Against knee-jerkism, or what I learnt from tweeting about the Old Vic loos.

I want to write something to document what’s happened over the last week, since I tweeted a response to the Old Vic’s announcement that they had replaced single-gender toilets with gender-neutral ones. Unwittingly, I find myself in a situation that illuminates how the mainstream media and Twitter intersect, determining how we talk about the things that matter to our society. These experiences have prompted me to reflect on what constitutes responsible public discourse.

My tweet, which was fairly innocuous - ‘This is fantastic, thank you for making this important change to help those of all genders feel welcome at your venue’ - got caught up in a barrage of hostile responses directed at the Old Vic. While some expressed legitimate concerns, others accused me of being ‘an idiot’, ‘giving away the rights of women’, and ‘wanting women to be assaulted’.

My perspective on the benefit of introducing gender-neutral toilets in theatres is based on having run a theatre venue myself for several years. I’ve also written a book about theatre buildings. When The Stage asked me, after seeing my tweet, to write an article defending the Old Vic’s decision, I assume they had this in mind; after all, I’ve been writing articles for them for the last five years. I won’t rehash the argument I made - you can read that in my previous blog post. I also appeared on BBC London’s Jason Rosam programme (you can hear me at 2hrs 20 here).

On Friday and over the weekend I received hundreds more highly critical tweets in response to that article. I was unprepared for the level of anger directed at me. But I took it in my stride because I believed, and still believe, that the case I made was reasonable, measured, and in line with my feminism.

On Tuesday, The Stage published an article from Sarah Ditum, titled The Old Vic’s Gender-Neutral Toilets Leave Women Worse Off. You can now read this here. This was tweeted alongside my article, with the two pieces framed as two sides of an argument. I didn’t know another writer would be commissioned, or that I was writing what would subsequently be presented as part of a debate.

I don’t take issue with a critical gaze being brought to the subject of the Old Vic toilets. Trans people’s right to have their needs appropriately met in public space shouldn’t be up for debate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hold organisations accountable for implementing changes in a rigorous manner, giving proper consideration to how they will impact upon all of their communities. Commissioning Ditum to write about it, however, was a strange choice. The Stage would typically commission a theatre sector professional or commentator to write about industry issues like this. Ditum hasn’t worked in theatre and hasn’t written much about it other than a few reviews a decade ago. I had never heard of Ditum before, but The Stage presumably commissioned her because she has been a prominent critical voice in issues related to trans gender identity – one who has attracted much controversy for her views in the past. This context wasn’t included in the article, or the standfirst.

Her article appeared, and Twitter – predictably – erupted once again. People were furious with both of us. For the most part, it was the content of my article that invoked ire, but much of the anger around Ditum’s piece was that she had been commissioned at all – an anger later expressed in an open letter written by a group of The Stage’s freelance writers. The consequence was that what could have been a fruitful discussion about the implementation of improvements for trans people was lost in the politicisation of the exchange.

The Stage, obviously overwhelmed by the response and out of their depth, decided to delete both articles. I learnt about this when I logged on to Twitter and saw this statement. No one contacted me – or Ditum - in advance to let us know this would happen. I had been in an email exchange with The Stage only a couple of hours earlier about another article I was working on for them.

Ditum and I were left with literally hundreds if not thousands of angry tweets with our handles in – and the original articles now unavailable for readers to make their own minds up, only the implication that what we had to say was so problematic it needed to be censored. While, as I’ve outlined above, I don’t feel Ditum was an appropriate commentator for The Stage to invite to write about this, once her piece was commissioned, Ditum had every right to expect the editors respect and uphold their decision to publish her, just as I had.

It’s worth reflecting on the implications of that decision to remove the articles in response to a Twitter backlash. What precedent is there for this? I’ve spoken to editors at other newspapers who tell me that in their experience articles would only ever be removed if there was an explicit legal issue. What does it communicate that a mainstream publication can so obviously be swayed into censoring their own writers by the most vocal segments of Twitter? A responsible press is surely precisely the opposite of this: a redoubt from the kneejerk-ism of Twitter, a place for the deep thoughtfulness and nuance that 140 characters can never offer. By removing these pieces, The Stage apparently intended to pretend they’d never been published; instead, they lost control of the narrative, and the opportunity to frame them with editorial that would account for the thinking that had led to their publication in the first place.

As a teenager, I used to buy The Stage with my pocket money in WH Smith and dream of having my name in it. It’s hardly the biggest issue, but I’m sad that I can no longer write for a publication that has meant such a lot to me for such a long time. The relationship between a writer and an editor rests on a kind of faith. When you decide, together, to put something out into the world, you do it because you believe it will contribute value and insight, and you both have to stand by it. How can you keep working together once that faith has gone? I don’t really think of myself as a journalist principally, but I enjoy writing about theatre and have something useful to say – The Stage is one of the very few contexts that meaningful writing about theatre is possible, and that option is now closed to me. It also closes down a source of income – albeit a modest one.

The Stage’s decision ended up giving credence to the idea that those arguing against changes such as the ones at the Old Vic are particularly being silenced, as opposed to – as was the case - both perspectives having been censored. The day after The Stage’s decision, Ditum appeared on Radio Four’s Today (which you can listen to here at 2hrs 56) and Radio Five Live (here – at 1hr 21) to discuss it. No one contacted me to contribute. “This connects to an issue at the heart of this – whether you’re allowed to take this view when it connects to people who identify as nonbinary or trans, is it because of the lobby in that area that your article was removed?” Emma Barnett asked on Five Live. “It’s because you were saying you wanted more areas where only women can go, and that is what you were not allowed to say in 2019 in The Stage,” said Justin Webb on Today. This was in line with a perception that Ditum has been uniquely subject to ‘visceral hatred and abuse’, as suggested in this blog from the editor of The Jewish Chronicle – a version of events that is pretty hard to swallow given all that’s been targeted towards me over the last few days.

Neither of the BBC presenters mentioned the fact that my article, arguing for these changes, had also been removed – in spite of Ditum referencing it in both interviews. Had either of these stations read The Stage’s statement, or spoken to The Stage or to me, it would have been immediately obvious that they were misrepresenting the story. The interview became an opportunity for Ditum to present her argument again, without any expression of why these changes are so important for the trans community being represented. This must be at odds with the BBC’s commitment to impartiality.

The absence of a trans voice in all this is obvious. I was conflicted about the press I did; it seemed important to me that cis women speak up for trans rights, but the line between that and seeming to speak on behalf of trans people is a fine one, particularly if the result is that the trans perspective is excluded, as it has been here. My article in The Stage didn’t mean a trans writer couldn’t have been commissioned too - it was up to the editors to seek out that perspective, but I should have pressed harder for that from my side. Exeunt has now published this from Jess Rahman-González and Oli Isaac.

In the end, though, I’m pleased that I took the heat on this – because as a cis woman, it’s much easier for me to walk away and get on with my life. The bruising I’ve experienced is small fry compared to getting your identity called into question day after day as trans people do, to having to account continually for how you move through public space. The implications, in particular, of The Stage deciding to delete a piece that had been written by a trans person would have been much more damaging.

I’m sure that many people will feel that these inadequacies in how the mainstream media reports on issues around trans gender identity are hardly revelatory. But I keep thinking about how much energy has been expended in this conversation. Who, in the end, has benefitted from it? Has anyone had their mind changed, or have we moved any closer to a solution that works for everyone? Society is shifting. We need a press fit to deal with that: a press that addresses issues in a fashion that is humane and even-handed. What we appear to have instead is a press that subjugates itself to the whims of the loudest voices on Twitter. We all deserve better than that.

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