In a famous scene in George Orwell’s 1984, Inner Party member O’Brien tests protagonist Winston Smith’s allegiance to Party truth by demanding that Winston sees five fingers, instead of the four he is holding up. Winston’s refusal to see something other than what his eyes tell him is the cue for intense physical pain, courtesy of the Ministry of Love.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’
“And if the Party says that it is not four but five – then how many?”
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever.1
Winston’s crime is to retain a sense of an outside to the reality being dictated to him. He experiences the Party as requiring him to ‘reject the evidence of [his] eyes and ears’ such that common sense itself is ‘[t]he heresy of heresies’.2
Winston is unable to fully capitulate to the slogans of the Party. He says the words, but they provoke such cognitive dissonance that he risks all for moments of intimacy and freedom beyond the nightmare reality disciplined by the Party’s thought police.
‘Repeat it, if you please’, says O’Brien to Winston.
The power of slogans
A slogan is a memorable motto or phrase used in a clan, political, commercial, religious, and other context as a repetitive expression of an idea or purpose, with the goal of persuading members of the public or a more defined target group.
Orwell’s Party slogans War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength! are brilliantly dissonant. In asserting discordant causal linkings of familiar categories as ‘truths’, they act to convey something truthful about the deceptions on which modern society is built. Military intervention is indeed asserted as necessary to create and maintain peace, even though all around we see the destabilising effects of unnecessary wars. We might consider ourselves to be free, even though we are bound to states with the power to remove citizenship protections3, tethered to jobs that may not be of our choosing, and subjected in multiple senses of the term4. And it is a commonplace observation that learning leads to the disorienting of certainties, encapsulated in Einstein’s phrase that ‘the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.’
I can only assume these Orwellian doublethink dimensions were intentional in a recent projection onto London’s Ministry of Justice demanding viewers to ‘Repeat After Us’ the slogan Trans Women Are Women!
For some people the assertion ‘trans women are women’ does something similar to the Party slogans devised by Orwell. It messes with categories in various ways traced below, at the same time as truthfully conveying a contested political reality towards which contemporary society is being pushed.
The present significance of the assertion in the UK revolves around a current public government consultation for reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) (deadline 19th October 2018). Reform has been proposed so as to improve the rights of trans people who do not identify into adulthood with the sex recorded on their birth certificate. This is a laudable aim, although it remains unclear how such reforms might affect existing single-sex exemptions in the 2010 Equality Act. A primary proposed mechanism of reform is to simplify existing administrative processes through which trans people can legally change their recorded birth sex to the sex with which they identify, and thus to be accorded by society rights, services and spaces reserved for their acquired sex.
Concerns are being expressed regarding the potential implications of these reforms. Feminists caution that the concept ‘woman’ will be emptied of meaning if individuals with anatomy conventionally known as male are able to more easily assume the mantle of this category in its legal form. As trans woman Debbie Hayton affirms, ‘women would certainly be affected by a changed legal definition of what it means to be a woman‘.
Part of the controversy is linked with the observation that we inhabit a patriarchal societal context in which the legal class of persons conventionally known as ‘women’ continues to be disadvantaged because they are women. To provide an example of the material manifestation of this societal situation, recent UK government statistics report that perpetrators of violent crime are more likely to be male, and women over the age of 16 are five times more likely to have experienced sexual assault than men. These contexts give rise to rational (i.e. not phobic) fears concerning the implications of allowing people with anatomy conventionally sexed as male5 to gain access to spaces in society that currently are conventionally and legally provided for girls and women; whilst simultaneously eroding legal and societal support for the provision of spaces set aside to protect girls and women.
