By any standards, it was the most decorous of invasions. The ten women who gatecrashed a male-only bathing pond in North London this week were not strident, vociferous or impolite.
One professed to feeling nervous; others insisted that they were not natural activists. Yet all felt moved to remonstrate against proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which, they claim, could allow predatory men to masquerade as trans women in order to prey on females.
Their method of drawing attention to their cause was a novel one: they said they were ‘identifying’ as men for the day to highlight the problems inherent in the planned legislation, adopting Man Friday as the name of their campaign, set up on the website Mumsnet.
The ten women who gatecrashed a male-only bathing pond in North London this week were not strident, vociferous or impoliteiPhone transfer software
Yet despite its laudable intentions — to protect women and those with genuine gender dysphoria — their protest movement has proved so contentious that some participants have faced a barrage of online abuse and even physical threats from hardline transgender activists.
The very 21st-century insult Terf (which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is being hurled at them.
Hampstead Heath, with its network of outdoor pools — one designated for men, one (until recently) women-only and one mixed — was the venue for this week’s protest.
One woman sported a pantomime beard; another wore a lime green mankini (a male version of a bikini). It was all done with a lightness of touch but serious intent.
The women chose the male outdoor swimming pond for their demonstration against planned laws that would allow men who merely ‘identify’ as women — they would need no evidence that they have transitioned from male to female — to use the women’s pond and female changing rooms.
Hannah Clarke, 39, one of the pond invaders and a founder member of the Man Friday movement, is articulate, measured in her language and solidly middle-class. Her father is a retired Army major, magistrate and Tory councillor; her mother has also been a Conservative councillor in the Home Counties for almost three decades.
Hannah says: ‘We’re scrupulous about respecting transgender rights, but the law must also acknowledge biological differences between men and women and their entitlement to separate spaces in order to retain dignity, privacy and safety.’
She and her 160 or so fellow Man Friday activists balk against enshrining in law changes that would allow self-identifying men into female spaces such as single-sex hospital wards, changing rooms, loos, refuges and prisons.
Hannah, a former civil servant whose husband works in finance, concedes: ‘I’m not a natural activist. I’d never protested about anything in my life before Man Friday. I was scared, nervous, jittery. But I believe women must fight to be heard about this.
‘There was a wonderful camaraderie at the [Hampstead] ponds. Although I was terrified, I had a sense of belonging; of a shared purpose. We were the politest protesters ever. We paid our £2 entrance fee to the ponds.
‘Some women stayed outside giving out leaflets. Ten of us went into the men’s changing room. There were probably about 30 men in the changing area we went into.
‘Some of them started shouting at us. I think it would have been quite obnoxious to flash naked bodies at them so we tried to change facing the wall. All the women were as respectful as possible. We were grown-up about it.
‘We had a man shout: “It’s utter b*****ks. You wouldn’t like it if we went to the women’s pond and showed off our c**ks.”
‘But that is precisely the point; it’s exactly what we are protesting about. We are concerned that predatory men are already using changes in the law as a charter to invade women’s space and violate their privacy.
‘In the U.S., where the clothing and homeware store Target has allowed men who “identify” as female into the women’s and children’s changing rooms, there has been a threefold increase in voyeurism — and all the perpetrators were male. The fear is that sexual offenders here will use gender identity policies to gain access to areas designated for women and children.’
Hannah also cites the case of sexual predator Christopher Hambrook, who four years ago was jailed indefinitely in Canada after falsely claiming to be transgender and sexually assaulting vulnerable females in women’s refuges.
Yet the current accepted view — that whether you are a man or a woman is merely a feeling, an inner essence, which transcends biology — offers a loophole to such abusers. And if proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act are passed, this new orthodoxy will become enshrined in law.
The debate is a complex and contentious one, but it is being silenced by some activists who conflate discussion with bigotry and free speech with intolerance.
And in their efforts to be seen as inclusive, businesses, councils and Government ministers are quashing discussion for fear of being labelled trans-phobic.
In order to cater for transgender women, the women's pond changed its rules last December to allow men in who say they identify as female
Meanwhile, Twitter has been condemned for deleting accounts of female members of the group Fair Play For Women for stating what its members term the ‘biological fact that men cannot become women’. Gender self-identification has wide implications for women’s rights, yet the government minister Maria Miller, chair of the Women And Equalities Committee, led an inquiry that proposed it should become law without hearing from a single women’s organisation.
Women like Hannah and her fellow pond protester Amy Desir, 30, a divorced mother-of-two from Luton, Bedfordshire, are incensed at this silencing of free speech. Amy, who works in middle management for a medical technology firm, was sufficiently concerned to become an activist.
‘I’ve never seen myself as a feminist until now,’ she says. ‘But I was following the discussion on Mumsnet about men just saying “I’m a woman” and having all the protection and spaces just for saying that. I thought: “That can’t be true.” But it was.
‘And people were being enlisted to train the police and school teachers about the subject, and I thought it was bonkers.
‘In December, when Swim England published its guidance about men who self-identify as women being allowed into female changing rooms, I thought it was Orwellian. It was talking about “re-educating” people.’
As a result, she and Hannah joined a men-only swimming session in Dulwich, a prelude to this week’s intervention. An onslaught of abuse followed her actions. ‘I’ve been called “trans-phobic scum”, “trans-phobic trash”, “a terf”, “ugly” and “hateful”,’ she says. ‘Other people have been told to “die in a fire”.
‘I have security installed in my house because I don’t want anybody putting a brick through my window when the kids are asleep.’
None of these