The story of how I was 'deplatformed' as keynote at an international conference
In 2021 a petition was launched to get me ‘deplatformed’, or removed as a keynote speaker, from a midwifery conference in New Zealand.
At the time, I was working with the lawyer Peter Daly to try to get the organisation Birthrights to apologise for their treatment of me. (Peter and I were not successful in this aim but that is perhaps a story for another day).
Because we were right in the midst of this attempt to get an apology from Birthrights, and because there was also a possibility of a defamation claim against the petitioners in New Zealand, I mostly kept quiet about the events as they unfolded. If you talk too much about those defaming you, apparently, you can undermine your own case because you are amplifying their defamation yourself.
In the end it was not possible to sue the petition creators, due to the fact they were in New Zealand, and by the time this had all unravelled, the situation had blown over. At this point, you think to yourself - do I really want to write about this? Do I really want to go back over it all again, drag it up, feel upset, possibly upset others involved, etc?
For a while I’ve avoided doing so, but on balance I’ve decided I do want to get the story down, somewhere, before it fades from my own memory. Unfortunately, this story is not an isolated incident, but instead forms part of a wider picture of the treatment of many women at the moment in the name of ‘inclusion’. It feels important that all of these stories are documented because together they tell us something important about our times, and perhaps, some way into the future, they will be useful to help us unpick and unravel the current madness with the luxury of hindsight.
So here goes…
I was originally invited to speak at the October 2020 conference, organised by the New Zealand College of Midwives (NZCOM), all the way back in 2019. This was the year my second book Give Birth like a Feminist was published, and before I was considered in any way ‘controversial’. They wanted me to speak about birth as a feminist issue, and I was absolutely thrilled to accept - not only was it an honour to be asked but also because visiting New Zealand had always been a dream of mine.
Of course, the pandemic put pay to that dream, and the conference was postponed. Myself and the conference organisers stayed in touch, ever hopeful, as everyone was in 2020, that the effect of the virus would be short-lived and things would ‘get back to normal’. Perhaps I would get my New Zealand trip in 2021. Sadly, this was not to be, so I agreed to speak about the same topic via Zoom at the rescheduled event in November 2021.
However, on August 27th 2021, a petition was launched to have me removed as a speaker by a group called the Rainbow Midwives Alliance. In the preceding few weeks, I’d broken my silence on the bullying I experienced for stating that ‘obstetric violence is violence against women’, and my story had been in the UK press.
The Rainbow Midwives Alliance created a web page about me entitled ‘No Terfs in Midwifery’.
The page makes several completely untrue and defamatory statements about me, including that I (direct quotes from the website):
pose real and immediate risk and harm toward the LGBTTQIA+ community
promote and encourage hate speech towards marginalised communities
believe that trans people are not deserving of care or recognition within birth
believe that gender affirmative language and healthcare should not be available for transgender or gender diverse people
believe that only 2 catagories (sic) of gender exist, and that these align with physical sex
The page also cites Maori culture in a way that Michelle Uriarau pointed out was inaccurate and appropriating.
The web page called on NZCOM to remove me as a speaker, and linked to the petition, hosted by ‘Our Action Station’.
The petition repeated false claims that I had, “…actively perpetuated harm within rainbow communities, and shared hate speech toward gender minorities”. They also cited the situation with Birthrights, the UK organisation who had cut ties with me - which is a nice illustration of how damaging defamation can be. Birthrights defamatory statements about me, which remain on their website here and which I have refuted here, were being recycled and used against me on the other side of the world.
I can still remember first reading about the petition, in the middle of the night, awake and on my phone, as so many of us were in summer 2021. I felt horrified, of course, that such statements were being made about me. The idea that I would promote ‘hate speech’, or that I would consider any person, no matter who they were or how they identified, as undeserving of care within birth - well, anyone who knows me or my work will confirm that this is beyond ridiculous. And yet, it’s out there. People can, it seems, make such claims about you, and there is very little you can do.
And of course, there were associated defamatory social media posts from the petition organisers. I won’t link to them, because the purpose of writing down this story isn’t to ignite any kind of pile on. Here’s a flavour though.
On 28th August a group called The Coalition for Biological Reality set up a counter petition. It’s still live but I’ve archived it here. That petition quickly gained over 4.5k signatures, more than double that of the petition calling for me to be deplatformed.
Of course, I was in close communication with the conference organisers, and at first, it seemed they were going to stand firm. I don’t wish to give details of emails or who said what etc, as I know this would probably lead to further issues for the people involved. However, we did have a zoom meeting which made me feel incredibly optimistic, on the 29th August, after which I felt assured that NZCOM were going to support me. I was thrilled to hear this, not just for myself, but because I thought it would set a really good precedent for other women in similar situations, whose livelihoods, careers or reputations were similarly under attack for their views.
