"Before we begin, please leave your pitchforks in the cloak room and extinguish your torches in the buckets provided."
An Inn of Court has refused to bow to the demands of more than 100 barristers, pupil barristers and law students who signed an open letter complaining that a gender critical barrister should not have been invited to speak at an LGBT event.
The talk arranged by the Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum was originally billed as a discussion about 'The fight to ban gay conversion therapy', and advertised Nancy Kelley, the Chief Executive of Stonewall, Kieran Alded, Stonewall's head of policy, and Robin Allen QC, who lobbied the government for the ban, as speakers.
Stonewall believes that young people who say they are transgender should have that belief affirmed by therapists, and supports the government's proposal that a ban on conversion therapy should criminalise therapists who adopt a 'watch and wait' approach instead, or who seek to make young patients comfortable with their sex.
However, a few days before the event, the discussion topic was changed to 'Banning Conversion Practices: The Path to Good Law', and Naomi Cunningham, a barrister and the founder of Legal Feminist, was added as a speaker.
Cunningham takes the gender critical view that there are many reasons why a young person may insist they are transgender, including discomfort with their homosexuality, which means that banning therapists from exploring those possibilities "is the most savage conversion therapy ever invented".
"Gender non-conforming children often grow up to be gay adults. The bitter irony of this proposal is that it entrenches the idea that people can escape being gay by changing sex", Cunningham said in her talk.
The letter's signatories complained that Cunningham was an unacceptable choice because she had stated on her website that she would refer to a transwoman as a 'trans-identifying male'. They said they suspected that Middle Temple had come under "pressure" from members who wanted to hear a gender critical perspective, and that Cunningham's participation "sends a damaging message to trans members and prospective members of the Inn that their inclusion is not something they can take for granted but is ‘up for debate’".
The signatories asked Middle Temple to postpone the event and offer refunds, and to "apologise for the distress these developments have caused, particularly to the Inn’s trans members".
Despite their demands the discussion went ahead as planned.
Some observers said the publicity around the open letter opened their eyes to the consequences of the ban in its current form. Ex-Clifford Chance lawyer and Crafty Counsel founder Ben White said, "Have to confess that before the fuss today I hadn't taken much interest in the proposals on conversion therapy. Now I have read the gov's consultation & I am glad they are having a debate at MT and not just a party".
The letter was anonymous, but several signatories came forward to defend their stance on social media after Twitter users expressed surprise that barristers were averse to hearing or debating viewpoints which differed from their own.
Stuart Withers, a barrister at No5 Chambers, said the event "was marketed as trans inclusive and to celebrate LGBT lawyers. The debate can be for another time or place". Caira Bartlam, another Middle Temple member, said, "Sometimes we don't want to debate, we just want to enjoy all the love and affirmation that our community provides".
Asked whether the lobby group was happy to debate the conflict between the aims of trans activism and women’s rights, a Stonewall spokesperson told RollOnFriday, "Stonewall is constantly engaged in debates around our core purpose of ensuring LGBTQ+ people are free to be their authentic selves in all aspects of society. Debates, discussions and evolving policy ideas are at the heart of the work we do as a charity. The only thing we won’t debate is whether trans people actually exist. They do, and it is offensive to suggest otherwise".
Cunningham told RollOnFriday she stood by "every word" of her writing, and that "I don't believe anything I have written makes me unfit to contribute to the education of Bar students".
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