The UK government’s public consultation states that the government is particularly interested in hearing from ‘Organisations working to support individuals of a particular gender – such as women’s groups providing support to victims of violence or sexual assault’. Indeed, the Minister for Women and Equalities opens the consultation by asserting,
I decided to learn more about the public online consultation on reform of the GRA in part because I wanted to understand why I experienced the assertion Trans Women are Women! to be dissonant in literal terms. I especially wanted to consider how my own ignorance might be contributing to this experience of dissonance, since it is different to my experience of the statement ‘trans women are trans women’, which I agree with and respect. Mostly, however, I felt alienated by the Orwellian tactics deployed to force society to accept this statement as ‘The Truth’, as well as confused by hearing totalising discourses from activists I otherwise understood to embrace anti-authoritarian politics.
Legal, ontological6 and class dimensions of the assertion have come more clearly into focus as I have gone through the government consultation, read the legislation around it, and engaged with different perspectives and concerns in the lively debate regarding the proposed reforms. In this post, I share what I have learned regarding the complex politics of experience infusing, fabricating and financing the trans gender movement and its intersections with feminism. I provide diverse resources at the end of the post to support others in the UK who may wish to participate in the public consultation on the GRA.
My overriding sense is that in the UK (as elsewhere) a political struggle is taking place over the category ‘woman’ and who is able to define and inhabit this category. Currently any disagreement with the statement ‘trans women are women’ is being policed by some as a form of Orwellian thoughtcrime requiring punishment. It feels increasingly uncomfortable to stay silent in this context, but it is with trepidation that I share my reflections.7
In the UK today there are two categories of persons legally considered to be women.
1) ‘Women’ are adult human beings who present anatomically as the female sex at birth, are recorded as female on their birth certificate on account of this presentation, and in ‘cisgender‘ terms continue into adulthood to understand that they are sexed anatomically as female. ‘Women’ defined legally as such does not foreclose the fact that such individuals also have diverse bodies, histories, experiences and political leanings.
The online legal dictionary states,
WOMEN, persons. In its most enlarged sense, this word signifies all the females of the human species; but in a more restricted sense, it means all such females who have arrived at the age of puberty.
Uncontroversially for a mammalian species whose reproductive possibilities rely on sexual dimorphism8, ‘female’ is commonly defined in physiological terms,
1 of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.
1 a female person …
‘Woman’ in this legal sense is thus a category linked with the recording of anatomical sex at birth even if ‘[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ [On ne naît pas femme: on le devient], as feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949.9
De Beauvoir’s statement is a core tenet of feminist theory. It draws attention to the fact that the gendered performances of those human beings who present physiologically as female at birth are shaped socially, rather than innately programmed. It should also be obvious, but is worth pointing out again, that saying a woman is an adult female human being is not the same as asserting homogeneity across the bodies or experiences of such persons.
2) In UK law today, it is possible for a person whose anatomical sex was recorded as male at birth to legally become a woman in adulthood, and vice versa. The UK’s 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) affords a person the protection of their reassigned sex through acquisition of a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) following a formal review process by other members of society (the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ here is a reference ‘to a man or to a woman’, as per the legal definitions above.)
The GRA, and its governance technology of a GRC, thus currently affirms de Beauvoir’s feminist insight that gender identity is both an individual and a societal affair. A GRC can currently be gained by anyone over 18 who has lived in their ‘acquired gender’ for two years and intends to do so until death.
Under the Equality Act 2010 gender reassignment is also a protected characteristic, but a person does not (currently) acquire the protected characteristic of the sex towards which they are transitioning without acquisition of a GRC. Gender reassignment refers to ‘changing physiological or other attributes of sex’ (as defined in the Equality Act 2010), thus,
A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.
Without a GRC, a trans woman is thus legally a male human being with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment and without the protected characteristic of their acquired sex, although facilities dedicated to women may be accessed where these do not invoke the single sex exemptions of the Equality Act.10
In summary, then, the legal category ‘women’ in the UK currently includes those adult female persons ‘comfortable with’ their recorded sex at birth, and also those adult persons uncomfortable with their recorded sex at birth who have gained a certificate of recognition of the legal reassignment of their sex in adulthood.
