1. Peak Trans
Reaching peak trans starts with a single step up a gentle slope. You ascend, perhaps, from unease with the shifting of language, to discomfort with the way trans' versions of 'being a woman' are sexualised stereotypes, to alarm over transactivists' aggressive responses to any queries.
r/GenderCritical's 'Peak Trans' threads have charted hundreds upon hundreds of similar trajectories. These threads came to characterise the community. Each post told a story of how the poster reached a point where she could no longer ignore the misogyny in the trans movement. Lesbians ostracised for refusing 'girldick'; mothers whose daughters had reshaped their trauma with their adolescent bodies into an identity; transwidows with their lives in tatters. Pinned at the top of the subreddit as an entryway for new users, they allowed our readers to identify the commonalities of their experiences, awakening the class awareness which is key to feminist consciousness.
Climbing towards the peakincurred the distress of becoming conscious of the societal misogyny exposed by the trans rights movement. Often, this was exacerbated to the crazy-making frustration of feeling alone, unheard and silenced. We didn't radicalise anyone; we didn't try to. We merely resolved the cognitive dissonance of women who were under pressure to deny the political significance of the colonisation of their own sex class.
All we said was yes. Yes, we understand. Yes, we see it too. Yes, it's real. Yes.
r/GenderCritical was an online community hosted at by Reddit, an aggregator site which allows users to create communities (known as 'subreddits') within their platform. Subreddits have r/ in front of its name, and are created and organised by volunteer moderators; usernames begin with u/. For over two years, as u/womenopausal, I had been posting updates and articles on r/GenderCritical relating to British feminists' struggles with the Gender Recognition Act, censorship of their views, and the institutional capture of many governmental and non-governmental organisations, amongst other topics. Like many other British radical feminists, my own peak trans was the violent attack on Maria McLachlan at Hyde Park Corner in 2018. I felt compelled to participate in the debate, but needed to do so anonymously. Online activism was the obvious choice. r/GenderCritical was right up my alley.
Just over a year ago, I was inducted onto the moderation team of r/GenderCritical. As moderators, much of the work we did was invisible: removing trolls, enforcing the rules of the community and promulgating its culture, which was based in radical feminist principles. Supporting pornography, abusive sexual practices, prostitution and surrogacy were against the rules; any people who were less than fully supportive of women's right to access abortion were removed promptly. We didn't want our users to dissipate their energies in the endless defence of radical feminist positions that we are constantly forced into outside our own spaces. (We had dedicated debate subreddits for this purpose, in which some of the most patient and brilliant of our members participated.)
r/GenderCritical was not officially a woman-only space. We already had enough work to do without having to trawl through users' posting history to guess at their sex. In practice, though, men were few and far between. A parallel subreddit catered to profeminist men. Others lurked respectfully in the main sub; a few participated sparsely. Hundreds were banned for overstepping the rules; several left of their own volition, unaccustomed to the experience of being outnumbered, and often robustly challenged, by women.
In the near absence of men, a woman-centric culture developed. This was the rare, gorgeous pleasure of participating in r/GenderCritical. It is hard to capture the pleasure of women-only spaces to women who have not experienced them. Arguments were robust, although rarely rude. Vulnerable people were supported. Women felt able to share their wit and intelligence without self-deprecation or embarrassment. There were flaws, naturally: discussions of race and faith were often under-nuanced and marked by wider societal prejudices. Issues around religion, maternity and sexuality have always been divisive within radical feminist thought; they remained so.
For me, the most satisfying part was seeing the development of new members. Newly peaked, still bewildered, they joined us skittish or prickly, concerned about seeking recognition from women they believed to be 'evil TERFS' and socialised into self-effacement through the male-pleasing culture of liberal feminism. Some users, new to any other feminist perspectives than the anodyne, depoliticised third wave, found radical feminism with a sense of relief - and a kind of recognition. If you look down from the peak, you can see the landscape of patriarchy spread out below you. And you begin to ask questions.
All we said was yes. Yes, you can exert sexual boundaries. Yes, you can live a good life without a man. Yes, you can stop performing femininity. Yes.
2. Wingardium Leviosa!
r/GenderCritical was created in September, 2013 by a group of women who wanted to discuss the spread of trans ideology in a place where they would not be censored. They placed their trust in Reddit's (then) libertarian principles – the founders had described it as a place for 'authentic conversation'. Over the years r/GenderCritical expanded to cater to more and more women who felt disillusioned with third-wave feminism. A plethora of radical feminist 'sister' subreddits sprung up: on porn, prostitution, male violence, feminist theory, radical critiques of Queer theory, and more.
