When James Kirkup became interested in transgender politics, people warned him that writing about it was too dangerous. He notes that the fear the subject inspires in many MPs of being attacked as “transphobic” has created a vacuum into which transgender campaigning groups have been able to move, and to push for the right of trans people to “self-identify” their gender, without the arguments for and against the reform being tested in rigorous debate.
In this interview, Kirkup says “nobody has really pointed out” that Professor Stephen Whittle – specialist adviser to the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Maria Miller, when it drew up its agenda-setting report on Transgender Equality – is “also the founder of a group called Press for Change, which was the first trans rights campaigning group in the UK.”
With the support of Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, Kirkup has produced since February a large volume of studiously even-handed work on this topic, and has gained for that magazine a number of left-wing feminist subscribers.
The Government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act [GRA], which ended this week, was launched by Penny Mordaunt, the Minister for Women and Equalities, with the declaration: “Trans women are women, that is the starting point for this consultation.” But the implications of that dictum for all-women shortlists, and for such facilities as women-only swimming pools and prisons, are only just starting to be appreciated.
Kirkup worked as a political journalist for The Daily Telegraph, Bloomberg News and The Scotsman, and is now Director of the Social Market Foundation.
ConHome: “Why did you get interested in this? So many other people have avoided the subject.”
Kirkup: “Well, that is part of the reason. Last Christmas, I was talking to a Labour Party friend. She was quite animated about the question of Labour and all-women shortlists, and whether Labour should allow self-defining women to stand on all-women shortlists.
“And I thought that might make an interesting off-beat piece. And she said, ‘Yes, but you can’t write about that – you’ll get killed.’ Which frankly piqued my interest. So over a period of weeks I did some reading and spoke to various friends around Westminster about it, and quite a few of them essentially said, ‘You’re right, there’s something in that, but you can’t write about it, you’ll get killed.’
“Obviously metaphor is banned now in political conversation. We should bow our heads and say it is not appropriate to make jokes about killing.
“I was arriving late on in terms of the government process. Last summer, summer ’17, when everybody was a bit busy with some other stuff, it was decided in Downing Street that there would be a new push to reform the Gender Recognition Act.”
ConHome: “So that was after the general election, when they were thinking ‘we’ve got to show we’re a buzzy, modernising administration’.”
Kirkup: “My impression is that someone was persuaded that this was the new, social-liberal, modern issue.”
ConHome: “The new Gay Marriage Act.”
Kirkup: “Yes. I think that’s what sent Theresa May to the Pink News Awards in October ’17, where she said we will streamline and demedicalise the process, we will be the party that reaches out. And Justine Greening got the job of announcing there would be a consultation on the reform of the GRA.
“Anyhow, I spoke to some people who said, ‘Yes, there are some issues there, but it is not a subject that any sensible person would venture into.’
“But as I don’t really have to worry about being popular, and I don’t have to get elected, I thought if I’m not going to write about this stuff, then nobody is.
“So I wrote one piece in February [Can we have an honest debate about gender?], and I think it was about 2,500 words long.”
ConHome: “You were clearly trying to anticipate every possible objection.”
Kirkup: “I write very, very quickly. It’s just a necessity in the jobs I’ve had. I’ve never had much time to write. That piece I spent a number of days labouring on to try to make sure that every word, every term…”
ConHome: “And there were no unnecessary provocations, and an evident desire to have a calm and rational discussion.”
Kirkup: “So eventually it went online, and the response was not wholly positive, but the response was very positive and there was much more of a response than I expected. And because there were very few journalists talking about this stuff, quite a lot of people then got in touch to say, ‘There are questions here, have you seen this bit, have you seen that?’
“Because it is a huge and complicated subject. It touches on the philosophy, but my interest is still in the political process, which was failing and still to some extent is. I’ve been around this place [Westminster] for nearly 27 years, my first job here was as a junior bag-carrier for an MP in 1994…”
ConHome: “Which MP?”
Kirkup: “Alan Beith, my local MP in Northumberland [a Liberal Democrat]. So I am essentially a Westminster lifer, to my shame. And I’ve never come across a subject where there’s such a reluctance to engage. It seemed to me there were some perfectly reasonable questions being asked by people who could not get a hearing.
“As a result of that first Spectator piece I ended up in contact with Women’s Place UK – they wrote a piece for the Spectator about what it is like trying to organise a meeting when you have people ringing the venue and telling the organisers you are transphobic – they get threats, they get pickets.
“Women’s Place UK is run by a couple of life-long trade unionists and various volunteers. They are left-of-centre, traditional left women involved in trade union politics and community politics, who try to organise these meetings which are in essence very mundane, community meetings for 100 or 150 women to talk about the interaction of the Gender Recognition Act and the single-sex exemptions of the Equalities Act 2010.
“This is not rabble-rousing stuff. And yet they were genuinely struggling to organise these meetings because every time they did the venue would be picketed and threatened and harassed.”
ConHome: “Incidentally, just in brackets, in case I forget to ask you, what’s the worst you’ve had yourself?”
Kirkup: “Very, very little. This is the very interesting thing. I don’t think I’ve said anything original, in the many words I’ve written on the subject this year.”
