(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 12.)
We lead sheltered lives out here in the provinces. Until recently, for example, I’d never heard of a terf.
You hadn’t either? Allow me to explain. A terf is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.We have TVNZ’s excellent Q+A programme to thank for bringing us up to speed with this latest acronym from the culture wars.
Q+A ran a fascinating item two Sundays ago about a trans-gender person from Wellington who identifies as a woman but was denied membership of a women-only gym because the gym insisted on proof of gender re-assignment surgery.
According to Q+A, gym staff were subsequently abused online and in person, presumably by supporters of the trans-gender cause. I felt sorry for the trans person at the centre of the debate, who clearly didn’t relish being implicated in such unpleasantness.
The bigger picture here is that society is suddenly expected to remould itself to accommodate gender variations that were unheard of a few years ago. In the process, a schism has opened up between trans-gender people and orthodox feminists. This is what happens when society gets fragmented and polarised by identity politics.
We got advance warning of this three years ago when the doughty feminist warrior Germaine Greer caused an uproar by asserting that trans people were only pretend women. Since then, hostilities have escalated.
In Britain, militant trans activists and terfs have angrily confronted each over a proposed law change that would allow people to “self-identify” their gender.
Trans people assert that if you regard yourself as a certain gender, regardless of the bits you were born with, that’s it; end of story. The trans activists don’t even like hearing reference to vaginas, because that excludes “women” who don’t have them.
The terfs, meanwhile, are determined to protect the notion of womanhood because they see it as underpinning all that feminists stand for. They are also a bit iffy, perhaps understandably, about sharing women-only spaces with people who may be biologically male.
It’s a deliciously exquisite socio-cultural-ideological war. If you wanted to be mischievous you could characterise it as a contest over which faction considers itself the more grievously discriminated against. But that would be flippant, and flippancy is not permitted in the gender wars.
National Party leader Simon Bridges learned this to his cost when he allowed himself to be lured into a trap during a chat on Radio Hauraki, which specialises in blokey flippancy,about whether Jacinda Ardern’s baby should be regarded as gender-fluid.
Predictably, Bridges was savaged in social media for playing along with the joke. Humour, traditionally a safety valve for easing social tensions, is suddenly verboten.
Fragile sensibilities are waiting to be bruised everywhere you turn. Just by placing inverted commas around that word “women” earlier in this column, and thereby highlighting the rather ambiguous status of some people who use that term to describe themselves, I risk being branded as transphobic.
You can add this hyperbolic word to the ever-growing list of pejorative terms – homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, misogynistic – that are used to disparage anyone who isn’t nimble-footed enough to keep up with the constantly shifting battle lines in the culture wars.
I tell you, it’s a minefield out there. Decline to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple because same-sex marriage is against your beliefs, as the woman owner of a bakery in Warkworth did recently, and no matter how painfully polite your refusal, you’ll be pilloried on social media.
Let me make a wild guess here and speculate that many of the people who burned with rage over the baker’s refusal of service to the lesbian couple would have deliriously applauded the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia for humiliating Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by asking her to leave on a recent Friday night.
Am I missing something, or are there two different rules in play here?
Fortunately, out here in the provinces, we’re largely oblivious to the myriad anxieties and resentments that seem to beset politically aware Wellington. Most of the people I meet strike me as being inexplicably content with life in one the world’s most liberal and tolerant democracies. The preoccupation with perceived injustices seems very much an inner-city metropolitan phenomenon.
We can’t help but be aware of them, of course. Day after day, the media bombard us with laments from a plethora of advocacy groups listing the innumerable ways in which society is failing to satisfy the needs of disadvantaged minorities. New categories of human rights pop up overnight like mushrooms.
But the urban social justice crusaders will just have to be patient and give us provincial yokels time. When age-old certainties are being constantly subverted and the ideological ground keeps shifting under us like tectonic plates, it can be hard to keep up.