Former Chair of EHRC failed women and girls

As Chair of the EHRC for four years and a former Chair of Stonewall for nine years  one might have thought that David Isaac, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons had the experience and position to influence or even set the tone of the discussions around the proposed reforms of the GRA 2004, which were rejected by Liz Truss in September. Or at least to engage with some of the points which were causing conflict. Because after all sometimes equality strands are in tension. He chose instead to say nothing. Until the time of his departure in August.

In his outgoing interview he suggests that  “We need to move beyond that toxic debate so talking to each other, engaging in respectful listening even if you disagree, that’s the way forward.”  As if the EHRC was an impartial bystander instead of the government body on all equality issues, with the power to intervene at any stage over the past four years.  He also says that the EHRC supports the reform of the GRA which has been pretty obvious for these past four years and the reason perhaps why he and they chose to say nothing until now.  Indeed the EHRC under his leadership is in part responsible for causing confusion by issuing guidance which was not in fact legal and had to be corrected in 2018.  But it had been in existence for ten  years!  

It has also promoted the concept of gender identity (not a protected characteristic over sex). EHRC advice on trans rights from their website was  “We suggest employers and service providers consider the recommendations in this (Women and Equalities Committee 2016 report) when setting their trans policies.” These recommendations which include the legalisation of Self Identity have not been approved and are not law. However thousands of organisations are now under the illusion that they are.

Hardly had the door shut after his departure than the EHRC was presented with a legal challenge over its guidance to organisations on trans matters.

In his newpaper  interview the outgoing EHRC Chair acknowledged some tensions exist between the demands for reform to the GRA 2004 and as he put it ‘some feminist groups’. This is disingenuous. The proposed reforms would have meant allowing male bodied people to self-identify as women for legal purposes. Even if there were provisos to protect women’s spaces in certain circumstances what it means to be a woman would have undergone a fundamental change without any discussion with women. Trans women would have been able to enjoy the protections and spaces reserved for the female sex, merely on their say so. That is the bottom line and if put that simply the tension between the two protected characteristics is obvious. It isn’t just ‘some feminist groups’. It is the feminist groups protesting on behalf of all women.  Because of the strength of the lobby and the promotion of incorrect advice from the EHRC and the  EO we already have men self -identifying as women going into women’s single sex spaces e.g. hospital wards, refuges, changing rooms, prisons, short lists, and importantly sport.

So when Mr Isaac says the debate has been toxic … he really needs to go back and look at the reaction the trans lobby – and yes there is one and it is very powerful – had to some of the concerns that women have been voicing over the past three years. He needs to acknowledge that it is women who have been blackballed, cancelled, de platformed, driven off Twitter and lost their jobs for the crime of asking for women’s rights to be protected.  Brands have been targeted by trans activists to keep in line with their demands and ideology. It is women who receive the most intolerable misogynistic violent and sexual verbal abuse on social media. It is not feminists who do this to trans activists. Feminists’ great crime is to want the reality of biological sex acknowledged and in certain situations to be given priority over a subjective and therefore unverifiable internal feeling of gender identity. Yet these perfectly reasonable concerns are still met with cries of transphobia and wanting to erase trans people. Yet by their silence  the EHCR along with other ‘responsible’ organisations have given credibility and legitimacy to this behaviour which has further encouraged it. And  it has enabled a culture of fear to develop around saying anything which may result in a reaction/ accusation of transphobia. Isaac knows full well that misogyny is not a hate crime and that transphobia is. However it needs to be carefully defined and given context. The EHRC could have done this. It could have set an example and it could have spoken up for women and girls’ rights. After all it is the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  Instead  it turned a blind eye and Isaac as Chair must take responsibility for the mess he has left behind.

The quest to legalise gender identity: academia, activism and the law


Liz Truss’s inbox must be overflowing. Leaks to the press that the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) might not include a lowering of age for legal transition nor enable legal transition on the basis of self-declaration has galvanised the trans activist lobby into action. It has some might behind it, including Google which promoted a ready to send letter to Liz Truss, demanding the right to Self ID. On the other side thousands of women, unfunded or self funded, have written to her to say please, no to self ID and yes, please protect children. The announcement is expected next week.

In another recent development, it would be hard to have missed the furore surrounding JK Rowling’s posting of her essay and the online abuse she received from so many for it and the column inches this has caused. In it she quite reasonably explained why she believed some of the demands of trans activists impinged on the sex based rights of women and girls. But it seems that making a biological distinction between men and women is now synonymous with hate. And it is not just trans activists that feel this way. This has become the ‘only’ view to take if you are progressive and liberal as witnessed daily on social media and by letters and actions of ‘trans’ allies.

As with many ideologies there is a required mantra and this one goes ‘transwomen are women’ and repeated in response to any requests for explanation. Our eyes do not lie so that this only makes sense if something other than biology determines your sex. And believers think there is something else and it is called gender identity. To give this indefinable concept permanent legitimacy would require enshrining it in UK law and perhaps this is what the fight for the repeal of the GRA is really about.

A long term campaign to legitimise gender identity and prioritise it over biological sex

A campaign to legitimise gender identity and prioritise it over biological sex has been going on for many years, mostly under the radar – until the announcement about the proposed GRA reform in 2018 made by Conservative MP Maria Miller woke some people up. But gender identity had made its entrance onto the global stage more than fifteen years before via the human rights movement and influenced by a powerful global lobby. This is just the final push here in the UK. Adoption of it into individual countries’ legal systems and the approach taken has always been one of stealth, as advised in a report “Only Adults? Good Practices in Legal Gender Recognition for Youth”, which was sponsored by global law firm Dentons and Reuters Thompson

To better understand this ‘under the radar’ campaign’ I returned both to the 2003 Hansard debates on the original GRA bill and then to a 2007 paper which discusses the consequences of the said GRA. The paper,”Sex Changes’? Paradigm Shifts in ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’ Following the Gender Recognition Act?’ was jointly written by veteran trans activist and now retired academic, Professor Stephen Whittle * and Dr Lewis Turner, academic and recently appointed Chair of Press for Change, a UK trans lobby group.

The original Hansard debates plus this extraordinary article gives us an insight into how interconnected academic theory, trans activism, law and policy really are. The trans lobby influenced politicians which resulted in the confusing use of the words sex and gender both in the debates of the GRA and the Act itself as well as the decision not to make medical transitioning a compulsory condition.

This confusion was then taken by the authors of the article as signalling a major change in thinking about biological sex and gender identity and they extrapolated consequences which were warned about during the debate but dismissed by the majority. That is that gender identity has priority over biological sex.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004

In a case brought by UK resident Christine Goodwin in 2002 the European Court of Human Rights  found that the UK had breached the Convention rights of Goodwin, a transsexual born a man, under Articles 8 (the right to respect for private life) and 12 (the right to marry). That ruling said that transsexuals were entitled to full legal recognition in their adopted sex, including the right to marry. This case was the culmination of a long battle by transsexuals and they welcomed the ruling.

The UK was then obliged to pass legislation that complied with this European judgement. It did so with the passing of Gender Recognition Act 2004 which enabled transsexuals to get a Gender Recognition Certificate and then a birth certificate in their newly acquired sex, if certain conditions were met. Transsexuals would be treated for all purposes as if they had been born with their acquired sex – including the right to marry and the age they qualify to draw a state pension. In short they created a legal fiction, a phrase actually used during the debate. There were four exemptions to this. At the time it received little media criticism as it didn’t seem to be momentous apart from changing the lives of perhaps 5000 estimated transsexuals. However this Act has already contributed to far-reaching social consequences way beyond its intended remit. The perhaps naïve assumptions by politicians led to careless wording, which I suggest was both encouraged by and then seized upon by activists.

The debate on the Gender Recognition Bill in the House of Lords 2003

So far as I know, there is no law nor any known medical procedure that can change the sex of a human being. The Bill purports to do so. It is therefore an objectionable farce.” (Lord Tebbit, Gender Recognition Bill, House of Lords Second Reading, 18/12/03, Hansard: Column 1304).

