James Kirkup

Why are some MPs trying to shut down the transgender debate?

Why are some MPs trying to shut down the transgender debate?
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Even if you don’t know who Stephen Doughty MP is, if you’re vaguely familiar with the history of New Labour, you’ll know his story: Oxford, a job for a senior Labour politician and a brief spell working in charities. Then selection for a safe seat in his early 30s, thanks to a combination of talent and friends in the right places.

Now 38 and having resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench over, well, Jeremy Corbyn, Doughty sits on the Home Affairs Committee, which, among other things, is inquiring into hate crime, and its causes. To that end, the committee last week took evidence from a bunch of newspaper editors about the way their papers covered groups including British Muslims and transgender people. Doughty was very interested in the latter group, talking quite extensively about what he described as “a concerted effort by certain publications at the moment to promote some extremely unpleasant transgender hate material.”

In particular, Doughty dwelled on two columns. This one, by Norman Tebbit in the Daily Telegraph (where I used to work) and headlined “We need to investigate the causes of this sudden transgender explosion”. And this one, by Janice Turner in the Times (where I sometimes write) and headlined “Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby”. It’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed. “Do you think it is responsible to be carrying content by individuals who are expressing such extreme views and using those types of headlines?” he asked, later referring to the authors as “petty columnists”. Further discussing this issue on Twitter over the weekend, Doughty talked of journalists who “cross a line” in their coverage of issues including the gender debate, and said he was determined to call out such people. I’m pleased that he believes that people who say stupid and unpleasant things should be held to account for their actions. I think so too.

Let’s start with the Tebbit-Telegraph suggestion that there has been an explosion in the numbers of transgender people and that the causes should be examined. Here's what Lord Tebbit wrote:

“I am aware of a growing number of those claiming to be transgender, and I am concerned at the pressures being put on young school children to doubt whether they are girls, boys or of some indeterminate sex.

“Evolutionary change seldom comes so suddenly or across such a wide front, so I think it is time we had some research into the extent of the phenomenon both in time and geographical reach.”

I do not know for sure, but it seems very likely that he was referring to the rise in the number of children presenting at the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) of the Tavistock and Portman Trust, which is the NHS centre of excellence for helping children and adolescents with gender dsyphoria and other issues of gender-variance.

In 2009/10, the GIDS had 97 children referred, of whom 40 were listed as “assigned female at birth.” In 2016/17, the GIDS had 2016 children referred, of whom 1400 were assigned female at birth. The total caseload for the service rose 2,078 per cent in seven years. The number of assigned females being referred rose 3,500 per cent in seven years. Why have the numbers risen in this way? Is there a clear and undisputed explanation, which would render Lord Tebbit’s suggested research into causation redundant?

This is an issue addressed by Dr Polly Carmichael, who runs the GIDS, in a recent talk to the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. In her thoughtful hour-long lecture, she said this:

“The rapid rise in the number of assigned females…. exemplifies the importance of keeping discourse open and allowing different voices to be heard.

“You might say the increase in the numbers of assigned females coming forward is [because] that it’s easier for females to talk about their gender-diverse feelings so what we are seeing is an increase in awareness getting towards a better representation of the true prevalence of this among females.

“A converse explanation, a question: are there issues for young women around how they perceive their gender? There has been a worry by some that people who would previously have had an outcome around sexuality are now having an outcome around gender.”

(In other words, these are girls who do not readily identify with the predominant idea of femininity and are sexually attracted to biological females, and who would, a decade or two ago, have grown up to consider themselves lesbians.) Dr Carmichael’s conclusion:

“The truth is we don’t know, but we need discussion in order to be thinking about what this could mean.”

Just in case that’s not clear, let me sum it up: the country’s leading centre for the care of gender-variant children says its caseload has risen more than twentyfold (35 times for girls) in less than a decade. The head of that centre doesn’t know why that’s happened and says the question needs further discussion.

Doughty, meanwhile, describes as “extreme” and “hate material” an article which observes that the number of gender-variant children is “growing” and calls for “some research” into that growth.

