Picture: 123RF/VIPERAGP
Picture: 123RF/VIPERAGP

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and cornerstone of democracy, which cannot flourish unless citizens can articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship or sanction.

So it should concern anyone who claims to be a democrat that there is growing evidence that some women who have expressed a set of feminist beliefs that have come to be known as “gender-critical” have faced professional penalties as a result.

“Gender-critical” beliefs refer to the view that someone’s sex — whether they are male or female — is biological and immutable and cannot be conflated with someone’s gender identity, whether they identify as a man or a woman.

The belief that the patriarchal oppression of women is grounded partly in their biological sex, not just the social expression of gender, and that women therefore have the right to certain single-sex spaces and to organise on the basis of biological sex if they so wish, represents a long-standing strand of feminist thinking. Other feminists disagree, believing gender identity supersedes biological sex altogether.

Both are legitimate perspectives that deserve to be heard in a democratic society. Both can be expressed without resulting in the abuse, harassment and discrimination of trans people or women. Being able to talk about these alternative perspectives goes to the heart of resolving important questions about how we structure society.

They include: whether it is right that the law permits the provision of single-sex spaces and services; whether official government data, such as the census, should record a person’s biological sex as well as gender identity; whether women have the right to request that intimate medical examinations or searches are undertaken by someone who is female; appropriate safeguards in the medical treatment of children with gender dysphoria; and whether it is legitimate to exclude those who have been through male puberty from competing in women’s sport.

Yet there have been numerous examples of women being harassed, punished, censured — even physically assaulted — for expressing gender-critical views. The chilling result is the frightening of women into silence because they fear the consequences of expressing their feminist beliefs. 

As a society we need to resolve the question of how to protect the privacy, dignity and rights of trans women while also respecting the privacy, dignity and rights of those born female. /London, June 27

The Observer

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