Feminists who have always considered themselves at the very cutting edge of important progressive social change are facing a serious dilemma and their once impregnable and united ranks are splintering. The issue is whether or not self-identifying trans women – that is biological men who have decided that they are really women and not necessarily with any genital and other surgery – should be allowed into facilities and spaces which are strictly reserved for women.
The latest battleground is the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association (KLPA). The arguments being made on both sides here reflect a broad, society-wide debate.
For years, there have been three swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath in London – one reserved for women, one for men and the third for mixed use.
Back in January, the City of London which manages Hampstead Heath and its ponds decided that the ladies' pond would welcome trans women and that this decision was consistent with the Equalities Act 2010 which prohibited unlawful discrimination on the grounds of transgender status. Thoughtfully, the City of London spokesperson said all lifeguards and managers at the ponds had taken "trans awareness training" and that "The City of London Corporation is committed to gender respect and equality in all forms."
The Kenwood Ladies Pond Association more or less happily embraced the idea despite some initial misgivings saying that it was committed "to helping to create at the Ladies' Pond an inclusive environment for all women, including transgender women, which is free from discrimination, harassment or victimisation".
"The diverse community of women and girls – including transgender women – at the Ladies' Pond contribute to its unique and very precious quality. We believe that with a continued commitment from all swimmers to respect the right to privacy and dignity of others, we can continue to protect and enjoy it," the Association said in a statement.
Yet a spokeswoman for the KLPA did concede that there had been "some unease" among members about the new policy which was a considerable understatement of the furious reaction among many members.
Feminist writer Julie Bindel was appalled at the whole idea. "There have been trans women at the pond for decades, but this self-identification nonsense means that there's nothing at all you can do if a person with a penis and a beard starts coming to the pool and starts getting his kit off – it's just mad. Sex is a protected class for a very good reason, because we have been raised under the patriarchy and have massive disadvantages. And until we have an end to this oppression we face, we can't say 'ok, you say you’re a woman, so you are a woman'.
A group called Mayday 4 Women which describes itself as a radical feminist group has held protest meetings and a spokeswoman Jen Izaakson said that the group "represented the voices of women to have a space where women can feel safe, bring their daughter and not worry about a man who says he's a woman being allowed through the gates."
"Personally, I don't see a difference between a man who says he's a man or a man who says he's a woman. It's not about physical change, men are socialised to be more violent than women and it's men whom women feel frightened of when they are getting undressed," she said.
Mayday 4 Women has picketed meetings of the KLPA called to discuss the issue saying that men already had access to two of the three swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath – the men's only and the mixed pools – and that the new policy meant that they would now have access to all three ponds. They are circulating a petition headed, "Don't open the gate to our oppressors".
Opponents of the new policy also pointed out that even if a man who is honest about transitioning to a women he/she could still be sexually attracted to women and, what is more, have all of the male genitalia necessary for sex, be that consensual or rape. That, the protestors contend, is a serious risk to women.
And the protestors are worried that admitting trans women into women's spaces would eventually open the door to all men.
One protestor Margaret Roberts, who has been using the pond for thirty-two years, said, "I and many others are threatened by having 'cross dressers' openly using our private space." She said she had been made to feel uncomfortable when she saw a "young man" using the ladies' pond while wearing a bikini and claiming to be transitioning for male to female.
Ms Roberts said that she had seen a Spanish looking man "who looked and dressed like a man but who claimed to identify as a woman" using the ladies' pond and when she asked him to leave, he refused.
The KLPA has a reply to these protesting women: "Although it is tempting to assume someone's gender simply by their appearance, it's important to try and avoid doing so and to be aware of the needs of the genuinely transgender women."
What the KLPA and the City of London as well for that matter prefer not to address is the tricky question of how can anybody tell if a man is "genuinely transgender" and not just an opportunistic dirty old man. Putting on a bikini is hardly certain and sure evidence.
But it is the protestors who are fighting a losing battle and all because of the Equalities Act 2010.
And while a man who has transitioned to a woman still requires a gender recognition certification for legal recognition as a woman, trans women using the ladies' pond do not need this certificate. The UK Labour Party is currently considering including trans women in all-women shortlists without any certificate as trans campaigners argue that the current need to be assessed and diagnosed by clinicians to obtain a certificate is intrusive and unnecessarily medical. The UK Government has also unveiled proposals to streamline the process to change gender and a round of consultations will happen later this year.
Meanwhile, despite all of the protests in the world, the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association and its pond will firmly remain, well, gender fluid.