Quite a lot of you have probably seen the video of the event I wrote about as forthcoming last week, at the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) with Peter Tatchell and Freda Wallace.
It was even more of a mess than I predicted in the previous issue (paywall). But overall I feel that I acquitted myself reasonably creditably, and the event certainly gave Tatchell and Wallace ample rope with which to hang themselves.
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It was a really busy week, the busiest I’ve had in ages, and that’s saying something. Two days later I was at the LGB Alliance conference, and then at the Battle of Ideas all weekend. I wasn’t speaking at LGBA, just helping to staff the Sex Matters stand. I spoke twice at Battle of Ideas, once in a planned session, on the merits and otherwise of dissent, and once as a stand-in for journalist Alison Pearson, who had to cancel, on a panel about the relationship between parents and schools.
The LGBA conference felt like a coming of age for the organisation. It was the third at the QEII venue, and the programme was really strong. There was a self-confidence about it, perhaps because of the failure of the legal action taken by Mermaids and the Good Law Project to try to overturn the Charity Commission’s decision to grant LGBA charitable status. And it was the first LGBA conference with almost no protestors. Last year’s was large and threatening: when Maya Forstater and I left to go sit in a pub to kill time before an evening engagement, a breakaway group followed us and barricaded the pub. We had to call the police and get an escort to leave.
There were lots more young people at LGBA this year, and lots more from abroad. I met young lesbians and gay men from Ireland, Sweden, Hungary and America – and no doubt other countries I’m now forgetting. I’m not really a badge person, but I wore my “I love my gay son” badge, which normally lives on my Sex Matters bag and which was given to me last year by an American who came over especially for the LGBA conference. His voice broke as he told me his own mother wore it when she went on marches with him in the 2000s.
Battle of Ideas was also really enjoyable. For the panel on dissent, I took as my theme “dissent within dissent” – that is, disagreeing within a group that is overall working together; I’ll write more about this in a future issue. I’d highly recommend getting involved in future conferences to any sixth-formers – they go free – and to young people willing to act as volunteers. I always think they get the most out of it: it’s too easy for attendees at conferences to sit on their phones and half-listen (at least I find it so), whereas the volunteers are on their feet wrangling the roving mics, and really seem to pay attention.
Nearly everyone I spoke to at LGBA and Battle of Ideas mentioned the IEA event. The overall verdict was that it was a great success for “Operation Let Them Speak” – the semi-jokey label that has emerged for forcing the “No Debate” crowd to defend their ideas in public.
Wallace was dressed in ripped fishnets and a very short skirt; the view from the audience was off-putting. He was already pretty drunk before the event started and kept drinking right through it – to the point that Tatchell tried to stop him from drinking any more. He held forth on the joys of fucking men with his “female penis” at fetish clubs, said that it’s up to the women he sleeps with whether they define themselves as lesbians and repeatedly said I, and everyone at Sex Matters, were misogynists and anti-feminists whose goals were to harm trans people, women and children.
Tatchell, for his part, was cartoonishly sexist. He insisted that everyone has a gender identity, even if they don’t think they do, and that he could tell everyone’s gender identity by the way they dressed. He gave his nonsense spiel about how “more than 20 studies” have shown that trans people have “brain structures” more like the sex they identify as – I’ve heard him do this before, and set him right then too, but he keeps doing it. (That was the point at which I gave in and asked the moderator to pour me a glass of red – honestly, it’s depressing to have to waste time with such pathetic opponents.)
I suppose it’s inevitable that I’m now experiencing severe esprit d’escalier. When I made my opening remarks I failed to mention Wallace’s campaign of harassment against Henrietta Freeman, which I really regret – all I can say is that it’s hard remembering what to say live, especially when the people you’re up against are, let’s say, prone to talking nonsense.
I wish I’d asked Tatchell directly if he really thought Wallace was performing “woman gender”, because to me it looked like a man with an exhibitionist fetish performing a power play, coming very close to indecent exposure. I wish I’d said to Tatchell: do you not understand that some men are nasty fetishists who get off on violating women’s boundaries, and that according to you we should be delighted to welcome them into women’s spaces? And do you understand that we can’t keep sleazeball men out of our spaces unless we can keep all men out? Please Peter, you need to understand: this is men’s rubbish, you take it back, stop dumping it on women. Sort it out among yourselves.
I wish I’d insisted that the moderator find a shawl or blanket for Wallace to cover himself up for the sake of the audience, who surely hadn’t signed up for such an unappealing eyeful. That was perhaps the moderator’s job, rather than mine. But I don’t think it’s unusual to be so gobsmacked by boundary violations that you miss the moment to intervene. The few times that as a child I got groped by men on public transport, and the once as a teenager when I witnessed a man across from me feeling up a little girl by sliding his hand under his raincoat and then under her skirt, I’m very sorry to say I did nothing. Now I’d intervene, of course – but these men tend not to do these things in front of middle-aged women, who have enough life experience to act rather than be paralysed.
So maybe it should have been me that stepped up here: I came into the event understanding just how nasty Wallace is better than the IEA folks did. Oh well. I hope that Wallace’s behaviour means that he never gets invited to anything serious ever again – surely nobody who does their due diligence would even vaguely consider it? But if I ever end up speaking at an event with a man like Wallace, or an enabler like Tatchell, I’ll be more ready for it.
Wallace announced the following day that he is no longer working for the NHS, which is brilliant news. Less pleasingly, he says he’ll be spending more time in London, pursuing a media and artistic career. Apparently, he thinks the IEA event went really well for him, and I fell into his trap.
I don’t intend to waste any more time after this week trying to understand such a strange and nasty man’s thought processes – or feeding a narcissist’s desire for attention, whether positive or negative. But having been forced to cross paths with him, I am (briefly) intrigued. Perhaps Wallace hasn’t actually watched the video sober, and is remembering himself as having performed much better than he actually did? Or maybe he just likes chaos, or thinks “libertarianism” means “doing whatever I want”? He said a few times during the event that he was the only libertarian there. Actually, maybe he thinks “libertarian” means the same as “libertine”...
Enough. Bigger news for me last week, which I couldn’t share in the previous issue because it was embargoed, was that I was shortlisted for the John Maddox prize for courageously advancing public discourse with sound science and advancing public discussion around difficult topics despite challenges or hostility. (I also knew that I hadn’t won, but the competition was stiff and getting onto a shortlist of six was amazing.)
On the Tuesday evening – at the same time as the prize was being announced – the Times (of London) commissioned me to write a 2,500-word essay for the Saturday edition on the prize: the threats to science posed by cancel culture; the winners and what their experiences reveal; and my own experience of being silenced. Well, time was tight – I was already booked up all day Wednesday, including the evening (at the IEA), and I had to file by 9am Friday. But I’m really happy with how the piece turned out. Here’s a share link, which will expire soon, and the perma-link, which is behind a paywall.) So although I’m knackered, it was overall a successful week.
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