On X/Twitter, York is subject to the same microaggressions that anyone speaking out on trans issues encounters. I ask her if she doesn’t sometimes want to type, “Do you know who I am?” She laughs - we laugh a lot - and then replies, “I’ve never said, ‘Do you know how good I am?’ Or, in my case now, how good I was. I’m reasonably satisfied with how my career went. But I never said ‘do you know who I am’ when I was doing it, so why would I do it now?”
But how does she cope with the endless pushback against her right to exist? The toxic “debate” that has come to dominate the culture wars? York adopts the twee, venomous tones of a certain type of middle-class lady who ‘has concerns’: “They say ‘I think we need to have this debate.’ And you say, just do one, go back to suburbia or whatever.”
The Gender Critical movement embraces everything from trans-exclusionary radical feminists (terfs) to Matt Walsh, a self-identified theocratic fascist and presenter of the online film “What is a Woman?” It’s a set of malleable beliefs that attract men and women from across the political spectrum who have developed ‘concerns’ about the rights of trans people to do anything from play sport to exist in public spaces. It’s best understood as part of a wider far-right project that seeks to centre cis white women as feminism’s “good actors” with the ultimate goal of legislating against women’s bodily autonomy and for a return to traditional sex-based roles. And it’s a fundamental part of the populism currently sweeping the anglophone world.
Intellectually, it fits into a post fascist movement that uses extreme fear mongering as control, pitting “natural” biological women against their “perverted” trans counterparts. In reality, the flashpoint for assaults on the rights of trans people has focused on women’s toilets. These single-sex spaces are central to gender essentialism and the heteronormative discourse. And public toilets are where women are most at risk of predatory men posing as trans women to rape and assault them - at least according to gender critical ‘feminists’ and the UK press. The Daily Mail alone published an astonishing 115 articles on trans people in January 2023. And this despite overwhelming evidence that the majority of perpetrators are cis heterosexual men, known to the victim. Despite this, the women’s toilet has become the frontline in the terf war.
“When it’s your real life, and you want to use the toilet somewhere. Are we going to start with the whole ‘biological woman’ thing? I’ve got to have a badge or something, like the Nazis?” York asks. We’re talking about the unrelenting tsunami of anti-trans articles in the media and the single-sex spaces wars that rage on social media. “Once a month, you’ll get something supportive, and then there’ll be four of five things saying, ‘I saw someone’s penis in the toilet.’
She recounts an anecdote widely reported without verification by the right-wing commentariat: “There was a really stupid thing the other day about somebody accusing this trans woman of flashing her genitalia. And it turns out they've already had their operation, so they’re post-op. So they just made that up.” She says when she talks about her own transition, women are okay with it. “But when men are present most of them are really uncomfortable with it because they don't imagine…(the pause for comic effect is immaculate) You know, they're quite attached to their genitals.” Obviously, we both hoot with laughter.
In July 2022, Maya Forstater successfully appealed a decision that holding absolutist gender critical beliefs was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. The appeal upheld the right to hold a ‘philosophical belief’ under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010, ruling that “The Claimant’s gender-critical beliefs, which were widely shared, and which did not seek to destroy the rights of trans persons, clearly did not fall into that category (Nazism or Totalitarianism)”.
As York is quick to point out, Gender Critical views are only a “protected belief” in the same way that humanism and veganism are viewed as genuinely held beliefs. “You can believe whatever you like,” she continues, “You can believe that Hitler was right. That Attila the Hun was the best person ever. That Elvis is alive and living on the moon. In your head. But as soon as it comes out, it's an offence if you express it in a way that breaks the law. So there are consequences.” As the Forstater appeal judgement explicitly points out, “This judgement does not mean that those with gender-critical beliefs can ‘misgender’ trans persons with impunity” and “This judgement does not mean that trans persons do not have the protections against discrimination and harassment conferred by the Equality Act”.
Reflecting on what has been published and posted and tweeted since her own reemergence as a trans woman, she’s remarkably sanguine. “We can all be horrible people. But it doesn't make you feel good,” she says. “It goes back to when I competed, and you were expected to cheat, and you’re told ‘if we don't cheat, the others are going to’. And you go through that, and you come out of that system. And you just feel crap about yourself. Even though you know that everybody cheated.”
She says she looks at the noxious online climate and thinks, “How crap must you feel at the end of this? You’re just finding an outlet because there’s something about yourself that you hate and don’t want to deal with it. And you think if you pass the hatred onto somebody else, that's going to make it better. But it doesn't. Whatever your issue is, it doesn't go away. It's not going to go away by taking it out on me. Because I can just turn it off. I just leave.” York says she’s only recently started watching BBC News again: “I felt so much better not being terrorised by everything anymore.”
Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” It’s the foundational statement for examinations of sex and gender. So how does it feel to become a woman during a culture war? York takes a beat, then asks: “What is gender ideology?” Another beat. “Apparently, I’ve been through it.” She laughs at the absurdity of it all.