I was delighted to be a part of the latest Man Friday initiative, a Bank Holiday Monday dip in the Men’s Pond on Parliament Hill.
(photos by Lily Maynard)
When is a woman not a woman? Why, when it’s Friday, of course!
I surveyed my reflection in the Primark changing room mirror.
“They aren’t very flattering,” observed my mother, who follows my political antics with a vague mix of admiration, resignation and disapproval. She was looking at my bum, clad in a pair of neon orange swimming shorts from the men’s department.
“The black ones might suit your shape better,” she added, tactfully.
She was undoubtedly right, but this wasn’t about looking cool on the beach. This was about the forthcoming bank holiday Monday when I was joining the Man Friday crew for a swim in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. I was going to be a man for the day!
We bought the black ones (my mum paid, bless her!) and headed off to Starbucks for a coffee.
“I’m going swimming in the Men’s Pond at Hampstead today, with the Man Friday lot,” I announced at breakfast the next morning, boring black shorts packed in my bag. “We’re identifying as men for the day.”
“But it’s Monday,” observed Jessie, without looking up from her phone.
“Oh god, you’re not going topless?” gasped middle child, aghast. “Mum! Please no.”
“I’m not going topless,” I assured her, although to be honest I hadn’t made my mind up about that yet.
“Lily is a man, Lily is a man,” chanted smallest as she fixed a hideous, pink, sparkly Jojo bow into her unbrushed hair with jam-covered fingers. “Look! I’m a gendered child!” she smirked.
Nigel emerged from the bedroom sleepily.
“Good morning, Sir,” he greeted me.
I hugged him, grabbed my coffee and ran for the train, leaving him to deal with jamgate.
We’d arranged a rendez-vous in a pub in Kentish Town, where we’d be having lunch and meeting with some journalists and a film crew wanting to interview ‘Sweary Godmother’ and Amy Desir about Man Friday’s latest ventures.
Hampstead Heath has a network of swimming ponds, including a Ladies’ Pond and a Men’s Pond, both open all year round. Until recently, men were not allowed to swim in the women’s pond. Over the last year all lifeguards and managers, and the swimming associations that use the ponds, have undergone ‘transgender awareness training’. The result? Towards the end of 2017, the City of London Corporation came to the stunningly unprogressive conclusion that men who ‘identify as’ women should be allowed to use both the Ladies’ pond and the female changing rooms.
Whether you are a man or a woman, according to this way of thinking, is based solely on an inner feeling of ‘gender identity’. If you don’t have a gender identity, don’t worry. Lots of us don’t, which is hardly surprising- if you take away biological differences between men and women you’re left with nothing more than a gauntlet of stereotypes to negotiate. It isn’t possible to see someone’s gender identity – a portly gentleman with a moustache may identify as a woman, and, although it seems strangely less frequent in those over the age of 25, a woman can identify as a moustachioed, portly gentleman. Age and race, somewhat inconsistently, remain unaffected by identity. I mean, come on, that would be absurd!
Fellow females, if you’ve never been to the Ladies’ pond on Hampstead Heath, it’s well worth a visit. It has a leafy meadow feel; an all-female space has a different vibe to it that it’s hard to understand unless you’ve visited one: women hold themselves differently, the atmosphere is more relaxed.
On a sunny day, women of all ages sit around on the grass, reading, chatting, napping, wearing as much or as little as they choose and free of the concern that an inch of naked flesh will provoke some lascivious neanderthal into making unwanted advances. In this male-free space, conversations are started easily, respect for personal space is observed and women seem happy to trust strangers to ‘keep an eye on my stuff for a minute’ while they pop in for a swim.
It all feels a bit different when you know that the magic words ‘I identify as a woman’ can let male-bodied people into the space. Of course, this also means that women who ‘identify as’ men can use the men’s pond.
Sweary had written for confirmation of this, and received the following email from the City of London:
So that was that settled: “trans women and trans men are welcome to swim at the relevant single gender ponds.”
Eight of us met for lunch beforehand, a pricey but delicious affair at a hipster pub near the station. I’d give them a recommendation- the quinoa burger was delicious and the coffee dark and strong, but the place would probably be targeted by activists for unknowingly serving TERFs, and an official apology demanded. (No, I’m not joking.)
I met Amy Desir of Man Friday, for the first time, as well as a couple of women I had met before, and some I hadn’t. We exchanged hugs and one showed me a stylish beard and moustache combo that she’d purchased especially for the occasion. (Little did we suspect that her bearded visage and ample cleavage- along with Amy’s barely-there, neon-green mankini- would adorn the pages of both The Mail & The METRO the next morning.)
The journalists turned up, interviewed Sweary and did a bit of pseudo fly-on-the-wall filming of us chatting over lunch. It was a warm afternoon and, tempting as it was to remain nestled under the parasols outside the pub, we finished our food and drinks and headed off to the ‘Stone of Free Speech’ where we were meeting the rest of the women joining us for the protest.
