Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they found Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.
On June 15, The Sunday Times reported that, according to leaked documents, “Plans to allow people to change their legal gender and ‘self-identify’ as a different sex have been scrapped”.
These plans had been developed under Theresa May’s government, and would have allowed people to change the sex on their birth certificate without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Readers of this column won’t have been surprised by the news of a U-turn on these plans, however.
Such a move was strongly hinted at by Liz Truss, the minister now responsible, in a speech this April, in which she underlined that the present government’s approach to the future of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) would be guided by the need to protect single-sex spaces, and maintain “proper checks and balances” in the system.
Subsequently, last week’s leak – the details of which remain unconfirmed by the Government – provoked anger from LGBT groups in all the main UK parties. Representatives from the Conservatives, Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Alliance Party, and Plaid Cymru, published a joint letter.
However, the letter’s substance – and media reportage of it – exemplifies the way in which so many public statements about these matters are rife with bad information, particularly regarding current law and practice.
In their letter, the LGBT groups bemoan a “rollback on trans rights”, even though there has been no suggestion that the existing right to change one’s birth certificate will be amended. And the BBC’s report on the groups’ letter was so full of errors, it had to be corrected.
The BBC report – before correction – claimed that the GRA currently requires “a long and medical process” for a change of sex to be recognised, and contrasted this with the way in which gaining recognition of “acquired gender” under the Equality Act “does not have to include surgery”.
In fact, the GRA doesn’t require surgery or any medical treatment to have taken place – only a diagnosis of dysphoria. It’s also hard to conceive of the process as particularly lengthy, considering the seriousness of the outcome: 75 per cent of applications for a Gender Recognition Certificate receive a decision within 20 weeks, and many with 6–11 weeks; 90 per cent of applications are successful.
Moreover, the Equality Act does not mandate recognition of a person’s acquired gender: unless they have acquired a gender recognition certificate, self-identifying transgender people are still to be treated as a member of their biological sex (although they mustn’t be discriminated against for identifying as transgender – in the workplace, for example).
It should also be noted that, at the time of writing this column, the BBC report still contains an error: the claim that trans people may only be excluded from single-sex services for the opposite sex, after a “case-by-case” assessment, is a misinterpretation of the Equality Act.
Sadly, these kinds of mistakes pervade media commentary and the public claims of activists. In the wake of JK Rowling’s recent intervention in the debate, the editor of Pink News purported to ‘correct’ Rowling’s assertion that “A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law”.
However, when the Pink News report was itself independently fact checked, Pink News had to make its own corrections, because Rowling had indeed been right: no medical procedure or treatment is necessary to secure a certificate. Rowling’s claim, therefore, that “many people aren’t aware of this” has seemingly been vindicated.
But are the activists peddling this disinformation genuinely ignorant of the laws they’re campaigning to change? Or are they, at best, simply ambivalent about the truth – so focused on pushing for self-ID and the mandatory recognition of gender identity for all purposes, that they don’t care that the current law is not what they seem to find it in their interests to claim?
The cynic might fear that these people’s “disinformation” would be better described as “misinformation”, but, regardless of intention, it is clearly a worrying state of affairs when a supposed expert – the editor of a magazine describing itself as ‘the brand [sic] for the global LGBT+ community and the next generation’ – is making such basic factual errors.
Unfortunately, bad information can travel fast. Too many people who should know better have taken these misreadings of the law at face value, and this includes those in positions of great influence. We have written here before, for instance, about the widespread adoption of “informative” materials for schools that have been withdrawn when subjected to legal challenge, owing not least to their inclusion of serious mistakes regarding guidance on what the law currently is.
And it is also the case that high-profile commentators, entering the debate to attempt to pour the oil of compromise on troubled waters, have found themselves floundering. Not only does this kind of well-meant intervention typically serve to spread bad information further, it also often perpetuates a frustrating straw-man approach in which the realities of the debate are further obscured.
A sad example of this is Daniel Finkelstein’s recent discussion on the matter in his Times column – best filed under the classic ‘but nobody’s claiming biological sex doesn’t exist’ category. Finkelstein’s claim that “it’s hard to find anyone who thinks that there isn’t… such a thing as sex as well as gender” clearly shows him to be in the extremely lucky position of both never having met a Judith Butler fan, or having read pretty much any Twitter debate on these matters.
And his suggestion that “the chances… are effectively zero” that a man might claim to be a trans women for personal gain shows Finkelstein to be in the even luckier position of never having been a vulnerable women in a “single-sex” prison or refuge. Now, presumably, he is just attempting to be kind by weighing in in this conciliatory manner. But it’s like what they used to say about communism: “Well, it’s a nice idea, I suppose…” Except, of course, as soon as you take the time to find out the truth, it’s really not.
Since writing this column, and beginning our campaign, we’ve taken every chance to stress our commitment to equal respect for all human beings. And we’ve promised to die on the hill for the right of adults to conduct themselves as members of the opposite sex. But amplifying lies about the content of the law is wrong. And denying biological truth is wrong. And these wrongs come with great costs – to society as a whole, and to the vulnerable, in particular.
The recent Newsnight report on an NHS gender clinic reveals what can happen when mistruths and deceptive power-play become the foundation of a medical service – leading to doctors harming the children they have been trusted to help. And the Pink News editor’s blatant disregard for basic fact-checking shows what happens when the fourth estate is turned against the people.
We know some of our readers think we’re talking about fairy tales in these columns. We know some of you don’t think these things matter at all. But they do – and we need to keep talking about them, or the real-world consequences will continue to escalate.