ConHome: “A bold claim.”
Kirkup: “I’m not sure I’ve said anything that has not already been said by one or all of the following: Janice Turner, Helen Lewis, Julie Bindel, Sarah Ditum. I’m walking in the wake of a great many journalists who have already explored this subject.
“It just so happens that all those journalists are women, and the odd thing that strikes me is I know, from talking to some of them and looking at the social media conversation round their output, that some of the things which are said to them, which are despicable and horrible and threatening and violent, are not said to me. A lot of the people who are very keen to go and tell those women to die in a fire just leave me alone.”
ConHome: “Bullies like to go for the weakest person, often suppose that women are weak, and don’t think you’re weak. At least that’s one reason. There may also be a profound misogyny. Also you’re not going out there and putting your fists up and saying ‘let’s have a fight’. You’re not a professional controversialist.”
Kirkup: “The weary reasonableness of the writing is probably one factor. In terms of what is the worst, nothing leaps to mind. I don’t pay very much attention to it.”
ConHome: “So if someone does a really obscene or horrible tweet, you just ignore it.”
Kirkup: “Yes. I had nastier emails and tweets from junior doctors a couple of years ago, when I took a fairly sceptical view of the BMA’s position on the junior doctor conflict – the nastiest online abuse I’ve ever had, and that includes dealing with Ukippers, CyberNats…
“Anyhow, the Women’s Place UK meeting, it struck me this is not how politics is supposed to be. Public meetings are the basic building blocks of how politics is done. You get together in a room and you talk about stuff. Here were a bunch of people who couldn’t even get together in a room to talk about things.
“They were trying, and are still trying, to reach out to the politicians to say ‘What’s going on here?'”
ConHome: “When is the end of the consultation?”
Kirkup: “Today [Monday], in about an hour’s time. It was due to end at 11 p.m. on Friday night and then they extended it until noon today because they had so many responses the survey kept crashing.”
ConHome: “I imagine you haven’t made a submission?”
Kirkup: “No, no. I don’t really have a view on what the correct legal regime is, because I don’t think I’ve seen enough evidence.”
ConHome: “At the moment, if a man who self-identifies as a woman turns up at a women-only bathing establishment such as the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, what is the legal position?”
Kirkup: “Does that person have a Gender Recognition Certificate or not? Let’s assume they don’t, because there are only about 5,000 Gender Recognition Certificates issued. So the law that covers the service provider, the swimming pool say, is the 2010 Equality Act, which broadly says everyone should be treated the same, and if you are providing a service you should provide the same service to everybody, except of course, for perfectly understandable reasons, that law has exemptions.
“That law says there are exceptions that can be made, and one of the grounds is on grounds of sex. The sex/gender distinction is very, very important, and not properly understood by a lot of politicians who talk about this stuff, a lot of journalists who write about this stuff, and a lot of the official and public bodies who deal with this.
“The conflation by public bodies of sex and gender is quite worrying, if you think that public bodies should actually understand the law and apply it properly. And there’s a core question about whether some of the lobbying organisations that have been involved in this have been encouraging a misunderstanding of sex and gender. The law itself is quite messy on the subject.”
ConHome: “And is that the fault of the politicians, by the way, who’ve left it up to the judiciary?”
Kirkup: “The judiciary hasn’t really been involved, to be honest. It is ultimately the fault of politicians, who haven’t paid enough attention to the subject. Parliament has not been clear enough on the issue and provided clear enough guidance, and has basically left a lot of public bodies to get on with it.”
ConHome: “There might be a certain wisdom in that – in seeing how the subject evolves.”
Kirkup: “Yes, but it leaves a vacuum that can be filled by groups which are well-organised and competent and have an agenda.
“Under the Equality Act 2010 the swimming pool can say ‘this space is reserved only for females’ – that is, people who are of the female sex.
“The question is how that organisation chooses to apply the exemptions and whether or not it chooses to do so, because there are a lot of organisations that are very keen to tell public bodies and service providers that these exemptions can only be invoked under the most dire and exceptional of circumstances, and if you invoke them unduly you will be breaking the law and you will be doing a bad thing and you will be transphobic, and you will be unduly and unfairly and unreasonably excluding a minority who have suffered terrible persecution – which is entirely true, there’s no question at all that everybody should be nicer to transgender people.
“But that’s separate to the question of what the law actually says and how the law is being applied. This is actually something separate to the GRA consultation – the degree to which the 2010 Equality Act is not being fully or properly applied.
“Maria Miller’s committee is soon to start an inquiry into the Equality Act 2010.”
ConHome: “You’ve said their report on the transgender question was very bad.”
Kirkup: “It was very bad. I don’t say this with any malice towards anyone on the committee, but that committee report, which was very, very influential, it set the agenda really…”
ConHome: “When did it come out?”
Kirkup: “The work was done in 2015 and the report was actually published in early 2016. The problem with that report was if you actually read it, as I have for my sins, every transcript and every bit of written evidence submitted, the problem with the committee was that it gave too much priority to the lobbying organisations and not enough to the objective authorities.