Given that those adult persons who have proceeded with formal recognition are already legally considered to be women, projecting Trans Women Are Women onto the Ministry of Justice presumably constitutes a demand for the legal inclusion as women of some class of persons outside the above legal definitions. The context makes clear that the persons in question are those who do not identify with the sex recorded on their birth certificate, have not proceeded with or gained a GRC that legally embraces them as women, but nonetheless self-define as women.
noun: ontology; plural noun: ontologies
1. the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.
In the context of legal GRA reform, stating that trans women are women becomes an ontological demand to open up the category ‘women’ to encompass three groups of persons:
1) so-called ‘cisgender’ women, i.e. adult human beings who accept the anatomical sex recorded on their birth certificate;
2) adult male human beings who have acquired and committed to the protected sex characteristic of female, by being recognised by society to have changed physiological or other attributes and to have acquired a GRC;
and 3) ‘male-anatomied’ people self-identifying as women.
Taken to its extreme, this third grouping affirms that adult male human beings may assume the category ‘woman’ simply by saying they are women. In doing so, identity/identification becomes unhooked from the combined anatomical-legal bases of the category ‘woman’ (as in the first two legal definitions above).
In the words of feminist scholar Silvia Federici, individual identity here has been acquired through a dissociation from the body:
[t]he product of this alienation from the body … was the development of individual identity, conceived precisely as “otherness” from the body, and in perennial antagonism with it.11
It is this unmooring of the category ‘woman’ from the materiality of the body that provokes pronouncements arguably dissonant to common sense: such as I am a woman, and I have a penis; or claims that lesbians (female homosexuals) should raise their cotton ceiling to permit entry by the penises of so-called trans women lesbians.
It may perhaps be the case that accepting the statement ‘trans women are women’ as ontologically true is the most liberating step humanity can take to dismantle restrictive gender constructions and binaries. It may also be the case that rising diagnoses of gender dysphoria and the sense of ‘being born in the wrong body’ and/or being recorded as the wrong sex, simply reflect an underlying prevalence of previously unrecognised trans gender people in society.
Yet the statement Trans Women Are Women! makes an assertion that is neither ontologically given nor socially settled, even if society is being demanded to ‘repeat after us’ its truth. The statement means knitting together two categories conventionally understood as relational polarities, even as diversity within these categories, as well as blurring across their boundaries, is part of how these categories are understood.
Arguably for many, then, demanding that the category ‘woman’ accommodates the adult bodies of any person presenting physiologically as male, requires an act of doublethink. Perhaps most significantly, it requires that the terms ‘woman’ and ‘women’ are emptied of anything unique to define them, thereby conceptually erasing the class of human beings conventionally described by the terms.
His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them …
‘Reality control’, they called it: … ‘doublethink’.12
This is significant. Behind the legal and ontological dissonance generated by the conceptual insertion of people with male sex anatomy into the category woman, is also a class analysis observing that the category of persons conventionally known as ‘woman’ continues to be penalised in patriarchal society because they are female.
The gender pay gap appears to be intractable; male-violence towards girls and women is escalating both globally and in the UK, with violence against women and girls one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations globally; and legally (in English law) the crime of rape can only be carried out by persons with a penis, conventionally categorised as men (i.e. adult male human beings).
In science, the persistent gender bias in journal editors, paper reviewers and published authors means that women scientists are under-represented and under-published. In popular culture, film and TV dramas continue to be dominated by ‘fridging’: ‘a persistent sexist trope’ named after a 1994 Green Lantern comic in which the hero returns home to find the corpse of his murdered girlfriend in a fridge – creating a foil for his superheroism whilst his female companion can’t enjoy any character progression because she’s dead. Even the contributions of women DJs to UK club culture have been ‘pretty obliterated’ out of clubbing history.
