The Sunday Times says Boris Johnson is going to reject May-era proposals to allow people to “self-identify” changes of their legal gender.
1. Trust this report. It’s by one of the best-connected reporters around and it’s consistent with public and private signals from inside government in recent months.
2. This is a remarkable demonstration of how grassroots politics can still work. When the Gender Recognition Act consultation began in autumn 2018, there was no organisation in existence that was willing or able to raise the concern of women (and men) who worry about the consequences of self-ID for women’s legal rights and same-sex spaces. Unrepresented and facing a solid political consensus built by well-funded professional advocacy groups, those women were undeterred. They organised themselves, finding ways to voice their concerns. And in the end, some politicians listened. Wherever you stand on the issue, you should acknowledge that groups such as Woman’s Place UK and Fair Play For Women have been amazingly effective. Sometimes politics does work, even if it takes a bit of time.
3. On the other side of the ledger, organised advocates of self-ID reforms badly over-played their hand. Instead of engaging critically and civilly with those who questioned the changes, trans rights groups often refused to debate the issue (especially in the media) and bluntly denounced all sceptics as transphobic bigots. They squandered goodwill in government and helped to make what should be a low-key procedural issue into a flashpoint. The best way to destroy your enemies is to turn them into friends.
The organised trans rights groups also failed to distance themselves from the online hate-mongers who do trans people a huge disservice by bombarding dissenting women with obscene abuse. Those trolls, who will of course be furious about the government’s plans, should know they have done as much as anyone to bring this about.
4. Labour, as the Sunday Times notes, now faces an awkward choice. There are deep and honest differences of opinion in the party on this issue. Some, on both sides, might now hope that Sir Keir Starmer will pick a side. Some Tories will also be hoping for this. I expect and even hope that he will not do so. It doesn’t make political sense for him to inflame a party row on an issue that’s still marginal for most voters. And a national political debate on trans rights between Common Sense Conservatives vs Woke Labour would be an awful step towards US culture war politics. In truth there are good and decent people on both sides of this debate in both main parties. A debate where all can speak and be heard respectfully would be a good outcome here. Sir Keir can do a lot of good by triangulating on a complicated, nuanced issue that needs careful consideration, not angry binary rows.
5. I really wish the timing of this report was different. Coming amid fights about statues, history and race, it’s inevitable that some will try to drag trans issues into wider narratives about culture and politics. That would be harmful and incorrect. This isn’t a left-right thing: there are critics of trans orthodoxy to be found at all points on the political spectrum. As I’ve noted before, much of the organised resistance has come from women on the left who have fought for social justice causes for many years. If you see anyone trying to suggest that raising doubts about self-ID means you’re in the same bracket as red-faced thugs who fight the police and urinate on a dead hero’s memorial, ignore them. Defending women’s rights to speak and have their own safe spaces has nothing to do with statues.
6. This isn’t the end of the story. It’s probably not even the most important bit of the story. Trans health issues deserve far more attention and it doesn’t just mean the questions about how the NHS deals with gender-non-conforming children, though there is a huge amount still to be said there. (The Mail on Sunday has more on puberty-blockers, revealing that the NHS is now actively reviewing their use.) Some of this may well be played out in the courts, not to mention parliamentary inquiries in due course.
There is also the wider challenge of delivering better healthcare for trans people across the board. The services they use are too often under-funded and over-burdened, in part because of the wider national failure to support mental health care. A better-resourced healthcare offer for the trans community should have been the main aim of the self-ID advocates, and one where they might well have found many allies among the feminists they have demonised.