The problem that gender self-ID is designed to solve is real but the debate has failed

Any prospect of a serious discussion about balancing rights has been squashed by hair-trigger accusations of bigotry. 

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At dinner last week, my most right-wing friend began to remonstrate with me. When we were students, he had regarded me as close to a Bolshevik (it may have been the trousers). These days, he said, he read my articles on gender, “and, somehow, you are the voice of reason!”

He’s not alone. Of all the topics I write about, gender is the one that people raise most often with me. The tone is often confessional (“I can’t say this at work, but…”) or conspiratorial (“the thing is, I agree with you”). I am not surprised. Any prospect of a serious discussion about balancing rights has been squashed by hair-trigger accusations of bigotry, and the suggestion that any debate at all is causing a wave of suicides. The country’s only dedicated child gender clinic, the Tavistock and Portman, has criticised the new ITV drama Butterfly as “not helpful” for showing a transgender 11-year-old trying to kill herself. The drama relies heavily on the popular narrative that parents have to accede to their child’s wish to transition without question because “it’s better to have a living daughter than a dead son”. Yet, currently, more than half of children who attend a gender clinic do not go on to transition. Making public policy around children’s suicide threats is profoundly dangerous. (Notably, parents of children with anorexia are not given equivalent advice.)

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Because this debate has largely taken place online, it has moved at lightning speed. A decade ago, the word “transsexual” was considered respectful; now it is offensively obsolete. Earlier today, I read an article by someone who identifies as non-binary, complaining they couldn’t get married. I spend my life reading this stuff, and I still didn’t understand why that would be.

For that reason, I wouldn’t trust the results of any survey on popular support for “trans rights”. Does that mean the right to live free from abuse and employment discrimination, or the right for biological males to compete in women’s sports or use single-sex spaces? Those two questions would give you very different answers.

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Personally, I believe that it’s possible for someone born male to be a woman – a “real” woman, whatever that means – and vice versa. Male and female are biological categories, but “man” and “woman” are social ones. I see it like citizenship: you can be born in Dhaka or Dresden, and end up just as British as someone born in Doncaster.

I also believe that NHS gender clinics (and their associated mental health services) are woefully underfunded, causing painful delays. Updating the Gender Recognition Act might draw headlines – and boost the socially liberal credentials of women’s minister Penny Mordaunt, ahead of a Tory leadership race – but better NHS funding would probably do more good overall.

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Despite these moderate views, I am hated by loud pockets of the internet. When I wrote about the risks of pure self-declaration as the mechanism for changing legal gender in July last year, Pink News ran my picture next to the headline “Left-wing magazine boss says gender reforms will lead to bearded men exposing their penises to women”. The implication was that I was a hysterical bigot.

Last September, before any reform to the law (a consultation closes this week), the prison service bowed to the new consensus and housed a convicted sex offender called Karen White in a women’s prison. White, formerly David Thompson, had not undergone surgery and showed little commitment to transitioning (a recent photo showed a beard). In the queue for medicine one day, another inmate “felt something hard press against the small of her back. She turned around to see the defendant stood there. She could see the defendant’s penis erect and sticking out of the top of her pants, covered by her tights.” White was convicted of two counts of sexual assault and moved to a male prison.

The Pink News hatchet job on me quoted a campaigner called Juno Roche saying that it was unacceptable to raise concerns while “people are dying” and that I must have been acting out of “pure and simple spite”. I look forward to her apology – but I suggest she makes it to the female prisoners assaulted by Karen White, rather than to me.

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The problem that self-ID is designed to solve is real. The current system is cumbersome and bureaucratic. Many trans people prefer simply to change their birth certificate and passport, rather than satisfy a panel of unknown adjudicators for a Gender Recognition Certificate. However, the implications of pure self-ID – that we can never challenge anyone else’s identity, because it is purely a matter of internal essence – are concerning. We need a system that does not treat all trans people as potential threats, but also recognises unsavoury characters will try to abuse any blurring of single-sex provision.

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The idea that we must accept anyone’s identity claims, no matter how outlandish or divorced from material reality, leads to some strange places. Gendered Intelligence, a non-profit that receives Lottery funding and has collaborated with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Science Museum and Wellcome Trust, recently held a youth workshop in north London with “the Redwoods”.

The Redwoods are not only trans, but a “multiple” – they claim to be eight people in the same body, “and most of us are women and non-binary”. (Their daily struggles, chronicled on Twitter, will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever tried to get several young children dressed and out of the house in the morning.) “We are tired of both trans and multiple experiences being erased, including by trans sanism,” they tweeted on 23 September. They are also oppressed by “singlet-normativity”. There is, inevitably, a hashtag: #PluralPride.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war