Britain’s Gender Recognition Act won’t change
IN THE BATTLE over trans rights, no prisoners are taken. On September 15th J.K.Rowling (pictured), the author of the “Harry Potter” books and a critic of gender ideology, published a new book (under a pseudonym) in which a character occasionally dresses as a woman to stalk his victims. Accusations of transphobia and an online punch-up ensued.
On this issue Ms Rowling, who is also known for her left-of-centre political views, finds herself, along with many other lefty British women, on the same side as the Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson. This week it was the winning side. On September 22nd the government announced it would not go ahead with a change to the Gender Recognition Act that had been proposed by Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
The act says that anyone can change the gender on their birth certificate, but they must have two medical opinions, including a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Trans rights groups want to remove the medical gatekeepers and allow people to change their legal gender simply by declaration (known as “self-ID”), and Mrs May had proposed to do that. “Gender critical” women’s groups warn that such a move would allow any man to enter any women-only space whenever he wants. They have welcomed the government’s backtracking. Nancy Kelley, head of Stonewall, a gay and trans lobby group, retorted that the British government had “missed a key opportunity to progress LGBT equality”, calling it a “shocking failure in leadership”.
James Johnson, a pollster with JL Partners, believes the government has concluded there is little political advantage to be gained by perpetuating a culture war. Gender issues “are right at the bottom of the agenda for most voters,” he says. “We’re not America.”
When ordinary people are asked for their views, they turn out to be rather cautious and conservative. A survey in June by YouGov found that 63% of the public believe a doctor’s approval should be required to change their legal gender. Some 46% say that trans women should not use women’s changing rooms if they have not undergone gender reassignment surgery, against 26% who believe they ought to be allowed.
Yet the government’s decision to abandon gender self-ID is unlikely to shut down the debate nor bring Ms Rowling respite from online attacks. That is because another piece of legislation, the Equality Act, already allows trans women into women’s spaces in some circumstances. “Self-ID won’t now happen in legislation, but it is already effectively public policy throughout British society,” says Stephanie Davies-Arai of Transgender Trend, a group campaigning against the medical transitioning of children.
As well as protecting people on the basis of race and other characteristics, the Equality Act protects “gender reassignment”, a vague term. The law is “too open to interpretation”, says Rosa Freedman, a professor of law at Reading University. Under the act, trans women may enter some women’s spaces, although they can be excluded if the bar can be proved to be “a proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim”. The lack of clarity leaves space for groups on both sides to lobby public bodies for their preferred interpretation. Ms Davies-Arai calls it “self-ID by the back door”.
“We need a legal definition of four things: woman, female, sex and gender identity,” says Professor Freedman. Ms Rowling has some ideas on definition: “‘Woman’ is not a costume, ‘woman’ is not an idea in a man’s head, ‘woman’ is not a pink brain,” she wrote recently. Until the government decides whether it agrees or not, the rows are bound to continue.■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Who’s a woman?"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/09/26/britains-gender-recognition-act-wont-change
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