By David Warden and Dr Anthony Lewis
In this article, David and Anthony review what led up to the incident in Auckland, New Zealand, when a British women's rights campaigner feared for her life. Are her views hateful? Should we prevent her from exercising freedom of speech?
David and Anthony are both members of the LGBT community and they support trans rights and women's rights. David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists and Anthony is Chairman of Windsor Humanists and the South Central England Humanists Network, a section of Humanists UK. They are writing here in a personal capacity and not intending to represent anyone else's view on this hot topic.
Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as 'Posie Parker' (a play on 'Nosey Parker'), is a British women's rights campaigner or anti-trans campaigner, depending on how you wish to categorise her. She has been banned from a number of online platforms such as Twitter and, partly in response to this, she organises 'Let Women Speak' events. These started in Hyde Park Corner, a traditional open-air free speech area in London, and she has now taken her 'Let Women Speak' events to the US, Australia, and New Zealand.
In Melbourne, Australia, on 18th March 2023, a relatively small group of neo-Nazis (about 30) turned up at her event (out of about 1,000 attendees, of whom about one-third were there in support of Keen, and about two-thirds opposed). This was widely publicised in the media and had the, presumably intended, effect of associating her with neo-Nazis. Following the event, Keen said, 'They're absolutely not associated with me whatsoever. I absolutely abhor anything to do with Nazis.'
Following the Melbourne event, Humanists New Zealand wrote to Michael Wood, the Minister of Immigration, as follows:
Tēnā koe [‘Greetings’] Minister Wood,
I am writing on behalf of New Zealand Humanists to express concern about news that British anti-trans campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, will be coming to New Zealand. We ask that you consider denying any visa application or revocation of any previously granted visa to Keen-Minshull and anyone associated with organising the Let Women Speak event.
We believe that Keen-Minshull poses significant risk and threat to public order and the public interest.
Yesterday at a ‘Let Women Speak’ event in Melbourne that was organised by Posie Parker, far-right neo-nazis from the National Socialist Movement, attended in support of her hateful message and made Nazi salutes in front of the Victorian Parliament building. I provide below links to news coverage and attach a number of photos from the rally.
Humanists New Zealand has long supported LGBTQI+ rights in New Zealand. We’ve campaigned for equal rights, marriage reform, and the pardoning of those convicted for homosexual acts. We believe that New Zealand sends a clear signal of our commitment to human rights, and gender equality.
We are gravely concerned about the rise of far-right extremism being promoted through anti-trans rhetoric.
Ngā mihi [‘Many thanks’ or ‘Best wishes’]
Links to reports associating Keen with neo-Nazis were appended to the letter, including reports in Pink News and the Guardian. Her permission to enter New Zealand was placed under review by the immigration authority. In response, deputy leader of the centre-right National Party Nicola Willis argued that Keen should be allowed into the country on the grounds of free speech, whereas the Green Party's immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March opposed Keen's entry, saying that her presence would endanger the rainbow and Muslim communities. The immigration authority decided to allow her to enter New Zealand. On 23rd March, a coalition of rainbow support groups filed for a judicial review of this decision. The following day, the High Court at Wellington ruled that the decision was lawful. Before Keen held events in New Zealand, Immigration Minister Michael Wood described her views as 'inflammatory, vile and incorrect.'
On 25th March, Keen's event in Auckland was attended by thousands of noisy counter-protesters. Tomato soup was thrown over her head at the start, and she had to be escorted from the stage by security guards and then by police as she struggled to reach a vehicle to take her away from the event. She said in a subsequent interview on the Brendan O'Neill show (link below) that she had feared for her life. She believes that if she had fallen over she would have been crushed or kicked to death.
What are Keen's actual views and aims?
In an interview last year with Triggernometry hosts Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin (link below), Keen declared that her aim is the repeal of the UK's Gender Recognition Act 2004 which allows for trans-identifying people to legally change their gender and their recorded sex at birth, and to use facilities appropriate to their identified gender. She does not accept the word 'transwomen', insisting that transwomen are men and that most of them are 'autogynephiles' (defined as men who are sexually aroused by dressing as women). She does not accept the validity of the term 'non-binary'. She wants women-only spaces to be for women only, defined as 'adult human females', and for women to be referred to as women, not, for example, as 'people who menstruate'. She is, however, supportive of 'third spaces' for trans-identifying people. She shared an incident where she froze upon hearing a man's voice in the toilet facility she was using. She also believes that transwomen in women's prisons are a danger to women. Furthermore, she advocates for a ban on transgender medical and surgical procedures for children, which she describes in graphic terms as 'slicing their breasts off'. She suggests that any adult considering such procedures should undergo a three-year period of intensive counselling therapy.
Are New Zealand Humanists right to call these views 'hateful' and for wanting to have Keen banned from entry to New Zealand? It's possible to disagree with her views, of course. We are broadly supportive of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 although we do not agree with changing the sex recorded on a person's birth certificate. It is not sex which is being changed - at least not at a fundamental biological level. It is gender identity and expression which is being changed, although we can understand why, for practical reasons, a trans person might want all of their documents to record the gender/sex they identify as. This, of course, highlights one of the difficulties of this debate - the great difficulty we have with disambiguating the concepts of sex and gender. They are interlinked. John Coss, one of our writers, has helpfully provided a link to an article on 'critical realism' which addresses this difficulty. See links below.
