Women must be heard on transgender identity, says new equalities chief The Times 15.05.21
The original article is here.
Women must have the right to question transgender identity without being abused, stigmatised or risking losing their job, the new head of Britain’s equalities watchdog has warned.
In her first interview since taking office, the incoming chairwoman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission said it was “entirely reasonable” for people to challenge the biological status of women who were born as men.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine added it was a “freedom of belief” the commission was determined to protect.
“Someone can believe that people who self identify as a different sex are not the different sex that they self identify,” she said. “A lot of people would find this an entirely reasonable belief.”
Falkner was speaking after the commission, which has statutory responsibility to police the UK’s equalities laws, controversially intervened in the case of a woman who lost her job after colleagues criticised her attitude to transgender rights.
Maya Forstater took the Center for Global Development think tank to an employment tribunal claiming she’d been discriminated against on the basis of her “gender critical” views.
A judge ruled that her views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” and threw out her claim.
However the commission has now backed Forstater’s appeal, arguing that the judge incorrectly interpreted the law that should have protected her right to freedom of belief and speech.
“The principles are absolutely clear, which is why we took a position to intervene in the case,” Falkner said. “The principles are that freedom of belief is protected.
“So there wasn’t any doubt in my mind whatsoever, that this was something that we should do.”
Falkner’s intervention, in one of the most divisive equalities issues, will be welcomed by feminist campaigners such as the author JK Rowling who say they have been “slurred as bigots” for having raised concerns on issues such as single-sex spaces.
Rowling backed Forstater after she lost the first round of her employment tribunal, saying she had been forced out of her job for saying “sex is real”.
Falkner said she was concerned that current levels of abuse were making it difficult for people to exercise their fundamental rights — protected by the EHRC — such as freedom of speech and belief.
“There is too much self censorship going on — certainly in terms of gender critical theory,” she said. “And what happens to women who raise that does seem to be an effect on them of abuse and stigmatisation.
“We ought to be able to have a debate about it, even when we disagree with them, without them feeling so isolated.”
Falkner said she was particularly concerned about anonymous abuse online and announced the EHRC would be pushing the government to take further action in the area.
She said the commission would be conducting an investigation into what more social media firms needed to do, suggesting that they should be compelled to verify the real identities of all their users to prevent perpetrators hiding behind the “cloak of anonymity”.
She added that this information should be made available to the police “to take the necessary action”.
“These companies cannot get by under the wing of free speech,” she said. “It’s not a free speech defense to be anonymous. We really want to change that at the commission.”
On racial equalities Falkner said she was determined to make further progress including proposals for companies to publish information about ethnic pay gaps and career progression.
But she attacked those who criticised the recent government commissioned report on race and ethnic disparities that some claimed was an attempt to “re-write history”. She said: “I’d urge people to get beyond the narrative and look at the proposals, because these [the report’s authors] are good people who put themselves forward to do a serious job.
“And the way that they have been attacked for doing a serious job is unconscionable. Nobody should be attacking anyone else in those terms however profound your disagreement might be.”
Falkner, who was born in Pakistan, added that more broadly she was concerned that the “discourse” around race in the UK had become “so bad” that different ethnic minorities had become “juxtaposed” against one another.
“We’re not linked together any longer,” she said. “My experience is more relevant than yours, you’re not equipped to speak about what I feel.
“None of us can replicate our personal experiences and they will all be true. But ultimately, the resolution of whatever is going wrong in your life as a young black woman, can be the same resolution of whatever’s going wrong for the Indian consultant in the NHS. This idea that somehow there are levels of gravity, levels of pain, that only the individual person can express diminishes our common cause.”
Falkner said those concerned about equality in the UK needed to see both the progress that had been made over the past decades and how much better Britain was to comparable countries.
“I’ve lived and worked in France, I’ve lived and worked in the US. I see Europe, very close up,” she said. “And . . . compared to all of these countries we are in a pretty good place. I came back because [Britain] is a good place. It’s a good place to be.”
A Pakistani-born, Liberal Democrat-nominated peer was perhaps an unusual choice of equalities watchdog by the Tories..
But ministers believe that Baroness Falkner of Margravine, 66, will bring fresh thinking to a body that has been a thorn in the side of both main parties.
Falkner arrived in Britain in 1976 and later settled in “terribly white Windsor“ at what she called “a pretty bad time to be a non-white person”. She studied international relations at the London School of Economics before getting involved with the Lib Dems in the 1980s. She joined the Lords in 2004, serving on several committees, and has sat as a crossbencher since 2019.