The gender critical (GC) movement is widely described in the press as motivated by concern for the wellbeing of cisgender women and girls. However a pattern has emerged of harassment and abuse of charities and services working in the areas of sexual violence and reproductive and gynaecological health, typically perpetrated by self-described Gender Critical Feminists, with the encouragement and cooperation of right wing politicians and newspapers.
In this piece we attempt to document as comprehensively as we are able the attacks we have monitored or surfaced evidence of from the last few years.
There are some striking common factors which express themselves in this collection of incidents:
- A complete lack of tolerance in the Gender Critical movement for trans inclusive feminist organisations, counter to the frequent claims of supporting trans people's rights to "live as you want without discrimination".
- A complete lack of tolerance for efforts within the healthcare sector to try and develop a balance between providing healthcare to women and avoiding deterring trans men who need gynaecological healthcare, with all the consequent effects of in practice making trans men's healthcare a toxic battlefield to defend even minor concessions over.
- A scorched earth policy when it comes to crisis and survivor support services with little concern about spreading alarm and fear to those who might need to access the services.
- Repetition of stereotypes of trans women as predatory, often accompanied by transmisogynistic attempts to reframe trans women accessing services as sexually motivated
It is also worth taking note of just how little of this hostile activity, often mingling outrage from religiously motivated anti-feminist groups with so-called Gender Critical feminists allied in a common cause, is ever described in the mainstream press as an attack on feminism more widely. This follows a pattern which has been observed by researchers commissioned by the European Parliament with many European women's organisations being targeted with conspiracy theories about "Soros Funding" and met with hostility and deep suspicion.
Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Services
Rape Crisis centres have been a particular focus for GC harassment. Previous Trans Safety Network research has covered the #AskRapeCrisisScotland campaign by GC Twitter users. This section will feature a more detailed breakdown of the pattern that has developed.
On the 22nd of August 2019, Devon Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) posted a Tweet calling for "self-identified wom[e]n...passionate about gender equality & ending violence" to volunteer to assist DRCC with its work in supporting survivors of sexual violence. Self-identified women is a common term in the VAWG sector to refer to all those who consider themselves to be women, regardless of transgender status.
This post saw little attention initially, with no public replies remaining on Twitter for the first 4 days. However from the evening of the 26th of August, the post began to attract a number of replies from "gender critical" Twitter users, many of whom appeared to assume that "self-identified woman" referred specifically to trans women. A number of the replies accused DRCC of facilitating abuse and suggested that trans women were specifically dangerous to other women, referring to transgender women as "Manipulative autogynephiliacs" and "Abusive, fetish driven men" and with some explicitly hoping for the existing staff at DRCC to lose their jobs. Shortly after the Twitter pile on began, a thread was started on Mumsnet encouraging further targetting of DRCC. After two days of continuous online abuse, DRCC chose to delete their post.
This pattern was later replicated in the targetting of Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre and Sheffield Rape And Sexual Abuse Centre in July 2020,where once again a call for volunteers making it clear that both centres were trans inclusive was met with a hostile social media reaction. Like previous instances there were partly coordinated through the Mumsnet forums. In this instance, this was accompanied by an article in the Daily Mail including quotes condemning the sexual violence support services' trans inclusive policies from Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne and Tory MP Jackie Doyle Price, two socially conservative politicians who have previously been criticised for their opposition to equal marriage rights for same sex couples. Nicholson in particular has a fraught relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, having come into conflict with the Lesbian Avengers in 1995 over her opposition to a UN "year of tolerance" declaration due to it's opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre in particular has been targetted on multiple occasions, with manufactured controversies and social media pileons related to gender neutral toilets, making a Tweet celebrating Pride and particularly their appointment of Mridul Wadhwa, an Asian transgender woman, as CEO, with Mumsnet users stating that they were "enraged" by a trans woman being appointed to the role and multiple Twitter users accusing Wadhwa of acting unlawfully or committing fraud in order to obtain the role.
Another charity serving sexual violence survivors, Brighton Survivors Network, has been targetted on multiple occasions. The most recent of these was after a Mail On Sunday article was published based on an account by a survivor who says she chose to stop engaging with BSN's services after a woman she believed to be trans attended some group therapy sessions. The article was quickly shared by prominent GC accounts, as well as Mumsnet's feminism and "Am I being unreasonable?" forums, leading to a number of abusive comments directed at BSN and an unrelated transgender woman who had visited the service's office. Common themes were once again accusing BSN of harming survivors by providing an inclusive service and abusive slander of trans woman rape survivors as being sexually motivated in seeking support.
In July 2021, Chester Women’s Aid became a target after making a public statement about failing to secure confirmation with the Chester Women’s March that the march would be inclusive of resistance to domestic violence faced by trans people, following their policy as a trans-inclusive service and their commitment to their service users. Gender Critical replies included journalist Jo Bartosch calling trans women men and denying that they face domestic violence altogether, and others claiming (without evidence) that “men who identify as trans are the safest demographic in the UK”.
