Elaine Graham-Leigh argues that a controversial new film about gender identity should be engaged with, not banned – and that it has some important things to say

The film Adult Human Female, directed by Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne, has caused a furore. The venue for a showing in Nottingham was pressured into pulling out at the last moment. At the University of Edinburgh, when a showing was organised by Academics for Academic Freedom, the UCU branch put out a statement that the university should ban it on the grounds of a 2019 UCU motion stipulating that nothing with content that was ‘transphobic, biphobic, homophobic or otherwise detrimental to the safety and wellbeing of LGBT+ staff’ should be allowed on campus.

The university did not heed the call and stop the showing, but students took matters into their own hands and managed to prevent it from going ahead. As one of the student organisers tweeted, ‘a screening of a transphobic film was to be held at Edinburgh Uni, we decided that wasn’t happening. You don’t get to spread hatred and expect to be unchallenged.’

It is remarkable on actually watching the film how little there is here to deserve anything like this response. Through a series of interviews, the film recounts the impact of gender self-ID on single-sex spaces for women, ranging from prisons to healthcare to sport to lesbian dating sites. Toilets do get a mention (I was recently told by a Stonewall speaker than all gender-critical feminists are obsessed with toilets). Lucy Masoud, however, in describing the fight in the fire service for women’s changing rooms, and how the bullying of women included firemen deliberately peeing all over the women’s toilets, makes a strong case for why women may reasonably feel that these remain necessary. Some of the interviewees are more measured than others and the film can be heavy handed at times (the graphic of advancing paramilitary police to illustrate Norway’s gender-ideology laws was particularly unsubtle, for example), but hatred from interviewees towards trans people is hard to find.

The response to the film is of course all of a piece with how the debate over gender-identity ideology is conducted. The film documents this, with many examples of violent threats directed against gender-critical women online, and real-world protests with banners calling among other things for trans women to be armed. The footage here of two masked men, shouting abuse at women while police struggle to hold them back, was disturbing and was hardly a one-off.


Just as troubling are the many examples of women who have spoken up about this losing their jobs and facing ostracism because of it. Shereen Benjamin, an academic at Edinburgh, tells how those colleagues who are still speaking to her will say that they will meet her off campus, but that they can’t risk being seen with her in public. Lucy Masoud recounts how she was targeted by Stonewall after she appeared on Radio 4, with Stonewall staff demanding a meeting with her then employer, the London Fire Brigade, to have her ‘dealt with’ and referring to her in internal emails as a hate preacher. Joan Smith lost her position as independent chair of the Mayor of London’s violence against women and girls board for raising the concerns of organisations combatting this violence about the loss of single-sex spaces.

As Jane Clare Jones says in the film, women arguing against gender-identity ideology often get told that they’re exaggerating, that no one is arguing, for example, that there is no material reality of biological sex. Even saying that there is this denial is itself often presented as transphobic, as if they are taking the arguments of trans activists to absurd lengths to hold them up to ridicule. The film itself contains clear evidence against this accusation, such as for example Jo Phoenix’s experience of being denounced in an open letter by 360 of her colleagues at The Open University for setting up an academic network to look at how, where and why biological sex matters. There is also the response to the film itself.

The Edinburgh staff-student solidarity network’s statement on the attempted film showing accused the film of espousing intolerant views, evidenced by the fact that ‘they repeatedly deny the wealth of scholarship and everyday perspectives of those of us who do not believe that sex must be a coherent, natural category that tells us how people should live their lives.’ The salience of the debate on the nature and existence of biological sex was also made clear by Sarah Liu, UCU branch chair and lecturer in political science at Edinburgh, who tweeted in response to the film that biology is a social construct and that ‘we see sexism, racism, ableism in biology textbooks, which means that nothing is truly biological/fixed, especially when some species’ sexes can change.’

Sex and gender

No one in the film argued that someone’s biological sex should determine how they should behave – quite the opposite. There is a clear separation made between the objective reality of sex and the social construction of gender, here defined as the social ideas about how men and women should behave and illustrated by a man watching sport while a woman hoovers around him. That objective reality of sex though is asserted without apology or caveat. Humanity is a sexually dimorphic species and, the complexities and existence of various instances of abnormal development notwithstanding, there are only two sexes. Individuals in some species can indeed change their sex, but humans are not among them. Biological sex exists and sex is not a spectrum.

That this assertion is ‘spreading hate,’ as the students put it, encapsulates the strangeness of the position in which we find ourselves. Women are being abused, threatened, prevented from meeting, called Nazis, Holocaust deniers and supporters of genocide for repeating what until very recently was simply basic, material fact. It remains basic, material fact.

The position of those supporting gender-identity is that there can be no debate about any of this. Questioning any part of the ideology is so harmful to trans people that it is itself bigotry. Anyone who insists on doing that debating is therefore deliberately harming trans people and can be prevented from speaking on the grounds that there should no platform for fascists. This equates gender-critical feminists with fascists, a position that is simply untenable. There are many different analyses of women’s oppression, as there are of LGBT oppression. A number of the women interviewed in the film come from what I would call a radical feminist perspective, with which I have a number of profound disagreements. That is, however, a difference of analysis, and should be treated as such. None of these differences of approach should be cause for no platforming. Indeed, the notion that one oppressed group thinks it is justified in trying to silence another oppressed group tells us that there is a real problem with the ‘no debate’ argument.  The threats and hyperbole documented by the film and then in turn levelled at the film cannot be an acceptable way for the movement to conduct itself, even on an issue – particularly on an issue – which has become personal for many people.

No platform for fascists is a specific tactic which is useful and appropriate against far-right speakers and organisations who are trying to make their arguments respectable by being included on the platform. In the same way, we attempt to stop fascists marching because their marches are deliberately designed to intimidate the communities they are marching through. No platform is not a tactic we should use simply to express our moral disdain for people with whose views we disagree. Standing against women trying to have a film showing is no way to have a political argument.

Organisations of the left which have colluded with this should be very clear about the damage that they are doing. They may wish to consider whether an atmosphere of frenzied denunciation has ever been beneficial for working people, or indeed protected anyone against oppression. Everyone else could do worse than watch the film.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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