James Kirkup

In praise of the MPs who spoke out in the trans debate

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There is an old Westminster joke that says if you want to keep something secret, say it on the floor of the House of Commons. Day-to-day parliamentary business doesn’t often get the attention of national media outlets and thus the wider country.

This is understandable but also a pity because we often end up missing our elected representatives doing the things we expect of them: debating important things, discussing subjects that concern voters, even sometimes showing thoughtful leadership.

I’ve spent most of my career around MPs. Maybe I’ve been captured, but I often think they deserve a bit more respect than they get. Most work very hard (and much harder than when I started my first job in the Commons in 1994) and take their jobs very seriously. Yes, they’re paid well above the national average, but I’ve honestly never met an MP who did the job for the money; the hours, the dislocated life and the abuse simply don’t justify it. Besides, politicians are largely motivated by things other than money: they crave attention, validation and power instead.

And sometimes, they’re just driven by the things they believe. Which brings me to the Commons debate held on Friday 6 March about International Women’s Day.

Among the speakers was Jackie Doyle-Price, Conservative MP for Thurrock and former health minister. I’m going to quote part of her speech at length because I think it deserves to be read in full:

'I am particularly uncomfortable that the debate around trans rights and gender dysphoria has become pitted against the rights of women. It is surely not beyond the wit of policymakers to devise a set of rules and principles that protect the rights of transsexuals to find a way of living their lives and not discriminate against women at the same time. 

'Those of us who want to see women-only safe spaces are not guilty of hate crime against trans people — not at all. I think people who are trans want to quietly get on with their lives. It does not help any of them that they are pitted against women in this terrible, horrible toxic debate. 

'The only people who are winning through this debate are those men who use their power to oppress women and see the opportunity to claim the right to self-identify as a weapon. None of us in this room should collude with that. We have already seen the case of Karen White, who self-identified as a woman, went into prison and committed crimes against fellow inmates. We must be able to devise a law that stops that happening but also supports those who are most vulnerable and need to have their rights defended.

'Parliament has failed to give proper oversight of the growing number of transgender interventions for younger people. We have allowed treatments to develop at the Tavistock really unsupervised. This is no criticism of the medical professionals there, who clearly are doing their work with the best of intentions, but we need to look at the ethics of some of this and the practicalities of it.

'We are seeing more and more girls being referred for gender reassignment treatment. We are talking about girls well below the age of majority. I personally am very uncomfortable — well, I think it is wrong — about putting forward people for treatment that is irreversible when they are not in a position legally to give consent. We really need to be more honest about the challenges of puberty.

'Puberty is horrible. I was a tomboy when I was growing up—that probably does not surprise hon. Members. When I got to my teens and suddenly felt my body changing, it was horrible. I hated every minute of it. I cannot believe what might have happened to me now, going through that. I carried on climbing trees and so on, and playing at being “CHiPs” rather than “Charlie’s Angels”, but now I would be on my iPad and I would suddenly find lots of other people who thought like me and then — guess what? — all those people are going to the Tavistock. 

'It scares the hell out of me. I fear we are doing harm to girls when actually this is something that they could just be going through. It is quite a normal thing not to be comfortable with what is happening to our bodies. The fact that so many of the girls who are going for such treatment also have issues with autism frightens me even more.

'I was contacted by a parent just this week who thanked me for something that I had said about this issue. She wanted to talk about the experience she had had with her daughter, who is on the spectrum. As she said, one of the classic symptoms of autism is that, as a sort of self-defence tactic, you become a different personality. 

'When we think about that in the context of puberty and unhappiness with the way your body is changing, of course it is a natural response to pretend to be a different gender. I really think we have failed in this House; we have not given sufficient scrutiny and debate to a treatment which, frankly, if it is given out wrong, will do real harm to those girls and boys who go through it. I hope that this is something that we can give more attention to in future.'

Later in the same debate came a speech from Joanna Cherry, an SNP and QC. I’m going to quote her at length too though not in full. You should read it all:

'For all these reasons, women must be allowed to organise themselves to campaign against their oppression. Sometimes, this means excluding the group that has historically been responsible for the oppression of women, and that group is men. One of the things I want to say today, as forcefully as I can, is that it is eminently reasonable for women to organise on the basis of their sex if they wish to do so. 

'It is also legal for them to do so. It has been central to decades of feminist thought to say that gender is imposed on women in order to uphold their oppression. By gender, feminists mean presentation, modes of dress and the falsehood of masculine and feminine personality traits, about which we heard earlier. 

'So if we say that gender is somehow innate, and that it supersedes sex, the logical conclusion is that women can somehow identify out of our oppression. Many feminists disagree with that, but increasingly, disagreeing with gender ideology has become a dangerous thing to do, as we heard from Jackie Doyle-Price. 

'This brings me to the problem of no-platforming and the attempted silencing of well-respected feminist academics and others simply for asserting women’s rights. I would like this Chamber, on International Women’s Day, to send the really strong message across all the nations of these islands that no-platforming and attempting to silence feminist academics and other women who assert women’s rights is wrong.'

I struggle to find anything in either speech that I disagree with but that’s not really why I hope those speeches will be read and watched more widely than the typical backbench speech on a damp Friday afternoon.

It’s because Doyle-Price and Cherry did something that too many MPs have failed for too long to do. They talked calmly and sensibly about a complicated and sometimes difficult issue where reason and leadership have often been absent. They did their jobs.

I’ve been writing about this issue for just over two years, generally making the same point: this is an important topic that is not being properly debated or scrutinised by the people we elect and appoint to provide such scrutiny. So I’m greatly cheered by that debate last week and the contributions of those two MPs. Nor do I underestimate the courage it takes to dor them to do this. The abuse and threats that are directed at women (but not, in my experience, men) who speak about this stuff are all too real. Jackie Doyle-Price and Joanna Cherry should be applauded.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice to hear some male MPs do their jobs and talk about this too? I know very well how many of them have worries and concerns, and how few of them express those concerns in public. Hopefully, the example set by their female colleagues will encourage some to be a bit braver and start talking trans. It’s time to man up, chaps.