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3 January 2019

Maria Miller called me a fake feminist over gender self-ID. Now she says I was right all along

In a shameless U-turn, Miller has now cooled on self-identification of gender, and says single-sex spaces must be protected. 

By Helen Lewis

One of the really, truly, enormously irritating things about writing on “women’s issues” is that people often think you’re talking a load of cobblers – because you’re a woman talking about women, so, duh, partisan – without looking into the subject at all. You get laughed at, called hysterical, accused of making a fuss about nothing.

Then, sometimes, the issue gets wider traction, or someone properly looks into it. And then they discover something incredible. Hang on, this is a big deal! Why didn’t anyone tell us?

I’m used to this happening from, say, lofty columnists who find it all very amusing that politicians go on Mumsnet and talk about their favourite biscuits. (Forgetting that they usually get grilled pretty hard about other issues too, and that “mothers” is a group that encompasses four out of five women by the end of their lives.) But really, I expected better from the chair of the bloody Women & Equalities Select Committee.

Maria Miller has today accused the government of “mishandling” its approach to transgender issues, saying that many trans people cannot access healthcare, which is a bigger issue than being able to self-define your gender. (Currently, the gender recognition certificate process involves two years living “in role” and a medical diagnosis of dysphoria, although it’s easier to just change your passport and other documents.) Service provision, she says, “seems to have been somewhat eclipsed by an announcement by the government on the Gender Recognition Act – that was one of our recommendations, but only one of 33”. Reform of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 “was not the most pressing issue for trans people that we met as part of the inquiry”. She is now advising ministers to “focus in one getting their services right first and foremost, and also be clear that there is no threat to single-sex services, they are clearly protected in law”. 

Well, now. This is a stunning rebuke to… Maria Miller of 2017, who said the only backlash to her report was from “individuals purporting to be feminists”.  

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As I wrote when the report was released, Miller dismissed feminist concerns “about the erosion of single-sex provision in, say, rape shelters as ‘extraordinary’ bigotry; the Tory dinosaurs weren’t getting upset about it, after all. An alternative explanation is that those dinosaurs don’t give a tuppenny toss about rape shelters either way”.

I also wrote: 

The report contains many sensible recommendations that any progressive should support. NHS waiting times for surgery are too long and should be reduced; GPs would benefit from further training; and specialist provision, which is patchy outside London and overstretched within it, could be vastly improved. Police officers should also be given training and encouragement to record hate crimes and to pursue action against perpetrators; schools should institute strong anti-bullying measures.

It doesn’t take long, however, before you notice the thread that links all of these aspirations: money. Public services need more of it to do more… It is hard not to suspect that a light coating of rainbow sparkles has been dusted over an unpalatable truth: at a time of austerity, helping a marginalised but electorally insignificant group of people is unlikely to be a government priority.

As far as I’m concerned, the plan for self-identification was worse than rainbow sparkles in lieu of proper funding. It was, as the Times columnist Janice Turner has written, gender’s version of Brexit. It moved the discussion about how best to support transgender people – who have real medical needs for hormones, surgery and proper counselling through a difficult process – into a made-for-Twitter war about who counted as a woman, anyway. 

Miller, Turner wrote last year, “created a toxic, divisive mess then left others to clear up. In ignoring concerns from women’s groups, listening only to trans lobbyists, she recommended far-reaching legal changes including self-identification and an end to single-sex space, thus rewriting the definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’.” This is exactly right.

It is only since the report came out that women’s organisations, and individuals such as Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform, have been able to express concerns about how self-ID would work in practice. Had they been consulted during the formulation of the report, their testimony could have been assessed in a sober way, and balanced against the input of groups such as Mermaids, a group which supported a mother forcing her child to live as a girl against his wishes. (The ruling found: “There was no independent or supportive evidence that J identified as a girl at all, indeed there was a body of material that suggested the contrary.” So Mermaids were, effectively, misgendering the child, something which activists have repeatedly claimed is harmful to the point of provoking suicide.) But no women’s groups were consulted as witnesses. The inquiry did have time to hear from Jess Bradley, a non-binary trans woman suspended from the NUS for posting pictures of male genitalia on her blog, called Exhibitionizm.

