The Gender Recognition Act is controversial – can a path to common ground be found?
They came in a steady stream, picking their way across a garden in central Oxford to the Quaker meeting room beyond. A crowd of largely middle-aged women, the sort you would find at any literary festival or school open evening; friends exchanging kisses, a baby squawking in a pushchair. Only the chanting protesters outside gave the game away. For this was a meeting called by the feminist organisation to discuss potential changes in the law on gender recognition, and that meant tension in the air.
At a recent meeting in Bristol, masked activists tried to stop speakers entering the building. In Cardiff, the venue cancelled the women’s booking after threats were made. Last month, a trans activist called Tara Wolf was , a 61-year-old feminist, during a protest at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where Maclachlan was filming trans activists.
Oxford’s student-led protest went more peacefully, but some attendees were evidently shaken enough to leave by a back door afterwards; others were thrown at being on the sharp end of an equality demo. “I’m usually the protester,” said one woman, emerging from the scrum. But this issue turns old certainties on their head.
Woman’s Place formed last autumn out of a conversation “literally around a kitchen table”, according to teacher and co-founder , between a group of friends – trade unionists, academics, lawyers and others – worried that they had nowhere to debate freely. They wanted to discuss the potential implications for women and girls of sharing single-sex spaces – from domestic violence refuges and female prisons to swimming pool changing rooms and Brownie packs – with male-bodied people, and to explore what they see as the risk of predatory non-trans men finding a way to abuse such access to reach vulnerable women. They wanted to discuss bodies and biology without being told that mentioning vaginas excludes women who don’t have them. And they suspected other women also had questions they weren’t asking, for fear of being called transphobic. “There are people who will say nothing about this in their workplaces, because their jobs are on the line; in social situations people won’t talk about it,” says Harvey. “But there is a change in the law being proposed and it will impact women. Women have a right to ask: ‘What will the impact look like for my daily life?’”
These are women who feel silenced, erased and intimidated – and yet it is clear that many trans women do, too.
“It is held against me that ‘you were raised with male privilege’, but actually I was beaten up all the time for being effeminate,’” says Clara Barker, a trans scientist at the University of Oxford, who also leads voluntary work with LGBT young people. “Because I was trans I was severely depressed, I was bullied in my workplace, so it’s like, ‘What privilege is that?’”
She considered going to the meeting after an invite from speaker Nicola Williams, an activist with the gender-critical pressure group (the pair met debating each other on TV). But she was afraid of encountering in real life the abuse she experiences online, where jeers about how trans women are really men jostle with threats to bash “terfs” (trans exclusionary radical feminists, a derogatory term for women questioning trans rights). While the trans movement has its dark side, also hovering on the outer fringes of the gender-critical camp are a handful of men with far-right associations, attracted by a perceived fight against political correctness.
“I want to be able to engage, even if sometimes I’m going to hear things I don’t like. I’m perfectly willing to listen to the other side,” says Barker. “But it’s got to be balanced, it’s got to be reasoned. I tried to make a couple of comments [on Twitter] just to see if it was possible to find common ground and the truth is, it wasn’t.”
Yet beyond the shouting, the beginning of a more nuanced debate is discernible; one involving trans women who crave equality but not at vulnerable women’s expense, feminists with divided loyalties, and people wanting more than toxic Facebook slanging matches.
“There is a difference between social media debate and the conversations going on elsewhere,” says Sophie Walker, leader of the , who was torn apart over her party’s trans-inclusive stance in one notable Mumsnet webchat, but is now more optimistic about the chances of reaching some consensus. “I am encouraged by the number of women who have contacted me privately to say they want to find common ground.” Both Woman’s Place and trans activists led by Stonewall have given well-received briefings to Labour MPs in recent months.
In Oxford, questions were certainly more plaintive than angry. There was a mother worried about her daughter potentially sharing a tent on Guide camps with trans girls who might still have penises, but anxious no trans child should feel excluded either. Another woman complained of being unable to get straight answers about sleeping arrangements on a volunteer project her daughter wants to join. Meanwhile, four platform speakers, including Harvey and Williams, talked of girls needing to feel they can set boundaries around their spaces and women being heard. Six days after the meeting, meanwhile, at trans women standing for parliament on all-women shortlists, exposing a split within the left that feels more generational than ideological; versus older women who fear hard-won victories being eroded. This isn’t just about politics. It’s about what it means to be a woman, born or made, and feel dismissed.
