‘I’ve gone from being a tired mum doing the weekly Tesco shopping to being the figurehead for a cause,’ she says. ‘It’s taking some getting used to.’
By her own assessment, Ms Forstater, married with two teenage boys, is rather unremarkable in most respects. At least, she used to be. Then one day she was pitched into the front line of the nation’s culture wars when she lost her job for saying on Twitter that men cannot be women, something her bosses decided was ‘offensive’.
In the face of fierce online abuse, she fought back, only for an employment tribunal to later dismiss her claim that she was discriminated against over her ‘gender critical’ beliefs.
Ms Forstater, 47, who tweeted comments such as ‘woman means adult human female’, was accused of ‘fear-mongering’.
With the intervention of the Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling – who lent Ms Forstater her support – the case became an international cause celebre.
And in a landmark decision last week, a High Court appeal judge overturned the tribunal decision, ruling that holding a view that biological sex never changes regardless of a person’s gender identification is a protected philosophical belief under equality law.
Put another way, Ms Forstater had struck an important blow for common sense. The judgment protects the right to express beliefs and opinions – a right Mrs Forstater says was being eroded by those seeking to stifle views with which they disagree.
It also makes clear the difference between holding an opinion and how one expresses it.
‘I was the right person in the right place to take this to court because it takes a certain amount of resilience and bloody mindedness to do it,’ she says.
As a senior researcher at the Center for Global Development in London, Ms Forstater was often outspoken and opinionated. One might assume that to be a prerequisite for a think-tank employee.
‘My workplace was somewhere that is meant to be about ideas,’ she says. ‘If I couldn’t defend myself for saying it there, what would it mean for young women at school or for women with English as a second language or for elderly women in hospital who need to be able to say, “I want a female nurse”?’
She believes ‘workplaces are increasingly intolerant to differences in viewpoints’ and notes that tolerating others’ beliefs is essential in a democratic society. ‘I think this judgment is going to make organisations think again. It says people should be able to have a debate about contentious issues without taking offence.’
Ms Forstater’s crusade was part of a wider battle between transgender activists and feminist campaigners, with one of the key issues being whether males who identify as women should be allowed access to female-only spaces. She has now become a figurehead around whom like-minded women coalesce.
At a public meeting she put her hand up, saying, ‘I’m Maya Forstater’ and the ‘room exploded with clapping and cheering’.
She has received hundreds of supportive messages since her victory. ‘The biggest thing women have messaged me about is the feeling that they can now speak freely on this subject and will not be sacked and have their livelihood taken away from them,’ she says.
After losing her job, Ms Forstater waited two years for vindication. In her typically understated way, she wrote just two words on Twitter: ‘We won.’ She says: ‘I expected a response to the judgment but it blew me away how big it was. The judgment feels like it belongs to so many people. Obviously it’s about my job, but it’s also about all of these women who are being bullied and silenced at work.
‘People were saying they were crying, telling me thank you and how happy they were that I had won.’ Some said they now felt ‘safer’ in their jobs.
Graham Linehan, the co-creator of Father Ted, who was banned from Twitter over remarks about the transgender lobby, described Ms Forstater as ‘the heroine we need right now’.
As a careful thinker who prefers not to take knee-jerk positions on issues, Ms Forstater took her time before entering the increasingly fraught gender debate.
She offered her opinion on Karen White – a transgender prisoner, born male, with a history of sex offences, who sexually assaulted two women when he was placed in a female jail.
And she questioned the wisdom of giving a ‘gender fluid’ man, Credit Suisse director Philip Bunce, who occasionally dresses as a woman, an award for being one of the top 100 women in business. But a few days after broaching this subject, she received an email from the HR department saying concerns had been raised about her tweets.
In response, Maya agreed to make it clear that her tweets were her own personal opinion, that one should treat people politely at work and use preferred pronouns.
At the same time, she insisted she would continue to say that trans women were biologically male.
Relations with her employers went downhill from this point.
According to Ms Forstater, ‘diversity and inclusion consultants’ were called in by the think-tank to scrutinise her online activity. In March 2019 she was informed that her services were no longer needed. ‘It was a messy end,’ she admits. ‘It was a job I loved and I was good at. I’m the main breadwinner in my family, so that was the lowest point.’
After she revealed her misfortune online, which prompted a wave of sympathy, Ms Forstater decided to fight back.
She raised more than £120,000 through crowdfunding for her legal action, and in November 2019 took her former employers to a tribunal.
After what her lawyer described as a six-day inquisition, the judge concluded that Ms Forstater’s view that biological sex is immutable was ‘absolutist’ and ‘not worthy of respect in a democratic society’. The tribunal case made headlines. What turned it into something much bigger though was a supportive tweet from with the hashtag IStand- WithMaya from J. K. Rowling, who has 14 million Twitter followers.
Significantly, this was the author’s first foray into the bitter debate and the repercussions were devastating. She was ‘cancelled’ on social media. And some of the stars of the Potter films criticised her.
Ms Forstater says: ‘I didn’t see it coming at all. I had no contact with her. The tweet just came out of nowhere. Someone WhatsApped it to me and I thought they’d Photoshopped it to cheer me up. It was amazing to get her support.’
As it transpired, Rowling would back her to the end. She sent a private message of congratulations and retweeted Ms Forstater’s celebratory declaration of: ‘We won!’
Reflecting on the case, Ms Forstater says: ‘I just wanted to contribute to a Government consultation on women’s rights and I’ve been taking it one step at a time ever since. It’s been really hard but I wouldn’t do anything differently.’