The Sex/Gender Conflict Is Not Brexit
And superficial comparisons to it gloss over significant divisions.
Recently, UnHerd published a piece by Mary Harrington comparing women’s campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen with Nigel Farage. This is a seductive analogy, with many superficial similarities - for starters they are both larger than life, divisive and with a brand based on “telling it like it is”. Likewise, the Brexit issue was extraordinarily divisive, causing deep rifts in friendships and families in a way that invites obvious comparisons to the even more polarising gender debate. Even making the comparison between Keen and Farage is likely to divide readers.
In the article’s framing, Keen is just the more pugilistic face of an arms-length joint campaign, energising and leading the necessary “shock troops” reaching out to those who she appeals to and leaving other, more “respectable” groups such as SexMatters or Fair Play For Women to speak to those milquetoast liberals more amenable to blander turns of phrase. However, in an effort to make the comparison, several key differences between our current moment and the Brexit campaign are ignored.
I have been thinking recently about the differences between the two situations, and I believe understanding these wider differences is far more important and relevant than the superficial comparison between Keen and Farage. Most importantly, I would say:
The protection of sex-based rights is nothing like Brexit
The opposition is nothing like Remain
The campaigning divide is nothing like Vote Leave/Grassroots Out
The cost of failure is nothing like status quo
Protection of sex-based rights vs Brexit
The UnHerd article focuses on the campaigning during the Brexit referendum itself, which was a single vote on a single day where a simple majority would give victory to one side or the other. All nuance in the debate was collapsed by that overly simplistic in/out decision, all detail left up to the victors to make sense of in the aftermath.
But there is no “is sex real, material, binary and immutable” referendum. There is only the long, slow, uphill battle to simultaneously win over public opinion and institutions.
The current situation bears less resemblance to the Brexit referendum itself than it does UKIP’s multi-decade political project to secure a referendum in the first place - a project which at its peak netted over five million votes but elected no MPs. The referendum was not achieved by straightforward popular opinion, but by pressure from within the governing parties. It took years for UKIP to build enough momentum to threaten to split the Conservative vote, and at the same time provide populist ammo to the euroskeptic tendency that was already a powerful faction within the parliamentary Conservative party. As a campaign, it always had an appeal based mostly on social conservatism, and that UKIP ended up being a threat to Labour too was in no small part because of New Labour’s distaste for its own socially conservative voters.
The challenge in the sex/gender battle is orders of magnitude more complicated and vaster in scope. This goes beyond applying political pressure to the Conservative party and into trying to unpick legislative and institutional capture the world over. The challenge faced by sex realists is no less than undoing top-down institutional groupthink that transcends party lines and crosses international borders.
As such, it is a mistake to believe the key to success lies in the tactics employed during the Brexit referendum itself, which were geared towards winning a short-term majority of public opinion by any means necessary. Such moves are not going to have exactly the same impact now.
The task isn’t simply to outnumber the opposition by any means necessary on one specific day - it is going to have to change minds. And it is going to have to do that over an undefined timescale, without any media coverage rules or election spending limits to fall back on.
Remainers vs Trans Rights Activists
It is fair to say that before the referendum very few people were what anyone would call enthusiastically pro-Remain. A predominant view among Remainers was that Brexit was an act of self-harm that would lead to political ructions, our diminishment on the world stage, and socioeconomic decline. From that perspective, voting to Remain was much more about opposing Brexit.
Those who had a profoundly European outlook - who sought ever closer ties between our nation and the EU - were a rare breed indeed and, frankly, looked upon with the sort of baffled suspicion that the British tend to reserve for wild-eyed zealotry. Remain was a resigned acceptance of a banal, remote and bureaucratic project, a least-worst option for the future. Boring, pinstriped continuity vs ill-informed reactionary isolationism. What created the most energy seemed to be standing up to what was perceived as racism or lies from the Brexit campaign, but even that was more a reaction against Brexiters as opposed to for Remain.
By contrast there is hugely motivated support for gender identitarianism, from grassroots activists to huge corporate funding to publishing to popular media to heads of public institutions. Some people are going along with it out of fear, sure, but some are absolutely true believers, with all the passion of the most ardent Brexiter. They are defending trans kids. They are protecting vulnerable transwomen. They are holding the line against the forces of the reactionary right who want to bring about a new Section 28, and sobbing on TikTok when transwomen aren’t allowed to play women’s sport and on and on. They will hound you out of a job and get you kicked out of your union or your political party or get your online event or your kickstarter or your discord shut down. They have their own flags that proudly adorn the streets, and better and more widely accepted thought-terminating slogans that politicians of all stripes will unquestioningly repeat (Trans Women Are Women, Trans Rights Are Human Rights etc).
Rather than an energetic, plain-talking, rub-people-up-the-wrong-way-but-you’d-have-a-pint-with-him-anyway campaign vs a dismal and sclerotic one, the opposition here is well-organised, well-financed, and utterly convinced of its moral righteousness - and it is not defending the status quo, but on a crusade for ever more change.
