Changing Gender – Times editorial 19.10.18

The original article is here.

Britain is overdue a far more sober and less vitriolic debate about transgender rights

Today is the last day of a consultation on changes to an obscure law which appears to directly affect only a tiny minority. This may seem a strange basis for a bitter and generation-defining political fight.

At issue are plans to overhaul the manner in which transgender people can officially change their gender. To be transgender is to identify as a gender which does not match your sex assigned at birth. In crude terms, this will usually mean people born with penises who consider themselves women, or born with vaginas who consider themselves men. Since 2004 people have been allowed to change their official gender, ultimately leading to a new birth certificate.

Two years ago the Commons equalities select committee, then chaired by Maria Miller, suggested that the process should be made far easier. At present it requires assessments by psychiatrists and that those wishing to transition have already lived as their desired recognised gender for two years. Some consider this onerous and humiliating.
Mrs Miller’s report suggested abolishing exemptions to the 2010 Equalities Act, which allow domestic violence refuges and hostels the discretion to admit only those born as women. The consultation omitted this, yet groups such as Girlguiding UK and the Youth Hostels Association are moving away from such policies.

The custodial approach to transgender prisoners is also in urgent need of overhaul. Held in male prisons, trans women would clearly be vulnerable. Yet in one case last year a trans woman jailed for raping two women went on to attack another two in jail. When female birth certificates are available to all, even theoretically, existing equalities legislation cannot survive. Nor is it clear what will replace it.

Campaigners suggest that easier transition would help to reduce suicide and self-harm among trans teenagers. Others, though, regard trans advocacy as responsible for a retrograde hardening of gender stereotypes, making it harder for a child to be comfortable as a boy who likes dresses, or a girl who does not, and prompting dramatic life decisions at far too early an age. A recent surge in referrals of children to gender clinics looks to some like overdue recognition, but to others like a dramatic social failure. One referral, to a clinic in Wales last year, was of a child of five.

Some, including the group Stonewall, regard the issue as a successor to gay rights, and exude a terror of being seen as on the wrong side. Yet if gender is to be based upon neither biology nor a psychological assessment, what is it to be based upon instead? Arguably, self declaration reduces womanhood to nothing more than a feeling. Feminists fear hard-won victories disintegrating, with vital issues such as reproductive autonomy being reimagined as tangential to sexual equality.

Trans equality activists have also tapped into a growing intolerance for alternative views. Feminist gatherings have been protested against and attacked. Academics have been harassed and ostracised. The Times columnist Janice Turner, whose pioneering journalism has highlighted the implications of legal and social change, has been targeted with abuse. Tolerance and respect are the ambitions of any civilised society, and for transgender people both are long overdue. Yet other vulnerable groups have a stake here, too. Concerns of biological women must not be silenced. With this consultation at an end, a far broader and far calmer debate must begin.