In all Chester Women’s Aid faced hundreds of responses.
Feminist and reproductive rights charities
In December 2018, accelerated in part by Graham Linehan who had in the range of half a million followers before his suspension from Twitter, the menstrual justice charity “Bloody Good Period” was targeted. The abuse was so fierce that it drove their charity ambassador Cariad Lloyd off the platform. They made this public statement about the incident before continuing with their hard work delivering period supplies to those in need.
The Vagina Museum is a project which seeks to "Spread knowledge and raise awareness of the gynaecological anatomy and health", particularly by demystifying and destigmatising gynaecological anatomy such as vaginas, vulvas, cervixes and menstruation, the project is explicitly feminist and trans inclusive and has run a physical museum in Camden, London since 2019. In November 2020, the Vagina Museum held a social media takeover by Polish feminist Aleksandra Karpowicz to discuss human rights abuses against women in Poland, where the government was in the process of outlawing abortion, with a country wide Women's Strike emerging in response. The Tweet used the phrase "people with vaginas", leading to hundreds of abusive comments, including Tweets refering to Polish feminists as "misogynistic ideological zealots" and "worse than the Polish government" that was at the time attacking the bodily autonomy of millions of Polish women and other people capable of becoming pregnant. A later post in August 2021 discussing the Vagina Museum's loss of their building and struggles finding a new physical location for their unique educational resource recieved yet more abusive comments, with Gender Critical activists and other trolls gloating over a small feminist charity's financial struggles.
When we asked Vagina Museum about the harassment they’ve faced Zoe Williams, Development and Marketing Manager, said:
We knew from the outset that what we're doing would be controversial to some quarters, in particular misogynists and transphobic bigots. This meant that we'd been thinking about abuse online and offline early on and had some knowledge of the landscape. We know, for example, that a lot of it is orchestrated moral panics and much of it is in bad faith. ... We have limited staff capacity, and it can be exhausting to manually block and hide all replies, and we've noticed they often choose to start a wave of harassment on a weekend, which means a miserable weekend of reading the most horrific transphobic posts. It diverts resources away from actually carrying out our work, which is particularly frustrating during a pandemic where we're working on reduced hours.
The Glasgow Women’s Library has faced a similar fate after refusing to provide space for anti-trans campaign group “For Women Scotland” in February 2020. For Women Scotland have stoked and engaged in a range of bizarre conspiracy theories from claims in 2019 that a trans woman's ginger cat was an attempt at inciting sectarian violence to malicious and false allegations that a mainstream Scottish LGBT charity known for defending trans people's human rights was attempting to legalise paedophilia. Their exclusion from the Glasgow Women's Library was rapidly seized on by Stephen Daisley of the far-right sympathising magazine The Spectator as a purported proof that women’s libraries were no longer “safe for women”. In another incident in 2021, shortly following the Vagina Museum losing their tenancy, Glasgow Women’s Library were targeted for sharing a call to help find them a new space, being mobbed with negative replies.
In July 2020, it was the turn of the UK’s biggest cervical cancer charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, to face the monstering after they tweeted in response to the hashtag #OnlyFemalesGetCervicalCancer saying "At Jo's we want to ensure everyone with a cervix has access to the information and support they need to attend #CervicalScreening, regardless of their gender identity.” It is well established that trans men face difficulties accessing gynecological healthcare, and are actively deterred from it by attempts to aggressively misgender them as women—this was an exercise in humane responsible public health education and signalling that as a service while there was an ongoing trending hashtag hostile to inclusive healthcare for trans men, Jo’s Trust were committed to protecting their ability to access healthcare anyway. This immediately precipitated a pile on from online gender critical activists accusing the trust of “pandering to delusions”.
A couple of weeks later the enthusiasm then leaked over onto gynaecological charity The Eve Appeal, retaliating over them posting an Instagram message with a heart-felt account of a cervical cancer survivor talking about the trauma she underwent due to cancer and her astonishment that people were trying to fight over who “owns” cervical cancer. The backlash to this, including attempts to take screenshots of it out of context in order to smear the charity and the woman who wrote it, resulted in the charity being forced to delete the post, again with large numbers of Mumsnet users discussing and coordinating the hounding.
In December 2020, the first round Bell v Tavistock case ruling was released, bringing substantial alterations to the legal concept of “Gillick Competence”—a principle by which minors are assessed for legal competence to consent to healthcare despite their parents. The solicitor leading Bell’s case is known for a very long history of attacks on Gillick competence and abortion in general. The Abortion Rights Campaign, a national pro-choice campaigning body in the UK responded to this by writing a twitter thread about it as well as a Facebook post. This was quickly picked up on by Mumsnet with users describing them as "desperately trying to get more people on the side of sterilising children". ARC were eventually compelled to delete the Twitter thread, although it appears that Mumsnet users had not noticed the facebook post on the topic and therefore didn’t manage to hound them into removing that.