We are also supportive of transwomen using women's facilities, but we think this should be conditional. For example, it makes no sense to us to say that a transwoman whose body has been feminised by hormone treatment and surgery should not be able to use a woman's toilet. A transwoman like trans activist Katy Montgomerie is obviously a woman in terms of her appearance and social presentation. On the other hand, it also makes no sense to us to say that a man who identifies as a woman, but who has not undergone any feminising procedures and perhaps does not even intend to, should be permitted to use women's facilities. While it may seem that applying common sense is all that is needed to make this conditionality work in practice, some challenges may arise. For example, some transwomen may find it difficult to conceal their masculine frame and facial features, even after undergoing several procedures.
Keen's views do not seem to be entirely consistent. On the one hand, she does not accept the term 'transwomen' but on the other, she accepts that some people do have a condition referred to as gender dysphoria and that they should have access to counselling therapy before undergoing any transgender procedures. She also accepts that there could be third spaces for trans people. A fair interpretation of her views, therefore, is that she does recognise the existence of trans people.
Keen's views are uncompromising in defence of sex-segregated spaces based on biological sex, not gender identity. She does not think that men should be permitted entry to women's spaces, however much they may have been modified by medical and surgical procedures. As far as she is concerned, they are still fundamentally men. Physiologically, this is actually undeniable. And some transwomen, like the writer Debbie Hayton, do not deny that they are physiologically male.
Keen has taken to open-air events because of the multiple bans she has experienced in the online world. She wants to give women the opportunity to speak freely about these issues and how they are impacted by trans-affirming policies. Many women, she claims, cannot speak freely at work or even at home about their concerns.
As already noted, the centre-right National Party's deputy leader Nicola Willis argued that Keen should be allowed into New Zealand on free speech grounds. We agree with this, and we are pleased that the High Court in Wellington permitted her entry. But she was not actually able to speak because of the mob which descended on her event in Auckland.
Humanism and free speech
Humanists are in a difficult bind. On the one hand, we want to support progressive policies which enable people to be themselves and live their lives in congruence with who or what they believe themselves to be. But unfortunately, trans rights have crashed into women's rights. We believe it's possible to find a reasonable middle way through all this but, regrettably, the debate has become polarised and even 'weaponised'. We need less shouting and more listening.
We believe, on free speech grounds, that New Zealand Humanists were wrong in trying to prevent Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull from entering New Zealand and we think they were unjustified in claiming, on the basis of unbalanced media reports, that 'far- right extremism [is] being promoted through anti-trans rhetoric.' Furthermore, their claim that 'Keen-Minshull poses significant risk and threat to public order and the public interest' seems misplaced. It was the mob which attended her event that threatened public order.
We must let women speak. If we disagree with what they have to say we can say so, and we can engage in democratic debate to advocate for changes in the law, or to maintain existing laws. We should deplore mobs that try to shut down free speech, we should reject the unsavoury groups who might show up to cause trouble, and we should be critical of biased and misleading media coverage.
Other women, and men, speaking out
There are many high-profile women speaking out on the need to protect women rights, women's sports and female-only spaces, and many advocate on the same issues as Keen: writer J K Rowling, Olympic swimmer Sharon Davies, tennis player Martina Navratilova, journalists Janice Turner and Helen Joyce, and academic philosopher Kathleen Stock, who was driven out of her position at a UK University after she wrote her book Material Girls, just to name a few. All have been subjected to unacceptable online abuse and even direct physical threats, and many women who speak out have lost their jobs. The biologist Richard Dawkins, who was very clear about the biological definition of a woman during his recent visit to New Zealand, was not subjected to the same level of abuse. Similarly, we note that Lord Coe of the International Athletics Federation has not been subjected to the same level of abuse despite the enormous decision of the Federation to preserve women’s sport for biological females. Does the level of aggression and abuse targeted almost exclusively at women very clearly demonstrate, ironically, why women need safe, single-sex, female-only spaces?
'There is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis. This would be welcomed by the many who do not take the polarised positions currently driving public debate.' Baroness Faulkner, head of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission.
There is clearly a conflict between between women’s rights and trans rights. The only way to resolve the conflict is through dialogue so that, as a society, we can find the compromises required. In a letter dated 6th April 2023, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended to the UK Government that there needs to be a clearer definition in law of biological sex to ensure that women's rights are protected under existing equality legislation. Baroness Faulkner, head of the EHRC, said 'There is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis. This would be welcomed by the many who do not take the polarised positions currently driving public debate.'
Limits to free speech?
So where do the limits of free speech lie? For example, should humanists defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers, or is this simply giving in to 'hate speech'? This question was recently put to a Reformed synagogue rabbi in Bournemouth. David Warden was surprised by his answer. He was emphatically in favour of defending the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers because, he explained, he would then have an opportunity to put counter-arguments and, hopefully, correct their understanding about what really happened to Jews and others in the 1940s. We believe there's a lesson here for humanists.
We are proud of the editorial policy of Humanistically Speaking, which is to promote freedom of thought and expression. We deplore the polarisation of the so-called 'culture wars' and we seek to bring a rational, reasonable, compassionate and humanistic voice to bear on contentious public debates. If you agree, please subscribe to Humanistically Speaking and spread the word. If you disagree, tell us why.
Wikipedia article on Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull
Brendan O'Neill interview with Kellie-Jay Keen after her trip to New Zealand is here
Triggernometry interview with Kellie-Jay Keen is here
Why we need critical realism in the sex and gender debate - article is here
Equality and Human Rights Commission letter published 4th April 2023 by Baroness Faulner https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/our-work/news/clarifying-definition-‘sex’-equality-act