These dimensions signal that as a class women’s experiences are different to men’s, even whilst acknowledging the great diversity of bodies, histories and opportunities that also shape the experience of women (and men). Structural contexts continue to pattern both discrimination and violence towards the class and category of ‘woman’. They are amongst the reasons why ‘sex’ is a protected characteristic under UK equality law, meaning, for example, that men and women in full-time or part-time employment have a right to sex equality in terms of equal pay for the same work. Conversely, men, as a class, ‘have never needed protection from women for their own safety, privacy and dignity‘.
It is thus both problematic and alienating (if unsurprising) to find that insertions – assisted by self-identification – of male-anatomied people into spaces designated as ‘for women’ or ‘women-only’ do indeed seem to be exacerbating, rather than redressing, this class-based inequality. If the only thing required is for male-anatomied people to say they are female, and for society to acquiesce to this assertion, then past and present experience suggests that male-anatomied people will enter spaces reserved by society – after struggle and sometimes with good reason – for women and girls. This scenario is indeed playing out.
For example, political parties in the UK are opening up all-women shortlists to self-identifying trans women, leading to suspensions of female members expressing concern with this policy. In 2016 and to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people some members of the UK’s Green Party promoted the idea of substituting the term ‘non-men’ for ‘women’. More recently, and under a cloud of concerns of the darkest nature, a prominent Green Party trans woman left the party, accusing it of transphobia before applying to join the Liberal Democrats for whom self-definition confirms candidacy for all-women shortlists. Those in the Green Party expressing concern regarding hard-line pro-trans policies and bullying are themselves being threatened with expulsion from the Party.
Meanwhile, in the business world an individual presenting as male on some days (e.g. in a grey suit) and as a woman on others (e.g. in a pink dress and blond wig) recently gained an accolade designated for females. In this case, gaining materially from self-identification as a woman required little commitment to the acquired gender. In sports, revisions to international sporting regulations are permitting transgender women to compete in female categories, which some analysts suggest confers unfair physical advantage due in particular to statistically higher levels of testosterone.
An inter-sectional analysis of sex, gender and racism might observe that trans women experience violence and trauma at the hands of male human beings that is patterned similarly to that experienced by women, and that might also be compounded by racism. To quote Silvia Federici once again, transphobia as well as racism compounds misogyny: thus, in the US, between 2010 and 2016 ‘at least 111 transgender and gender-nonconforming people were murdered …, most of whom were black trans women’. To put this in context, however, homicide statistics in the US for 2010 only, recorded 3,292 murders of women. In the UK in the last decade (2008-2017), and as the Chief Executive of the London-based sexual and domestic violence charity Nia has documented,
there have been 7 homicides of trans people, all biologically male; there have been 12 homicides perpetuated [by] trans people, all biologically male. [… One woman has been killed at the hands of a man every 2.6 days in the UK since 2012.]
At the same time, a number of empirically documented cases do also suggest that some males identifying as trans gender go on to commit crimes – especially sexual assault – against women and girls; crimes which with self-ID might more readily be reported as committed by a woman instead of by a man. If it is ‘transphobic’ to even observe the existence of these empirical cases, how can there be an open conversation about the safe-guarding required to protect the needs of any of the persons concerned?
Overall, it becomes hard not to see the statement Trans Women Are Women as providing an underhand logic for the further ceding of space by those disadvantaged by patriarchy to those who gain from this societal structure. In being based on a privately and publicly expensive version of identity consistent with the atomised individualism of neoliberal ideology, self-ID seems foundationally antagonistic to class politics. It appears to be particularly averse to feminism as a political movement critical of patriarchal capitalism.
Why is this antagonism not of serious concern to capitalism-critical activists?
Enter the 2018 Consultation on reforms to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004
As noted above, in the UK a public consultation is currently taking place regarding proposed changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The aim is to improve the government service guiding the existing process of legally changing gender for those trans and non-binary people who wish to use it. The consultation is online and the deadline for submissions is 19th October (see resources below).
