When did stories of LGBT+ activism become such a mainstream pastime? Saint LGBT+ partnered with the Debating Society on Thursday of Week 3 to bring us Queer Question Time, and with speakers prepared to share their own stories of coming out and being the first queer people in their respective roles, the evening was set to be gently inspiring, igniting a suitably feel-good glow in the hearts of listeners.
Things, however, took a turn when questions were opened to the audience. Saints LGBT+ had organised three speakers, only two of whom managed to attend in the end – Reverend Scott Rennie, the first out gay minister in the Church of Scotland and Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party and vocal advocate for LGBT+ rights. Having two cisgender male speakers was not perhaps the “look” that Saints LGBT+ wanted to showcase, and this was brought to the audience’s attention when questions were asked by a vocal group in the crowd on the topic of why “no people with uteruses” were among the speakers.
A further question was asked, clearly aimed at neither of the men present but quickly adapted, about the ongoing discussion around amending the Gender Recognition Act, which could make the process for amending gender on legal documentation in the UK more straightforward, and the future which that amendment would apparently deny for homosexuals. Incidentally, the questioner got their fact wrong about how and when the amendment could come into place, which Harvie explained in patient detail. While both the speakers replied as politely and diplomatically as they could, Parliament Hall briefly turned into a shouting match as the convictions of the questioners became clear.
Some background is required here. The third speaker set to attend was Lily Madigan. Lily Madigan is a Labour Party activist who was elected in 2017 as the first trans Women’s Officer for the Labour Party. She has been subject to bullying and abuse before and since her election, and she has been a frequent target of abuse from certain feminist groups. I cannot speculate as to why she did not attend, but the presence of a loud group with a clear agenda – who muttered derisively through the whole event, including imploring a speaker at one point to “stick to Scotland and ignore fucking Africa”, took meticulous notes of any time trans people were mentioned and asked questions aimed to compromise the position of trans people in the LGBT+ family – could potentially have been a factor. I do not know who this group was or how they self-identify, but one potentially-useful term is “TERF”.
“TERF” stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, and is a descriptor which many of this number object to but is nevertheless increasingly-used. At the risk of simplifying the demands of these groups, these are feminist groups who largely argue that trans women, who have often been raised in a place of male privilege, do not have a right to inhabit female spaces or gain from anti-discrimination laws which aid females. They are also wary of cisgender predatory men who might gain from lax gender recognition laws to pose as trans women in order to inhabit and misuse female spaces.
A discussion of these issues would be a larger issue than this one article can achieve, and certainly are not ones which I as a cisgender male feel I have a right to preach on. In terms of the event, while Saints LGBT+ could have dealt with the situation with greater tact, I can only commend President Zelda Kotyk for pointing out how hard the committee had looked for female speakers to attend the event and how the space was an inclusive and positive one. The question as to why women might have been more likely to turn down the opportunity to speak in public is a more thorny one.
What was handled less well was the way the crowd reacted. In response to the question about the lack of “people with uteruses” present on the panel, several people shouted across the room that “You don’t have to be a woman to have a uterus”. The false fact about the Gender Recognition Act was met with outright scorn. This only exacerbated the questioners, especially as many of the rebukes came from people who apparently identified as cisgender men (although I acknowledge that I may be misgendering people here).
I am aware that I am only adding to the maelstrom with this article. I am aware that activism is not always achieved through sitting still and hearing someone out. I am aware that many of my forebears sacrificed their liberty or dignity (and so much more) so that I can live happily as an out gay man. I am aware that many of these people were not gay themselves but allies, who overcame their feelings that “this was not their fight”.
But sometimes the best way to achieve all of this is through diplomatic and considered rebuttal and not through emotions or repeated mantras about inclusivity. I believe that the future can be bright for trans people, and I am proud to be an ally for trans rights and to offer my help in any way I can. But listening and learning before dismissing others is a skill that many of us, including myself, need to learn before we get any further in this, or any other, fights for equality.
Patrick Harvie MSP put it beautifully in his well-spoken and diplomatic rebuttal to a point: “We’ve all got to stick together and listen to each other. That’s why the “T” belongs in LGBT+ — the bastards hate us all, we might as well stick together.”
We reached out to Saints LGBT+ for a comment on this issue but they had not responded at the time of publication.