Disagreements over the rights of transgender people have been dividing feminists in the UK for years – and it is no different for the country’s only feminist political party.
Last weekend, at its biennial conference, the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) voted in favour of a motion supporting gender self-ID, taking a clear position on a major sticking point in this often toxic debate that leaves average voters confused about what to think.
Members who oppose the policy have threatened to leave over the result, and the party’s founding leader Sophie Walker published a five-page letter urging its current leader Mandu Reid to reconsider. But Reid told the New Statesman on Sunday (27 November) that “this issue has created a paralysis in the women’s movement” and that it was time for the WEP – which this week launched an emergency appeal for funding – to move forward.
Under gender self-ID, people can identify as whichever gender they choose without needing a medical diagnosis. In 2020, Boris Johnson’s government nixed plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) which would have allowed this. Earlier this year the Scottish government put forward a controversial bill that would reduce the time it takes to get a gender recognition certificate, in a move towards gender self-ID – a divisive issue within the SNP. Those critical of the policy say it could put women and girls, and their right to single-sex spaces, at risk. Those who support it say it enables trans people to live with dignity.
The motion Reid brought to WEP’s conference on Saturday (26 November), called “Gender self ID and single sex spaces”, described the process people must go through to legally change their gender as “dehumanising, stigmatising and intrusive”. It reaffirmed the party’s support for “the right of transgender people to self determine their gender and to obtain gender recognition certificates, including recognition for non-binary people, on that basis. WE[P] also reaffirms its support for services – such as domestic abuse refuges – to provide single-sex spaces as allowed by exemptions under the Equality Act, as long as they do so lawfully.”
While not comprehensive, Reid believes that by allowing for single-sex spaces and self-ID, the motion enables the party to allay concerns around the policy and focus on more pressing issues, such as the cost-of-living crisis and the way it is impacting women.
Her decision to table the motion came some time ago. “I realised that the ongoing… acrimony around this issue was inhibiting our ability to push as hard as we need to push on all the other issues,” she said. “So that was the real reason why I decided in the last couple of months to put this on the table.”
Indeed, this moment has been a long time coming for the party. Four years ago, at WEP’s 2018 conference, lack of agreement on gender self-ID (a “tense debate”, Reid recalled) led the party to say it would call a “special debate” on the matter. Two years later, in 2020, WEP held a members’ assembly to consult on it. The assembly brought together party members with differing opinions to discuss how gender self-ID would affect single-sex spaces, data and key policy areas.
At the time, the deputy leader Tabitha Morton told the New Statesman that the issue was dividing the party, and that the assembly, inspired by a similar process in Ireland on abortion, was an attempt to move beyond these divisions. She also said that merely taking a position on one side or the other, as Conservative and Labour politicians have done, was not constructive.
The members’ assembly created a space for a “dialogue rather than a slanging match”, said Reid. And last weekend’s motion, she said “gives a nod to self-ID but also says that the protections in the Equality Act are important, because that’s what came through the members’ assembly”. Some party members want to see sex-based protections acknowledged, she said, “[so] that’s what I’ve tried to do”.
At the conference on Saturday, which took place online, the motion passed with 138 attendees voting in favour, 29 opposed and five abstentions. Anya Tremayne, a member since 2018, is trans and part of the party’s LGBTQIA+ Caucus. A participant in the 2020 members’ assembly and an attendee of the weekend conference, she told the New Statesman that “the actual journey to where we are now, having passed a motion on self-ID, was long, hard, depressing, worrying, triggering and tearful. At times the LGBTQIA+ Caucus felt abandoned and unloved. Communication was difficult with the head office, and I think this was in order not to favour any group with skin in the game and to show balance on this issue.” She added that, “I really think that initially the party had no idea on how to handle this.”
Rebecca (not her real name), a trans woman who has also been a member of the party since 2018, described “a sense of relief when this motion was passed”. Rebecca was present at the party’s conference in 2018 when the motion on trans inclusion became a special debate. This weekend, she said, “It was recognised that cis+ and trans+ [including non-binary] women had come and made this decision together. It feels that now as a party we can move forward.”
Members of the party’s Women’s Sex-Based Rights Caucus, meanwhile, have been highly critical of the result and the process followed since 2018. A number of members told the New Statesman that they are unhappy with the lead-up to the vote. Their claims include that the party has reneged on its 2020 promise to take the issue to the membership, that it has followed undemocratic processes, some also question its processes and say its gender self-ID position has been influenced by donations.
Reid rejected the accusations about the party’s voting process, suggesting critics would not be making such claims had the vote gone the other way or if the motion not been brought in the first place. She also makes the point that consultation during the conference was more constructive than sending a form to all members would have been. On donations, she circles back to the WEP’s emergency appeal. The party says that the cost-of-living crisis has adversely impacted donors and membership fees. Announcing its funding appeal, the co-founder Catherine Mayer has said the party is “flat broke”.
Ruth Wilkinson, a former Scottish spokesperson for the party, told the New Statesman via email ahead of the vote that she would be leaving the party if it endorsed a self-ID of gender identity that was more important than sex, or if the party adopted a motion describing sex as a spectrum. After the vote she tweeted, “I am so done with WEP.” Other members had also threatened to quit. The WEP told the New Statesman that 80 members have left the party, while 150 have joined this week. However, the party does not know their reasons for leaving or joining, so this is not necessarily an indication of the impact of the motion.
In an email from Reid to one member, which was shared with the New Statesman, the party leader acknowledged that the self-ID motion might be a “deal-breaker” for some.
“I said it with regret,” she said. “It bothers me that this is a deal-breaker for women who joined to campaign for women’s rights when politics typically ignores women… so yes I did say that – and I wish it wasn’t true.”
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