And they have one, incredibly persuasive and polarising argument: that the only way you could possibly oppose kindness and inclusion and progress is to be motivated by hate and bigotry. It is the sort of argument that stops you even getting in the door with the people whose minds you need to change. The sort of argument that makes people you’re trying to persuade shut down completely the moment you start talking around the subject. Countering that is far harder than anything the Brexit campaign had to achieve.
Vote Leave vs Grassroots Out
Vote Leave and Grassroots Out represented different political campaigning groups trying to achieve the same short-term goal at any cost: get more than 50% in a referendum, on one single day. To that end, they were both entirely geared to winning public opinion, saying different things to different demographics, using different language and arguments where those would have the greatest impact, all in pursuit of exactly the same aim.
The distinction between this and a comparison to orgs like Sex Matters, LGB Alliance, Fair Play For Women, Women’s Place, MurrayBlackburnMackenzie, ForWomenScotland, Lesbian Labour, Keep Prisons Single Sex, Standing For Women and on and on is not just in tone, but in target and aim. While some are focused on engaging public opinion as a means of forcing political action, others are aimed at direct persuasion of policymakers and institutions. Harrington states that these groups which cleave to a more civil style of discourse orient themselves “less toward public awareness than regulatory and policy shifts” - but that is not the Vote Leave/Grassroots Out model, both of whom were aimed squarely at the public. At this point the central analogy of the piece pretty much falls apart because building popular support by any means necessary is a very different objective to actively persuading key stakeholders to change their minds.
Additionally, these groups do not all have a straightforwardly shared and singular goal, despite some broad agreement on the material existence and political importance of two immutable sexes in humans. Some want the Gender Recognition Act repealed, others want to reform the Equality Act, and there are different views and opinions of nonconformity, of body modification, of capitalism, of exploitation, of what the wider political objectives should be. Some target the public, either directly or via mass media, others are geared to political and institutional influence, or providing resources and reports and toolkits. Some focus on women, others on sexual orientation. Some are rigidly non-partisan, others clearly left- or right-wing. Some want to persuade an inevitable Labour administration to change course, others see Labour as a lost cause and want to keep them out of government.
By comparison, while it is true that there were very different understandings of what Brexit was trying to achieve in the first place and where we should go next among the voters, the sloganeering and short-term objective of Brexit successfully obscured all of that during the key period of the referendum itself. From the Lexiters who felt that the EU was a neoliberal project standing in the way of a socialist utopia, to the autarchists who felt our interdependence with the EU demonstrated our inability to stand on our own two feet as a nation. In between, a range of perspectives such as reservations about uncontrolled immigration, or the possibility of joining the Euro down the line, or losing our veto, or just wanting to bloody the nose of “the establishment”, and with all of these came conflicting visions of where we go next after the referendum.
It was possible to ignore most disagreements and contradictions simply because the referendum provided a singular focal point with one shared aim that was not sufficiently undermined by competing approaches. So, for example, when Farage put out the infamous “Breaking Point” poster, any disquiet other factions might have with the tactic simply didn’t matter, because there was no longer-term, unified aim beyond winning the referendum.
That a queue of Croatian refugees could be portrayed as a threatening flood of immigrants surely worked to encourage some people to vote for Brexit. It is highly unlikely that it caused anyone who had been convinced to vote for Brexit by more reasonable and moderate language to change their mind. Given the nature of the referendum and the time available, there was no serious downside to allowing a more divisive approach to engage some sections of the electorate. However brazenly “off-message” Farage was, he was unlikely to alienate Brexit voters sufficiently to cause them to vote Remain.
The same cannot be said of the sex/gender debate. There is a complex relationship between public opinion and institutional pressure, and it is not straightforwardly a numbers game.
For example, a recent success was in convincing World Athletics to comprehensively back female-only sport. This was not something achieved by public opinion - this was the result of years of making detailed arguments, fighting just to get in the room with the decision makers, building an evidence base nobody ever thought would be needed because the difference between men and women is so blindingly obvious.
On top of that it was also the result of female athletes speaking out in defence of their sport, something that had been hindered by a culture of fear and silencing and cancellation directed at anyone who dared express the perfectly reasonable opinion that men have a physical advantage in sport.
In order to counteract that silencing, there needed to be enough shift in public opinion to make it safe for others to speak up. The Forstater ruling, making sure people in the UK knew you couldn’t lose your job just for this. Enough visibility of the people who were being cancelled that anyone unengaged would be baffled as to why their views were being demonised. Enough coverage in the press of the sheer injustice being meted out against women who did nothing other than say that sex is binary, immutable and politically important. Enough to see the injustice at play, that unhinged, vicious bullies were attacking women for incredibly reasonable opinions shared by the vast majority of the world.
As I said already, the single most effective argument that gender identitarians have employed is that anyone who disagrees is a hateful bigot. Overcoming that has required instilling confidence in people that the smears and lies were not true, that this was not a movement motivated by fear and hatred and disgust, in order to feel safe to speak out. But if the dominant popular message does become perceived as one of fear and hatred and disgust, then all of this fragile progress can easily be undone as those in positions of power and influence become swept up with moral fervour to stand against a perceived rising tide of hate.