“It’s very interesting, and nobody has really pointed this out, the specialist adviser on the committee – you often hire an outside adviser to guide the clerks, guide the committee, help select evidence, and sometimes draft the report – the specialist adviser on that report was Professor Stephen Whittle of Manchester Metropolitan University, who was described in the report as Professor Stephen Whittle of Manchester Metropolitan University.
“The report nowhere mentions that Professor Whittle was also the founder of a group called Press for Change, which was the first trans rights campaigning group in the UK.”
ConHome: “What has he said about that subsequently? What has Maria Miller said about it?”
Kirkup: “Nothing, because no one’s ever made the observation or asked the question.”
ConHome: “Even you haven’t yet written this?”
Kirkup: “No. I’ve discussed it with Commons staff who were involved and know about it. Partly because we’re now three years after the fact.”
ConHome: “It’s a pretty extraordinary fact.” An electronic search of the committee’s report shows only one reference to Whittle, in paragraph 18 of the Introduction: “We are very grateful to our Specialist Advisor, Stephen Whittle OBE, Professor of Equalities Law at Manchester Metropolitan University, for his help and guidance throughout the inquiry.”
Kirkup: “It’s an interesting fact, but going after a three-year-old select committee report, even though it was a very important one, hasn’t been a priority.
“At one point they had an evidence session where there was Susie Green from Mermaids, the campaign group set up by the parents of transgender children, and a couple of other transgender campaigning organisations, on a panel giving evidence, alongside Dr Bernadette Wren of the Tavistock and Portman Trust, who’s one of the country’s leading clinical experts on the subject.
“If you look at all the literature and all the work done by the Tavistock Clinic, they will say, on the subject of children and why the number of children transitioning, or presenting at gender clinics, is rising: ‘We’re not really sure. We don’t have enough evidence yet. We’d like to do some more research. We certainly think we should go relatively slowly before we get to the point of physical intervention, medicine and the rest.’
“One of the striking things about that inquiry is you have the country’s leading clinical experts saying we don’t know what’s going on here, can we slow down, and the committee more or less ignored that, and if you look at their recommendations, they adopted almost in full the recommendations made by the advocacy groups like Mermaids, which is still something that I find slightly troubling.
“The experts, and I’m not one, the people who’ve actually done the peer-reviewed scientific medical endocrinology research in this subject, in the context of children particularly say ‘we’re not sure, we need more time’.
“On the other side of the fence, there is the suicide narrative which is now being put on air by ITV, saying if you don’t intervene quickly your child will kill themselves. That is the argument being promoted in some cases by a group of parents who have themselves had really horrible traumatic experiences.
“And this is where it gets really difficult, because if you listen to someone like Susie Green, who as a matter of public record is the mother of a daughter who was born a boy, she has a daughter who was born male, she took her child out of the country at the age of 16 for sexual reassignment surgery, and that child is now in her early twenties and says she is now very happy, this is the best thing that ever happened to her, her life is great and before this happened she was suicidal and self-harming.
“Imagine going through that as a parent. That is extraordinarily difficult. So Susie Green has made choices and done the best for her family, quite rightly. But the question is how much weight and importance you give to personal experience.
“In the same report there were a couple of criminal psychologists who submitted quite long, detailed evidence saying ‘be in no doubt, there are a group of violent and abusive men who will attempt to exploit any set of rules you put in place, particularly these ones, to get access to vulnerable women in prison.’
“That was not even mentioned in the final report of the committee, and fast-forward to 2018 and the Karen White case comes up. The Karen White case is essentially a perfect illustration of the sort of thing that the experts were trying to warn about three years ago.
“The politicians in many cases haven’t really been doing their job properly, which is to weigh all the evidence.
“When Penny Mordaunt announced the consultation in July she said ‘Trans women are women, that is the starting point for this consultation’. A lot of people who follow this stuff find that statement very troubling. We could spend the day here discussing the epistemological implications of that statement.
“Trans women are women – that’s the mantra, those are the words you have to say, and if you don’t say those words you are at risk of being accused of transphobia. No one who says the words has yet provided a satisfactory definition of ‘trans women’ or ‘women’.
“Either you have self-identification, in which case anybody who says they’re a trans woman is a trans woman, or you have a set of objective criteria which you have to meet before you are considered to be a trans woman, and that’s what this is all about. This is about trying to remove objective criteria and move to subjective ones.
“And if you remove the objective criteria of entry, to join the category that is women – sorry, I’m going back to my undergraduate philosophy here, it’s all about categories – then ultimately you end up rendering that category meaningless. This is about rendering that word ‘woman’ meaningless.”
ConHome: “Who has written best against what you’ve been saying?”
Kirkup: “I’m going to talk to Fraser Nelson about this. This is something I did at The Telegraph. When I was fighting tooth and nail against the junior doctors, I got a couple of junior doctors to write, essentially, why I am wrong about everything.
“I’m very keen to hear the contra argument. This bothers me, I try and read a lot of the contra arguments, and I have yet to read someone who actually engages on the substance. Essentially the arguments just boil down to ‘you’re just being intolerant, you people are being really horrible’.”