Changing the headline : Women’s right to define themselves is under threat

 If we reframe the discourse which pits feminists against transgender rights  it is easier to see why so many women and men are concerned about the proposed changes to the GRA 2004 and the replacement of the word sex with gender identity.   Of course trans people are entitled to rights and they have these under the protected characteristic of gender reassignment in the Equality Act 2010,  but further demands like self ID come at  the loss of rights of women and girls. The current debate has become so toxic that  feminists who even ask questions about trans gender issues are vilified as ‘transphobic’.

It is unprecedented to have such fundamental changes such as the removal of the categories of M/F from administrative forms, the demand that male bodied trans women can use spaces reserved for the female sex for their physical safety, the removal of women’s toilets to mixed sex, the changes in language, the change in what we can wear, without any public debate about the consequences to women and girls allowed.  Yet that is what has happened. Until now.

Many women and some men are concerned about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. If passed the new law would allow trans people to self-identify to their preferred gender without the need for any objective assessment, medical or otherwise. Currently a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is required, together with some medical assessment and a two year period of proof of living in the other gender. So far fewer than  5,000 people have gone through the process which trans groups claim is proof that the process is too burdensome. Most feminists do not have a problem with simplifying the process. But many do have a problem with blanket self-identification without any objective assessment at all and where this may lead.

There are  real conflicts of interests between women and trans women which are not being explicitly considered.

What began some years ago as a movement to protect the rights and safety of a small number of transsexuals has now expanded into the beginnings of a fundamental transformation about how we categorize ourselves in society and the consequences are far reaching particularly for women. The GRA 2004 was passed in response to a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2002.

This ruled that people who had transitioned to the opposite sex should be allowed to marry even though that would de facto mean marrying the same sex. This was at a time when same sex marriage was illegal and people who were trans were still legally their birth sex with no way of changing that.   So the UK had to make changes in the law, basically creating a legal fiction whereby a man who transitioned to living as a women, could obtain a new birth certificate. This enabled transsexuals to marry. There was a lot of confusion around the words sex and gender during the debate of the bill, and basically it was fudged by using the word gender for a transition and recognition certificate whilst the result was to change the sex on their birth certificate. There were some concerns about the consequences of this expressed during debate but these were dismissed because Parliament said it would affect very few people – they estimated approximately 5000 transexuals. Little did they know.

Since then fewer than the estimated 5000 have applied for a Gender Recognition certificate. Already people are free to change their identity, including their names, driving licenses and many other papers without a certificate. And of course it is now legal for two people of the same sex to marry. So the need for a GRA is arguably less.

Fourteen years after the GRA of 2004,  estimates range  between 200,000 and 500,000 for the number trans people in the UK. There is a much broader meaning of trans today than there was then and these figures would include other non gender conforming, non- binary and even cross dressers, according to Stonewall’s definition.  Even so, taking the top end of this estimate, this means that social changes to accommodate less than 0.5% of the population impact 51% of the population, who have not been consulted.

The focus of feminists has been  to voice our views about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 during the government’s consultation process, which ends at the end of this week but the debate has become toxic and the reciprocity that is vital for democratic discussion has broken down.

A major cause of this breakdown has been the way in which the debate has been framed as being only about trans ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ –  two words that trigger guilt and a knee jerk reaction to being rightly ‘supportive’ in most liberal minds, but also positions any opposing voices to the ‘unsympathetic, bigoted, prejudiced’.  But rights have to be  negotiated  in society and this debate requires input from non trans people, (99% of the population) and from those particularly whose interests and rights may be compromised – women. What we should be discussing is how can the rights and welfare of trans people be upheld without impinging on or endangering on the hard won rights of women and girls.  The other major question boils down to “who should be defining what it means to be a woman? Women themselves or 0.5% of the population?”