The case for the Bill was argued on humane grounds that human beings had a right to marry (Article 8 and 12 of the Human Rights Act) and at that time same sex marriage was illegal. However the arguments were tortuous, much of it focusing on supporting the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and not wanting to sanction same sex marriage in any way.

Despite the small number to whom this Act would apply there were two serious consequences of it, both of which were foreseen by some of the members of the committee. And both of which combined resulted in a victory for trans lobby.

First consequence: Sex and gender used interchangeably, without definitions, leading to assertions that gender (then gender identity) precedes sex.

In some ways some members of the House of Lords Committee on the GRA, like Lord Tebbitt had a greater understanding of the consequences of confusing the words sex and gender than many people have today.

Birth certificates use the word sex. The population category in question was described as transsexual and their transition was described as sex change. This was the language at the time. But the Act itself also refers to gender, a word that was familiar and being used to mean men and women in common discourse. (They had to make a leap from gender to changing sex because sex is on birth certificates so that changing gender becomes synonymous with changing sex) During the readings there was much debate about the use of the words gender and sex with some in the House of Lords wanting sex to be used throughout. But they used both and the result is a linguistic mess.

 Lord Tebbitt summed up what he thought the dilemma was, when he tried to put down some amendments:

The great mass of the amendments are very similar in that they replace the word “gender” with the word “sex”. That is because, apart from anything else, my concern is to smoke out in some way the Government’s view of the distinction between those words or to ascertain whether they believe that there is a distinction between them.

I notice that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sex” is defined as either of the two divisions of organic beings distinguished as male and female respectively or the distinction between male and female in general. It states that the sum of those differences is in the structure and function of the reproductive organs on the grounds of which beings are distinguished as male and female and the other physiological differences consequent on those.​

Turning to the issue of gender, we find a slightly different story. “Gender” is defined as:

“In modern (esp. feminist) use a euphemism for the sex of a human being often intended to emphasise the social and cultural as opposed to the biological distinctions between the sexes”.

It seems to me that, even from reading those definitions, the issue arises of whether the Government believe that the Bill is about social matters or about the biological matter of the distinction between males and females. I believe that upon that rests, to a great extent, how the rest of the Bill will be dealt with. I shall say no more about those amendments because they are tabled merely for the sake of tidiness, listing many, as opposed to just one, of the places where the word would be replaced.

His amendments were that:

They would leave out the words, “in the acquired gender” and insert,”as a person of the other sex”.

That, he said ” makes it much clearer what the Bill is about and does not hide behind the euphemism of gender when it is really talking about sex.”

However his concerns were overruled.  Lord Filkin later on in the debate states that, ‘the Bill is about legal recognition and it will define a person’s sex in law. We consider the arguments about the meaning of the words sex and gender to be beside the point. There is no stark dichotomy between the meaning of the words. Language, as I said, is fluid. Our sense of the words sex and gender has changed over time and no doubt will do so in the future. While the meaning of the word sex is not the same as that of gender, the word sex is increasingly in use in ways that go beyond a narrow biological definition (House of Lords Report Stage, Hansard 29-01-04, col. 366).’

Basically we don’t want to get into the semantics of what it all means!!Lord Filkin would surely not have known that his reluctance to grapple with the meanings enabled his wording to be quoted by academics as legitimating the demotion of biological sex as a category.

In their 2007 article Professor Whittle and his colleague Dr Turner reflect not on the practical outcomes for trans people following the Act but on the consequences of the wording of the Act. This itself illustrates how important changing language has been to trans activists, particularly language used in the law. The struggle between many feminists and trans activists is in some ways about language… who has the right to name and define sex, gender, woman and man, male and female? Because if the meaning of woman is changed to include some men where on earth does that leave feminism and sex based rights which are founded on the universal category of woman.

Sex then is beyond a biological definition as held by the ECtHR and the ECJ and Lord Filkin appears to echo Hausman’s 1995 claim that gender has come to mean sex” ( Whittle and Turner 2007)

Lord Tebbitt’s concerns were well founded. Inserting gender in this Act at times as being synonymous with sex, was a victory for trans activists as it paved the way for a looser way of ‘being’ either a man or a ‘woman’ and relied less on biology or (as we shall see below) the need for any surgical or medical transitioning and more on the cultural and social manifestions of sex. From there it has been a short step to legitimate gender identity, a wholly subjective and unverifiable concept. And this is exactly what the activists did as explained by Whittle and Turner:

“The sex/gender distinction,(where sex normatively refers to the sexed body, and gender, to social identity) is demobilised both literally and legally. Firstly, in the terminology of the Gender Recognition Act, gender identity becomes and defines legal sex: if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman [S. 9 (1)]. Gender then, now determines sex.”  ( Whittle and Turner 2007)

The confused wording of the Act here is taken by Whittle and Lewis to be not only evidence that gender and sex are interchangeable, but that gender is prioritised over sex, replacing it as the legal signifier of men and women. Although they go further and suggest it is gender identity not gender. The very confusion of language Lord Tebbitt had warned against enabled this radical interpretation: 

 “Firstly, the sex/gender distinction is demobilised with both terms in the wording of the act. Indeed, in the sex/gender distinction, female usually refers to sex, the sexed body, and woman usually refers to gender; the cultural meaning of female sex. In the terms of the Act the referents change round; gender refers to female and sex refers to woman. This suggests that the terms are interchangeable. Secondly, in the wording of the Act, gender precedes sex. Normatively in the sex gender distinction sex precedes gender; gender is culture written onto the sexed body. In the terms of the Gender Recognition Act, one’s gender precedes one’s sex.

“As the Gender Recognition Act states that one’s acquired gender becomes one’s legal sex then there is little difference between sex and gender. Indeed sex is preceded and exceeded by gender by the terms of the Gender Recognition Act. Sex in this sense is determined by gender identity, the social role that one chooses to take.

The concept of ‘gender identity’ was scarcely used in the debate neither does it feature in the GRA itself. However Whittle and Turner use the terms gender and gender identity interchangeably here.

Gender identity did not become part of the public discourse overnight. Originally it was used very specifically in relation to transsexuals as a way of making their condition more psychological – the mismatch between their body and the opposite sex that they really felt they were (Money 1975). Whittle and Turner describe it above “ the social role that one chooses to take.’  Today it is described by Stonewall as “a person’s deeply held internal sense of their own gender”, a very different concept.

It is only in recent years, we are told that, that everyone has an innate feeling as to whether they are male and female, it is just that most people are lucky and theirs matches with their biological sex. The only way that trans people are different is that theirs does not.  Recently we have seen a much more concerted effort for gender identity to be recognised as a category in public discourse and to actually be more important in the categorisation of people than biological sex. Stonewall, the prominent LGBT lobby group, which has been focusing on trans in its LGBT campaigning since 2015, has stated that it wants gender identity to replace gender reassignment as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010 as well as wanting to get rid of sex protected spaces. There is plenty of evidence that it is already using the term, not sex when it refers to equality characteristics and other organisations advised by Stonewall are following suit.

Second consequence:  Biology demoted as no medical transition required

Even today most people regard transitioning as involving some kind of medical change to the anatomy in order for the person to take on the appearance of the opposite sex. This comes in the form of hormones (lifelong) and/or surgery. Many trans people have hormones, and the removal of breasts or construction of breast and face feminization, but the vast majority of trans people do not have genital surgery. There was considerable debate in the Committee about what conditions should be met in order for a person to be granted a GRC and thereby legally change their sex.

The assumption made by the Select Committee was that transsexuals would indeed transition medically but they decided (or were persuaded) that it should not be a pre-condition of getting a Gender Recognition Certificate as this was too harsh, potentially excluding some people for whom full medical transition would be detrimental to their health.

(a) the applicant has undergone or is undergoing treatment for the purpose of modifying sexual characteristics, or

(b) treatment for that purpose has been prescribed or planned for the applicant,”

Prescribed or planned’ has been interpreted very loosely. This was also little noticed at the time and only a tiny minority undertake full surgery which many people even today do not realise. However they were clear that some quite stringent objective tests, including a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, should be taken before granting someone a Gender Recognition Certificate.

