Janice Turner Interview with Maria Miller 29.7.17

The original article is here.

How do you solve a problem like men in women’s changing rooms, Maria?

The Tory champions plans to make gender switching a matter of ‘self-definition’

Maria Miller gathers up her handbag and makes to leave: “I don’t think I’m happy about this. I think I’ve finished . . . I didn’t realise this was such a stitch-up.” I’ve been questioning Ms Miller about a report on transgender rights she produced last year as chairwoman of the women and equalities committee. The government has just announced that it will go to further consultation this autumn.

Many of its recommendations, to redress hate crime against transgender people, to improve access to NHS services and stop discrimination in employment (as seen in President Trump’s cruel, summary banning of up to 6,600 transgender US military personnel), are widely supported. But one proposal that seeks to change the very definition of “man” and “woman” has far-reaching implications.

Justine Greening, the equalities minister, announced her support this week for changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, echoing calls by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. At present a person who wishes to change gender legally must be 18, demonstrate they have lived in their chosen gender for two years, have a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” (a mental disorder whereby a person feels they don’t feel they belong in their biological sex) and be questioned by an expert panel.

The heart of the controversy is the view, espoused by Ms Miller’s report, that switching gender should instead merely be a matter of “self-definition”. A man need only “declare” that he is a woman. Your gender is what you feel it to be: there would be no requirement even to take female hormones or have surgery — about 70 per cent of trans women still have intact male genitals — or even “present” as a woman to be legally female. (Some older trans people are troubled by this, believing that it trivialises and delegitimises their struggles to live in their non-birth gender.)

Furthermore, if the law changes, “gender identity” is likely to become a protected characteristic under equalities legislation: ie if you deny a person is a woman or a man when they claim to be, you are guilty of discrimination or hate crime.

When Ms Miller, 53, released her report in January last year she was surprised that criticism came not from conservatives but, as she put it, “women who purport to be feminists”. This may be because feminists, well versed in sexual politics and long-time supporters of gay rights, are among the few people who can penetrate the arcane, confusing terminology.

Many see potential loopholes and conflicts of rights that put women at risk, giving men access to rare female-only spaces such as single-sex wards, changing rooms and domestic violence refuges, designed to keep them safe and private. It is these concerns I put to Ms Miller in her Basingstoke constituency.

Take this scenario: a man enters a female communal changing area, removes his clothes while women get undressed. Now they have a right to ask him to leave. Under gender self-definition, if he said “I identify as a woman” he would be entitled to stay. This, I stress, is unlikely to be a trans woman — many who use women’s changing rooms every day with discretion and no fuss — but could be a sexual predator exploiting the loophole. (There have been a growing number of cases in the US, including a man in Seattle using women’s pool facilities claiming “the law has changed, I have a right to be here”.) Does Ms Miller not see why women fear a conflict of rights?

“But 50 years ago, maybe ten years ago, people felt very uncomfortable about gay people showing their relationships in public but life has moved on.” This isn’t a question of feelings, however, but of physical safety and privacy which, as the author of another report on sexual abuse, she surely understands?

I show her a photograph of a bearded, male-born American called Danielle Muscato who dresses in men’s suits and ties, has made no attempt to transition but nonetheless “identifies as female” and insists on living in a women’s homeless shelter. On International Women’s Day he tweeted: “Some women have penises. If you’re bothered by this, you can suck my dick.”Alex Drummond is a lush-bearded British psychotherapist who claims to be a woman, without any transition, who is “expanding the bandwidth of gender.”

These people should be free from all abuse and discrimination, but do they have the right to women’s spaces? “There will be individuals who will try to use this as an abuse of the system but you cannot disregard the rights of 600,000 people in this country,” Ms Miller says, referring to an estimate of people who express unhappiness with their birth gender. But can you ignore the rights of 30 million women? “No. And nobody’s suggesting that that’s the case.”

So do you think that women and girls should have a right to object to male-bodied individuals undressing among them. “How an individual presents themselves is really up to them,” she says. “Nobody is saying this is an easy set of decisions. I think that is a legitimate part of the consultation.”

Ms Miller says that self-definition is misunderstood “as some amateurish way of trying to recognise somebody’s change. In our report we made it very clear that this would not simply be somebody being able to pull a form off the internet, sign it and call themselves a woman because that would be open to abuse.” Her committee envisaged each person receiving “psychological support . . . to make sure that they’re making the right decision for them” instead of “this quasi-medicalised panel which has brought great distress to transgender people”. She would not confirm that the new self-definition process would ever query an application.