In February 2021, Brighton and Sussex University Hospital became the subject of a wide scale media outrage led by The Times publishing a story claiming that staff were being forced to replace the word “breastfeeding” with “chestfeeding”, “breast milk” with “human milk”, and other gender neutral phrasings, which was quickly afterwards followed by similarly inflammatory repetitions of the story in the Daily Mail, Metro and other newspapers with large readerships, and provoking outrage online in Gender Critical spaces like Mumsnet and on GC blogs. Sociologist and trans pregnancy researcher Ruth Pearce was quick to point out that the headline was very misleading, but it would take nearly a year (over which BSUH were targeted both in the press and on social media) before The Times eventually issued a minor correction to their headline, acknowledging that language referring to women and mothers and breastfeeding were not being banned, but instead guidance was being added to to include inclusive language for trans men who become pregnant.
In June 2021, the magazine “The Practising Midwife” published a video showcasing their cover art. One of the cover illustrations included a picture of a trans man who had given birth, and consequently was subjected to a large scale Gender Critical pile-on. TPM managed to keep the tweet up, and many of the accounts sending hostile replies have now been suspended for violation of Twitter’s terms of service.
In July 2021, the charity Birthrights who describe themselves as “dedicated to improving the experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights” was forced to turn off responses on all their social media platforms so as to halt a storm of abuse, including threats of violence.
Regretfully, we will be limiting (or switching off where possible) commenting on our social media accounts for the next few days due to the volume of abuse - including threats of violence - that our small team is having to field across all our communications platforms.— Birthrights (@birthrightsorg) July 13, 2021
This followed in the wake of a Sunday Times article by Milli Hill drawing the attention of online Gender Critical activists to the charity. As the charity explained in a public statement, they had been engaging in civil discussion with her about her objections to their use of trans-inclusive language for over six months and trying to find a way through their differences. However at some point, the Times (who had been running weekly stories casting the trans community and trans-inclusion in a negative light for years) chose to air Hill’s grievances precipitating a mass of social media intimidation targetting them.
In August 2021, the Fawcett Society were targeted. They didn’t say anything directly about trans inclusion in their tweets, but were known for their previous clear statements in favour of trans inclusion with Gender Critical Twitter describing them as being at fault for the decline in women’s rights. The Fawcett Society are a feminist campaigning group, and there is a characteristic streak of woman blaming in levelling this accusation at a women’s rights charity in the context of 10 years of austerity policies and at the time over a year worth of pandemic, both of which have had widely documented deeply harmful impacts on women.
In September 2021 Cardiff and Vale Health Board became the subject of a social media dogpile after responding to a bait tweet asking if they would be renaming their Children and Women Clinical Board to be inclusive of trans men. As it turned out they had already had plans to rename the service to Maternity, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which was tinder enough to incite over 200 quote tweets, and several hundred angry reply tweets.
In October 2021, long established Feminist media outlet The F Word was targetted for writing a piece on intersectionality—a branch of Black feminist legal theory who’s creators have made explicit statements upholding trans inclusion—and for responding civilly to a critical quote tweet by Gender Critical feminist Jane Clare Jones. Again, many of the original tweets lashing out at them have since resulted in suspensions and are no longer available, but Jane Clare Jones would later quote tweet them bragging "well this is going well isn’t it” as The F Word were inundated with well over 300 replies slating them as misogynists and accusing them of comparing black women to men (for having explained that trans women are women).
Girlguiding has been a persistent target of hatred and vitriol by the Gender Critical movement, originally starting with the expulsion of anti-trans Guide leader Helen Watts. The latest of these incidents involved over 1000 responses piling onto their Twitter following Gender Critical activists learning that a trans woman had been allowed to become a guide leader. This kicked off considerable backlash, supported by anti-trans website 4W, and many other Gender Critical media outlets, continuing into 2022 promoted by Gender Critical activist Caroline Farrow of Christian Far Right organisation CitizenGo.
In a repeat of the attacks on Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust and The Eve Appeal, cancer charity Macmillan Cancer Support were targeted after a Tweet seeking to reassure patients anxious about cervical screening came to the attention of Gender Critical Twitter, apparently incensed by Macmillan's reference to those in need of cervical screening as "people."
We know people can often feel anxious about smear tests. To help ease any worries, this #CervicalCancerPreventionWeek, we want to explain what to expect at a smear test appointment. 👇 pic.twitter.com/cGGm0KbX9a— Macmillan Cancer Support (@macmillancancer) January 18, 2022
This included an intervention once again by Baroness Nicholson. At time of writing the Tweet by Macmillan had recieved 796 replies and 261 quote Tweets, including conspiracy theories about Stonewall, personal insults about "stupidity" and threats to Macmillan's funding, with a number of replies specifically referencing Macmillan's "Coffee Morning" fundraisers and/or claiming to be previous donors/organisers who would not do so again.