Lord Filkin ‘The appropriate test is whether a person has taken decisive steps to live fully in the acquired gender and there is clear evidence of gender dysphoria after a proper process of inspection and testing over a number of years. We do not intend to compel transsexual people to undergo surgery, even though most wish to do so.’

Back to Whittle and Turner’s article in which they refer again to Lord Tebbitt’s thoughts and spell out what they think the outcome of the Act is:

 “In his contribution to the debate in the House of Lords on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA), Lord Tebbit mobilises a discourse of sex based on chromosomes, as a somatic fact and thus immutable: sex cannot be changed by medical procedure nor by law. The Gender Recognition Act passed in 2004(achieved by relentless campaigning by Press for Change, the UK transsexual lobby group) does exactly that: it changes the legal sex of trans people in the UK and gives them full legal recognition.[1]. Moreover, the Act does not require any medical procedure (mentioned by Lord Tebbitt above), to change legal sex, as reassignment surgery is not mandatory.’”

The authors suggest that the lack of compulsion to have surgery now means that biology is no longer a pre-requisite for sex change, nor indeed is it important in determining whether someone is male or female. They continue, summing up what they believe to be the consequences of dropping the condition for medical transitioning  in the Act,

 “This reverses the usual legal gender attribution process where from the moment of birth, the presence or absence of a penis constitutes the baby as male or female the sexed body based on the genitals ascribes the gender identity and role of that person. In this scenario, sex determines gender. ““Thus when determining legal sex, the Court’s endorsement of the human rights basis for legal recognition of the new sex of post-operative transsexual people was the minimum line behind which the UK government could not retreat. The authorities had to provide legal registration which enabled trans people to enforce their rights to privacy and marriage to a member of the same natal sex under the European Convention.

However, as a minimum line, it was perfectly possible for a government to go one step further and to make legal recognition available to those who are pre- or non-treatment and thus include those trans people who for health, disability or other reason are unable or unwilling to undergo surgical intervention. This appears to be exactly what the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) has done.”

The UK government had inadvertently gone that one step further, informed no doubt by trans activists, although from my reading of the debate this was only done because of potential  health implications and not because they thought there would be an unwillingness to undergo surgical intervention as the authors suggest.

Any fears raised in the debate about the consequences of allowing male bodied people to become ‘women’ legally e.g. Lord Moynihan’s concerns about men competing in women’s sport as transwomen, were dismissed. Again and this cannot be emphasised enough, absolutely central to the wording and content of the bill was the belief that it affected only a very few people in the country

Lord Filkin ‘…we are talking about only 5,000 people in Britain. That is why this is such a unique and specific set of circumstances. This is one of the smallest minorities in our society, yet the evidence we have had prior to the Bill and during our debates shows that for that very small minority this issue is very significant. I think we have an obligation in justice to help them live their life as they believe it to be’ 

 But sixteen years on, this group has been redefined as transgender or even just trans and its meaning significantly changed with a shift away from a medical model to a social model to embrace a number estimated to be perhaps as many as 500,000. There are many definitions but Stonewall’s is perhaps the most comprehensive:

Trans is an umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, cross dresser, non-binary, gender queer.”

We are now talking about a very different group of people for whom the granting of a GRC through the GRA 2004 would never have been envisaged. Indeed even in a paper in 2009 on Human Rights and Gender Identity the European Commission differentiates between transgender and transsexual:

 “It needs to be noted that many transgender people, and probably most transsexual persons among them, choose to undergo this treatment, often including the elimination of procreative organs”.

Whittle and Lewis’s summary of how they believe the GRA resulted in a paradigm shift of the meaning of sex and gender.

One of the authors, Whittle, reveals his own influence to the proceedings in this chilling summary. And in it the authors clearly reveal how the consequences of confusing language and the lack of a condition requiring medical transition has resulted in the assertion that there is no difference between sex and gender, and that sex is actually preceded by gender and concluding that sex is in fact determined by gender identity.

“This (Act)  reverses the original gender attribution at birth which as based on the genitals (and strictly speaking not based on other known identifiers of biological sex such as chromosomes). For the Gender Recognition Act, the body is irrelevant, as neither bodily modification, nor the presence or lack of a penis is determinative. Moreover, the Gender Recognition Act is performative (see Butler 1990), in that as a form of speech-act, what it does is makes gender into sex in law. Indeed, as one of the authors was present at the meeting in the Department of Constitutional Affairs where the question of gender or sex was discussed, it can be verified that the decision to use gender was to bring a contemporary recognition of the complexities of the question to the Act.The decision to include sex as well as gender within the GRA was to acknowledge this and to ensure that the Act could not be challenged.”

what legally constitutes male and female has changed. We share Sandland’s (2005) view that as we can now have men with vaginas and women with penises, the act does undermine the binary of two morphologically distinct sexes.”

This was indeed what activists had been lobbying for and the Act now provided a theoretical legitimacy, which wasn’t challenged at the time, to push for further social acceptance of this view as well as influence policy.

Reform of the GRA 2004 ?

There was not a rush of trans people applying for a GRC following this 2004 Act. The total number of GRC’s given is estimated to be a total of about 5000, roughly what the lawmakers envisaged.  

However there has been sustained pressure in recent years from the trans lobby to reform the original Act. Are its conditions so onerous that thousands more people would apply for a GRC if they didn’t have to wait two years, pay £150 and get a medical diagnosis? These are side issues. The main proposal, published in 2018 was that trans people should be able to obtain a GRC purely by self declaration.

Most activists today say that trans people can do pretty much what they want without requiring a GRC. A recent article by GIRES said ” Secondly, those who have transitioned to live as women already have the right to enter women’s toilets, without a GRC and without having undergone surgery. They do, and have done so for years”.

It is true that there is very nearly self-ID in facto if not in law, thanks to an exceedingly influential lobby. The demand for GRC’s is not evident. But if successful the proposed change to the GRA would enshrine in law the concept of a self perceived gender identity and give it priority over biological sex. If you said you were a man, you were deemed legally to have been born male despite biologically being female and vice versa. After that it would be hard to reverse. After all Whittle and Turner said in their 2007 paper that “The privileges afforded by legal recognition and gendered belonging should never be underestimated’”

This then would be a fundamental re definition of men and women, certainly not the purely administrative solution for a discriminated against minority, that the lobby constantly claims. It has an obvious impact on the wider population, particularly women and girls which is why it is being challenged by women.


There are of course many academic papers to be found on this topic but I chose this one because of the clear link between academic theory, trans activism and the law. The first two have developed in tandem and together they have informed government policy and law at the highest levels in countries all over the world. Both authors are veteran campaigners for trans rights.

I have attempted to illustrate how the Gender Recognition Act 2004, influenced and then interpreted by academic activists may have inadvertently enabled and even legitimated what activists were lobbying for; the prioritising of gender over sex. It is not hard to see why this is so important for a certain section of this minority- they can never biologically be female if they were born male and vice versa so the next best thing is to re define what male and female means and demote the biology. Permitting people to change sex legally on the subjective concept of gender identity would cement this process further.


*Professor Whittle, a trans man, is an Equalities Law Professor who has been a key figure in the global trans movement, and was part of the group which developed the Yogykarta Principles in November 2006. These Principles, which address key legal frameworks regarding both sexual orientation and gender identity, have been hugely influential in obtaining legitimacy for the concept of gender identity at the highest levels eg. UN, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch etc. which in turn influenced individual country laws.

He was also present as an advisor at some of the 2003 debates and was special advisor to the Women and Equalities Committee on Transgender Equality 2015-2016. Ruth Hunt, former CEO of Stonewall. specifically credits the pressure group he founded, Press for Change, with handing the baton of trans lobbying to Stonewall in 2015 – see my post on her interviews below. His book the Transgender Studies Reader which was co- edited by Susan Stryker, an influential US transwoman was published in 2006.