And so this is a  much broader and complex debate than just, should trans people have rights?  The shift from sex to the category of ‘gender identity’ is already happening, regardless of any potential changes to the law. But whether it is called gender or sex, the categories of men and women are to most people fairly fundamental – in research, health and social policy and in the context of public spaces, in sport, and particularly safety for women.  Hardly a day goes past when we read of male and female public lavatories being replaced with ‘gender neutral’ ones – for that read ‘mixed sex’. The YHA is the latest to be ‘advised by outside agencies’ on trans policy and have changed their wording from sex to gender so as to allow transwomen to share dormitories with women.  This is not in keeping with the law  or social practice as we know it but it is happening under the guise of ‘trans inclusive’ policies by well-meaning organisations.

Schools are changing their cloakroom facilities for the one or two youngsters who may decide they are trans (whatever this means at primary school age),  and changing their uniform policies. Ironically women fought hard for girls to be allowed to wear trousers in public places including schools and there are now schools where the girls have to wear trousers – a unisex uniform designed to make the school’s transgender students feel more comfortable.

Primary schools do not teach feminism but many now teach a trans ideology often under the guise of LGBT  anti- bullying training by lobby groups. There is certainly evidence to suggest that a social contagion is causing the monumental increase of young girls turning ‘trans’, a worrying trend of a 4000% increase over five years. Authorities tried to suppress Lisa Littman’s article on this phenomenon called, Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. Meanwhile,  Stonewall the LGBT pressure group is advocating that 16-18 year olds should be able to self-identify. Young people are impressionable, often confused about their sexuality particularly during puberty and how they may want to express themselves should have nothing to do with changing sex.  A brilliant speech by Michele Moore sums up the dangers of self-ID and young children and what is taking place in schools that have succumbed to the trans orthodoxy.

Organisations including the government are taking advice from charities and pressure groups (like the very influential LGBT campaign group Stonewall as well as smaller agencies like Mermaids,  and GIRES),  whose ideology is extreme and arguably out of step with society.  These charities receive government funding, and Stonewall is particularly well funded with close ties to many businesses. All these organisations, public and private,  take women’s equality seriously and public organisations have a public duty to do so, yet they have failed to consider the implications of their policies on women and girls. For a measured and informative critique of the GRA consultation process so far read this article by  Professor Kathleen Stock.

On October 8th, Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, spoke on Radio 4 and was asked about the opposition many women and men and some trans people have about the right to self – identify, one of the key proposals for the repeal of the GRA Act 2004.  She defended Stonewall’s stance and likened the current hostilities to previous struggles of gay and lesbian rights. This was disingenuous. These are not comparable to the current trans demands as they did not directly conflict with other people’s rights or impact their lives apart from perhaps upset ethical or religious sensitivities. The new demand for changes in the Gender Recognition Act 2004 framed as  ‘trans’ rights demands, do impact others’ rights…. over half the population’s rights. The half that historically has been subjugated and ignored. The half that is currently celebrating 100 years of women’s (partial) suffrage. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the irony of this.

Hunt also insisted that she believed that trans women are women, claiming erroneously that this was already enshrined by law. It is not. But, by saying it often enough there are thousands of organisations that already believe it, or are too scared to challenge it.

Amidst the ridicule and disbelief expressed over the misuse of language like “pregnant people”, and “people with a cervix” and the decision to make Mother’s Day cards gender neutral so as not to upset trans people, there is alarm among women at the redefining and even erasure of the word woman

Last week on Newsnight  a trans woman told a male interviewer that feminists should not be offended by the word womxn which the Wellcome Collection used instead of women – to be more inclusive.

It is ironic that the trans activists are dominated by trans women many of who are married and have fathered children but are now telling women what it means to be a woman. And a couple of weeks ago a poster with the dictionary definition of woman, which was put up near a debate over the GRA repeals, was ordered to be removed because it was considered transphobic.

There is also controversy over the phrase  ‘the gender assigned at birth’ to denote  birth sex. No one has to assign a gender or sex  to a baby unless it is intersex and requires a decision to be made by a doctor as to male or female. It is from there that the phrase is originally derived. The rest of us are born boys or girls. But this is now the absurd language used by public organisations and the media.

Language is important. Language is power, which is why subordinated groups have struggled to name themselves rather than be named. Transgender people have chosen transgender rather than the former identity of transsexual, which they consider demeaning and too much based on the biological. However as well as naming themselves, trans activists insist on demoting all biologically born women into a sub category. They are trans women and 99.9% of all other women must be called ‘cis women’. This is domination by any other name and women are not going to accept it.