Yes, the ‘Stone of Free Speech‘ actually is a thing!
The sky was clear and the air was still. Birdsong filled the air. The grass was covered with cute kids playing football and adorable puppies basking in the sun. Most of the people lounging on the grass barely gave a second glance to the posse of self-identified men strolling purposefully along the path in a manly manner.
While the world frequently hears the clarion call, ‘transwomen are women’ we are rarely exposed to its sister cry ‘transmen are men’.
I’m not the first person to point out that while trans-identified men (transwomen) make the press for a variety of reasons, modelling, joining all-women’s shortlists, running as female MPs, winning women’s sports competitions and awards: trans-identified women (transmen) seem to only make the news when they have babies.
Likewise, while women are expected to make way for trans-identified men in their safe spaces, the opposite is rarely true. More and more of us are waking up to the fact that men will only take an interest in the erasure of sex-based spaces when it starts affecting them.
So here we were.
Much as we might joke about all straight men loving the sight of a pair of boobs any time, any place, anywhere, it really isn’t true. Most men, gay or straight, want a single-sex space to change- if they didn’t, they could use one of the mixed ponds. Because yes, there are mixed swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath, although they close for the winter at the end of September, whereas the other ponds are open all year round.
We obediently paid for our entry tickets (£2 a head) at the machine by the unlocked gate and walked into the men’s area.
The Daily Mail’s report that ‘female protestors break into a men-only lido!’ made it sound much more wild and exciting than it really was. We got a few strange looks from men entering and leaving the area, but it was far from a military mission.
“Er, this is the men’s pond.” offered a young man in his 20s as we fiddled with the ticket machine.
“Oh we know,” breezed one of the women I was with, “But we identify as men today. Would you like a leaflet?”
Somewhat puzzled, he took the proffered paper and disappeared.
A few of our group remained outside, giving out ‘Man Friday’ leaflets to passers by, those sitting on the grass nearby and the men entering the pond.
“If you’re going to identify as a man, it might as well be Batman!” declared one woman, as she peeled off her T shirt to reveal Batman stickers strategically placed over both nipples- although I think she covered them up again for the swim.
Trying to look nonchalant and manly, we changed into our swimwear while the men around us looked on with a mixture of bemused bafflement and downright annoyance. Amy deftly stripped naked and slipped on a mankini, remarkably like that worn by Borat. The rest of us were slightly less graceful.
“Ouch. I can’t get my hair in my swim hat!”
“Is anyone else going topless?”
“Blimey, I’m not!”
“I’ve got a spare beard here! Would anyone like to borrow it?”
“What are you doing in here?” asked one older man. Pointing at Amy, he turned to the guy next to him. “They shouldn’t be in here! You shouldn’t be in here! This is the men’s area. This area is for men! You should go to the women’s pond!”
“But we identify as men,” said one woman, calmly.
“You can’t do that! You can’t just say you identify as men and come in here!” The man was outraged. “Imagine if we did that in the women’s area! We’d be kicked out immediately.”
“Ah, but you wouldn’t. Men are allowed in the women’s pond now if they say they identify as women.”
A small crowd had gathered. Some of the men had read the leaflets we’d been handing out and understood what was going on. Several of them were supportive. “Good for you,” called out one. Conversations broke out in small groups throughout the changing area. I only wish I could have heard them all.
“This is a man’s space!” continued the man who’d been talking to and about Amy. “Women shouldn’t be in here!”
“We agree with you.”
He stopped. “You do?”
“We really do. We think the ponds should continue to be sex-segregated…”
I left them to their conversation, moving through the changing room and down along the jetty. The woman walking in front of me had left her crocs on.
“Miss! Miss!” called the lifeguard. “Please remove your shoes.”
“Sir, not Miss!” she called back as she slipped them off.
“Sir then,” he sighed, presumably oblivious to the act of hatred he had committed in misgendering her… I mean him…
I dipped in my toe. The water was cold. My idea of outdoor swimming is more along the lines of a hot tub at a hen party, a crystal-blue alpine lake in midsummer, or a hot spring in Keer Ganga. While I’d visited the London ponds before, I’d never actually swum in one. It looked a bit murky. Would there be fish?
“Come on! It’s great once you’re in!” called the bearded lady… I mean man. I looked at the curious faces around me and did the manly thing. In I jumped. Surprise! The water felt wonderful.
A couple of young men swam over to me.
“Why are you even in here? I can see your friend’s boobs.” observed one, unhappily.
We wouldn’t be able to get our cocks out in the women’s pond.” added his friend. “Not that we’d want to.”
“Well, you would be allowed to change in the women’s changing rooms now,” I said, treading water and wondering if fish were likely to nibble my toes. “So yes, since they changed the rules you’d be able to do exactly that if you said you were a woman.”
“Not just any bloke, though. I mean, we couldn’t do it.”
“You could. If you said you identified as women.”
“Why would we do that?”
