What you need to take away
The recent debate on the proposed amendment to the Equality Act 2010 - to change the definition of ‘sex’ to ‘biological sex’ - caused much apprehension in the trans community. This article provides an in-depth analysis of that debate, primarily aimed at interested trans people, their allies, and experts. For many readers, this first section will tell you what you need to know.
Although the debate was framed as about ‘clarifying’ the definition of sex under the Equality Act 2010, the reality is that the proposed amendment to the definition of sex would constitute a significant legal change. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 establishes that a trans person with a Gender Recognition Certificate becomes the acquired sex for all legal purposes. The Equality Act 2010 was drafted with that legislation in mind, and the case law has similarly developed along this vein. The proposed amendment to the Equality Act 2010 thus constitutes as significant legal change - not a mere clarification.
The content of the debate itself was both toxic and often nonsensical, adopting framing which positioned trans people (and especially trans women) as predatory and violent threats, especially to children. This contained substantial transphobia, misogyny, and transmisogyny. The demonisation frequently relied on provably false or entirely imagined information. This culminated in the mocking of a trans person’s expression of suicidal thoughts. The section ‘A respectful debate?’ continues a detailed breakdown and debunking of much of this framing, and the various anecdotes and examples provided to support it.
However, trans people should be relieved by the speech of the Government Minister for Women, who emphasised the effectiveness of the law as it currently stands on single-sex spaces, and the need for the Government to take significant time before making any changes. This means we are unlikely to see any changes to the law in this area before the next election.
Table of Contents
- The Context
- Opening The Debate
- Changing the Law, or clarifying it?
- A respectful manner?
- Painting Trans Women As Violent
- Painting Trans Women as Sexual Predators
- Suggesting Trans People Are A Threat To Children
- Mocking Trans Suicide
- Misrepresentation of the Current Law
- ‘Biological Sex’
- Positive Contributions
- The good news: a lack of Government appetite
On Monday 12th June, a debate took place in Westminster Hall concerning two petitions. The first petition, 'Update the Equality Act to make clear the characteristic “sex” is biological’, received 109k signatures. The other petition 'Commit to not amending the Equality Act's definition of sex’ received 139k signatures.
In January 2023, the Government responded to both petitions stating that such a change was not necessary: ‘Under the Equality Act 2010, providers are already able to restrict the use of spaces/services on the basis of sex and/or gender reassignment where justified. Further clarification is not necessary.’
However, on Tuesday 4th April, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a letter to the UK Government recommending an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 which would change the definition of sex within the Act from legal sex to ‘biological sex’. This was in response to a letter from the Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch.
Under the current law, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 states that upon acquisition of a Gender Recognition Certificate, a trans person becomes their ‘acquired’ sex for all legal purposes. There is no distinction between sex and gender in UK law. This means that trans people with a GRC are currently their acquired sex for the purpose of the Equality Act 2010. This is relevant for issues such as sex discrimination, single-sex spaces, and equal pay legislation.
The proposed amendment to Equality Act 2010 would leave the Gender Recognition Act 2004 hollow, allowing trans people with Gender Recognition Certificates to have their acquired legal sex invalidated. Instead, service providers would be allowed to treat trans people as the sex they were assigned at birth.
In line with most equality frameworks, the current law allows discrimination against trans people – excluding them from, e.g. single-sex sports competitions – if this can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Instead, this amendment would mean no balancing exercise need be undertaken at all. In other words, it recommends that trans people should be discriminated against to exclude them from single-sex spaces for any reason whatsoever, on a purely arbitrary basis. Service providers may even be obligated to exclude trans women.
What’s more, trans women would immediately lose access to certain mechanisms under the Equality Act 2010 that seek to address gender discrimination – for example, equal pay legislation.
It was this proposed change which formed the subject of the debate.
For more detail on the EHRC’s proposal and the negative effect the proposed amendment is likely to have on the trans community, please see my previous analysis.
Opening The Debate
The debate in Westminster Hall had a low attendance and can be understood as entirely performative. Many MPs were absent because they instead needed to attend to important Parliamentary work. Only MPs were entitled to speak, and Jamie Wallis, the only trans MP, did not speak and left without returning at one point - one can assume because of the level of vile rhetoric within the hall. The debate then, was one held by cis people, for cis people, but about trans people.
The debate was opened by ‘gender critical’ Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, who began by emphasising that topic is one many people are ‘afraid to speak of’. In response to this, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran rightly highlighted that the trans community were terrified of this debate happening at all, due to the fact that such debates can lead to a rise in hatred and violence against trans people. Antoniazzi dismissed these concerns, stating that it was important to have an ‘adult conversation’ about the topic, and that this is ‘a set of issues on which views are held profoundly and with good intentions’.
The notion that ‘gender critical’ views are always held with good intentions is patently false. Trans Safety Network have extensively documented the links between the ‘gender critical’ movement and the far right, as well as the movement’s other profound attacks on human rights. I have elsewhere argued that the suggested amendment to the Equality Act 2010 would violate trans human rights. More broadly, Dr Sandra Duffy has outlined how ‘gender critical’ movements have sought to ‘misuse’ international human rights law in ways which are ‘regressive and contrary to current understandings of human rights’.