Public services clearly need to work as best they can in a manner that is as inclusive and respectful as possible, and particularly to do whatever is possible to prevent harms experienced by categories of citizens. Legal reforms also need to take account of the interests and experiences of different categories of persons in society (as per the nine protected characteristics in the UK’s Equality Act), as well as being congruent with other areas of legislation. The GRA consultation, for example, commits to upholding the Equality Act 2010, including provision for same- or single-sex spaces, even where upholding these services might ‘otherwise be unlawful gender reassignment discrimination.’
Reform of the GRA focuses on several dimensions, including movement towards a self-declaratory model that will relax current rules around legal sex identification (i.e. identification as a man or woman). If passed, this dimension ‘will represent a fundamental change in English law as to who is classed as a “man” and a “woman”.’ In particular, it means accepting – in principle and in law – that a person whose anatomical sex is male at birth may legally become female purely because they decide that they are, without going through any gender reassignment processes or receiving much by way of societal review of this decision.
Given that female-bodied people as a class disproportionately experience objectification, discrimination and violence at the hands of male-bodied people, it seems both logical and important that concerns regarding these changes are taken seriously. The implied categorical changes to the concept of ‘woman’ also have significant philosophical implications, not least for feminist theory. More prosaically, the potential for men to use legal relaxations both to access spaces conventionally set aside for women, as well as to be favoured (as we have seen) with access to public platforms designated as ‘for women’, are legitimate concerns. It remains unclear what safeguards will be instituted to prevent unintended harms.13
Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you. … Your name was removed from registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.14
The 2014 Trans Manifesto to the main political parties in the UK states that ‘[t]he intention has never been that trans people should have more rights than anyone else, but instead have the same rights that others take for granted.’15 This statement rings hollow, however, when women and others are harassed for simply meeting to discuss proposed policy changes that also affect them.
What has been astonishing to me, and indeed one reason for writing this post, is the level of abuse thrown at women for wishing to meet to discuss these changes. Women and trans women trying to have a respectful and open conversation about the implications of proposed amendments to the GRA are routinely spoken of as ‘bigots’ and labelled as ‘transphobes’.
I too am a woman who has experienced sexualised discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of men in a context of patriarchy. It seems to me that the very fact that so many women are speaking critically about self-sex-ID is a red flag that something is wrong.
The UK government’s public consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is here. The consultation is lengthy but can be filled in and saved as you go.
The deadline for submissions is 19th October 2018.
For a range of resources with diverse perspectives on the consultation and guidance on formulating responses see,
Women’s Place UK
Lost Lesbian blog
Stonewall Trans Equality
I worked through the consultation with tabs open for all of these resources and they all informed the responses that I eventually contributed.
nb. I advise against using the simple guide created by the organisation Level Up because it has rewritten the questions used in the original question such that they lead to responses that are biased. For example,
‘Do you think there should be a requirement in the future for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria?’ (Q3)
has been rewritten as
‘Do you think that trans people should have to prove to medical professionals that they are trans enough?’ (Q3&4)
And ‘Do you agree that an applicant should have to provide evidence that they have lived in their acquired gender for a period of time before applying?’ (Q5)
has been rewritten as
‘Do you think the government should have the right to delay someone’s ability to correct their gender?’ (Q5)
I think this rewriting of the government’s consultation questions undermines the consultation and potentially dilutes the legitimacy of the outcome. It is also disrespectful to the thousands of people completed the consulation online in good faith. If you think this rewriting is cause for concern you can write to GRA.email@example.com.
- Orwell, G. 2013 1984. London: Penguin, p. 286.
- Ibid. p. 92.
- As clarified in philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
- As in ‘the immense labour to which the West has submitted generations in order to produce … men’s (sic) subjection: their constitution as subjects in both senses of the word’ (Foucault, M. 1998 The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. R. Hurley. London: Penguin Books, p. 60).
- I am aware that some trans activists declare the terms ‘female-bodied’ and ‘male-bodied’ to be ‘offensive’ to trans people. However, to be able to talk about patterns and concerns that differentially affect those with male sex characteristics and those with female sex characteristics we need to have words with which to denote these differences.
