Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.
Regardless of commitments about a summer announcement, Parliament went into recess without any further clarity from Liz Truss on the Government’s plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Nonetheless, there has been no let up in the debate.
It had been expected that the changes to the law that the May government had consulted on – which would have allowed people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, or evidence of having lived for some time as a member of the opposite sex – would be abandoned by the current Westminster government.
In Scotland, reforms of the law to this effect in are still expected to proceed, after having been put on hold during the Covid crisis. But the signs had been pretty clear for months that Westminster had decided against so-called “self-ID” for England and Wales.
In the weeks before recess, however, trans rights activists became ever more vocal in their efforts to mobilise support for self-ID. Publications such as Pink News worked hard, misusing survey data (and misrepresenting the current law), to try to create the impression of a country in which the vast majority of people favoured self-ID, and with it the ability for male-bodied transwomen to use women-only facilities. As ever, mainstream-media reporting too often went along with this false narrative.
Perhaps the influence of these activist groups is one reason for the Government’s delay in confirming its position formally, as promised. After all, government departments and quangos, from the Cabinet Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have signed up to receive guidance and training from Stonewall, through its Diversity Champions programme – and Stonewall is a highly political organisation, which has been lobbying the Government particularly strongly on trans issues.
Transactivist talking points have also been adopted by representatives within the Conservative Party. Many common examples of transactivist misinformation can be found in this piece by Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe, for instance – ironically, in a section devoted to “myth-busting”. So it would not be surprising if the Minister for Equalities has faced the pressure of opposition from within the party over her rethink on pushing forward with self-ID.
The EHRC itself joined the fray last week. Not, however, as might have been hoped, to clarify and improve its guidance on the existing laws protecting women that have been the subject of widespread misunderstanding (as seen in the Blunt and Pascoe piece referred to above). But, rather, to publish another tendentious survey, and remonstrate with its respondents who didn’t support transwomen’s access to women-only spaces and services.
Whilst she acknowledged that a great majority of British people broadly support trans people’s rights to live free of discrimination, and do not consider themselves to be transphobic, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, also noted that “people were found to be less supportive of trans people in specific situations”. The specific situations in question included women’s refuges and facilities such as public toilets.
Yet far from acknowledging that there are good reasons, and legal support, for such views, Hilsenrath seems to consider that the people holding them need to be helped to change their minds, by bringing about a better “level of understanding on the key facts surrounding the debate” by “both sides improving the level of discourse”.
This seems, again, rather ironic considering the poor guidance the EHRC has published on the legal facts of the matter. Indeed, although Hisenrath called for a constructive, tolerant, and fact-based dialogue on law and policy, it seems very clear what the EHRC considers to be the “right” outcome of any dialogue.
In a recent thoughtful piece for The Spectator, James Kirkup called for the Government to take the sting out of the issue by first publishing a “drily technical” announcement that: self-id would be dropped, tweaks made to existing processes regarding legal sex changes, to make them faster and cheaper; and, proper clarity provided in guidance on single-sex provisions. Then the “wider issues” of “reconciling conflicting rights and addressing the woefully poor evidence-base on trans issues, should be kicked even further into the long grass, with a proper fact-finding ‘further investigation’ that must report before any major change can come”.
Now, apart from the fact that what Kirkup considers would be an undramatic, “technical” announcement is, in effect, exactly what the trans lobby have been campaigning against – and publicly positing as a “rolling back” of trans rights – this calm approach seems sensible.
However, it comes with risks. Conservative governments have not traditionally been good at making conservative appointments, and trans lobbyists and activists have excelled at capturing public bodies. There is surely a serious risk, therefore, that any investigative commission, instead of fearlessly finding and reporting on the truth in medical and legal matters, would be susceptible to the same forces that have caused scientific papers to be withdrawn, and legal “guidance” to distort the law.
Certainly, however, there is no reason for Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer for that matter, to get personally involved in the unedifying social-media gender wars. But, it is also the case that they should not allow themselves to get caught up in the “both sides are equal” fallacy that the EHRC and others have been perpetuating.
Legal rights associated with sex have become a political matter, whether we like it or not, and a Conservative government should not hide from making necessary political decisions to acknowledge the reality of sex, and the legal and policy considerations that flow from that. In real life, public bodies continue to adopt policies that are in conflict with current law. Yet these decisions seem to undergo little or no consultation or scrutiny – until, as seen with the spate of legal action against guidance to schools, brave individuals stand up and challenge them.
NHS Lanarkshire recently announced an HR protocol , which effectively makes staff changing rooms mixed sex, included people who dress as the opposite gender for “erotic pleasure” under the umbrella of “trans”, and by claims that staff could be discriminating against trans colleagues by “not thinking” of them as the gender they present. A Labour MSP who tried to hold NHS Lanarkshire to account over this, and who questioned how a medical organisation could propagate the idea of a baby having its gender “assigned at birth”, was met with calls that she should be disciplined by her party.
These are the consequences of political leaders leaving the field. Hiding behind a commission of experts, therefore, in order to avoid offending the groups of highly engaged and influential activists who have occupied that field, would itself be a political decision, and one that seems unlikely to improve the quality of the debate.