As trans movement grew, the counter-discourse began to spill outside radical feminist circles. Our membership grew along with it. The graph of subscribers could have been a textbook diagram for exponential growth – until JK Rowling's sensitive essay on her concerns with the trans movement sent it skyward. (Amusingly, the greatest individual recruiter to our movement previously had been Contrapoints, who had made such a ham-fisted attempt at outlining so-called radical feminist ideology that several women came along to find out out what our positions really were, and then found them persuasive.)
At the end of June 2020, r/GenderCritical was closing on 65,000 members, with over 27,000 daily users. r/GenderCritical was not, by any standards, a large community. It was, however, tremendously active: far more so than r/feminism, despite their mainstream status and huge number of subscribers. As British feminist Maya Forstater has observed, mainstream feminism has broad support - but very low engagement. We were at the other end of the scale. An average of 40 new posts were made to r/GenderCritical every day. It was not unusual for these daily posts to attract a thousand and more comments between them. r/GenderCritical also raised thousands of dollars for women's charities, including Vancouver Women's Library.
We raised consciousness; seeded activism; shared strategies; learned from each other; grew and grew. Our main concern, on the morning of 29th June, a few months shy of our seventh birthday, was how to handle our rapid growth. We were on track to reach 100,000 before the end of the year.
3. The hammer
I was working through the modqueue - a list of comments and posts which had been flagged for action - when the subreddit disappeared from under me. For 'hate', said the message text, centred underneath a stylised image of a hammer - or possibly a gavel. The attempt at looking judicial was undermined by the fact there was no process followed, no evidence given, and no appeal permitted. Eerily, Spotify chose that moment to play the chorus of a song: Now, now, the lights go out. There's no warning. Now, now the lights go out. There's no reason. Almost seven years of content – a good deal of it insightful, witty, moving, passionate, inspirational - was immediately placed out of reach of its creators and curators. I felt dizzy.
Another moderator, u/girl_undone, was in the middle of composing a message to a user reassuring her that we would not be banned when the hammer fell. Our surprise had come from the expectation that Reddit would abide by its own standards.
u/girl_undone described the measures the moderation team had taken to keep our community secure:
We'd had a conversation with the admins years ago about enforcing additional rules on their behest that weren't documented in the Reddit rules or policies, and we did that. We took all the rules very seriously, more than any sub I know of, frankly. We didn't allow direct links to other subreddits, except sister subreddits, because we took 'brigading' seriously - but other subs frequently brigaded our sub and the admins did nothing. We manually approved many kinds of content, including images, to make sure violations didn't get through at all. We were sent pornographic images and violent threatening images so we didn't want our users to ever see that anyway.
('Brigading' means inciting or allowing the members of one subreddit to leave hostile comments or make false reports on another.) Meanwhile other subreddits had barraged us with puerile anime memes, photographs of rancid, diseased penises, and, of course, ceaseless threats of death and rape. Sister subs were flooded with images of gore. On the morning of the ban, every single post on our subreddit had been falsely flagged as child pornography. I scrolled through 80 posts upon such topics as Adrienne Rich and a profile of a lesbian politician, all marked as 'sexual or suggestive content involving minors' by some anonymous saboteur. Was this merely an attempt to waste our time, or was this something more sinister, connected with the ban later that same day? We will never know.
Other large subreddits banned on the same day – all male-dominated - had long histories of intervention by Reddit's site admins – of warnings and quarantines and measures. u/girlundone stated that Reddit didn't give r/GenderCritical 'any indication that we should be concerned.' She explained that, because the team had cooperated completely with the Admins' requirements three years prior, we had expected there would at least be further communication indicative of any concerns before a ban. Yet she could find only two communications from the Admins since that conversation – both trivial in nature. We had acted like good housewives. We cleaned up the language and tidied up the links and toed the line in our goody two-shoes. It didn't make much difference.
Many of our 'sister' subreddits got the hammer too. The hammer shattered the feminist ecosystem we had been building. Our German and Scandinavian sister subreddits were deleted. Both of these had focussed on prostitution abolition rather than trans issues. Also banned was a subreddit created by fans of J K Rowling as an alternative to the existing one which had censored nuanced discussion of her opinions. r/TrueLesbians, a community for lesbians that had the temerity to exclude male-bodied 'lesbians' from its membership was initially banned, and only restored upon appeal. A piquant irony was that, as we saw our sister subs get the hammer, our one and only 'brother', the pro-feminist subreddit r/GenderCriticalGuys survived for over a week before it joined us.
Reddit was never the most likely platform for radical feminism. Our subreddit jostled alongside hateful pornography with names like r/degradingholes, r/strugglefucking (previously r/rapingwomen) and r/MisogynistFantasies. And yet, somehow, for close to seven years, r/GenderCritical had flourished despite the toxic environment. Even being cheek-by-jowl with the most scabrous denizens of the Manosphere couldn't stem the joyous, intoxicating energy of a community ran for, and by, women.
But at the end of the day, it didn't matter who ran it or who they ran it for. It mattered who owned it.
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