The logic of lockdown

It seems that it was easier than perhaps thought to put us all into a lockdown situation… but rather harder to know how to let us out. The urgency of preventing the NHS from being overcome was laudable and the public went along with it. Plus the new communication from the government was to promote fear. Anyone could die. Now fewer than one third of ICU beds are Covid cases and the Nightingale which was hardly needed has been mothballed. Doctors’ surgeries and 111 calls have been much quieter over the past week or and some hospitals in London are receiving cases in single figures. So the original reason given to us for our lockdown is no longer there. But it has been replaced with another major one – the prevention of the resurgence of the virus, itself perhaps a consequence of the government strategy to lockdown and suppress the virus. There are five tests that need to be passed before it can be lifted. No one seems to have questioned these or asked why they chose these five.

  1. NHS ability to cope
  2. Sustained fall in daily death rate
  3. Rate of infection
  4. Supply of tests and PPE
  5. No risk of a second peak… (track and trace policy required to be in place)

The first as said above has clearly been met as there is now excess capacity in all hospitals. The data on which the predictions were made used the former NHS critical care bed capacity. We know that the NHS acted quickly and almost tripled this by using operating theatres, private hospitals etc. as well as building the Nightingale hospitals.

 The second test has also been passed as the peak of deaths is generally agreed to be on April 8th


The third test, the rate of infection is now estimated to be as low as 0.6 despite Professor Ferguson saying it would take five months to get it below 1. Germany began a relaxation of measures when their R = 0.7. The measure itself has been criticised by some with Professor Michael Levitt saying that without also knowing how long a person is infectious for, is not that much use. Should the use of a general R be the main determinant of strategy? We know that in a small infectious area like a care home it will be much higher than say in the countryside where it may be nearly O. We are not told on what data the measure R is calculated.

The last two tests are not tied into the demise of the illness but on the government’s ability to deliver testing and equipment and the introduction of a nationwide track and testing system. The economy and all our lives are further put on hold so that the government can do what arguably should/could have been done some weeks back. The mess up over PPE does not seem to have been resolved and there may be jobs to go at the end of all this, probably in procurement.  But neither  has the government explained its thinking behind the need or indeed the feasibility of tracking and tracing as a strategy for the ongoing suppression of the virus.

These two tests have given the government a reason to keep the lockdown longer and one wonders whether that is why they were included in the five tests to begin with. They know that by suppressing the virus rather than mitigating it, the risk of a second epidemic is higher (this warning was given in the Imperial paper, widely believed to have provided the ‘evidence’ for the sudden switch to suppression and lockdown) and they have concluded that tracking and tracing is perhaps the only effective way of stopping this from happening. Again I am just surmising here.

Surely we can demand some transparency as to the reasons why the last requirement of tracking is now so needed, that no relaxation of the lockdown can occur without it. Tracking and tracing was deemed an appropriate measure at the outset of an epidemic. The government started this well and then decided to stop.

“There comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention,” Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer. On March 14, officials signalled the contact-and-trace strategy for fighting the spread of the virus was ending, except for those in high-risk places like prisons or care homes. For everyone else, testing would be prioritised for those most ill in hospital.

Of course at that point the government was still following a fairly relaxed mitigation strategy of social distancing, to be followed by the closure of pubs and bars and large gatherings, to be followed by the demand that the over 70’s and vulnerable to self-isolate to a total lockdown for the entire population coming three days later.

The Imperial Paper was published on March 16th and recommended suppression not mitigation and without delay. And the government changed course. Frightening numbers were presented that no government could ignore. Even then arguably it was a bit late in the day for suppression as the virus had run rampage for a good month before this date. Other countries were doing the same, with Sweden being an outlier. The Swedish government decided to adopt measures which protected the elderly and vulnerable (and they concede that they were too late on this as well) and the impact of the illness on the healthcare system…just like our initial response of mitigation. The reason they gave for this was that it believed it to be sustainable whereas suppression by total lockdown of a population isn’t. Which our government knew at the time. And which is now proving correct. Nearly two months on and people are getting frazzled.

In the Imperial paper the downside of suppression is given “the major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more)”. This was not told to the public at the time or really has been since, for obvious reasons but it is being leaked out bit by bit in what I suppose they believe to be palatable bite sizes. However, asking us to stay in when nearly 1000 a day are dying and for a matter of three weeks  is a little different from now when the numbers in hospital have fallen and the consequences of an economy on hold are being felt.

But it is easy to see the bind the government is in. As the Swedish epidemiologist Prof Johan Giesecke said in his interview with Lockdown Unherd, once a government had made a decision of total lockdown, it is hard to come out of.

They knew that lockdown had to be lifted at some stage but Ferguson et al had also warned of a high risk of a second wave after suppression. Hence the government have gone now returned to the earlier tactic of track and test, despite the virus having been in circulation for at least two and a half months, and despite the fact that the authorities have absolutely no idea of how many have actually had the illness. The paper, like Dr Harries also says that suppression strategies are best introduced at the very beginning of an epidemic, so the government needs to get the country back to a situation that resembles the beginning of the epidemic. Hence perhaps its choice of the Isle of Wight as the first trial for track and test, where the numbers of those with the virus has remained very small. The Imperial paper refers to concerns about civil liberties with this method but that so far has not been raised by many in the public eye which is surprising.  MPs – where are you?  Not everyone wants such an intrusive measure on their phone.  How can this be a viable strategy when we have a population of nearly 70 million people and testing has barely reached the 100,000 a day level? Surely doing regular randomised surveys on parts of the population would have been a sensible way of at least getting an overall picture of the illness and how deep into the population it has spread. If this has happened I have not heard about it.

The more suppression the greater the risk of a second wave because there has been no chance for sufficient community immunity to build. So it is reasonable to ask why this was chosen as a long term strategy? The sacrifice is many people’s health, well – being, financial security, future, careers etc. This is not a temporary period of hardship for people. It has enormous repercussions for our society and economy and will do for many, many years. We will basically be a broke nation. The talk of bouncing back after a short period of difficulty has stopped.

There are clearly some questions that could be answered now such as has the Imperial Paper so far proved accurate – if not why not and what has been learned? Would 250,000 people really have died if we had followed a less stringent mitigation strategy? Are other approaches being taken into account? And fundamentally what exactly is the current goal, the logic behind it and the strategy? Is there an acceptance that the virus will remain with us at some level until a vaccine is found or herd immunity established? Is there an acceptance that some people will be ill and some people will die? By following suppression at what point can we resume normal lives without a vaccine having been found?

I cannot be the only one to bristle when I hear the “we are following the science” mantra. Mainstream media is finally beginning to give space to those questioning this ‘science’ eg. Newsnight. It is vacillating and dithering. Let us see what happens tonight. But the population deserve more transparency (and data on risk which I have written about in the another post) as to the reasons why they have been forced to sacrifice so much.

Covid, data and risk

What has happened to the earlier government message of – don’t worry unnecessarily, the vast majority of cases are not serious and do not require hospitalisation? This was given to us only six weeks ago and we already have a lot of data proving that this message was in fact correct. The ONS stats show that only 332 people under the age of 45 died from Corona virus (ONS figs up to April 24th).  Instead we are given a daily diet of catastrophe stories of young people dying by the media and the government has done nothing to assure people that this is highly unusual. No wonder fear has gripped the nation.

We now have a lot of data which the government choose not to relay to us. Instead we are given the daily numbers (not actually the daily, but taken over a number of days) of deaths and new infections. The latter data may change according to how many tests are being administered, making comparison difficult. Hospital figures are much more helpful in seeing the decline in numbers. The media is focusing on how we fare against other countries in terms of number of deaths despite knowing that we are probably all using different ways of measuring. This is not where the focus should be. We should be having a debate about the pros and cons of shutting down the economy and the whole population, and coming out of it in the best possible way. But to do that the public need proper information. About the risks and perhaps more about the illness itself.

This data should be communicated by the government rather than through occasional press stories. Are some people more at risk than others? The answer is an emphatic yes but to give these important details might have taken away from the overall message that we are all in this together, the disease is indiscriminate (it’s not) so that we obey and all stay at home. The facts may undermine this message.  But even if belatedly, journalists are beginning to report on some of the data that can readily be found on various government and NHS  sites eg. NHS England, ONS and ICNARC.

