If a lesbian only desires same-sex dates that’s not bigotry, it’s her right | Sonia Sodha

Sexual attraction, it seems obvious to me, is not the right frontier on which to focus the fight against racism. Anyone who’s used a dating app will know that whether you swipe left or right is invariably determined by snap judgments based on a handful of photos and one-liners. Of course it’s an arena in which societal prejudice plays out.

But whether or not we are attracted to someone is so personal that to lambast anyone’s dating preferences as bigoted is wrong. The growing number of interracial relationships is the sign of a less racist society, but these relationships are the healthy byproduct of broader shifts in societal attitudes, not of activists hectoring people to be more pluralistic in their choice of partner.

If policing people’s sexual preferences through the lens of race feels deeply unpleasant, when it comes to sexual orientation, it is wrong and dangerous. Yet we are in the extraordinary position where lesbians are now being told by some activists that it is bigoted for them to say they are not attracted to trans women who are biologically male. This is not a fringe belief: the chief executive of LGBT charity Stonewall recently said in relation to a BBC story about lesbians feeling pressured into dropping their boundaries: “Sexuality is personal… but if, when dating, you are writing off entire groups like people of colour or trans people, it’s worth considering how societal prejudices may have shaped your attraction.” Last week, a QC on the Bar Council’s ethics committee defended the concept of overcoming the “cotton ceiling” – the offensive idea that a lesbian’s lack of desire for trans women is rooted in bigotry rather than their same-sex attraction – and compared it to initiatives to promote racial integration in post-apartheid South Africa.

That some are impressing on women that they are transphobic or akin to “sexual racists” for excluding all males from their dating pool is deeply troubling. For many same-sex attracted lesbians, the right to say no to all males literally defines their sexuality. Lesbophobia remains a huge problem in a world riven with male entitlement, in which there is perhaps nothing more subversive than a woman being clear she is not attracted to men, full stop. Lesbians have for centuries been persecuted for their sexual orientation, attacked for not trying hard enough to be attracted to men and subjected to abhorrent practices such as corrective rape.

There are sensitive issues at stake. Some female-attracted trans women talk openly about the issues with finding a partner after transition: how it can remove you from the dating pool of many straight women, but it doesn’t mean that same-sex attracted women start finding you attractive. That’s not easy to grapple with, but I suspect many trans women would not dream of finding fault with lesbians who aren’t attracted to anyone male.

However, there are some very vocal activists – some trans, some not – who seek to challenge what they see as the bigotry of exclusively female lesbian attraction in the name of trans rights. This is how the cotton ceiling – and the right of a lesbian to call it out as a coercive device to shame same-sex attracted women into compromising their boundaries – has come to the fore at a hugely important employment tribunal currently under way.

The lesbian in question is Allison Bailey, a black survivor of child sexual abuse who has overcome much adversity to become a criminal barrister. She was told by her chambers, Garden Court, to delete two tweets they said fell short of the bar’s professional standards, one of which described a workshop on “Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling” run in Canada in 2012 as coercive.

Cotton ceiling is a reference to lesbians’ knickers. It is a riff on the glass ceiling and posits that just as the professional advancement of women is hindered by sexism, the sexual acceptance of trans women is impeded by the “transphobia” of lesbians attracted only to females. It was Cathryn McGahey QC, a witness for Garden Court, who drew the analogy between this workshop exploring how “ideologies of transphobia and transmisogyny impact sexual desire” and South African racial integration and who implied it was possible in a non-coercive way to persuade a same-sex attracted lesbian she might want to have sex with a trans woman.

But shaming an oppressed sexual minority into dropping their boundaries, or risk being tarnished a bigot within the LGBT community, is inherently coercive. You don’t have to look far online to see women who maintain they are female-only attracted abused as transphobes, genital fetishists and worse. Women report being banned from dating apps for transphobia after stating in their profile they are looking for a biologically female partner.

This is an important reason why gender ideology – the belief that gender identity, whether someone identifies as a man or a woman, should replace biological sex in society when it comes to sports, single-sex spaces and data collection – has divided people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual. Taken to its logical conclusion, it redefines same-sex attraction as same-gender-identity attraction. But this is fiercely resisted by those who say this simply does not accord with the lived experience of their own sexuality.

Another flashpoint is the fear that in the service of this ideology, adult trans identities are being foisted on to gay, gender non-conforming children who are experiencing gender dysphoria, through hormonal and surgical interventions that have long-term health consequences. Many gay people say they temporarily experienced gender dysphoria during puberty and an independent review into the care of children with gender dysphoria has outlined how it sometimes naturally resolves itself and that gender identity can be fluid until someone’s early to mid-20s.

So many analyses of the gender ideology debate characterise it as a conflict of rights between women and trans people. But there are plenty of trans people who shun gender ideology and some women who embrace it. It is really a conflict of rights between people who want gender identity to replace biological sex in society and people, particularly women, who believe sex is relevant. In the case of lesbians and same-sex attraction, it is vital to re-establish the principle that it is never bigoted for a woman to be clear that she is exclusively attracted to other females.

Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist


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