’t actually happen, because people don’t talk like that in real life. Many do, however, engage in this way on social media, typically towards total strangers. This week I’ve been trending on X (or Twitter, as I stubbornly still call it) following a mass pile-on instigated by several gender-critical activists. This particular bombardment resulted in my decision to temporarily deactivate my Twitter account, to the glee of my critics and transactivists alike.
Having since been contacted by friends within the gender-critical movement, I have learned that many of them are exasperated by the “intolerant elements” within their community who seek to destroy anyone who does not conform to every single aspect of their worldview, even if it means that the cause is fatally undermined. They describe a “civil war” being waged by a small but intimidating minority who maintain that any slight point of disagreement is a form of heresy, that language has the capacity to shape reality, and that those found guilty of wrongspeak ought to be publicly shamed and alienated. Remind you of anyone?
This civil war within the gender-critical movement is, of course, a boon to the high priests of gender identity, those authoritarians who have been conducting a frighteningly effective campaign to reorganise society around the metaphysical belief that “gender” should take priority over sex when it comes to spaces, sports and human rights. Given that the stakes are so high, not least for women, children, and gay people, it might be worth considering what this in-fighting is all about and how it might be avoided in the future. In order to do this, I should first explain the background to this week’s furore.
I host a weekly show on GB News called Free Speech Nation, which explores all aspects of the culture wars and has a particular emphasis on the ongoing attacks on women’s rights in the name of “progress”. Even before last Sunday’s show had aired, I was contacted by regular viewers who had taken issue with me for inviting the trans writer and teacher Debbie Hayton to appear for an interview. As an admitted autogynephile — a heterosexual man who presents as a woman out of an erotic attraction to himself — Hayton is something of a hate figure for many in the movement. By conducting this interview, I was deemed guilty of “enabling” and “promoting perversion”, in spite of Hayton’s gender-critical beliefs.
Further context is required here. The day before my show, a profile appeared in The Times in which the interviewer, Janice Turner, referred to Hayton with female pronouns. Turner clarified her reasoning in a tweet: “The issue of pronouns is becoming absolutist on BOTH sides. Stonewall demands even bearded rapists be called “she”, GC ultras refuse to call any trans woman “she”. I reject both positions. I never call male sex offenders she/her. But I will be courteous to those who respect women.”
For many, the issue of pronouns has become a red line in the gender wars, and Turner’s efforts at compromise are seen not only as wrongheaded, but traitorous. It is widely held that trans-identifying individuals must never be described as anything other than their true biological sex, and cries of “hold the line” are often heard. Not only are the likes of Turner demonised for attempting to find a middle ground, but they are also told that they have been “groomed” by the men who are insisting that other people’s language must be modified in deference to their sense of self.
This tactic, of suggesting that an opposing view is the result of a delusion, is common to all ideological movements. Marxist theorists have often dismissed unbelievers as suffering from “false consciousness”. Similarly, many transactivists insist that those of us who believe that sex is immutable have been “radicalised online”. Yet this is also the identical approach of those gender-critical campaigners who deny the individual agency of their comrades and claim they are the victims of “grooming”. I suppose it is easier to explain away disagreement as the product of some collective fantasy rather than accept that not everyone thinks the same way as you.
The inevitable firestorm following Turner’s piece provided the backdrop to my own interview with Hayton on Sunday night. Initial feedback was cordial and productive: many feminists were pleased that I had listened to their concerns and asked questions about the use of toilets, single-sex spaces, and a schools guidance policy that Hayton had co-authored for the teachers’ union NASUWT in 2017. There were also many critical comments, which I welcomed and took seriously.
The first signs of trouble occurred when one of my critics began repeatedly railing against “the gays” in her posts. She complained that I had used the pronoun “her” in relation to Debbie in one of the introductory pieces to camera (as it happens, this was simply because the producer had written it that way in the autocue). I explained that I use pronouns to denote biological sex, and certainly when it comes to reporting on the news, because I do not believe in gender identity. But I also said that when it comes to personal friends who identify as the opposite sex, I have occasionally adopted their preferred pronouns and names. I have done this to avoid needless distress, not to signal that I share their belief-system. It would be like bowing my head for a prayer at a friend’s family meal, even if I didn’t believe in their particular god.
I respect and understand criticisms of this approach. Women are facing the erosion of their spaces and rights, and this is being actuated by gender-identity ideology and the compelled use of pronouns. I have written previously about the need to resist this pressure to conform to pronoun declaration, and I am particularly vexed by the tendency of journalists to describe rapists, paedophiles and other male criminals as “she” or to use nonsensical phrases such as “her penis”.
