MPs have been talking about gender and sex and the law. This is a good thing. That’s the job Parliament is there to do, after all: debate complicated, contested issues in order to decide how and if to make laws, and to make sure the country is a place where differing views and arguments can be tested.
So well done to David T.C. Davies, who brought about today’s debate in Westminster Hall, and well done too to MPs such as Layla Moran, Hannah Bardell and Lilian Greenwood who took part in the debate. Some of the things that were said in the debate were sensible and thoughtful, some were not. But in a sense, that doesn’t matter; the same is true of all parliamentary debates, which are inevitably a mixture of insight and cobblers. And to coin a phrase, any debate is better than no debate.
For new readers, this debate really boils down to who gets to be a woman. How should the law deal with people who are born male and retain a male body who identify themselves as a woman? Should they be able to gain the rights, entitlements and legal status of a woman on the basis of that self-identification? The government has consulted on changing the law to make it easier to legally change gender; some people support that, some people don’t. More of that in a minute.
If you’re interested in this stuff, you can read the whole Commons thing here, but for me there are a couple of things that stand out.
First, Victoria Atkins, the minister for women and equalities at the Home Office is a good thing, and someone surely heading for more senior ministerial office in due course. Ministerial responses to Westminster Hall debates are often boilerplate bromides written by officials and recited unthinkingly by the minister concerned. Atkins’ contribution was a lot better than that, and strongly suggests a minister who has taken the time to think critically about the issues (and actors) in an area where critical thinking has been painfully lacking.
Again, I don’t endorse everything Atkins said (I think she’s a tiny bit blasé about how effectively the Equality Act 2010’s single-sex exemptions are being implemented in everyday practice) but her general approach and tone were the right: it’s a complicated, contentious issue where loud voices on the extremes have drowned out and sometimes silenced legitimate questions.
Here are two eminently reasonable Atkins quotes that should be utterly uncontroversial but which are, in this context, refreshingly bold:
'People are sometimes almost too scared to talk about things, which is not right. We do not want a climate of fear in the debate. We want people to be able to express their views respectfully and in a caring and careful manner, so that we ensure that questions are flushed out and answered.'
'I get asked about this issue regularly, and we all share a sense of sadness about the fact that this important debate sometimes gets taken over by loud and sometimes aggressive campaigning by activists. I am sure they hold their beliefs very strongly, but they perhaps lose sight of the fact that we have to be able to talk about this issue in a reasoned, respectful and caring fashion. The vast majority of the public—and, I am sure, parliamentarians—are in the middle. We want to talk about this issue in a caring and careful way so society gets to a position in which we are all comfortable with the consequences of the changes to legislation and so on.'
(NB: she didn’t identify those 'activists', which strikes me as a deft bit of politics, since it allows everyone to conclude that she was talking about Other People and not them.)
And since I was earlier this year very angry that the Commons did not debate the case of the rapist Karen White, I should note that the minister addressed that case thus:
'I want to be clear that the case of Karen White is appalling. There was a series of terrible failings that should never have happened. In the light of that, my ministerial colleagues at the Ministry of Justice are looking again at the decision-making systems that apply to the management of transgender prisoners, as well as how they were applied in that case.'
Which strikes me as going a little further than the Ministry of Justice has done on the issue, but I’ll have to leave it to others to pursue that.
All I can do here is to conclude that Victoria Atkins appears to be doing a pretty good job of handling a very prickly issue without resorting to the unthinking sloganeering or simple political cowardice that some of her colleagues have been guilty of.
That was my first observation about the debate. The second is about a short exchange between Mr Davies and Ms Moran, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford who is a former science teacher.
The exchange captures a great deal about this issue, which has excited strong feelings among some woman (and men).
Some of them are unhappy about rules allowing male-born people to 'identify' as women. They worry that doing so could compromise the female-only spaces that society has provided in recognition of the potential danger that male-bodied people pose to their safety and privacy. They argue that if, as a slogan suggests, 'trans women are women' and a trans woman is anyone who says they are a trans woman, then there is nothing to stop a male-born person with full male anatomy and malign intent entering female-only spaces. And that, they say, is a problem, because a male body (especially one guided by male socialisation) is always a potential threat to female bodies, female privacy, and female dignity.
Ms Moran has said she believes trans women are women. Mr Davies has said he believes that a person with a penis cannot be a woman.
Their exchange is here:
David T. C. Davies:
'I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. May I bluntly ask her whether she would be happy sharing a changing room with somebody who was born male and had a male body?'
'I believe that women are women, so if that person was a trans woman, I absolutely would. I just do not see the issue. As for whether they have a beard, which was one of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments, I dare say that some women have beards. There are all sorts of reasons why our bodies react differently to hormones. There are many forms of the human body. I see someone in their soul and as a person. I do not really care whether they have a male body.'
And that, in a nutshell, is the transgender debate. Remember, Ms Moran, an intelligent and educated member of Parliament was speaking in a debate about laws that help determine how and whether people with female bodies can chose to separate themselves from people with male bodies. I’ll repeat her key observation again, just for clarity:
'I see someone in their soul and as a person. I do not really care whether they have a male body.'
Truly, Britain is a fortunate nation. This year really has demonstrated how lucky we are in the talents of our elected representatives. But even after the masterful Brexit debate and all the other delights, we didn’t know just how blessed we are. Because it turns out have an MP who has the gift of being able to see people 'in their soul'.
That must come in handy for all sorts of things, including the sort of case Mr Davies raised: being able to look at someone and gaze deep into their innermost thoughts and essence and understand what sort of person they are and what intentions they have would doubtless allow you to decide whether you were happy to undress in their presence.
But what about those women who do not possess Ms Moran’s remarkable gift, and who might just be a little concerned about the anatomy of the people they share changing rooms and bathrooms with? Women who might not subscribe to the fact-free, anti-evidence superstitious gibberish contained in talk of seeing souls? Women who might just consider material reality, biological fact and thousands of years of accumulated evidence about male violence, committed with male bodies, to actually matter? Women who might be left asking, if even MPs debate laws on sex and gender on the basis of 'souls' not bodies, what hope is there?
Sadly, Ms Moran did not say anything about those women who are not fortunate enough to share her special gift. Perhaps she’ll get to the next time MPs debate this issue.