A virus cannot be fought and beaten by hiding from it. We are avoiding it and suppressing its spread. It can only be really beaten by a vaccine or herd immunity, that is sufficient numbers have had it or are immune enough to depower it.  For all the talk of vaccines, they are a long way off, maybe two years and maybe not at all. A vaccine for the HIV virus was never found. Hence we have some hesitation from the government on what to do next. But we are entitled to ask questions at this stage.

Who is most at risk from this virus?  

The figures in the Intensive Care National Audit Research Centre provide a lot of information about those who are receiving critical care for the virus.

Headline figures – all  Covid intensive care patients:

Average age is 60

72% are men

34% are from BAME backgrounds

And 33% are overweight according to BMI index

And a further 40% are clinically obese

The ONS figures on deaths tell us  twice as many men die as women in the age groups 50-70, one third more in the 70-79 age bracket before there is an evening out in much older age.

So possibly a fit seventy something old female would be less vulnerable than a 55 year old overweight male. Is this fact is influencing the very middle aged and male decision makers? Surely the public should know whether or not they are more or less at risk. Perhaps there is not enough understanding as to why these groups are overrepresented which is why there is no official comment on these figures. It is thought that a higher propensity to diabetes that BAME groups have may be one of the factors responsible for increased vulnerability as well as a lack of Vitamin D.  Research I hope is surely going on to discover why but these are still facts that should be publicised.

Maggie Pagano has written an excellent article in Reaction showing why the UK has such a high number of deaths… and inequalities loom large.

The most deprived areas of England and Wales have 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 25.3 in affluent areas. That is, people in the poorest areas died at twice the rate of those in more affluent ones. (ONS)

One consequence of poverty and indeed one measure of social deprivation is poor health outcome and we know that those with underlying conditions get hit the hardest. Ninety-five percent of people who have died with COVID-19 in hospitals in England had underlying health issues.

It is time for a discussion with as many facts given to the public as possible. If you know you are a high risk person, you presumably may be more careful than those who are not. There is a question of personal agency, which we have had removed from us perhaps for good reason but we should be questioning the rationale for it.

What is the risk for different groups of people and how far should people be allowed to take their own risk, without putting others at risk… This is a debate that we  should be having , that Parliament should be discussing. It is not just about the science. There are many scientific views. There are many routes being taken and these are political decisions.   We live in a democracy but nowhere is there a democratic debate. Where are the MPs on either side of the House challenging the current strategy and demanding more information? The consequences of this lockdown continue to multiply like the virus every day, the devastation to the economy, of young people’s futures and the toll on health and mental health needs to be brought upfront into the decision making process. This is about lives v lives. And to have that debate we need the facts. And we need honesty. If the government doesn’t know something, it should say so. We deserve to be treated like grownups now.

What’s in a Word?

Feminists have always quite rightly paid a lot of attention to language. Sheila Rowbottom said over forty years ago “language conveys a certain power. It is one of the instruments of domination”. I am old enough to remember how hard it was to get Ms acknowledged as a title so that women did not have to be categorised as married or single on every form. It was considered an extreme demand by feminists at the beginning and many women themselves would say, well I don’t mind, it isn’t that important etc. But it was important because for centuries, all of history to be exact, women have had no power to name themselves. As Mary Daly said ‘Women have had the power of naming taken from them’. Insisting on the inclusion of Ms in titles was a reflection of women finding their voice and making it heard. Lots of people didn’t like it.

Women are relative newcomers to the public sphere, and public discourse has been developed over the years by men and for men. Disrupting it and adding the ‘feminine’ or even changing words has proved extremely hard and meets with resistance. Minority groups have had similar struggles naming themselves instead of being named… so until thirty years ago people with cerebral palsy were known as spastics, people with disability were known as handicapped etc. etc.

Women in the business world still have to speak in a business language full of sports, wars and sex metaphors. They may jar but if you do not used them you will not communicate what you need to say. Many nouns that derive from verbs have ‘man’ at the end and even today many dislike adding woman instead e.g. salesman/saleswoman saying it sounds odd and artificial… more like an add-on than a different word. There has been a huge resistance to changing familiar words, rather like Anglicans wanting the King James version of the Bible to remain in church services and not the NIV. But listen to the radio or watch television and you will hear many more additions of woman to nouns as women’s role in public life is acknowledged more. Women’s ability to name themselves and their activities is still in its infancy.

Minorities and by minority I mean either numerically or those with fewer resources than the dominant group (like women) do not determine the dominant discourse. Feminists and male supporters of feminism may influence it, and this is what has been happening. So it is fairly extraordinary that a numerically tiny minority have been able to secure the erasure of female words with the majority of powerful dominant group standing by and allowing this without comment. Two things are going on here. One, the group is tiny numerically but powerful with regard to resources. On their side they also wear the badge of ‘most discriminated group’ which gives ‘liberals’ or those wanting to appear liberal permission to champion and accommodate their demands despite these being in tension with women’s rights including women’s rights to define themselves. Secondly and perhaps more disappointedly one wonders whether the male dominated establishment including liberal males are permitting this erasure as part of a backlash against women’s rights without it appearing to be so.

This is the context in which we need to regard the concern women are having about the removal of the word woman from public discourse. In order to appease a tiny but vocal and active group, organisations, including the government, are replacing the word woman without any consideration over the impact this may have on half the population. The word men and man seems to have been retained.

It is worth watching this video of the conversation that Julia Hartley-Brewer has with activist Laura Coryton on YouTube as these exchanges do not happen very often. You realise quickly why they don’t because the activist’s insistence that biological men are women and biological women are men and therefore men can have periods sounds so ridiculous. Better to fend off any debate with cries of ‘transphobia’ which is why there has been no debate. The activists and increasingly our organisations are no longer using the word woman and man to mean biological sex but indeed some ill-defined identity. Women’s ability to define themselves has been hijacked.

The word women has been replaced in certain medical notices and replaced with obscure descriptive nouns like menstruaters, and cervix holders so that ‘trans men’ can be included. This is biologically confusing and incorrect. The British Medical Association sent out guidance suggesting that practitioners do not use the word expectant mothers as it might offend trans people. A group of lesbians with teeshirts with ‘lesbians are women’ were refused service at the National Theatre last year as they were deemed offensive. Organisations are now making up new words like Womxn( the most recent being Oxfam) in a bid to be inclusive without recognition that they are being excluding of half the population.

The feminist project is based on a common understanding of the word ‘woman’. Woman is a biological sex category and their rights are given to them on that understanding. Trans people are just that, trans, and may well live their life socially as women or men. Some activists’ insistence on re defining woman as a social identity is offensive to women as is the insistence that women are themselves a sub category of women, cis women. Surely it is not too much to ask that women retain the right to define themselves. Language is not fixed and can change by use therefore it is imperative that we continue to use the word woman as we, women, want to use it.

Jean Bethke Elshtain ‘Feminist Discourse and Its Discontents: Language, Power, and Meaning’ in
Signs Vol. 7, No. 3, Feminist Theory (Spring, 1982), pp. 603-621
Dale Spender 1981 Man Made Language.

Skills – whose skills?

The government has now published its proposal on immigration. It is based on the premise that the country only wants foreign workers who are skilled. Their outlined point system has highlighted one of the problems that plagues pay equality – the definition of skill. On the face of it this is not a gendered issue but a closer look will reveal that combined with the gendered segregation of work the ‘definition of skill’ is responsible for perpetuating women’s relative low pay compared to men. Pay level is not the only proposed entry requirement for people wishing to work in the UK but the focus on it reflects the government’s belief (and many others’) that pay is still the main indicator of skill.

 Despite the intention to lower the minimum salary threshold for ‘skilled jobs’ from £30,000 to £25,600 for those coming to the UK with a job offer, this would still leave swathes of jobs in many sectors deemed out of bounds for foreign workers, particularly out of London.  Social care is in the news as one of those sectors most hit and also the catering industry – both female dominated and reliant on imported labour.

