Kristina Harrison’s article in the Economist 03.07.18

The original article is here.

Kristina Harrison works for the National Health Service. She is a political campaigner and a post-operative transsexual (someone who has surgery and hormone treatment to be treated as if a member of the opposite sex). She argues that moving away from a diagnostic system of legal gender recognition to one of self-declaration would fail some vulnerable youngsters, undermine women’s sex-based protections and harm trans people themselves.

A system of gender self-identification would put women at risk

Britain’s Conservative government, despite somewhat rowing back on earlier statements, proposes to press ahead with reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004, with support from the opposition Labour party and a mainstream transgender movement imbued with what many see as an intolerant, even fundamentalist gender ideology. This has crystallised a whole series of concerns, particularly from women and increasing numbers of transsexuals. The label “transgender”, and the terms “trans man” and “trans woman”, are more nebulous terms for any biologically female person who identifies as a man, and any male who identifies as a woman. This is a much broader category: an umbrella term including, as well as transsexuals, males who identify as women but wish to retain their male bodies, people who are “gender fluid” (identifying as women some days and men other days), and people who would previously have been known as cross-dressing men, some of whom fetishise women’s clothing and bodies.

Perhaps you can begin to understand the concerns of many women when it is increasingly being asserted in practice, if not fully in law, that simply identifying as a woman means being able to access women’s and girls’ private, formerly single-sex, spaces—toilets, rape-crisis centres and so on. We worry about the nature, influence, methods and implications of the ideology at the heart of this transgender movement. We are also opposed to any proposal which would mean that a man is legally recognised as a woman if he makes a simple self-declaration that he is, and vice versa.

That would enshrine a quite extreme gender ideology in law, and effectively amount to a comprehensive redefinition of what it is to be female, or male. These changes, after thousands of years of sex-based definitions, are happening with a minimum of political scrutiny. Public debate about them is deliberately impeded by a toxic and authoritarian atmosphere in which serious, repeated attempts have been made to silence and sideline dissenting voices, particularly those of women. This is despite huge implications for women and transsexuals, as well as for democratic politics and everyday cultural pressures.

The allegation of transphobia is not only being made against those who are actually hateful towards trans people, but is now used for anyone who dares dissent from the claims of this ideology or who supports sex-based rights. Being labelled transphobic can lead to harassment, and harm one’s reputation and career. That fear greatly affects people’s willingness to speak out. It is surely no coincidence that not a single female MP, and only one male MP that I’m aware of, have publicly questioned any aspect of these controversial proposals. This is not healthy for democracy, and does not serve trans people well.

Similar fears may already be affecting the willingness and ability of organisations to use the exemptions provided for in the Equality Act of 2010. This recognises that women as a sex are a disadvantaged, vulnerable group, and upholds their right to single-sex spaces and services. Domestic-violence shelters, for example, are places where women and their children can find refuge after attacks, almost always carried out by males. Many survivors feel strongly that the Equality Act needs to be used in these circumstances because the presence of people who are born male, however they later identify, would set back or even prevent their recovery.

Many women who work with some of the most vulnerable women and girls in our society also fear that predatory men, who often go to great lengths to gain access to vulnerable women, would abuse the notion of gender self-identity and take advantage of the new orthodoxy that someone can be trans without undergoing any physical changes (with hormones or surgery) or changing their behaviour. In other words, biological males can look, sound and act exactly like average males, but are trans women if they say they are. What could be more helpful for a predatory man who seeks to masquerade as a trans woman? In fact, such an abuse has already happened. In 2012 Christopher Hambrook assaulted women in two homeless shelters in Toronto, gaining access by falsely claiming he was a trans woman. State law had changed earlier that year to recognise self-declared gender identity. In 2014 he was found guilty of sexual assault and criminal harassment.

The government has recently stated that despite its proposals to reform the GRA, the Equality Act will remain untouched. In theory, this retains the right to offer single-sex spaces and services, provided they are a proportionate response to a legitimate need for a protected group (such as women). Yet a victory for the GRA proposals will weaken the voices of pragmatic trans people, who see the need to balance various groups’ interests, and strengthen those of trans activists who seek to deny women spaces and services segregated by sex. It will weaken the concept of biological sex even more, and subordinate it to a cultural and political category: gender.

Though trans activists like to claim that gender self-identification affects only transgender people and that there is therefore no debate to be had about it, this is simply untrue. Gender self-identification goes far beyond respecting people’s right to believe what they want; to dress or act or express their identity as they want. Numerous transgender-rights groups, supporters and prominent trans individuals seek to claim all of the rights of the sex with which they feel their gender identity corresponds. This is a political and social demand that affects everybody, but in particular women, gay people and transsexuals.

I would draw an analogy with religious identities. In liberal democracies, people can believe in God and a holy text, dress and worship as they wish, and be protected by law from discrimination. But they cannot insist the rest of us adhere to those beliefs, or turn their holy texts into laws that we must obey.

Gender self-identification affects women’s single-sex spaces and political autonomy, especially as regards the right of women as a sex to organise independently their own opposition to sexism and misogyny. Perhaps most profoundly, it affects the right of women to define themselves. Many women do not want to be defined, once again, by the very gender norms that have disadvantaged them from birth: passivity, selfless accommodation to others (especially men), meekness, reserve, being measured by looks rather than deeds and so on. These are norms that constrain and demean women. Many of us insist that, fundamentally, women are members of a sex with shared biology and socialisation. Biological sex is real and is the very foundation of our species.

How to find a way out of this impasse? There seems to me to be widespread acknowledgement that the current system of legal recognition for trans people is cruelly cumbersome, insufficiently supportive and at times demeaning. But there are ways to improve it while still retaining a diagnostic system. This could be more responsive to trans people’s needs, protect young people who are often mistaken in their identity (studies show that 60-90% of children self-identifying as trans stop doing so after puberty) and be deserving of women’s confidence.

We need to recognise that there are two disadvantaged groups here. We need to protect single-sex provision for women and affirm everyone’s right to break out of life-limiting gender norms, while simultaneously acting to improve trans lives, systems and services in ways that do not undermine women. By speaking out against fundamentalists on both sides we can have a comprehensive and pragmatic discussion between equals, and find mutually acceptable solutions and a shared path forward out of the current acrimony.

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