Therefore, I answered many of my critics by agreeing that my view may be flawed, and that I was open to persuasion regarding their “slippery slope” argument. It was only when multiple anonymous accounts starting branding me a liar, a grifter and a hater of women, and outright telling me to “fuck off” that I realised this was beginning to turn nasty.
One of my traducers claimed that I lacked credibility and integrity because I adhere to “a deranged homophobic, sexist ideology”, even though I have consistently and outspokenly opposed it over many years. This struck me as an absurd overreaction, the kind of “you’re either with us or against us” purity demand that one has come to expect in these tribalistic times.
From there, matters escalated at a dizzying rate. I was repeatedly accused of being a misogynist, something which I find odd, given that over the past few years I have covered the rising threats to women’s rights on my show with a tenacity that has been notably absent in other media outlets. Every week I have invited women to appear, including Helen Joyce, Maya Forstater, Jo Phoenix, Julie Bindel, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, Milli Hill, Kellie-Jay Keen, Dr Jane Clare Jones, Jo Bartosch, Mara Yamauchi, Holly Lawford-Smith, Sarah Phillimore, Kate Coleman, Rosie Kay, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Sharron Davies. If my critics are correct, and I am indeed a rabid misogynist, surely I at least deserve some credit for going to such elaborate lengths to disguise it?
Many of my detractors took the view that my homosexuality was the issue. One self-declared feminist confessed to being “a raging homophobe” and wrote: “I don’t like gay men anymore. I think most of them are miso[gynist] pieces of shhh [sic] that mock women and platform AGPs”. Another was more direct: “The gays are definitely to blame as well. First off, sticking a penis inside a man’s asshole is unhealthy. If you can’t admit this then you are part of the problem.” Another went with “I hate men in general”, and then clarified her misandry in an oddly specific way: “Gay MEN. Straight MEN. White MEN. Black MEN. All MEN. I don’t discriminate. I view you all with equal amounts of derision”. Then there was an especially malicious attack from law scholar Dr Alessandra Asteriti, who called me a liar and resorted to the defamatory claim that my objective was to “harm women and children”.
Despite the onslaught, I should emphasise that this kind of sociopathic behaviour is far from typical in the gender-critical movement. Yes, there exists a small contingent who despise gay men and seek to bully and harass anyone who takes a different view. But this is most definitely not the norm, and the overwhelming majority of women I have encountered in this fight have been generous, compassionate and incredibly courageous in the face of threats and wholly unfounded accusations of “hate” and “transphobia”. It is only thanks to their hard work that we have seen a recent sea-change in public understanding of the dangers of this ideology.
Naturally, at the time, I found it difficult to distinguish between legitimate criticisms and outright abuse. And once I started becoming defensive, it of course made matters worse. It’s always worth bearing in mind that, in the eye of a Twitter storm, one does not see individuals, but rather an army determined to see you crushed. At that point, nuance becomes impossible.
And while I am fully aware that most of those participating in the pile-on would have been appalled by the excesses of the few, that isn’t much consolation. This had all begun with one woman griping about “the gays” and ended hours later with complete strangers on my timeline discussing why gay men are so vile, invariably misogynistic, and have a tendency towards paedophilia (the most repugnant and common prejudice of them all). By the time someone posted an audio recording of one of my detractors saying that she would enjoy murdering gay men, I was out.
And of course, transactivists noticed the abuse I was receiving and were quick to weaponise the situation. One of them emailed me directly: “I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’ but… ha.” Many have since boasted on social media that the attacks were karma for my stupidity in associating with this brood of reactionaries. They have shared screenshots of the worst tweets and taken this as confirmation of what they have been alleging all along: that the gender-critical movement is a front for far-Right homophobes.
My experiences this week have certainly alerted me to a dark element within gender-critical circles, one that has become a source of considerable concern for many women in the fight. I have retreated from Twitter and instead launched a Substack, in the hope that I may continue these conversations with those who are able to remain civil even while robustly disagreeing. I now understand that serious discussions about this issue are simply not possible on Twitter, and my mental health has to come first.
For all that, gender-critical feminism remains an essential force in protecting our rights in these maddening times. The genuinely bigoted elements of the movement may be aberrations, but they are increasingly being perceived as the norm. If this cannot be rectified, it will prove a disaster not just for women and gay people, but for truth and sanity itself.