The marginalisation of trans people by some lesbians is beyond unhelpful – here’s why

If there’s one thing that LGBTQ people can learn from the history of anti-queer campaigns, from ‘Save Our Children’ to Section 28, it’s that we’re stronger together

Catherine Kelly
Sunday 02 April 2023 13:26 BST
Murdered teen Brianna Ghey's funeral held in Warrington

It’s rarely a good idea to reread diaries from your teenage years. Recently though, I found a passage from my own that made me laugh. At 15, on the verge of coming out as a lesbian for the first time, I wrote that I hoped telling people about my gay identity would help me to stop thinking about it all the time. It didn’t work out that way.

In fact, I have spent the last three years researching the history of lesbian feminist writing and activism for my PhD. I spend a lot of my waking hours thinking about what it means, and has meant, to be a lesbian.

You might assume, then, that I would be excited by the prospect of a new organisation promising to platform the needs and experiences of lesbians in the UK. Founded by academic Kathleen Stock and journalist Julie Bindel, the Lesbian Project promises to champion lesbians.

However, scratch the surface and you’ll find that this group, like the LGB Alliance, is more interested in excluding trans women than in supporting the lesbian community (which is deeply supportive of the transgender community). In fact, the group explicitly excludes transgender lesbians, as Stock confirmed in an interview on BBC’s Woman’s Hour.

In recent years the media conversation about transgender lives has become increasingly toxic, and somehow lesbians have become a key part of it. This so-called debate – which in many ways The Lesbian Project epitomises – has left me frustrated and angry. Once again, my identity as a lesbian is being used as a cover for transphobia.

So how did we get here? If you’re familiar with Bindel and Stock, the exclusionary policies of their organisation won’t surprise you. They are leading figures in a small but vocal group of “gender critical” people. Their claim that trans people can’t be part of the lesbian community is one that I know, from my research and my own life, is simply untrue.

The rights and experiences of LGBTQ people have always been intertwined – trans people have been at the centre of struggles for lesbian rights for generations. Lesbian history is not a simple or harmonious one. We have often disagreed, and trans lesbians have faced appalling transphobia in their struggle to be included in the lesbian feminist movement.

But it’s also a history marked by moments of bravery and solidarity between cis and trans lesbians. One example of this is the Lesbian Avengers, a 1990s activist group who defended the rights of trans women in women-only spaces.

As a cis lesbian, I find the arguments from anti-trans feminists to be both nonsensical and dangerous. Their fears about a lesbian identity in “crisis” – despite evidence from the most recent census that there are more of us than ever – are unfounded.

Tellingly, in their fight to exclude trans people from public life, this fringe group of “gender critical” feminists have allied themselves with a right-wing anti-LGBT movement that targets drag queen storytimes and inclusive sex education.

It’s important to note that many of the arguments being used against trans people are eerily similar to the prejudiced language that was once more commonly heard about cis lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Take education – until 2003 it was illegal for teachers in the UK to speak positively about gay relationships, or for schools to teach books with gay characters. We saw how Section 28 harmed a generation of LGBTQ+ people.

Now we are seeing these debates repackaged and directed at trans children. When anti-trans campaigners deny the validity of trans identities, they echo the sneering language of Section 28 which dismissed queer couples with children as “pretended family relationships.” We owe it to future generations to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and instead prioritise an inclusive education system so that all children have the freedom to be true to who they are, access their potential and pursue their dreams.

Stock and Bindel have tried to pre-empt some of the criticism that’s been levelled at them already, acknowledging that lesbians are a politically diverse group and that many lesbians will disagree with them and their views.

They’re right about that; over a thousand people have signed an open letter condemning the Lesbian Project for its discriminatory trans-exclusionary policies. And last week, hundreds of trans and cis lesbians and queer people danced in the street outside the Lesbian Project’s inaugural event, in a “counterparty” thrown by a new group, The Dyke Project – which describes itself as “a collective of trans, cis and nonbinary dykes and queers of all persuasions” – to show what our community really looks like.

To me, this description reflects the community I know and love. The Dyke Project kept the event off social media, letting news of it spread through word of mouth. The crowd that turned up on Saturday is a testament to the strength of our community, and to the solidarity and care we show each other when some of us are under attack.

I came along because I wanted to share my anger and sadness at the way a rising tide of transphobia in the UK is harming the people I love, but I left feeling a little bit lighter. Drag kings, DJs, dancing in the streets – this was the lesbian community doing what it does best: finding space for joyful resistance.

As someone who studies lesbian history, I was moved to see tributes to that history all over the protest. One banner read “a day without trans people is like a day without sunshine”, a reference to a pro-lesbian banner at a 1979 San Francisco Pride march.

The 1979 banner was itself a tongue-in-cheek reference to anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant, whose advertising campaign for orange juice carried the slogan “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”. Bryant’s homophobic campaign, with its cry of “Save Our Children”, bears a chilling resemblance to the UK’s current moral panic about trans identities. If there’s one thing that LGBTQ people can learn from the history of anti-queer campaigns, from “Save Our Children” to Section 28, it’s that we’re stronger together.

A few days after the protest, the organisers tweeted that “trans dykes and cis dykes stand together and we always will”. It’s up to us to make sure that this is true. We can’t allow a small minority of vocal lesbians – and their friends in power – to put our trans lesbian sisters at risk, and we can’t allow them to speak over the wider trans-inclusive lesbian community. At its best, this community is brave, united and committed to justice. I’m proud to be a member.

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