It is still shocking to me that Miller could be so little versed in feminism that she could sign off a report advising a change to the Equality Act, replacing “gender reassignment” with “gender identity” as a protected characteristic, without realising the profound public policy implications of that change. At a stroke, she advised changing our concept of gender from something that is partially socially constructed – how you are treated – to entirely a matter of internal essence. She entered the realm of metaphysics, asserting that everyone has a gender identity, something which no instrument can measure. That isn’t the kind of thing you can casually toss out in paragraph 4.108 and expect everyone to nod through, unless you have no idea what you’re proposing.

It may well be that our understanding of gender will change significantly in the future, but it’s something which will have to be subject to public discussion, since it affects all of us, not just trans people. When asked about the potential conflict of rights between trans and non-trans women in July 2017, Miller told Janice Turner: “But 50 years ago, maybe ten years ago, people felt very uncomfortable about gay people showing their relationships in public but life has moved on.” That was the line: only a bigot would not back her report.

Miller’s inquiry could have produced a tightly focused set of proposals that a broad swathe of the public – including almost every feminist – could agree with. Gender services do need more funding; waiting times are too long and delays cause real misery. There are even changes to the current system of gender recognition that most people could agree to: abolishing the fee, reducing the bureaucracy and time needed to “prove” your new gender, and so on. 

Instead, Maria Miller stoked a culture war, either by accident or because she thought it would burnish her socially liberal credentials (previously given a knock by her desire to cut the abortion time limit). “Self-ID” has become synonymous with support for “trans rights”; opposing it meant you were on the “wrong side of history“. And yet it wasn’t even a priority to the trans people consulted by the inquiry. The fact that it currently dominates the debate is an example of what Scott Alexander called the “toxoplasma of rage”: instead of talking about a real-but-boring problem (NHS funding), everyone got sucked into an existential fight about terminology to prove how progressive they were.

“Signalling” is when people take an action so that it can reveal something about them… Holding certain moral positions can also send signals. For example, a Catholic man who opposes the use of condoms demonstrates to others (and to himself!) how faithful and pious a Catholic he is, thus gaining social credibility… this signalling is more effective if it centres upon something otherwise unlikely. If the Catholic had merely chosen not to murder, then even though this is in accord with Catholic doctrine, it would make a poor signal because he might be doing it for other good reasons besides being Catholic – just as he might buy eyeglasses for reasons beside being rich. It is precisely because opposing condoms is such a poor decision for non-Catholics that it makes such a believable signal of Catholicism. But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely.

Supporting better funding for gender identity services doesn’t make you a radical activist. It just makes you someone who is destined to be disappointed by a Conservative government. Supporting self-ID, by contrast, in the face of all the evidence it might have unforeseen consequences for everything from prison populations to crime statistics to women’s participation in competitive sports – now, that makes you look right-on. 

Yes, I take this personally. I’ve had two tedious years of being abused online as a transphobe and a “TERF” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” – despite my belief that trans women are women, and trans men are men – because I have expressed concerns about self-ID and its impact on single-sex spaces. All the way through it has been clear that many of those backing the change have no idea what it would mean. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party supported self-ID, although I’d bet a Jane Austen tenner that he hasn’t followed this debate in any great detail. (John McDonnell, as ever, is doing the policy heavy-lifting: last year, he met activists from A Woman’s Place and Mumsnet.) The Conservatives also embraced the proposal without really thinking, and are now going cool on it: having been late to all the great social justice causes of the last three decades, they were keen to be bang on time for this one. 

This is a tragic story, from start to finish. The imperial over-reach of a handful of trans activists, in trying to rewrite widely accepted ideas about gender by stealth, has done nothing to improve the lives of trans people. The time wasted by Stonewall and other organisations, which have spent more than a year chasing a legal change that wasn’t even a priority for those interviewed by the inquiry. (In the meantime, support services are still underfunded: Scottish children still have to come to England to visit a gender identity clinic.) The spectacle of an inexperienced a select committee chair who didn’t see what she was recommending, or even ask any experts whether it was a good idea. Her attacks on those who did raise questions, questions which she now admits were entirely legitimate. The creation of a smouldering, sour climate of resentment between different groups of feminists about a philosophical issue which will never be resolved through Twitterstorms and angry op-eds. You’re damn right this issue has been mishandled.  

Maria Miller once said women like me “were purporting to be feminists”. Well, apparently now she’s joined us. I hope that prompts a moment of self-reflection. Given that she’s trying to pin the blame on everyone but herself, that feels unlikely.

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