Freedom of speech is vital to our democracy in Leeds

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By Lauren Hamstead: Last month, Leeds City Council was due to host a meeting held by Woman’s Place UK to discuss the government’s consultation on amending the Gender Recognition Act 2004.

Hours before the meeting was due to take place, the council released a statement explaining that they would no longer allow the meeting to go ahead at Civic Hall. I was a ticket holder for that event and wrote a letter to express my disappointment and anger at the decision.

My objection to the cancellation of the meeting was that, as a public body, Leeds City Council used its power to prevent a group of women meeting to discuss a government consultation to which we are an interested party. It is important in a free society that this decision is challenged. Freedom of speech is fundamental to effective democracy and a group of women talking is not a threat. This is bigger than anyone’s opinion on the Gender Recognition Act – the fact that Leeds in 2018 is a place where elected representatives are engaged in censorship cannot be allowed to stand.

The subject of the meeting and the associated grassroots campaigning by women, centres on the concerns that allowing divergence of legally recognised and biological sex has worrying implications for the safety, dignity and privacy of women and girls. We are campaigning to ensure that our voices are heard in this debate and that a respectful, evidence-based discussion is allowed to take place. I would like to make it clear that I absolutely support the right of transgender people to live free from fear, harm and discrimination. But there absolutely needs to be proper scrutiny of both organisational policies and law to ensure that safeguarding principles are upheld and necessary sex-based protections, fought for by generations of women, are not lost.

Another troubling aspect of this debate is the re-definition of language and demographics. I live in a society where, due to my immutable biological sex, I am at a disadvantage – I want to change that. Words hold power. Like any group, women need to be able to define ourselves before we can make any progress with the inequality that we face. The dictionary definition of ‘woman’ is ours to claim, use and wear on T-shirts.

At this point, I think it important that I explain why I feel so strongly about this issue.

In 2011, I was raped by a man I knew and trusted. I have never reported this to the police, I knew it came down to my word against his and the legal process would have made it more traumatic than it already was.

As I tried to process what had happened to me I was constantly confronted with the view that it is my responsibility as a woman to set appropriate boundaries to protect myself from physical and sexual harm. This is victim-blaming, but it is a concept that most women are all too familiar with.

Expecting women to prevent themselves becoming victims of rape and sexual assault, crimes largely committed by predatory men, in the face of legislation that removes women’s rights to challenge those men, abusing the proposed legislation to enter their spaces, sets women’s rights back centuries.

In the immediate aftermath of being raped the reaction I had to strange men was visceral and based on instinct rather than reason – anybody who looked or sounded male made me panic.

I didn’t have the capacity to consider anybody’s feelings but my own, that is why the needs of women who find themselves in this situation should always be paramount. I needed other women because that is all I could cope with, it made me feel safe, allowed me to speak and eventually to regain control. I am incredibly grateful for the help I received and spaces need to be preserved for women who, sadly, will continue need them in future.

I am concerned that the provisions that allow these spaces to remain single sex are not robust enough to protect them as more people legally change their sex.

As a university student, I joined the women’s rugby team, having previously avoided sport because I was self conscious and not athletic. Being part of that team played a massive role in my social life and it also helped me become happier in my own skin.

Rugby is a contact sport and it is therefore considered dangerous for women to play with and against men, due to the inherent physical advantages of male biology. Including those with male bodies in women’s sport excludes women, whether through disadvantage or increased risk of serious injury, it is not equality nor is it ‘This Girl Can’.

I became actively involved in the campaign against the amendments to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 after a protest by a group of women at London Pride 2018.

The protest was against the marginalisation of lesbians within the LGBT movement and the re-definition of ‘lesbian’. As a male friend explained, that protest was an act of bigotry and that lesbians are women who find members of the female gender, regardless of biological sex, attractive. As a lesbian I disagree.

My right to have a relationship with a member of my own sex is protected by the Equality Act 2010 and yet, both it and my personal boundaries are being challenged.

Last Friday, Leeds City Council tried to silence a group of women for holding opinions like this one. Despite our campaigning, many people are unaware that this consultation is happening so we need to continue speaking out. One hundred years after the suffragettes, women are still fighting to make sure our voices are heard. Women’s rights are not history, they are now and we will not be silenced.

By Lauren Hamstead