The government’s proposals have also been met with dismay by the UK’s growing fashion manufacturing industry. Skilled jobs such as sewing machinists and cutters will not reach the skilled training requirements for entrants under the new system. Jenny Holloway, owner of London manufacturer Fashion Enter, says “I really object to the fact that our industry is regarded as cheap or low skilled labour and strongly suggest that the government should make the effort to visit manufacturers and see how skilled it is, labelling the new minimum general salary threshold of £25,600 as “unrealistic”.

Academics have long regarded the ‘so called’ objective category of skill as a myth.( Phillips and Taylor 1980, Cockburn 1985).  Far from being an objective fact, skill is often an ideological category imposed on certain types of work by virtue of the sex and power of the workers who perform them.

Historically, one of professional organisations’ and trade unions’ roles has been to protect the status and pay of their workers, creating barriers to entry where necessary. They have always tried to protect the skills cluster in their memberships often in the form protectionist strategies like training and exams as well as other more informal types of closure. This is to maintain the status of those skills, limit entry and ensure higher pay. If too many, and historically it was women, were able to demonstrate those skills and entered the profession or trade it would result in a lowering of status and in market forces lower pay. The status of work (and its accompanying level of pay) is not static. It can be challenged and change. There is an argument that just the very fact that large numbers of women work in an industry will mean it has a lower status. Work has been ‘feminised’ and women carry their lower social status into the workplace (Witz 1990). If you look at areas of work which are highly prized, they are likely to be very male dominated. At the beginnning of the computer age, computer programming was deemed eminently suitable for girls, nimble fingers for the keyboard, patience and attention to detail – women’s work.  In the West as computers’ importance rose computer programme became associated with science, rationality, binarism and masculinity. It was adopted by male hobbyists, gamers and later the entrepreneurs. Bill Gates and Stephen Jobs arrived and the image of a “geek” became synonymous with a technology worker and the shift from a feminine to a masculine skill was fully made. The accompanying shift was from low status to high status skilled work. And pay went up.

Both the gendering and valuing of jobs (not always the same but there is a huge overlap as women dominate low paid industries) can be revealed in some of the equal pay for work of equal value pay discrimination claims. One example I wrote about in my book was the 2010 Birmingham council workers equal pay case, which was won by female employees based on work for equal value. Under a bonus scheme male refuse collection staff sometimes received up to 160% of their basic pay. In one year a refuse collector took home £51,000 while women on the same grade (cleaners) received less than £12,000.

Currently the average pay for an underground train driver’s ( predominantly male)  average base pay of a Tube driver is £55,011.  The majority of London Underground train drivers, approximately 3,000 of them, made £70,000-£80,000 last year when overtime and benefits are included. Compare this to the average salary of a nurse in London which is £29,000.

These figures tell their own story about skill, status and value. The segregation of low paid work makes bringing any equal pay claims impossible.

Surely it is time that unconscious bias in the evaluation of skills  is more widely recognised as a contributing factor to women’s inequality in the workplace. Some companies have individually been doing this for some time, checking their assessment or partnership criteria etc. for signs of bias. But perhaps a more comprehensive approach to what does or doesn’t constitute skill needs to be debated at a social level.

Toilet talk

Today I wrote to Ms Kate Varah, the executive director of the Old Vic following its announcement yesterday that its new refurbishment now provided 42 toilets, but none of  which were for women only.  In the letter I set out the specific background to this announcement before asking some questions.

In 2018 the Old Vic announced loudly and proudly that it would be doubling the number of women’s toilets  and stars including Joanna Lumley, Glenda Jackson and Bertie Carvel  backed the campaign, and appeared in a video in which they plea for more women’s toilets.

The Old Vic launched a £100,000 public fundraising campaign to help it carry out major works, including doubling the number of women’s toilets.

Yesterday, October 2nd 2019, the theatre announced that the numbers had indeed increased. There was now one facility with eighteen toilets which also have urinals, making it unlikely that women will go in there, and then another set of 24 cubicles which are mixed sex.  So in fact it announced a removal of all women only loos – the opposite of the campaign in fact.  Men have access to all 42 whereas the 24 that women can use are also open for men to use.

“Our loos now offer ‘self-selection’ rather than being labelled male or female. This takes a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach following advice from surveys conducted with focus groups,” it said.

Who does this actually work for? The problem was a lack of women’s loos in the first place, that was all.

The announcement said that there had been consultation with focus groups but failed to say which ones. Indeed it failed also to provide any concrete reason at all for removing women’s sex segregated facilities. All previous surveys show that women prefer  women only toilets. On the positive side the theatre has asked for feedback – if only this had been asked for before the decision to do this.  I had a few questions for Ms Varah:

What happened…?  It is clear that you changed your mind on provision of women’s only  loos over the course of a year.

Why was this?

There is a mention of focus groups – what kind of focus groups?

Were you advised by any external consultancy?

What percentage of your theatre audiences is male?

What percentage of your theatre audience is female?

Did you consult your theatre goers?

Which of these wanted mixed sex toilets?

Who did want mixed sex toilets?

Why do you think sex segregated toilets existed in the first place? Are those reasons not applicable in 2019? What has changed?

There is an insufficient number of toilets for women generally throughout the UK because many were built at a time when women were more confined to the private sphere.  I suggest that the Old Vic was presumably very familiar with the reasons women require more toilets than men otherwise it would not have pledged to provide more.   Yet the reasons for the sex segregation of toilets are exactly the same today as they were fifty/hundred  years ago. A Parliamentary Committee Paper over ten years ago (on which Emily Thornberry sat) sets out the rationale and the recommendations – that women require twice the number of toilets than men do – which the Old Vic ( even though not a local authority, the advice should still apply)  has seen fit to disregard (particularly page 18 and 19)

And the reasons that mixed sex toilets do not work for women were more recently given in an excellent blog .

Someone who may have provided some advice to the Old Vic is Professor Clara Greed, Professor of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and a specialist in toilet provision with particular emphasis upon women’s needs. You can watch her here.

Any organisation that has been advised by Stonewall will know that they can earn extra brownie points by changing their toilet facilities to mixed sex. This is not done because of demand but because it looks progressive. This was not something even considered five years ago. But for whose benefit are these changes?  Fewer than 1% of the population are trans and that is on the widest definition given (this includes cross dressers, non binary etc.). Most organisations will have fewer than 1% of trans people for whom using a male or female toilet is problematic. Personally I have no problem sharing female toilets with a MtF trans but I, like many women don’t want to share them with men generally. And some women for reasons of past trauma, or for religious reasons do not want to share a facility with biological males, whether they are transgender or not. There is no point pretending biology is irrelevant – hence men use urinals.   So is there another way to include the potential trans person who may be embarrassed? Why not have one separate cubicle that is mixed sex? This is not always possible in old buildings but it certainly is in new developments such as the Old Vic. A year ago the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith made the downstairs toilets mixed sex but kept sex segregated ones upstairs.  So I am eager to hear the rationale for the decision to remove all  women only toilets whilst retaining men’s.

Sometimes and increasingly in this case, one very small minority group’s demand for rights disproportionately impact another’s in a negative way.  But women are half the population and their needs and concerns for sex segregated spaces are currently being dismissed and ignored in a shocking and distressing way.

Notes from a group dynamic gender, sex and power workshop in 2005

 Bristol 2005

Group dynamic work is a great way to explore gender relations… and here was an opportunity for a whole weekend of it.  What a pity for all of us that there were so few men there. But just like in all work on gender, and arguably very often in our relationships it is women who do the work. As the gender that is least privileged it is obvious that we want change more than men. How many events have I spoken at or attended when I think – I wish more men were interested in this.

I do understand how difficult it is for men to participate and be ‘themselves’ in this pro feminist environment. It is as if they too are quite unsure as to what constitutes a man or manliness apart from the body. How is a man different from a woman in a positive way – and here let’s move away from the physical. Many of the ‘masculine’ traits are deemed negative or ‘othered’ to the feminine, which is often valorized in these ‘feminist’ or woman- centred gatherings. What masculinities are useful, good, do we women like /love?  What aspects of masculinity or being a man do men like? What tends to happen is that there is an expectation that the ‘good’ men will display all the feminine traits but what happens to the masculine ones?

