Julia Beck, a self-described radical lesbian feminist, says she was booted from a leadership post on Mayor Catherine Pugh’s LGBTQ Commission because she doesn’t believe transgender women are really women. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Viewers may have been surprised when Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson devoted a segment this week to a dispute within a little-known Baltimore commission, a story that has barely spread in the city beyond the participants, much less to a national audience.
But because it involves, at least tangentially, transgender women using the ladies’ rather than men’s restrooms, it was catnip for Carlson. Like other conservatives, when the issue of transgender rights and access comes up, he has raised the specter of men declaring themselves women and using that to enter their bathrooms, locker rooms and showers..
Julia Beck, a self-described radical lesbian feminist, shares that fear. Which is why she was invited on Carlson’s show Tuesday night, and got sympathetic nods as she told him she was booted from a leadership post on Mayor Catherine Pugh’s LGBTQ Commission because she doesn’t believe transgender women are really women.
“If any man, any male person can call himself a woman or legally identify as female, then predatory men will do so to gain access to women’s same-sex spaces,” Beck said, “and this puts every woman and girl at risk.”
Reached Wednesday, Beck acknowledged it was an unlikely and not entirely comfortable place for her to spread her message.
“I never thought I’d be on Fox News of all places,” she said. “I don’t trust the right wing. I don’t trust Fox News.
,"“I do feel kind of nervous about working with the right wing because they have opposed women’s bodily autonomy, and lesbians’ sovereignty.”
But Beck, 26, said she is being silenced in other spheres and will talk to whoever will listen. She said her controversial stance on transgender people has brought her death and rape threats, and declines specifics on such things as where she works, other than to say it’s in the legal field.
Her views on sexual and gender identity conflict reveal differences between groups that have been lumped together under the LGBTQ umbrella even though their issues, experiences and goals don’t necessarily align. But many others have pushed back against her, saying the various groups — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — have shared interests and a greater chance at success by remaining united.
Last fall, Beck was elected co-chair of the legal and policy committee of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s LGBTQ Commission, a group created in January to advise city officials and agencies. But soon thereafter, her views on transgender women emerged and alarmed other members.
“People who call themselves transgender women are male,” Beck said. “People can call themselves whatever they want, but saying something doesn’t make it true.”
Beck makes a distinction between sex and gender, with the former being an unchangeable “biological reality,” even if the latter is fluid. She said her problem with those born one sex but identifying as the other is that they’re buying into rather than rejecting a system of rigid definitions of femininity and masculinity.
And, she said, there is the issue of women’s safety — in bathrooms, locker rooms and other female-only places.
Beck refuses to use “she” or “her” in referring to transgender women, rankling other commission members.
“You can’t tell other people how to identify,” said Akil Patterson, a gay man and the other co-chair of the legal and policy committee. “They are part of the community. It costs us nothing to say ‘her’ or ‘him,’ or say ‘they’ or ‘them.’”
The dispute led to the committee re-voting on its chairpersons, and Beck was replaced by Ava Pipitone, a transgender woman and lesbian. The chairs of various committees serve as the LGBTQ commissioners.
Pipitone said the commission has already moved past the dispute, and said that while there are real differences between its sub-groups, the LGBTQ community can acknowledge its internal differences even as it remains bonded by the shared experience of being considered outside the mainstream.
“We’re united in that we’re all ‘othered.’ Since we’re all fighting against the same social system, it makes sense to work together,” Pipitone said. “It’s called lateral violence. The house is on fire and instead of leaving, the siblings are fighting each other.”
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James Bentley, Pugh’s spokesman, called the rift an “internal matter” that was handled by the commission. Anyone can be on the commission, and Beck can still be a member, and it chooses its own leadership, he said.
Jabari Lyles, who serves as Pugh’s liaison to the LGBTQ Commission, said he thought Beck said painful and inappropriate things to and about transgender people, prompting members to vote for different leadership.
“She couches it in women’s rights, and women’s safety, which we of course support,” Lyles said, “but not at the expense of transgender women.”
The matter percolates largely among those who follow LGBTQ issues, and gets wider exposure because it intersects with the views of some conservatives. Beck is at least the second feminist to speak about the issue on Carlson’s show. Two years ago, he hosted Kara Dansky of the Women’s Liberation Front; Beck has written about her experience on the LGBTQ Commission on the feminist group’s website.
Within academic and activist circles, the issues of Beck raises are familiar, if thorny, and part of the expected as the movement grows and diversifies.
Sydney Lewis, a lecturer in the women’s studies department at the University of Maryland College Park, said there have been long-simmering tensions between some lesbians and transgender women.
“I think it’s a reflection of who gets to be called a woman,” Lewis said.
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In her eyes, it’s “needlessly protective of the name” to limit the appellation to those biologically born female. “There are many different women and many different paths to womanhood,” she said.
Those who hold Beck’s views have been called TERFs, a term some view as a slur, for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. They have increasingly turned up at pride parades, holding up signs such as “Woman is Not a Feeling.”
Lewis said such women fear that lesbians are being pushed out of the movement as the needs of other groups take more precedence. She dismisses fears about bathrooms, saying there has not been an influx of transgender women or men posing as them going into ladies’ rooms with ill intent. And in any event, she said, men of any stripe can currently do just that, whether or not transgender women are given legal access to the bathrooms of their choice.
As the Baltimore LGBTQ Commission continues to get organized — its stance is anyone who shows up for a meeting can be a member — Beck said she does not feel she’d be welcome in the future. But she said she hopes that at least the L in LGBTQ doesn’t get lost the commission’s work.
“I do hope some good comes out of this commission,” she said. “I hope lesbians in Baltimore are well-represented.