UK: If feminist Linda Bellos is seen as a risk, progressive politics has lost its way

Claire Heuchan blogs about feminism, power, race, identity and sexual politics as Sister Outrider

Progressive politics has seriously lost its way. When feminists who have spent decades challenging sexism, racism, and homophobia are viewed as a risk to the wellbeing of students, something has gone very wrong indeed. Linda Bellos became the most recent feminist whose invitation to speak was withdrawn for raising questions about the direction in which modern-day gender politics is heading. Bellos, who is responsible for establishing Black History Month in Britain, was uninvited by the Beard Society, a “gender and feminist group” within Cambridge University.

During her address to Peterhouse College, Bellos told organisers she planned to publicly question “some of the trans politics … which seems to assert the power of those who were previously designated male to tell lesbians, and especially lesbian feminists, what to say and what to think”. In response, a representative of the Beard Society responded: “I’m sorry but we’ve decided not to host you. I too believe in freedom of expression, however Peterhouse is as much a home as it is a college. The welfare of our students in this instance has to come first.”

Regardless of your views on gender, Bellos speaking at Cambridge University in no way compromises the welfare of its students. It is ludicrous to claim that someone who has committed her adult life to liberation politics is a risk to the wellbeing of those who listen to her perspective – and deeply insulting. Black, female, Jewish and lesbian feminist, Bellos is not exactly a preacher of hate.

In recent years, gender has become an increasingly explosive subject. If anything, it was brave of Bellos to propose to address this schism between queer and feminist principles when so many seasoned activists shy away from the issue. And there is an issue: that women can’t even question queer gender politics without being viewed as suspect highlights an underlying problem with the ideology behind them. 

The tension between radical feminists and queer activists stems from two contradictory ways of defining gender. Queer politics positions gender as an innately held identity. The radical feminist understanding is that gender exists as a political system, not an identity. Recognising gender as innately held, a factor that should be enshrined as a protected characteristic, totally contradicts radical feminist principles. The politics of gender is deeply personal, but that isn’t a reason to shy away from exploring it – quite the opposite.

Like Bellos, I am a radical feminist. There are women within the movement who have seriously overstepped the mark by directing cruelty towards trans people, which I condemn without hesitation. But, like every other radical feminist I know, I want trans people to live lives that are free from abuse, discrimination, and persecution. Irrespective of the difference in how we conceptualise gender, radical feminists want all trans people to be safe from male violence. Read more via the Guardian