“Any man can do that, if he wants to, for any reason, since they changed the rules. That’s the problem. Look, we just don’t want male-bodied people in the women’s pond, any more than you want female-bodied people in here.”
Another guy swam over.
“They’re protesting,” he explained to the first two. “Against men just being able to roll up to the women’s pond and say they’re women. It’s been happening, you know. I don’t blame them. I’m with you on this, love! I think it’s brave of you.”
There are times when I’m willing to let being called ‘love’ slide, and this was one of them.
“Thank you,” I beamed.
“Well, I think your friend’s beard is offensive to trans people,” put in the first guy.
“How is it more offensive than a man thinking he’s a woman by putting on a dress and fake boobs?” I asked. “I think that’s offensive to women.”
“But it’s a mental illness! Trans people have enough problems as it…”
“So we should tell men they’re women and let them into women’s spaces? Isn’t that just really sexist?”
I’ll never know where the conversation might have gone next, because an authoritative voice behind me called, “Miss, can you get out of the water, please?”
I turned to see three police officers on the jetty and realised I was one of the last women left in the water.
“You’re breaking several bylaws and this could constitute a criminal offence,” said one officer, briskly. “Please get changed and come outside where we can discuss this.”
Trying to keep ourselves in a group as much as possible, the other women and I changed hurriedly and moved onto the path outside the men’s pond. There the Sargent explained what the problems were. I have to say, the police were polite and respectful at all times, as were we. The whole exchange was extremely civilised. In fact, we were told that we were the most polite protestors they’d ever encountered!
I missed the start of the conversation between the police and the other protestors as I was balancing on one foot, attempting to squirm out of a wet swimsuit and back into my dress without falling over. Having achieved this momentous and entirely unmanly feat, I joined the others.
Sargent Barry Macefield explained the situation to us.
Evidently we had contravened bylaw 10, concerning accessing male & female facilities, (changing rooms etc) and bylaw 44, concerning obstructing anyone else in the proper use of the grounds (there had been complaints about our presence). I have to say, it was all a bit confusing, so here’s a copy of the relevant bylaws for your perusal.
The bit of the bylaw that did make sense to me, the bit that struck me as most relevant, was the part that read: ‘no person shall… go into any… place provided for the opposite sex’. Sweary asked Sargent Macefield if that meant the email (above), which she’d shown to the police as they’d escorted us from the pond, was wrong in stating, ‘trans women and trans men are welcome to swim at the relevant single gender ponds’.
“It’s not necessarily wrong” said Sargent Macefield, tactfully. “It’s about the clarification, in regards to whatever.. it’s obviously getting convoluted.”
He added that the police’s biggest concern here was to prevent a breach of the peace and as there had been complaints they’d had to come and investigate. He suggested that our next step should be to speak to the City of London Corporation for some clarification over the content of their email.
“So those are the issues around this.. hopefully today you’ve had a chance to make your point.. we’re not here to discuss whether you’re right, wrong or indifferent.. if men turn up and do the same thing (in the women’s pond) they’ll be given exactly the same discussion.”
“We know you guys are in the front line,” said Sweary. ”I said this to the lifeguard. I feel terrible dragging people in to this, it’s important that we are appreciative of you guys doing your job.”
“You are actually the politest protestors we’ve ever dealt with.” acknowledged Sargent Macefield.
I heard one officer say, “It’s not our position to say if you’re right or wrong. You could probably educate us on the issues of trans.”
“This week we’ve actually got some transgender training.” added another.
“The people who do the transgender training often don’t understand how the Equality Act works and it’s quite worrying,” one woman warned him. “Women do have the right to female-bodied spaces under the Equality Act. I doubt your transgender training will tell you that.”
Sargent Macefield concluded that he would let his superintendent know there were some issues around the interpretation of the email & that it needed to be clarified. Perhaps the swimming committees need to have a meeting to discuss the issues around self-identification, he suggested.
We said we hoped that would be the case.
After agreeing to be photographed with Sweary and Amy, he wished us a lovely day and the police went on their way.
After they’d gone, most of us went to the Women’s Pond, where some had a swim and others lounged on the grass, discussing what had happened and speaking to some of the other women there. Sweary and Amy slipped up to the main road to give an interview to the press and joined us shortly afterwards. Our overall feeling was that the afternoon had been a great success. We’d drawn attention to the difficulties involved with self-identification and had found support from many of the men in and around the pond.
I found out that the angry older gentleman who had complained earlier had eventually had a chat with Sweary & Amy, and ended up by totally understanding where they were coming from. He even gave them both a hug when he said goodbye!
The one thing the Women’s Pond is lacking, in my opinion, is a coffee machine. Being a man is exhausting stuff, and I needed a caffeine hit. After half an hour or so I wandered back down to the pub with Amy, stopping on the way to get an ice lolly, coo at cute babies and stroke puppies.
My first afternoon as a man had been an interesting one.
Thanks to @SandyDrawsBadly for this cartoon.