How does she think this rule will effect the operation of women’s domestic violence refuges, several of which submitted concerns to her inquiry that clients would be distressed having fled brutal men if male-bodied individuals were granted access. In Toronto, Christopher Hambrook claimed to be a trans woman to access a refuge then raped residents. “These spaces carry out a risk assessment before individuals are allowed to use them and those that pose a risk to safety are not necessarily one gender.” But 90 per cent of violent crime and 98 per cent of sexual crime is committed by men. Trans women, such as Davina Ayrton, who raped a 15-year-old girl, have been convicted of offences seldom committed by natal females. Would self-identification mean these crimes would be registered as committed by women, skewing the figures? “It should be registered in the gender of the person when they committed the crime.” This would mean that if Katie Brannen, charged with twice raping a man in South Shields, is convicted that crime would be recorded on female statistics even though legally women cannot commit rape.

Sport is another problematic area: self-identification could destroy women’s competitions, allowing former-men with greater musculature and testosterone to dominate. In New Zealand a weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard, has broken national records; in Canada the mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq dominated for years. “Those are already issues that professional bodies have to deal with. And again that is something which needs to be looked at in significant detail.”

I ask her about school sports. In Connecticut Andraya Yearwood, a male-bodied, moustachioed 15-year-old trans girl, has won state championships although she would have finished last in the boys’ competition. Does Ms Miller think this fair to the girl athletes? “Well, I think it’s a bit of a difficult one to answer because boys are not going through gender reassignment when they’re at school.” But what would you say to the girls who lost? “It’s a very difficult one to answer . . .”

She adds: “What I think we’re touching on here is that trans issues are something that still strike a nerve in British society.” Compiling her report she was moved by young trans folk “just trying to get on with their lives in a quiet manner . . . The idea of individuals being not of one gender or another is not a new thing.”

Yet this very idea of “non-binary” or “gender fluidity” is challenged by feminists. Because it assumes that being female is a narrow category: involving pink, make-up, girlie pursuits as opposed to the male world of noise, fun and muddy sports. Isn’t the epidemic of girls wanting to transition — they make up 1,000 out of the Tavistock clinic’s 1,400 referrals — a rebellion against society’s rigid gender strictures rather than a sign that they were “born in the wrong body” and require hormones? This is around the point at which Ms Miller threatens to leave. She relents and we talk a little longer. Although Ms Miller as equalities minister guided gay marriage through parliament, she is at heart a home counties conservative who in 2007 voted against regulations to stop discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. She voted to lower the abortion limit to 20 weeks and for a Nadine Dorries amendment to stop abortion providers such as Marie Stopes giving counselling.

She looks alarmed when I ask about these stances and instead seizes on the government’s decision — pushed by Labour’s Stella Creasy — to fund NHS abortions of women in Northern Ireland. “It is a sticking plaster for the short term. There should be equal rights for women across the UK.” But wouldn’t this mean overriding the devolved assembly, whose major party the DUP is in coalition with the Tories? “I think this should be seen as a human rights issue and I’m glad it is in front of the Supreme Court.”

What does she say to those who believe the government’s sudden announcement of trans reform is to counter bad publicity garnered by allying with the anti-gay marriage DUP or to win young votes. “Absolutely ludicrous!” she cries.

She says that her experience as a woman and a mother who has faced discrimination and sexism has made her receptive to the rights of minority groups such as trans people and their families. She puts the concerns of feminists about material changes to their rights and safety into the same category as religious objections, like those of the Christian bakers who refused to make a cake for a gay couple. “There are always jagged edges to the law which create tensions, and we are going into new territory here.”

Maria Frances Lewis Miller

Born March 26, 1964
Education Brynteg Comprehensive School, Bridgend, south Wales; London School of Economics
Career Joined the Conservative Party in 1983 and pursued a career as an advertising and marketing executive for 22 years. In 2001 she stood for Wolverhampton North East, near where she was born, but lost to the sitting Labour candidate. She became the MP for Basingstoke in 2005, and was appointed shadow minister for education, followed by shadow minister for families and then minister for disabled people. In 2012, she pushed for David Cameron to introduce same-sex marriage, before being appointed minister for women and equalities and culture secretary. She has been chairwoman of the women and equalities committee since its inception two years ago.
Family She is married to Iain Miller, a solicitor, and they have two sons and a daughter.