There is also widespread public concern about allowing male bodied people who identify as women entering women-only spaces, and similarly being allowed to compete in women’s sport, and go onto women-only shortlists. This is already happening and it is understandable that many women  would like their voices  to be heard. The kernel of this whole  debate is of fundamental importance to feminism – it is the right of women to define themselves. The category of woman within the political community of rights and obligations based upon the rule of law is under threat.

Gender And Sex

Trans activists  prioritise the concept of gender identity over biological sex  for obvious reasons. You do not have to have a body of a woman to be one.  Stonewall has stated that it even wants gender identity to replace gender reassignment as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010.  It is unclear how this concept could be legislated for given as we all have a gender identity of some sort. The term, gender identity, itself has yet to be adequately defined and is based on a subjective view of oneself in the context of stereotypical attributes of masculinity and femininity. Although gender and sex are used interchangeably these days, they do  not strictly have the same meaning. Sex is being biologically male or female and gender is more of a social and cultural construction. Indeed most dictionaries defines gender thus

“Either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones”. Oxford English Dictionary.

Historically the  concept of gender  has been useful for feminists who sought to challenge the notion that women are born to be a certain way which justified their secondary position in society (essentialism).Certain characteristics and behaviours which were attributed to men and women as being innate and based on biology could be challenged as being social and cultural and therefore could change.  Biology did not necessarily make women ‘passive and nurturing’ in all areas of their lives, but cultural expectations and socialization may have encouraged it.  Indeed stereotypical gender attributes are challenged on a daily basis. Up until recent times, women were considered too weak for sport, their brains too small for education, and that their role was solely to raise children. Distancing the biology from the social and cultural was necessary for these limiting attributes to be challenged.  Men too, have struggled against the restrictions of a dominant masculinity, and now we accept that they can be caring and nurturing and women can be adventurous and leaders.

The idea that gender was much more fluid than merely two opposing corners of pink and blue was welcomed by feminists.  Feminism has always fought against these stereotypes but now some trans activists are embracing them and using them as proof of innate sex difference! We are back to pink and blue.  Stereotypes trap us all. Playing with dolls and wearing pink does not mean a boy wants to be a girl! An article which will dismay all feminists was published in PinkNews, claiming just that.

Feminists have responded with the claim that biology does matter. After all our bodies are the main signifier of whether we are men or women. Women all over the world experience rape, violence and abuse by men  because of their biology and sex. Now perhaps we have to emphasize this as being the only certain differentiator if gender is up for grabs. The response to trans gender people has so far been… you can identify as men or women but that does not make you one. There is the material fact of a body. There is also the socialization that girls go through – Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote “One is not born a woman: one becomes one” refers to the ways in which girls learn how to become women. This varies in time and place but adult men transitioning to women have been socialized as boys.  Whether you define woman as being a gender or a sex, the issues and problems trans women and women face in society are different and cannot be ignored. Biology and the socialisation of women matter. Women would not think to represent trans people’s issues yet somehow it is considered appropriate for a trans woman to speak on behalf of all women. The Labour Party elected Lily Madigan, a young trans woman to be its Women’s Officer whilst at the same time suspending women members who questioned the practice of Self- Identification.

But we have a situation now where men can claim that their biology or socialization does not preclude them from being women. Not trans women but women.  The trans lobby are years ahead of feminists, who have been caught off guard. There is a lot of money behind the US trans movement  and perhaps more research is required to see what underlying interests are served here by the trans ideology. Change on the scale and speed we are seeing today only happens when there is power behind it. And usually that means money.

The decline of much meaningful feminist theory and political action  over  a period of twenty years is a consequence itself of the identity politics and influence of post structuralism that has produced the belief that sex, like gender is a product of social discourse and has no universal or essential meaning (see Judith Butler’s work e.g. Gender Trouble 1999).  There is too much to say on this here but the philosophical climate has provided the perfect fertile ground for what may be seen as a kind of attack on women’s rights through the destabilization of the word ‘woman’. Historically when women have progressed socially, a backlash has followed. And rarely in the same way.

