When the Labour government introduced the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, few involved in its implementation expected that 17 years later Britain’s leading medical journal, the Lancet, would refer to women as “bodies with vaginas” in an effort to be gender inclusive.
That phrase is the latest in a string of new and unusual terms (“people who menstruate”, “birthing people”, “bleeders”) used to describe women. This change in language is the product of a rapid shift in Western culture towards the idea that biological reality is a social construct.
Helen Joyce, 53 – a long-time journalist at the Economist and the author of Trans, a Sunday Times bestseller that initially struggled to find a publisher – finds that idea inaccurate and dehumanising, as well as a threat to the rights of women. The editor of the Lancet has since conceded that the journal’s language “dehumanised and marginalised women”. Joyce’s book takes a contrasting view on a contentious topic to another recent bestseller written by Shon Faye.
Joyce, who has a PhD in mathematics and once ran the Royal Statistical Society’s quarterly magazine, told me that she believes society has largely shed unwarranted social distinctions between men and women, but that some “irreducible distinctions to do with reproductive biology” remain. “If you ignore them, and if you do not allow women to have single-sex spaces in certain situations where they are vulnerable, women can’t take full part in public life.”
[see also: Shon Faye wants a “deeper conversation” about trans liberation]
“In certain circumstances,” she added, “women need to be able to exclude all males. Those circumstances are when women are naked, or sleeping, or where women are unable to move away, as in prison. In sports, where the physical differences are just irreducible, female people need to be able to keep all male people out. They need not to be called bigots when they do that.”
Joyce argues her position is “exactly that of British law”. Under the 2010 Equality Act, exceptions are permitted to the principle of not discriminating on the basis of sex. It is, for instance, legal to require changing room attendants to be of a certain sex or to make communal accommodation single sex.
The act also makes exceptions for staff employed in rape crisis centres, Joyce points out. The act states: “A counsellor working with victims of rape might have to be a woman and not a transsexual person, even if she has a Gender Recognition Certificate [legal recognition of their acquired gender], in order to avoid causing [victims] further distress.”
The Equality Act does not give an exhaustive list of when exceptions are permissible. It relies on society to navigate these issues peaceably. But women who have stated and supported the principles established in the act have often been demonised for doing so.
The vilification of “gender-critical” women in the public eye, from the Labour MP Rosie Duffield to the author JK Rowling, appears to jar not just with the law at present but with public opinion at large. Polling by YouGov last June suggests the public is strongly supportive of existing law on changing one’s gender. To receive a Gender Recognition Certificate it is necessary to receive a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria (which 63 per cent of people support), and to have lived in one’s acquired gender for two years (which 61 per cent support); 16 per cent oppose both.
But society has shifted, with some schools, hospitals and prisons adopting a system of self-ID through which individuals can change their sex by declaration, dispensing with these requirements. Yet according to the data, those who support self-ID are social outliers.
“There’s no support for self-ID” to be introduced as policy, Joyce told me. But are the few who support it right? And why is the right to pick one’s own gender a threat to anyone else? For Joyce, the way these questions are phrased obscures the key issue. “If you say, ‘Do you think everyone should be recognised as the gender they say they are?’, people will say yes,” said Joyce, including herself among them. The problem, she believes, is when gender identity is used to eliminate the reality of sex, whether in rape cases or in sports.
The Equality Act is clear that sports can be restricted to those who are born women if it is necessary to ensure “fair competition” or “the safety of competitors”.
Joyce, who has five siblings who have played international cricket for Ireland, cites the example set by World Rugby, which has refused to allow those who are born male into the women’s game. “World Rugby did its research and worked out it is going to get a woman’s neck broken, and it is going to be liable, unless [it keeps] all males out,” Joyce said. Other sporting bodies are taking a different approach, despite public support for single-sex competitions.
However, the issue that perhaps most concerns Joyce is the prescription of “puberty blockers” for children who express a wish to change gender. Joyce’s believes this to be “a massive medical scandal”. “That is going to become clear in the coming years,” she said. “Egas Moniz, who invented the lobotomy, got a Nobel Prize for it in 1949. We’re doing it again. We [humans] are not the sort of machine that you can just switch off and pick up again a couple of years later.
“The people who are asleep at the wheel here are doctors,” Joyce said. “In our legal system, the answer to this [negligence] is you’ll get sued if you get it wrong. But I don’t like that. That’s like saying we’ll solve the problem in rugby when some woman breaks her neck.”
Joyce thinks all children are being poorly educated about gender identity. “We are teaching children that what makes you a boy or a girl is your performance of stereotypes. I’m old enough to remember when people said a girl can do anything she likes. Now they say, ‘If you do those sorts of things that makes you a boy.’ It’s the most regressive thing I’ve seen in my lifetime.” For Joyce, schools are at risk of eliminating the one distinction that can matter – sex – while reintroducing archaic social differences that do not. We are “dissolving ‘male’ and ‘female’ and replacing them with ‘manly essence’ and ‘womanly essence’ for everybody”, she argues.
How can this divisive debate be resolved? By 46 per cent to 12 per cent, the public thinks a “climate of fear” is preventing productive discussion of this complex issue, according to recent polling by Redfield & Wilton. Joyce thinks “this is a bigger fight for women” than the suffragettes faced. Does she fear she is on the wrong side of history? “So what if, in 30 or 40 years, everybody agrees it’s fine to put rapists who murder their wives in women’s prisons?” she told me trenchantly. “They’re still wrong.”
[see also: The symbolic politics of Judith Butler are all very well, but sometimes reality interjects]
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age