EXCLUSIVE: The BBC’s decision to include two transgender activists on a list celebrating successful women has proved divisive among journalists at the UK broadcaster.

The 100 Women project was established in 2013 to celebrate the achievements of women from all walks of life. Transgender women have featured in the past, but questions have grown about their inclusion as the BBC has made impartiality its top priority under Tim Davie, the director-general.

The 2022 list features two trans women who have helped further the cause of trans rights. Erika Hilton was thrown out onto the streets by her conservative family but became the first Black trans woman to be elected to Brazil’s National Congress. Efrat Tilma was the first trans woman to volunteer for the Israeli police.

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Hilton and Tilma’s presence was noted by readers, some of whom hijacked a conversation started by the 100 Women Twitter account to complain about the list.

Their inclusion also angered some BBC journalists, who voiced their concern in WhatsApp groups and in correspondence with Deadline.

These employees argued that the BBC’s duty to impartiality had been called into question by the 100 Women list because gender identity remains a fiercely contested issue. They argued the BBC should not unquestioningly accept that trans women are women.

One BBC journalist said it was a “nakedly non-impartial” decision to include trans activists on the 100 Women list. Another said: “We are telling people that trans women are women by including them in a list of 100 Women. The BBC is shutting down discussion again.”

A former BBC journalist argued that the corporation had displayed double standards. The person said that Jenni Murray, a former BBC radio presenter, had been banned from hosting items about gender identity after questioning trans rights orthodoxy. “100 Women has not been censored for the opinion that [trans women] are real women,” the journalist said.

Others added that including trans activists in 100 Women does a disservice to the very women the list is trying to elevate. One senior BBC presenter told Deadline it was “ghastly”.

“A complete rethink of our traditional understanding of impartiality”

The BBC’s decision to feature Hilton and Tilma was welcomed by other journalists, who argued that it had not damaged the broadcaster’s impartiality agenda. They pointed to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act, which allows people to legally change their gender, and argued it was a matter of basic human decency.

“When it comes to people saying that the BBC has chosen a side, that’s not really the case because it’s just what the law says,” one presenter told Deadline. “Trans women should be allowed access to these spaces.”

Deadline has seen a transcript from a town hall-style meeting BBC management held with young employees last year, in which one person said that impartiality does not mean being neutral on the marginalisation of trans people. “It’s a complete rethink of our traditional understanding of impartiality that the BBC hasn’t properly understood yet,” they said.

The debate over the 100 Women list reveals how fraught the subject of gender identity has become at the BBC, where even well-intentioned editorial projects can create division among staff and audience members.

This is the second time in recent weeks that a seemingly positive BBC editorial project has become embroiled in controversy. Woman’s Hour, a BBC Radio 4 show, ran a feature celebrating the first “all-woman” final of the long-running quiz, Brain of Britain. It later clarified on Twitter that the final “included a trans woman”, angering supporters of the LGBTQ+ community, who said the qualification was not necessary.

A BBC spokeswoman said: “Transgender women have previously been featured on the BBC 100 Women list many times, since the very first BBC 100 Women season was launched in 2013. The BBC 100 Women list also featured a transgender activist who identifies as non-binary in 2019.”

Billie Eilish, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, were among other women featured on the 2022 list.

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