The other column that Doughty was so interested in also concerned children. In particular, he was struck by the Times’ headline using the phrase “trans lobby”. This, for reference, was on a column that argued that a number of changes in policy and convention are being made at the urging of groups advocating things that they say would benefit transgender people which, the columnist suggested, were not in the best interests of children. “You will understand why that is a particular concern, given the previous use of “gay lobby”, “Jewish lobby” and all of those sorts of things,” Doughty said. “Do you think the use of the phrase “trans lobby” is an appropriate one?”

As it happens, Dr Carmichael in her lecture said some things that seem relevant here:

“Gender has become amazingly topical and we have to be really careful not to assume that anyone is exploring or questioning their gender is going to want to change their bodies in line with that. The extremes on either side are not helpful. We need to look at the grey areas in between. To do that we need to be able to talk and discuss these issues. All too often stakeholders become lobby groups.”

She did not name any stakeholder. But her words might be relevant to a charity called Mermaids. Mermaids is a charity that describes itself as “a support group for children and young people with gender dysphoria and their families”. Its CEO, Susie Green describes herself as “parent to a daughter who was born male.” Mermaids is a relatively small charity (it had income of £127,000 in the year to March 2017) with a big reach. It has prominent backers and its advice and recommendations have been absorbed and adopted by many public bodies.

Some people in the gender debate say harsh and critical things about Mermaids. I am not doing so here. My suggestion is that Green, having had her own family experience of transgender issues, has decided to devote herself to charitable work in the hope of offering what she believes as help to others who need it. The same is true of several others who work or volunteer at Mermaids. Read this for a moving account of how devoted some parents are to Mermaids for their help.

Despite its influence, it is worth noting what Mermaids is not. It is not a research body. Its activities are support (for families) and advocacy: based on its contacts with those families, it argues for what it sees are better policies and practices by the NHS and others. It does not carry out or commission clinical or academic research. Its most recent annual report lists among its charitable activities “campaigning and advocacy” and says: “Mermaids has also become more active in lobbying”.

There is regular dialogue between Mermaids and the GIDS, but the two sides do not always agree. An example is on the time the GIDS team take to give referred children the hormone-blocking drugs that stop their bodies developing the physical characteristics associated with their birth sex.

In evidence to another Commons inquiry in 2015, Mermaids argued that GIDS should make such drugs available much more quickly. The GIDS team has generally resisted that call, more than once saying that “any decision around hormone treatment needs time and considered thought.”

And in evidence to that earlier committee, Dr Bernadette Wren of the GIDS said this:

“I know that Susie and Mermaids would like a fast track so that young people who are already well into puberty and feel that they know that they want to move forward into physical intervention would bypass our assessment process and move straight into physical intervention. We feel that is not an ethical way to practise.”

Here’s another summary. A transgender charity that says it is engaged in lobbying lobbied politicians and doctors to change the way children are treated by doctors. The doctors declined to make that change because it would be not be ethical to do so.

Doughty, meanwhile, describes as “extreme” and “hate material” an article which observes that some people lobbying for changes in the name of transgender people are advocating things that might not be in the best interests of children. I have never met Doughty but have generally heard good things about him from colleagues: bright, committed, thoughtful and so on. So I must assume that he was having an off day when the committee met last week. It happens to us all, after all.

Surely a bright, thoughtful chap like him didn’t mean to imply that it was his job as Member of Parliament to tell newspapers what they can and cannot write? Surely he had no intention of acting as if it is in any way appropriate for a politician to decide what is and is not acceptable for journalists to say, and how they say it? And I can only hope that it was by a simple accident that he singled out by name a female journalist and suggested that her employers stop her saying the things that she thinks – because Doughty happens not to like her saying those things?

As I say, I must assume that he meant none of these things, that he had no such moronic and bullying intent when he spoke and acted as he did. I assume that Doughty is an honourable politician determined to do his job in a democracy and ensure that matters of public policy are debated fully and honestly, whether or not some people find such debate offensive. Because, as I am sure Doughty knows, there is no right not be offended and if we ever let hurt feelings stop us discussing matters of public interest on the basis of the facts, everyone loses.

And it is because I am sure that he is wholly committed to such debate that I decided to write this article. Thanks for everything you’re doing to encourage the free press and open debate, Mr Doughty.