Is the British media transphobic? Yes, according to a writer in the Outline, a US publication, who accuses the Times and the Guardian of rampant bigotry in the row about gender. Several prominent British feminists are also singled out for alleged ‘hate-peddling’. The logic here is muddled but is worth unpicking. The author appears to claim that the views of British feminists like Helen Lewis (who has urged caution over the Government’s proposal to reform the Gender Recognition Act) are somehow comparable to the Trump administration, which is – according to the New York Times – seeking to remove legal protections for transgender individuals. This is a complete misunderstanding of both debates.
Right now, the UK and the US have a similar position for the recognition of transgender individuals: both, ultimately, require a person to provide evidence of living within their chosen gender in order to receive legal recognition. For what it’s worth, both systems also suffer the same flaws (of requiring trans people to clear disproportionate hurdles).
But here’s the big difference: what the UK Government proposed in its GRA consultation (the story which triggered the massive spike in transgender-related media coverage this year) was to move towards a system of pure self-identification – essentially allowing a person to choose their legal gender at will. This would come with the understanding that this choice would always take precedence over biological sex (including, for example, when it comes to the housing of prisoners.)
At first glance, Trump's plans appear to go in the opposite direction: by using biological sex as the marker for all relevant discrimination legislation, they would essentially invalidate the status of transgender individuals accessing federal government programmes. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination – or a social-justice warrior mindset – to picture the unfairness that such an approach would cause.
When you look closer, though, you realise that the Trump proposal is essentially the mirror-image of what the self-ID lobby is calling for. And the differences don’t stop there: for a start, both are deeply ideological positions which rely on a religious or political belief and then apply this to all cases. Crucially, neither system is able to apply discretion or accept that – in some circumstances – one metric (biological sex or gender identity) makes more sense than the other.
This is why many British newspapers have expressed concerns about the GRA reform: not because of any underlying bigotry but because it seeks to apply a fringe ideological conviction to an immensely complicated question.
Oddly, the Outline lays the blame for this supposed media bigotry at an unlikely door: Mumsnet. The article claims that some of Mumsnet’s 14 million users have developed an “obsession” with transgender issues. It’s true that transgender issues are frequently discussed on Mumsnet – but why assume this is down to bigotry, rather than the fact that many of these concerns (the housing of male sex offenders in women’s prisons, for example) resonate deeply with the women of Middle England?
The writer isn’t wrong that Mumsnet holds deep influence – just not necessarily with the media. When I spoke to someone who knows the consultation well, they mentioned the “Mumsnet effect” – the fact that the Government had received cautious responses from women all over the UK, representing all ages and backgrounds. The responses calling for the more ideological system, however, tended to be concentrated in smaller clusters, usually from London and university cities – places which typically vote Labour.
Ultimately it will be this kind of political pragmatism which will probably persuade ministers against uprooting the GRA system. Blaming it on the Times and the Guardian might seem tempting – but it’s ultimately untrue.