Women silenced

So far the debate has been shaped solely by a set of very dominant activists who have shown no concern  as to the consequences of their demands on other parts of society. This is identity politics at its worst.  Any opposition to the concept of self- ID is described as trans phobic, and  even suggesting a debate attracts accusations that feminists want to deny trans people’s existence.  If ever there was an argument to banish hate crime to the realms of history, the playing out of this particular one is it.  Police have been called out on many an occasion including to people who have posted statements on social media like ‘women do not have penises’. The Labour Party has suspended members, included Jennifer James for saying similar. Linda Bellos, a socialist feminist who has done more for women’s rights in this country that most, has been taken to court by a trans activist for a supposed ‘hate’ crime. There is sadly a long list of women (and now some supportive men too) being targeted, losing their jobs, and being personally abused online. Most recently Ann Henderson, rector of Edinburgh University has been accused of transphobia for tweeting details of a meeting about the GRA and women’s rights.

Very, very, few public figures – even the outspoken Labour feminist MP’s like Sarah Champion and Jess Phillips –  have spoken out against this and supported women. Actually it is a struggle to name any politician at all that has specifically called out the trans activists’ hostile behaviour or acknowledged the tension between trans’ demands and women’s everyday lives. However on October 10th  Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, a Conservative peer, chaired a meet for Woman’s Place UK. This was hugely welcomed.   And on the 16th October, women’s groups met with 50 MP’s brought together by David Davies, Conservative MP to discuss concerns they have over the GRA  proposals. But some MP’s requested that their names were not made public which tells us how undemocratic the process has been. They are fearful of abuse and backlash against them.   Even the Women’s Equality Party – the feminist party, has not taken the side of feminists and it actually parked the issue at their conference this year. Fear of not being considered ‘progressive’ has sadly created an environment that is more reminiscent of fascist and communist regimes than of the western democracy we are supposed to inhabit. There has been nothing progressive about the silencing of women we have witnessed over the past year.

Regardless of the outcome of the government consultation on the GRA reforms, changes in the way we organize ourselves are occurring and in the process is contributing to a slow erasure of the category of women. Biological men can already call themselves women, are admitted into women’s refuges, boys can go into the girl guides, into women’s prisons (with some frightening results), onto all women shortlists, enter women’s sports. Organisations are changing sex to gender in their equality statements despite the fact that it is sex not gender enshrined in the Equality Act 2010.   Adopting Self ID will just make it easier to change sex and harder to challenge those that do. So to those who see it will not impact the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act 2010, of course it will.


As a society we should address the question of what is fair and reasonable and  enables  transgender people to live dignified lives, without eroding the hard won rights of women and girls.

This may mean accepting changes to the GRA to simplify the process for trans people wanting a certificate.

But this may also mean putting in place measures that prevent male bodied people, whatever they are called, from accessing women’s sports, women’s prisons, places of safety and refuges, and women only shortlists. We may have to use new language like male- bodied to get round the problem of male- bodied trans women having access to these as self- identified women.

This may involve introducing a sliding scale of external verification of self -ID where stricter assessment may be required in certain situations where the safeguarding of women or girls applies.  Allowing anyone to declare themselves the opposite sex and to automatically enjoy every  access to that sex’s spaces opens the door to abuse of the system. And this also does a disservice to trans people the majority of whom want to get on with their lives without prejudice and discrimination. The extreme ideology of the activists and their abusive response to feminists  could have  harmed the trans population more than helped it.

It should be possible to challenge some of the views of the agencies advocating trans rights, who are currently advising government and other organisations, without being called transphobic.   This is an issue of democracy and reciprocity and change happens through give and take, not by attempts to dominate and annihilate those who disagree.


Information and guidance by

Journalists writing sense on this topic are Janice Turner and Lucy Bannerman  in The Times, James Kirkup in the Spectator,  and Andrew Milligan in the Sunday Times.

An excellent resource is the seven essays published by The Economist giving views from all sides.