What was interesting in this weekend was that whilst on the surface men were empathising with women, some stereotypical masculine traits still emerged through this dialogue with women. There were some difficulties and differences in how ideas were communicated… the men still fought shy of the personal whereas the old feminist adage of the personal is the political still resounded for most of the women. In this context men will often be quiet rather than risk displaying too controlling a role in the debate and being called out for it.

It must be hard to be a pro feminist man when it is men who are mostly responsible for so much violation and violence in the world. But men must speak out about it. Just as women are having to work out what parts of the traditional feminine they own or not so men need to do the same. No man or woman is the same as anyone else but the weekend showed me that there is still a long way to go before we understand each other. Women’s anger has been quite subdued in the past fifteen or so years as social theories have focused on the individual and emphasis has been on self improvement and indeed other disenfranchised groups in society. But it is still there and somehow has to be faced by men.

I see this repressed anger _ there is a feeling that we should not feel it, life is so much better for us than it was for our mothers – in organizations. But I am also seeing resignation, an acceptance that perhaps this is as good as it gets and that at least we have entry into the public world of work and can sniff the scent of power. Many women are even harbouring the possibility that perhaps there is a natural order of things and men will always dominate. This would be a dangerous conclusion leading to a social impasse plus a betrayal of the thousands of women who fought hard at great personal cost to give us this ‘freedom’ to still come second.

Although awkward at times the group succeeded in maintaining a consensus until the second day when one woman talked about an incident involving a man following her on her way home the previous night.  She was telling us about it and became really angry about the ‘normality’ of this fear of being followed at night and this resonated with most of the other women in the group. This then was the opportunity for the men present to discuss what if felt like to be linked to the ‘predatory’ male either in reality or symbolically. However what happened instead was that all the men in the room felt attacked and got extremely defensive and aggressive – indeed one stormed out of the room, saying he felt victimized. This left everyone left behind rather shaken and I do not think I am alone in feeling that familiar mixture of anger and guilt (shame) that we (women)  had done something wrong and we should have contained the situation. Oh how often do we women do that, taking responsibility for and managing men’s feelings. These feelings run deep. We owe it to one another to explore them.

Sarah Rutherford

Football thoughts during Women’s World Cup 2019

In the past I have too easily associated football with pubs packed with noisy men drinking pints, men dominating streets on football nights, and when I was younger warnings not to go out after the end of a  match. Alcohol, men’s voices and violence…not an altogether positive picture!  Although it was central to the lives of boys and men around me, and indeed the nation, I looked at it and felt it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Looking back again now I think I felt  excluded.

I have been watching some of the Women’s World Cup and find myself smiling, shouting them on and just enjoying watching women play football at this level.  I can see a sport requiring skill and team work that excites spectators.  I have also been thinking about some of my own more affirming football memories.  And there are some.

As a child playing football was just out of the question. It was a boy’s game. Even though I was quite a tomboy I never played. At school I played hockey, on the left wing and enjoyed it. My introduction to football was, like for many women, through my son and his father who both loved it. So it was frequently on the TV in our house and I learned the rules and enjoyed watching when I knew the players! On our annual holidays in the UK a big group of us always had a game of football on the beach, kids and parents and when I played I loved it! I thought then what a shame I hadn’t had an opportunity to play when I was growing up. I think I may have been quite good.

My kids went to a very progressive primary school which at the time believed that boys and girls should play sport together if they could, until secondary age. Not all parents agreed. But under eleven, there is little physical difference between the sexes and if anything girls are stronger.  Similarly, there were a few girls who played on Saturday mornings in the park with the boys. My daughter played there. She had two brothers and was sporty and didn’t think anything of it. This must be the same story perhaps of the many talented players we are now watching on our television screens.

As a nine year old my daughter had a painting accepted into a big children’s art exhibition and a cartoonist, Andy, was there on the opening night drawing many of the children. The cartoonist asked my daughter what she wanted to be drawn as.  ‘As a footballer’ she said. I truly had hope at that time that within a few years I would see as many girls as boys playing football in the public parks.  But it just didn’t happen. The push behind it didn’t seem strong enough.  Gender stereotyping increased and parents seemed happy to reinforce these … boys do football and girls do ballet.

One of the delights of having women’s football on the TV is of course that the footballers are offering fantastic role models to young girls today. I was dismayed when I learned only relatively recently that women actually women played more football a hundred years ago than they do today. It was extremely popular during the First World War, when women in munitions factories were encouraged to play for their health and fitness. This developed in factory teams and their games started to draw big crowds.  A Boxing Day match at Goodison Park in 1920 attracted a crowd of 53,000. Then in a similar vein to pushing women out of the workplace and back into the home after the war, the FA banned women’s football in 1921, not to lift the ban until 1971. If I had known this legacy perhaps I might have had the courage to say as a child, I want to play. Many of us may have. Perhaps my daughter and the other girls in our local area would have felt it was just as much their right to play rather than being treated as mascots or token boys.

However I am so pleased that the hard work of men and women promoting girls’ and women’s  football  did keep going and has resulted in where we are now. But I would still like to see girls playing football in the parks and schools offering football as a sport to girls.

 Blog on a project collecting voices on women’s football over a sixty day period in, over and around the World Cup.

Hard Talk  ‘Is Stonewall in danger of tearing itself apart?’ Sarah Montague interviews Ruth Hunt

Interview 2. Hard Talk  Sarah Montague 

A few days later a second more challenging interview followed, the interviewer being, World at One presenter Sarah Montague.  Her researcher had provided her with some good questions but I didn’t feel she took the opportunities she had to really grill Hunt on her position. Perhaps she personally didn’t feel confident on the topic and when faced with an ‘expert on a controversial subject’ only too readily accepted whatever response she got. How unlike her questioning of politicians on the Today programme or now World at One! They don’t get let off the hook so easily. So an opportunity rather wasted but still some interesting responses from Hunt on which to comment.  I wanted to ask my own questions which I will occasionally insert in this piece, probably out of frustration!  For those that haven’t the time to listen to it here is my take on it.

The context of the interview was different from the above one which was pitched as a interview of an outgoing chief executive.  This next one was about the contention that Stonewall was in a problematic situation and the headline title shows this with ‘Is Stonewall in danger of tearing itself apart?’

Montague began with asking Hunt – why self ID?  Her first response was quite surprising as she said well other countries are doing it. Really – was that the reason? She cites a few including Iran!  Have we as a country always been so keen to follow Iran in their social legislation?  Some of these countries have enabled trans to be legalised because it is more acceptable than homosexuality which is outlawed as Hunt will only be too aware. Proceeding with the discussion on self ID here in the UK Montague asks about the proposed GRA 2004 reforms and the demands to make it easier to get a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and legally change sex.  In an effort to play down the importance of this, Hunt then says that actually getting a GRC doesn’t really make any difference as people are self id- ing anyway!! No one she says gets asked for their GRC.  So one may well ask why the fuss to repeal the 2004 Act?  But Montague doesn’t ask this.  Or ask the obvious next question which is ‘So what legal rights are trans activists actually wanting then that they haven’t got that will make a difference?’

Montague failed to drill down here but did raise the issue of women’s safety and women’s fears re special provision for sex segregated spaces. She cites the case of Karen White who sexually assaulted women in a women’s prison, having gained access as a trans woman. This is batted off with Hunt saying safeguarding is already done on a case by case situation and will continue to be. That case was just one failure in the process.  However I have read several policy documents of organisations, which were advised by Stonewall and there the policy is to accept trans people’s word without question. In this culture staff do not feel empowered to question or refuse entry to a trans woman as they fear retribution. Hunt knows full well that this is the advice she and her team have been giving organisatons for some years now even though the law (Equality Act 2010) does provide for the possibility of  barring a trans woman from women only spaces.  So to my mind SM could have then made the point in this first part of the interview  that ‘it seems that you have already achieved what you want by changing policy and practice without any further change in the law.. what exactly are you arguing for now?’ But she didn’t.

