QotD: “This gender battle is harder to solve than Brexit”
If Brexit is the most divisive issue in British politics, requiring a talent for squaring ideological circles and cajoling compromises from bitter enemies, reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) runs it a close second. The consultation, long-delayed while three successive ministers for women and equalities scratched their heads, is finally launched on Tuesday.
Although even that isn’t official. Bizarrely the government wouldn’t confirm (or deny) the date. But I’ve seen emails: groups will give evidence in late July, a sleepy summer recess slot calculated, perhaps, to contain the GRA firestorm. Some chance.
Opposing forces are drilled for battle. On one side the trans lobby, including Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence, who claim changes to the process by which a trans person acquires a gender recognition certificate (GRC) are merely a tiny administrative tweak. On the other, feminist activists who fear that a legal redefinition of “woman” from biological sex to the nebulous, inner feeling of “gender identity” threatens female safety and privacy.
Much has changed since Maria Miller’s blithe 2016 trans rights report recommended sweeping, contentious changes including expedited hormone treatment for children and removing gender from official government records. Most controversially she sought to replace the GRC process whereby a person must live in their new gender for two years and have a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” (a mental disorder whereby a person feels their identity is opposed to their biological sex). Instead Mrs Miller proposed “self-identify”, ie a man could simply declare himself a woman with no requirement to transition physically.
The report caused a furore. Without hearing evidence from a single women’s group, Mrs Miller also proposed abolishing exemptions to the 2010 Equality Act which allow domestic violence refuges or hostels to admit only biological women. Interviewing Mrs Miller last year, I was flabbergasted by how little she had thought this through. She saw no conflict of rights at all: women, she said, must learn to accept without challenge male-bodied people using their changing rooms.
New feminist groups, including A Woman’s Place, sprang up in alarm. Despite picketed meetings, a violent assault and a bomb threat, they’ve shifted the public consensus to the view that liberating trans people from discrimination and abuse should not remove protections from another vulnerable group: women.
Unsurprisingly, Penny Mordaunt, women and equalities minister, is proceeding with caution. She has stated she will not touch the single sex exemptions and is yet to be convinced about “self-ID”. The consultation will address how the GRC process can be “less bureaucratic and intrusive”.
Yet a GRC is a serious undertaking: it allows a person to change the biological sex on their birth certificate, a document of public record. A person’s identity is then sealed, only to be opened in circumstances such as criminal investigation: there is no way of proving someone is not the sex they claim to be. Only 5,000 GRCs have been issued to date. But if this process is made easier, with no careful checks for sincerity, the Equality Act exemptions are rendered almost meaningless.
Moreover if the GRC is “demedicalised”, requiring no gender dysphoria diagnosis, there are implications for the treatment of children. There is an epidemic of teenage girls believing they are trans: female puberty often involves body self-hatred, long expressed in anorexia and self-harm and now breast-binding and demanding double mastectomies. But why explore this new phenomenon if “gender identity” is officially as indisputable as eye colour?
If attaining a GRC is easier, should single sex exemptions be reinforced? Already companies and public bodies that misunderstand the law or who are intimidated by Twitter storms, such as when Topshop was branded transphobic for excluding a man who identifies as “non-binary” from its women’s fitting rooms, have capitulated.
The government should reassure them and suggest no single sex policy is changed without an impact assessment. This week Times2 reported on a co-ed school where the head designated all toilets “gender neutral” without consultation. Yet “gender reassignment” is just one protected characteristic under the Equality Act: there are eight others, including race and biological sex. The head should first have assessed the impact on girls learning to use sanitary products next to boys, or their fears of phones being used to take pictures under cubicles. The girls won back their single sex toilets, with a few WCs anyone can use.
If my local pool was to allow biological males into its women-only session it should first assess the impact upon the mainly Somali and Arab women in burkinis who, alas, feel unable to swim at any other time. Cancer UK should assess the impact of using the words “people with a cervix” rather than “women” in its cervical cancer campaign. Which will save more lives? Being “trans inclusive” or making sure that women with poor English who might not understand an obscure medical word are screened? If crimes are recorded according to a person’s gender identity rather than biological sex, as FOI requests to police authorities suggest, how will this skew crime figures, given natal women commit a tiny fraction of violent and sexual offences?
All these are reasonable questions for a government consultation, not hate speech. Yet Penny Mordaunt will be dealing with groups who believe “trans women are women” not figuratively or legally, but literally and biologically. Therefore no conflict of rights can possibly exist. Compared to negotiating through this, Brexit is a cinch.