The story began in January 2016, when the new Commons equalities select committee – chaired by the Conservatives’ former equalities secretary Maria Miller – made its Westminster debut with a report it didn’t expect to be enormously controversial, on reforms to the law governing gender recognition.
The lets adults officially register a change to the gender assigned at birth. They don’t necessarily have to undergo surgery, but must provide psychiatric assessments and proof of living for two years in the gender they wish to be officially recognised, a process activists see as intrusive and overly medicalised. Miller’s committee broadly agreed, recommending instead a system of self-identification where changing gender was as simple as signing a form. Similar arrangements now exist in Portugal, Ireland, Malta, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, and activists insist there is no evidence of anyone abusing them for sinister purposes, although the numbers involved are relatively small so far (it is estimated up to 1% of Britons may be trans, although there are no official statistics). An Irish government review of how the system is working there, due this autumn, is hotly awaited.
Shifting to self-identification doesn’t, by itself, automatically mean trans women being treated in all circumstances as if they had been born female. Irish trans women may, for example, still be jailed in male prisons.
But crucially, the Miller committee’s report also backed the curbing of exemptions in the 2010 Equalities Act, which currently allow trans people to be barred from certain jobs and services if necessary to protect other users – the loophole covering sensitive areas such as women’s refuges. And that’s where alarm bells started ringing. It was discrimination law, not the recognition process, that came under scrutiny in Canada after serial sex attacker Christopher Hambrook , which he’d entered dressed as a woman. (The state of Ontario had previously passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against trans people.)
Significantly, when the then equalities secretary Justine Greening announced a consultation on simplifying the gender-recognition process last July, she did not take up the call to rewrite equality law. Women’s shelters in the UK can still legally turn people away following risk assessments – including women who were born female if, for example, they have a history of offending that might endanger others. “People always say, ‘Well anyone could just say they’re a victim of domestic violence’ but to get into a refuge, we’ll sit and talk to you for ages. There are all sorts of assessments to undergo,” says the Labour MP Jess Phillips, who sat on Miller’s committee and has previously worked for Women’s Aid.
But what is worrying both sides is that 10 months (and two equalities secretaries) later, there is still a gaping hole where any consultation should be. Officially, ministers are still deliberating. Unofficially, as one MP puts it, they seem to have “started a hare running and then run away”, leaving a vacuum to fill with both sides’ worst fears. In Scotland, where the parliament is consulting on moving to self-identification, women’s groups and trans organisations have promised to work together to find consensus. But elsewhere, debate is being “driven by misinformation pushed out by a few loud voices”, according to Stonewall UK’s director of campaigns, policy and research Paul Twocock. Everyone assumes the law will change, but isn’t sure how; meanwhile, culture is running ahead of it.
In practice, refuges will increasingly consider trans women’s cases on merit, and Twocock says many survivors’ services have been quietly trans-inclusive for years. A spokeswoman for Women’s Aid says it doesn’t set policies for individual members but believes “all survivors of domestic abuse must have the right to access the specialist support they need”, while stressing that not all services are appropriate for everyone.
What worries many gender-critical feminists, however, is that organisations are having to make difficult choices in a climate where any deviation from the principle that “trans women are women” causes a backlash. Advertisers have been lobbied to withdraw from the parenting site Mumsnet, after its anonymised message boards became a haven for gender-critical feminist debate. Topshop hurriedly after being publicly accused of transphobia by a customer barred from the women’s cubicles. As trans activists pointed out, you may have been trying on clothes next to trans women for years without realising; it’s just official now, meaning teenagers no longer risk public humiliation just to buy a T-shirt.
But what bothers opponents is the idea of changes such as these happening without women’s consent. “Small businesses can’t afford to use the exemptions and big companies don’t want to, because they don’t want to be seen as anti-trans,” says Williams. “We’ve got the law and there is good reason why it’s there, but the law doesn’t mean anything if nobody’s using it. Everyone’s too scared of getting it wrong.”
