By (largely) refusing to engage in identity politics, the Conservative Party has so far been spared the internal clash which Labour is suffering between the competing views of some feminists and transgender activists on selections and elections. Not believing in measures like All-Women Shortlists is right in itself, but it brings with it a beneficial side effect of not having to adjudicate between who does and does not qualify as a woman.
The Government, however, is responsible for legislation and regulation of questions of gender identity, so inevitably must consider the issue – particularly as pressure has grown in recent years for a change away from ‘medicalised’ identification, by which a change in legal gender must be approved by doctors, to self-identification.
It’s a topic which is technical, legalistic, and sensitive, as well as sometimes politically arcane and of primary importance to a small minority of the population, so it’s not surprising that the announcement last year that the Government was going to consult on a shift towards self-identification received only limited coverage at the time. What response it did garner was largely quite positive – not least because those paying the closest attention to news on the topic were campaigners for the proposal.
Since then, however, things appear to have changed. The language used by officials and ministers has grown more cautious and less confident, and there are suggestions that the proposed changes themselves might be watered down. Why is that? In part it’s because that early relaxation was somewhat misfounded – as Helen Lewis of the New Statesman characterised the question of self-identification last year, the idea is “quietly radical”, and involves a far more complex balancing of rights than it might at first seem. In recent months more scrutiny has been applied to the topic by people who might not have considered it before, in addition to the emergence of increasingly vocal campaigning against it.
Whereas in the United States the loudest opposition to self-identification comes from religious groups, often on the right, the emergent opposition in the UK encompasses some wings of feminism, often on the left – particularly among an older generation of feminist radicals – and reaches across political, social and generational divides.
A YouGov poll published this week by PinkNews was given a headline that implied a primarily political motivation for opposition to self-identification – ‘Just 13% of Tory voters agree with government’s proposed transgender policy’ – but read into the detail and that turns out to be a far from unrepresentative number. Nationally, the poll found only 18 per cent of people agreed with the policy; that included overall opposition among supporters of every party, among Remainers and Leavers, among men and women, in every age group, in every social grade, and in every region of the country. In all but two of those categories the opposition amounted to an outright majority – 18-24s and Londoners – and even those were still quite strong rejections at 48:27 and 46:23 splits respectively.
A poll doesn’t decide the moral or legal rights or wrongs of an issue, of course, but public opinion does inform how governments behave in democratic countries (particularly governments without majorities and with faltering political authority). If ministers had assumed last summer that these proposals were uncontroversial and broadly supported in the country, the emergence of both a controversy on the issue and evidence of broad public opposition might well give them cause to be more cautious in how they proceed.
It would be easy to simply paint this as an antediluvian electorate opposing any minority rights as default. No doubt some people out there might match that description, but the YouGov poll doesn’t seem to support the idea for most people. The bulk of the poll was actually about attitudes towards same-sex couples, asking people’s views on rights to get married and have children. On those questions, the public are in a very different place: far more supportive overall, and in most sub-groups, on both questions than on this proposal.
People appear to be making a distinction in their views on same-sex couples’ rights and on transgender people’s self-identification. Quite why they do so – the greater marginalisation of transgender people, the fact the issue has only become politically prominent more recently, the conflict with some forms of feminism, the perception of practical issues with the proposal – isn’t yet clear. What’s certain is that what had been ‘quietly radical’ is starting to attract a lot more noise. Whether ministers decide to retreat, to seek a compromise, or to work to change public opinion remains to be seen.