A recent event held in New York City was surrounded by such precautions that one might have thought the featured speaker was a defector sentenced to death in absentia by a totalitarian regime.
The event’s registration page did not list an address; you had to register and be screened to receive it. The topic was feminism and transgender rights, and the title was “An Evening with Cancelled Women” — referring to the fact that the speakers had been deplatformed, ostracized, or otherwise "canceled” for their dissent from the party line.
The panel was originally supposed to take place at the New York Public Library — until it was canceled for unspecified reasons just as the booking fee was about to be paid. The “evening with cancelled women” got canceled. You can’t beat that for irony.
For critics of radical feminism such as myself, there are other ironies. The feminist dissenters on transgender issues tend to embrace a model of feminism that I consider reductive and polarizing. Most see modern Western culture as a brutal patriarchy in which all males are steeped in privilege and trained to dominance and aggression. But, unlike many mainstream progressives who take a similar view, they believe people born biologically male remain male regardless of gender identification or even body modification. Thus, transgender women are seen as male interlopers in female spaces.
Does this rhetoric sometimes turn hateful? Yes, just as more politically correct feminist rhetoric often turns hateful toward males in general. Yet the feminist dissenters are raising necessary questions about a number of issues: fairness in women’s sports, where transgender athletes are likely to have a strong advantage; male-bodied individuals in women’s prisons and shelters or in women’s and girls’ locker rooms; the pitfalls of gender transition for children, involving treatments whose long-term effects are unknown; and more generally, the idea that the terms “woman” and “man” do not refer to objective reality but to internal feeling.
My plans to attend the event at the new venue had to be, yes, canceled because of a mild case of the flu. But watching the livestream, I found myself nodding along to the remarks of Canadian feminist blogger Meghan Murphy, with whom I’ve clashed vehemently in the past on false accusations of rape. Last year, Murphy was banned from Twitter for using male pronouns to refer to a female-identified, male-bodied person credibly accused of predatory behavior toward minors online. Murphy has also been the target of aggressive deplatforming efforts by protesters whom she sarcastically described as “not at all authoritarian.”
Murphy, who was scathingly critical of the “new new left” but stressed that she is a leftist, told a cheering audience, “Many people do still believe that principles like free speech and democracy are important and do not wish to live in a country where they have to lie to accommodate a tiny minority.”
Co-panelist Libby Emmons, a Brooklyn-based writer and a Catholic feminist who writes for conservative publications like The Federalist, comes from a different perspective than some of her fellow speakers. Yet in an email after the event, Emmons told me that common cause is extremely important. “Progressive, centrist, and conservative women need to agree to disagree about everything else, because if the words women and female lose their meanings, nothing else matters,” wrote Emmons. “Once we lose the language, we lose women’s rights.”
As someone more interested in human rights regardless of gender, I probably still don’t fit in this coalition of feminist dissenters. But when it comes to free speech, I will staunchly defend their right to be heard.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.