So unlike Vote Leave/Grassroots Out, the differences are not mere tonal differences that can be overlooked in service of short-term shared purpose. It isn’t just a nod and a wink, arms-length, separate-but-not-really type of campaign. Coming at the sex/gender issue in particular ways does actually have far greater scope to be counterproductive, depending on your perspective and aims. It might not simply activate specific demographics at no cost, when it can actively disengage others, sometimes irreparably. And given that there is no one single issue, but in fact a multitude of political concerns at play with no fixed end date, it can give politicians opportunities to make superficial but popular concessions and claim to be the “reasonable centre”, however cynical and false that is.
An added complexity is the fact that after years of being told to stop voicing their concerns and “be kind”, many have no patience left for moderating language. Unsurprisingly, people motivated in no small part by a rejection of politically-coerced speech don’t respond well when anyone suggests toning it down a bit. And it is hard to argue with that, because it turns out that - after years of trying - there is precisely no way of framing criticism of gender identitarian demands that won’t get you attacked from some direction. There is no special, magical form of words that will finally allow the ideologically captured institutions to hear you. Nor does it seem that is any event so grotesque, so blatantly unjust, that policymakers will realise the error of their ways and reverse course, or that will wake up the public en masse and produce an outcry that undoes the last few years of political insanity.
As Helen Saxby put it exactly three years ago: how nice do women have to be? Some people are understandably sick of trying, and will now just say what they think. It is pretty well impossible to maintain any sort of message discipline across all these loosly-affiliated, broadly sympathetic yet sometimes opposing groups.
The problem this has created is that there are now increasing divisions within what was seemingly a united front, based in no small part on how much different groups need to care about optics in order to progress radically different aims. If you’re trying to persuade what passes for the institutional left, optics are crucial. By contrast, if you’re trying to bypass or tear down the institutional left, optics are pandering. What the Brexit comparison obfuscates is that these aren’t just different ways of expressing the same aim, targeting different demographics in parallel with no significant downside, like Vote Leave/Grassroots Out. These are fundamentally opposing strategies, and they cannot straightforwardly coexist within the same movement.
As the original article would have it, real differences in politics and attempts to maintain clean hands are merely “a futile exercise in self-muzzling”. In that light, comparing these messy and painful divisions to the different campaigning strategies employed during Brexit is a superficial dismissal that these quite fundamental differences are a trifling matter, and that the campaigns are really “complementary”. Given the lack of a well-defined, clearly shared, short-term aim I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and the dividing lines are only going to get starker over time.
The Cost of Failure
If Farage et al had failed to get Brexit over the line, what then? Well, the status quo in all likelihood. Cameron gracelessly handing over power to a gleeful Boris Johnson. A snap general election to capitalise on Labour’s weakness and secure more seats for a Tory party united now that the Europe issue had been put to bed. Labour quietly ousting Corbyn in the aftermath of a big election loss and installing Starmer by 2017. Several years of a government not paralysed by trying to implement “the will of the people”.
But ultimately, we would have remained in the EU. Little would have changed on that front. We might have implemented the rules limiting free movement that were always open to us. We certainly wouldn’t have joined the Euro, or signed up to an EU army or joined Schengen.
When it comes to sex & gender, tireless and awe-inspiring campaigners have been battling just to hold on by their fingernails to a status quo that was being privately dismantled piece by piece over a decade ago. This has been slow, painful, and methodical work that’s been successful in the UK to a degree that nowhere else in the world has seen. Right now, there is a push for self-id of sex across multiple countries, of criminalising anything but rote-affirmation of gender identities, and the momentum is global. Scotland have already passed their Gender Recognition Reform Bill and the only thing stopping it from becoming law is a challenge from Westminster. Wales look determined to press ahead. The only thing preventing this from already being law and becoming harmonised across the whole of the UK is the political will (or lack thereof) of the governing party. Yet the Tories would certainly capitulate given a change of leader to someone like Penny Mordaunt, and Theresa May is on record saying the Scottish GRRB should not have been blocked. Caroline Noakes and William Hague both glibly and patronisingly support men joining the Women’s Institute. Meanwhile, Labour are still trying to eat their cake and have it, promising to preserve single-sex exceptions and also “modernise” the GRA. Is that self-id? Who knows. Sure, the Communist Party are offering a clear and well-argued opposition, rooted in materialist ideology, but the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP - even as they implode - are all still completely in favour. So is the Council of Europe. So is the UN.
Failure does not mean the status quo.
It means losing. Badly.
It means the utter destruction of rights and protections and data and services for women, and the continued absolutely bizarre metaphysically-justified medicalisation of children.
It means the erasure of the concept of same-sex orientation in law, and the outlawing of single-sex lesbian and gay organisations or events.
Losing is existential, and yet these various campaign groups aren’t even agreed what winning looks like beyond “not losing”.
In summary, I find the comparison to the Brexit campaign unconvincing, and given the stakes I think it is important to understand the very different situation we are all in, and make every effort not to fall into the comforting trap of thinking Brexit offers a useful template for how to approach the sex/gender debate.