Unfortunately, the opposite precedent was set. Within 24 hours of our meeting I began to be made aware of posts on social media in which the petition organisers were claiming ‘victory’. One post referred to me as ‘the devil incarnate’. They also asked to be gifted money for their efforts (using the Maori term ‘koha’), and stated that I was ‘associated with transphobia and far right groups’.
The NZCOM had announced they had cancelled the entire conference, due to ‘covid related delays with the venue completion’. This in some sense released them from having to address the petition, and it also meant that, because the conference was ‘cancelled’ as opposed to ‘postponed’, they could organise a new conference for 2022 with a fresh theme and speaker line-up. Naively, I think that NZCOM then thought that this would make the situation go away, but of course, it only emboldened the petition creators to put further pressure on them to atone for their sin of inviting me in the first place.
After two days of what must have been intense discussions at NZCOM, they issued the following statement to their members:
Kia ora koutou members,
The New Zealand College of Midwives (the College) wishes to acknowledge that, although the decision to cancel this year’s conference was due to events outside our control, there is also a need to respond to the hurt that has been expressed and felt by midwives, especially our Rainbow midwives, in relation to the keynote speaker, Milli Hill. In response to the concerns raised about the keynote speaker, the board had scheduled to meet on the evening of Monday 30th August. While this meeting was pending a petition was launched.
The Board acknowledges that the perceived opinions of Milli Hill may serve to further marginalise and create discontent amongst the Rainbow Community, and that the College did not intentionally set out to cause harm. The Board endorses a continued commitment for the College to support and promote inclusivity within our midwifery profession. Furthermore, we recognise our responsibility for building and strengthening partnerships with representative rainbow organisations and midwifery groups and the communities we all serve. This work is ongoing and we appreciate the progress made for the Rainbow Community may be slower than all would like. Yet progress can be achieved especially when we engage in professional, safe and respectful conversations with each other acknowledging all voices and choices, and this is work the College is committed to.
As the professional organisation for midwives, the College reaffirms its commitment to the membership to work in a respectful, inclusive, collaborative and consensus-based way in its work to support midwives, and the women, people and whānau they provide care for. We look forward to progressing this work in collaboration with College members and rainbow organisations. The attached document provides information about work already underway.
New Zealand College of Midwives|Te Kāreti o ngā Kaiwhakawhānau ki Aotearoa
I have to be honest and say that at this point I felt quite bleak and gutted. At the same time I understood the impossible situation those at NZCOM had been placed in. I am self-employed so I don’t have to answer to anyone (thank god let’s face it at this point!), but for those who are, who have a role and a salary and a pension and a board to answer to etc, I can see that it would be very difficult to take a stand. In spite of feeling this sympathy though, I felt, and will always feel, let down. The bullies won. No jobs were lost at NZCOM, but my reputation was dragged through the mud as I was publicly portrayed as a person who promoted hate speech and was allied to groups from the far right. Someone had to be chucked under the bus to save everyone else and make the situation go away, and that person, it seemed, was me.
There’s always a lot of discussion around the idea of being deplatformed or silenced. Since I wrote my blog, ‘I will not be silenced’, I’ve overheard people scoff and say ‘You’re not silenced, you are writing in big newspapers, or speaking at events’ etc. And this is true. I am not silenced, although for a long time, I was. Before I decided to speak about what had happened to me, I was absolutely terrified and unable to speak about it, even to those close to me, for months. And now I have people get in touch with me all the time who say, ‘I wish I could speak out like you have, but I’m afraid to’. So there is a culture of silencing. Only those who can afford to speak out are speaking out, others are keeping quiet. And even for those who, like me, feel they can take the risk, there is a cost. There will be lost work opportunities. Lost book sales. Lost friends.
This tale from New Zealand shows that, in the 21st century, women can be punished for ‘wrongthink’, and for thought crimes they have not committed. Fairly easily, because of a pervasive climate of fear, they can feel forced to comply with the cancellation or deplatforming of others, for the sake of their job security. Fairly easily, they can be erased from the shortlist, or ostracised, or have their earning capacity threatened, or their platform successfully removed. It happened to me, and it could get far far worse than the story you have just read. It happened to me, and it could just as easily happen to you.
If you haven’t already read it, the main story of how I was attacked for my views in November 2020 is here.
Thanks for reading. Want to support me? I have 3 books which you can buy from any good book seller!
My Period is for girls age 9 to 13 and is filled with information and positivity about periods and puberty.
Give Birth like a Feminist is for anyone interested in why birth is a feminist issue. You don’t have to be pregnant.
The Positive Birth Book is a comprehensive guide to getting ready for birth with lots of humour and a dash of feminism thrown in. Oh and it’s 99p on kindle til the end of Feb!
Links to a few ways to purchase via my linktree - or just search the title name via your usual book shop.
Or you can buy me a coffee. :-)