Whatever happened to the brilliant gay rights movement led by people like Ian McKellen, Simon Fanshawe, Matthew Parris and Angela Mason? For people of my baby boomer generation, one of the miracles of the late 20th century was the speed at which public prejudices against lesbian and gay people evaporated.
Those prejudices haven’t disappeared; but it is now accepted as common sense that LGBTQ+ people should be treated equally. When I started work that kind of statement seemed like generations away. The advocacy of the original founders of Stonewall changed attitudes to such an extent that a Tory Prime Minister – David Cameron – could boast in a conference speech that he supported same-sex marriage, not in spite of being a Conservative but because he was a Conservative – and be received with an ovation from his elderly, right wing audience.
Today, that gay rights movement seems a shadow of itself, preoccupied by the intricacies of a language despotism that has emerged from the faculty lounges of minor North American universities. The latest step, a call for the UN to revoke the status of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, of which I was the founding chair, is baffling. Who could have imagined that LGBTQ+ campaigners would so contort themselves that they are petitioning a body which is advised on human rights by countries that stone women and imprison gay men?
The EHRC is threatened with having its status as a national human rights institution removed because it has raised some questions about Scottish government proposals to make it easier for people to declare themselves men or women, despite what is said on their birth certificates and irrespective of their actual biology. The Scottish government’s proposals could arguably result in open access to women-only spaces for people with penises, and women being locked in cells with men with a history of violent rape. The EHRC has therefore asked for more ‘detailed consideration’ of these issues before the Scottish government changes the Gender Recognition Act. The accusation is that the EHRC is doing so because its new-ish boss, Kishwer Falkner, was appointed by the UK government, and is therefore taking orders from evil anti-trans Tories.
This is a puzzling charge. When it comes to sex, the current Prime Minister is demonstrably the most liberal and least uptight occupant of the post since Lloyd George, and is known to favour a ‘woke’ approach to LGBTQ+ issues.
More substantively, the EHRC’s queries about Scotland’s policies seemed unexceptional to me. It would be bad manners to comment on the decisions of my estimable successors at the CRE/EHRC, David Isaac and Kishwer Falkner, but as far as their independence is concerned it’s worth pointing out that both were appointed in exactly the same way as I was. I served three full terms under different Labour administrations and the Tory/Lib Dem coalition, and it is a matter of public record that I managed to piss them all off with some regularity.
That fury perhaps explains the somewhat irrational appeal to the UN. Having been the only other person to go through the proposed UN process, might I respectfully suggest to the EHRC’s critics that they consider the irony of arraigning Falkner before a body whose expert committee has recently appointed as its rapporteur a longtime representative from Uganda, where homosexual acts carry a penalty of life in prison. Or the irony of demanding that a Muslim woman, Falkner, be judged by a body whose advisory group proudly features representatives from Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.
To be fair, I admit that I do have beef with the UN machine, which declared me persona non grata when I led the EHRC – partly because when asked to endorse the appointment of Saudi Arabia to the chair of a UN body sitting in judgement on the rights of women, I laughed out loud and couldn’t stop. I do hope the current EHRC is not asked to pay a price for my over-developed sense of the absurd.
But this is, in the end, no laughing matter. There is deep pain and distress here, and a minority of extremists within the trans community who have their own political aims seem to care not one jot about the amplification of that hurt for the majority of trans people. I spent several years, with others like Harriet Harman, trying to craft regulations that would ensure that people who wanted to change their sex could do so with the minimum amount of physical and emotional pain. For me it is hard to see how this call will do anything to help a single teenager born into what he or she regards as the wrong body.
There are wider consequences here. The trans extremists threaten not only the standing of the LGBTQ+ movement, but the hard-won gains of the anti-discrimination movement of the past 50 years. To start with, the point at issue is not compassion for people in pain, nor the rights of trans women and trans men, which are clearly laid out in law. What is being sought by a small minority is the eradication of the very notion that women exist. What the small minority of largely ‘natal men’ campaigners actually want is for sex to be declared a matter of the imagination – specifically their own.
If these fantasists got their way any individual could declare themselves any sex – or none – at any time. Unfortunately for this group, the basis of discrimination law is that people have characteristics which lead to others unjustifiably depriving them of opportunities. Remove this capacity to claim discrimination and any remedy against injustice becomes impossible to enforce. So much for pay gap reporting or claims for equal pay.
But more widely, the elimination of protected categories would inevitably have to be applied to other characteristics if we decided that we could each decide what our sex was. This is a notion that, frankly, could only emerge from a privileged group of white men, who believe that the world should be shaped exactly as they want it in order to fulfil their fantasies. I’m afraid that unless and until science makes it possible for me to decide that tomorrow I’ll have pale skin and blonde hair, I’m not buying it.
Unfortunately, our feeble establishment in the media, universities and some parts of politics are now so afraid of having the finger pointed at them that they cave in to tiny, but vocal lobbies. The extremists have so far had it their own way. It’s time for the grown-ups to come back from the pub and turn off the fantasy on TV. And if the EHRC is first through the door, so much the better. That’s why we created it; that’s what it’s there for.