- ‘Ontology’ means literally the study of being, i.e. of what can be said to exist. It is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the ultimate nature of reality, that nonetheless is approached differently and concerned with different kinds of beings depending on “culture”. Ontological assumptions denote what entities can exist, into what categories they can be sorted, and by what practices and methods they can be known (i.e. epistemology), for participants in a social grouping sharing and negotiating these assumptions. I discuss ontological dimensions of environmental knowledge and policy in a recent paper in the Journal of Political Ecology.
- After publishing this blog I received threats, was faced with a redundancy process at my place of employment, and was stonewalled (pun intended) by former friends, family and colleagues. It has been devastating to observe and experience the breakdown of so many former solidarities. There has been a silver lining, however, in the anonymous letters and messages of support received from people afraid to speak publicly about their concerns, and the new friendships and reconnections with old activist mates watching with horror as trans activism divides and implodes the left.
- Statistics on disorders of sex development (DSD)s confirm that anatomical sex differentiation into male or female is unambiguous for the majority of births, even whilst affirming DSDs to clearly be significant for those thus diagnosed.
- De Beauvoir, S. 1955 The Second Sex. London: Picador, p. 295.
- I am grateful to lawyer Julian Norman and Alan Henness for clarifying aspects of the legal dimensions here (see also comments thread on original post) – edits made 8 October 2018.
- Federici, S. 2004 Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation in Medieval Europe. New York: Autonomedia, p. 151, emphasis in original.
- Orwell op. cit., pp.40-41.
- Given the currently polarised public conversation about the GRA consultation, it might surprise readers that it is possible to engage with the consultation in a nuanced and ‘non-binary’ way. Here are a couple of examples from my own responses to the consultation:
‘Question 5: (A) Do you agree that an applicant should have to provide evidence that they have lived in their acquired gender for a period of time before applying?’
I answered ‘No’ to this question, because,
Feminist theory from Simone de Beauvoir onwards observes that gender is performed in relation to social values and expectations, as well as in relation to a person’s often creative sense of these expectations and their desires not to conform with them. Hence, “living in a gender” is not something the government should be requiring of its citizens, nor is it something that can be policed as such, since there are infinite ways to ‘be a woman’ or ‘a man’. I disagree with any attempts to enshrine sexist stereotypes into law. If a person has a need to change their legal sex because it will ease their sense of dysphoria, or as part of a course of medical treatment, or for some other reason which satisfies the GRA, then there is no need to investigate the way they live their life. Women can live in all kinds of ways and so can men.
My response is consistent with the guidance developed by Women’s Place UK who state that ‘WPUK is opposed to this’ because it ‘inscribes sexism and sexist stereotypes into law’ and ‘works against the rights of both the applicant and other individuals and groups with protected characteristics.’
For ‘Question 20: Do you think that there need to be changes to the Gender Recognition Act to accommodate individuals who identify as non-binary?’ I also responded ‘No’, but not perhaps for the reasons someone adhering to radical versions of gender identity theory might think. I wrote,
We are all ‘non-binary’ in terms of gender. We all experience and exhibit traits characterised by society to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and at a biophysical level all our bodies are infused by hormones characterised as ‘male’ and ‘female’, even whilst our primary sexual characteristics are in most cases unambiguously male or female. The idea that some people are in a box named ‘non-binary’ whilst others are boxed as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ in gender terms simply produces another binary. This is devastatingly unhelpful in terms of engaging critically with the repressive gendered binaries that effect sex-based discimination and exclusions. The GRA should definitely *not* affirm a new binary of ‘non-binary’ and ‘others’.
- Orwell op. cit. p. 22.
- Trans people have the same human rights as any other person and should not be discriminated against for identifying as transgender. The characteristic of gender reassignment ‘for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex’ is thereby protected under the Equality Act 2010 (as detailed above).
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