The next  question was hard hitting (all the good ones were where SM could rely on someone else’s quote or an actual report)  SM quotes Kristina Harrison saying that what Stonewall is  doing is changing what it means to be a woman (my paraphrase) and what did Hunt have to say in response to this accusation. Her response shocked me and should have prompted a counter question from SM but didn’t… “Oh “ she said in a rather superior, didn’t you know way, “the debate about what constitutes a man or a woman happened in 2004 when it was discussed at length.” SM obviously didn’t know what that meant so failed to ask for further elaboration. Mistake. Hunt must have been referring to the lead up to the 2004 Act. As far as I am aware no women’s groups were involved nor was there any public debate. This was because as the consultation papers show the Committee all believed they were discussing and passing legislation to help fewer than 5000 people, who were unable to marry because this was when same sex marriages were  illegal.  It was this bill that sowed the confusion between sex and gender and there was some concern expressed by certain committee members this at the time.  However again because of the small numbers they decided to create a legal fiction whereby someone could get their birth certificates changed after certain conditions were satisfied and this became the GRA 2004. Outside of this committee I found no public debate about what it meant to be a man or a woman but these conversations were perhaps taking place among the trans lobby. Perhaps this is what Hunt was referring to. In a paper written by Professor Stephen Whittle and Lewis White the authors considered the insertion of the word gender in the bill to be a success. One now can see why. Gender was on its way to being prioritised over biological sex. .

This has been the number one goal of the trans movement. To replace sex with gender as a category. If they could never actually be physically a woman or man then they would change the meaning of being a woman or a man so that they could be. Of course none of this is admitted by Hunt nor does SM challenge her. It is interesting that in the earlier interview Hunt said that Stonewall took on the trans rights brief because it had the resources available that Press For Change (Whittle is the founder) which had been going for years did not have. The influence of Whittle is obvious.

When SM repeats that some feminists and lesbians are upset/angry Hunt’s stock reply is to ignore that question and say well I am also a feminist and a lesbian. End of.

Next SM tries, as the other interviewer did, to tackle the toxicity of the debate. But this is familiar ground for Hunt. She can express surprise and blame all sides as she did in the earlier podcast interview, placing Stonewall firmly in the ‘we are doing the right thing and have received hostility for it’. Or the furthest she goes to conceding that trans activists hostility has played a huge part is that there is incivility on all sides.

SM does push her on Stonewall’s refusal to debate with those critics.  Hunt then goes on to say that a debate is going on all the time, conversations are going on all the time and difficult ones at that. Much of the frustration for gender critical feminists has been the trans lobby’s refusal to debate so it isn’t clear with whom Hunt is debating.  A possible embarrassment brought up by SM was the public criticism of Stonewell’s refusal to debate by Simon Fanshawe, one of the original founders of Stonewall. Hunt dismisses this in one sentence… his time was a long time ago sic he doesn’t understand the issues.  As to not debating with critics, she uses the safety of her trans staff as an excuse not to. But only 6% of Stonewall’s staff are trans and this doesn’t explain why she herself who is not trans cannot sit and debate the issues.

SM then asked her the direct question “Is it transphobic to disagree with the concept of self ID?” ‘No’ she replies categorically, ‘Nor have we ever said that’.  This is the biggest concession she has made yet  but she still does not condemn those activists who accuse feminists who do question self ID of transphobia and worse. Almost as if she is expecting  SM to  have come back with,  then what is there to fear in a debate about self ID?, Hunt gets there first by pronouncing that “It is not Stonewall’s role to host that debate” thereby closing off that part of the questioning.

And to justify Stonewall’s position which this interview entrenched further she said that it (position) was arrived at through a survey of 700 plus trans people.  She also rather disingenuously says that Stonewall’s position has been influenced and informed by all its diversity champions. This is an area I know and the reality is that these corporate champions have taken their stance and developed policy through Stonewall’s advice and training not the other way round. But Hunt insists that these employers ‘have been asking us to do trans work for decades’. Again I find that hard to believe.

Hunt maintains that Stonewall’s approach is ‘thoughtful, considered and measured’ which does provoke SM to ask ‘Why then are so many feminists and lesbians angry with Stonewall?’ Hunt dodges the question like before and replies ‘What we are seeing is lots and lots of support. Many, many of our supporters are very supportive.’  Montague’s response should/could have been  ‘of course they are but that wasn’t the question’. But it isn’t. Hunt sensing she has the floor continues to declare  that the organisation is a much bigger one today than it was, much richer ‘since we thought about things differently’.  So here she acknowledges that the trans work has made Stonewall more successful. The work is lucrative.  It has a new strand of income and the subject matter is so niche only Stonewall can provide the advice and training organisations have been led to believe they need.  It is their ideology wrapped up in rights and discrimination and organisations want to do the right thing. They have created the demand for a service only they can provide. Hunt still has not answered the question as this has nothing to do with anger from feminists.

So Ruth Hunt has acknowledged that pretty much all the recent growth at Stonewall has come from trans issues. An obvious question at this point would be ‘How have you grown so much on the back of promoting rights for a tiny, tiny fragment of the population? Why do so many people and organisations want to fund this?’ I have my own thoughts here but that is for another piece.

Or why not ask the question ‘What percentage of your income is directly attributable to work you do on trans rights and policy advice compared to that for lesbian rights or gay rights? Of the £7.5m income from training, advice, donations etc… how much can you attribute to trans work, or funding for trans issues.’

Hunt continues saying that some people didn’t want or believe that trans people should be part of that movement (what movement?) but lots and lots did. Again instead of addressing the specific concerns of lesbians, a group Stonewall was set up to protect, she dismisses them, citing that there was bigger support for trans as her rationale.

Sarah Montague has another gem of  a challenge to put to Hunt(and her researcher has been good, pulling out reported criticisms). This time it is the report  that Maureen Chadwick, a  well- known  Stonewall supporter and her partner pulled their funding citing Stonewall’s militant trans rights crusade as the reason. Montague quoted some of their concerns, like the teaching  ‘that a bearded man with a penis can be a lesbian’ and  the couple’s criticism of  the fact that Stonewall was using the gender norms of the 1950’s as signs of being girls or boys.’

Hunt dismissed the criticism by merely responding with ‘I don’t agree that that is what is happening. I am a lesbian myself’ before repeating that an increase in donors is proof that Stonewall is doing the right thing.  She merely says again that some people don’t want them to work on trans issue, an easy rebuttal without acknowledging the specifics of the criticisms.  Montague had a real opportunity here to press in on the ideology that Maureen Chadwick objected to and ask more about it. But she didn’t.

Alluding to the fact that Stonewall was coming in for public criticism SM asked Hunt if she was leaving to protect the organisation. Interestingly she didn’t exactly deny this. But she says there is a board which is 100% behind their policy, defensively adding that Stonewall is supported by all political parties and other organisations like the Army and Barclays. Again this is because these organisations have relied on Stonewall , the self-appointed expert, to tell them the rights and wrongs of how to treat trans people and have swallowed the ideology hook line and sinker.

SM’s best challenge comes near the end. Having gained so much for the LGB community in the UK, she said, some people feel that Stonewall should campaign in countries which still carry the death penalty for same sex relationships ‘rather than focusing on identity and semantics’, she conjectured. Hunt responds quickly with ‘it is not semantics for trans people who experience hate crime daily’ and the viewer feels by this stage that Montague is just looking forward to finishing what has seemed to  be an uncomfortable interview. A few minutes of quite banal conversation follow before time is up.

As a reasonably well informed observer I think Ruth Hunt was also uncomfortable with this interview and just used a few tactics to avoid any challenges or indeed engage with any of the difficult issues. She either ignored criticism of others, and referred to being backed up by supporters, then repeated her own experience as a lesbian and feminist to trump any feminist/lesbian criticism and lastly used donors and clients as justification for policy. She actually failed to take ownership and responsibility for the policy or put forward a really persuasive argument for the work Stonewall is currently doing that is making them quite rich.