Trans men have flown largely beneath the radar of this debate, presumably because men don’t feel threatened by sharing changing rooms with potentially female-bodied people. The exception, however, is trans boys. The Oxford meeting also heard from Stephanie Davies-Arai, of the pressure group , who questions why most transitioning teenagers now referred to were born girls when the reverse used to be true: could some have deeper reasons for questioning their gender? (Referrals to the Tavistock, the only NHS gender-identity clinic, rocketed from 97 cases in 2009 to almost 2,600 by the end of last year, and 70% were born female.)
It’s a furiously contested issue, but as a child, Williams says she might have been “very attracted” to the idea of transitioning. “It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I was a lesbian. I went through feeling uncomfortable with my gender as a woman because I didn’t like being a woman. I didn’t really fit, I didn’t feel very good at being a woman. I think that’s a path lots of lesbians have to tread, and now I’m proud to be a lesbian woman. But if someone said to me, ‘actually you could be a boy if you wanted’ I’d have found that amazing.”
However, any suggestion of children being rushed into transitioning, with its echo of 1990s arguments about homosexuality supposedly being “promoted” in schools, is bitterly contested by those working with young people. “It is 12 months before you see a gender doctor, probably 12 months of counselling after that,” says Barker. “All the kids I see are saying: ‘It’s been three years, when am I going to get hormones?’”
Her own hunch, meanwhile, is that the disparities in girls and boys transitioning themselves may even out in later life: “Young boys still have the emphasis on toxic masculinity, which means they won’t be able to admit they’re trans until they’re older. It’s about being able to come to terms with yourself at an early age.” And that’s a lifetime’s work for some.
Sitting in the Oxford audience was physics teacher Debbie Hayton, one of the few trans women to have spoken from a Woman’s Place’s platform. While she agrees the GRA is too bureaucratic, she prefers the security of having a formal diagnosis and surgery to self-identification. “As a trans person, I don’t want my rights or protections to be based on feelings, because people don’t believe it. They may tolerate it. But it takes away my credibility as a trans person.” As for all-women shortlists, Hayton says, “hell would freeze over before I’d go on one, because I was socialised as a boy and I have those advantages still”.
Such views aren’t necessarily popular among trans activists, and Hayton has been accused of being “self-hating”. Yet in a movement focused on giving everyone the freedom to define themselves as they choose, it seems odd to deny her the same leeway.
For Hayton, sex is a biological fact; she describes herself as “male, and I prefer people to relate to me as if I were female”. But in an ideal world, free of all stereotypes, what she would have liked is to present as a feminine man. “This is really difficult to explain but by asking to be treated by society in the same way that they would treat a woman, I feel more comfortable,” she says.
“I transitioned because I couldn’t cope with the way society was treating me as a man, the expectations it placed on me, and the restrictions.
“The problem is, as a teacher, if I express myself completely as non-gendered, I couldn’t get on with the job. If somebody comes in saying: ‘I’m not a woman or a man’ then every time I did a new class, you would have to go through that with them, when what you really want to be doing is teaching them.” Transition was, for her, a pragmatic if not ideal solution to a complex issue.
Channel 4 has been exploring the idea that gender identity is a spectrum – stretching from non-binary (identifying with neither gender), to trans, to gay, to a dizzying number of other possibilities, and that finding the right place on it can be complicated, in its reality miniseries . The programme features 11 young people with different gender identities sharing a house for a month. While an ensuing studio debate between activists, including the trans model Munroe Bergdorf and feminist icon Germaine Greer, descended into chaotic scenes and aggressive audience heckling, the reality show struck a markedly different tone; by the end the housemates had clearly bonded, and in some cases, minds had been changed. Could it be that opinions in real life are less entrenched than public debate suggests?
The solutions to some points of conflict are likely, as Jess Phillips says, to be “very, very practical”. While the Oxford meeting heard poignant stories about schoolgirls feeling unsafe sharing gender-neutral toilets with boys (ironically the meeting’s venue had unisex toilets), sealed cubicles, locks and other design features may go a long way to avoid any anticipated friction.
But finding common ground elsewhere may be trickier, unless both sides can overcome their fear of the other. After deciding not to go to the Woman’s Place meeting, Barker ended up hovering a few yards down the street from the protest, ready to intervene if the chanting students from her university overstepped the mark. “I felt for the people who obviously looked nervous going in, because I understand that,” she says. “Those were the sort of people that I would love to sit down and have a chat with.” Perhaps it’s not too late.