Antoniazzi herself has shown a lack of willingness to protect trans human rights. At a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a draft resolution was proposed that condemned attacks on the rights of LGBTI people in the United Kingdom. Antoniazzi, amongst a small group of other Labour representatives, sought to amend this resolution to erase its condemnation of attacks on trans people. They proposed the deletion of the whole of the following paragraph:
‘The Assembly condemns the highly prejudicial anti-gender, gender critical and anti-trans narratives which reduce the fight for the equality of LGBTI people to what these movements deliberately mis-characterise as ‘gender ideology’ or ‘LGBTI ideology’.” It went on to suggest that such narratives “dehumanise” LGBT+ people and “falsely portray their rights as being in conflict with women’s and children’s rights.’
The group also tried to insert an amendment that would require certain support services to be ‘segregated where necessary according to sex’. Perhaps most egregiously, they proposed an amendment which suggested continued funding of ‘actors that deny the human rights of LGBTI people’.
Antoniazzi is also a prominent proponent of 5G conspiracy theories. Concerningly, this conspiracy itself can be linked to the far right, and to broader far right conspiracies such as coronavirus denial and the WEF ‘great reset’.
The deep links between ‘gender critical’ views and those of reactionaries would only become more apparent as the debate progressed.
Changing the law, or clarifying it?
A particularly interesting thread which ran through the debate was the continual insistence by those supporting an amendment to the Equality Act that they were merely ‘clarifying’ the law, not changing it. This distinction was emphasised in particular by MPs Joanna Cherry, Jonathan Gullis, and Caroline Ansell.
The assertion is, however, patently false. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 establishes that upon acquisition of a Gender Recognition Certificate, a person becomes their acquired sex for all purposes. The Equality Act 2010 was drafted with this law in place, and thus the meaning of sex in the Act was always that of legal sex - including those trans people whose legal sex has changed to match their GRC. Any amendment to the definition of sex within the Equality Act 2010 would be to effectively disapply the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and cannot be understood as anything but a significant legal change.
This was identified by other MPs during the debate. Conservative MP Peter Gibson highlighted that:
‘When looking at what these petitions call for, it is important that we note that changing the statutory definition of a protected characteristic is not “modifying” or “clarifying” the Equality Act; it is in fact changing it, and changing it in a way that alters its original intention and that could throw into question over 10 years of case law. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 establishes that a trans person with a gender recognition certificate is recognised in their legal sex for all purposes. It is already possible to exclude trans people from single-sex settings and services, where that exclusion is proportionate and has a legitimate aim. Many services already operate on that basis. What purpose would changing the definition of sex in the Equality Act serve, aside from allowing it to become even easier for people to discriminate against trans people?’
Likewise, SNP MP Kirsten Oswald questioned the ‘narrative’ being developed around the amendment being a mere clarification of the law. Oswald emphasised that MPs were ‘entitled to look for that change’, but that they should be honest that it was change and not clarification that they were looking for.
A respectful manner?
The debate involved much back-patting from both sides on how important it was that the debate had been held in a sensitive way. Indeed, at the end of the debate, the chair thanked everyone for the ‘respectful manner’ and ‘respectful and thoughtful way’ in which the debate had been handled. The chair concluded ‘people feel strongly about this issue, but it is no reason to be abusive, and I do not think that people have been’.
Reading the transcript of the debate, you might be forgiven for thinking that the chair had been asleep throughout the proceedings. The debate was characterised by a complete lack of respect from many of the ‘gender critical’ participants, who repeatedly promoted toxic rhetoric about trans people. Here are some ‘highlights’.
Painting Trans Women As Violent
There were repeated seeming attempts to paint trans women as violent as a result of them being ‘biologically male’.
Conservative MP Anna Firth ended her speech by referencing the injuries suffered by an opponent of trans woman boxer Fallon Fox, stating that she suffered a ‘fractured skull’, and that this resulted from ‘a man fighting a woman’. This seems like a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts designed to demonise trans women. In reality, her opponent suffered an orbital bone fracture - an incredibly common injury in MMA fighting.
Additionally, Labour MP Rosie Duffield pointed to statistics which show:
‘One in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner’.
Duffield then used these statistics to suggest that biological sex needed to be monitored:
‘Because of those and other differences in men’s and women’s lives, we need to be able to monitor sex discrimination and provide for the needs of women and girls, particularly when they are most vulnerable. The Equality Act is the law that allows for that, but confusion within and about the Act has led to a toxic debate where people have become terrified even to talk about women’s rights—but not all people.’
However, this is a clear non-sequitur which fails to identify the ways in which these statistics differ for trans women, who cannot be neatly captured (as Duffield tries to suggest) under the category of ‘men’. In fact, trans women may be subject to even higher rates of domestic violence than their cis counterparts - in 2017, whilst 7.5% of cis women generally reported experiencing domestic violence in the last 12 months, 16% of trans women reported the same. A recent metanalysis shows that rates of domestic violence are ‘dramatically higher’ for trans people, and are ‘comparably high’ for all trans people regardless of their assigned sex at birth.
Despite attempts by ‘gender critical’ MPs to suggest otherwise, misogynistic violence does not discriminate based on chromosomes.
Painting Trans Women As Sexual Predators
Moving beyond violence, there were also numerous statements which appeared to paint trans women as sexual predators.
Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena drew a baseless link between the inclusion of trans women on single-sex wards by North Bristol NHS Trust and the number of sexual assaults against women on hospital property. This is despite the fact that such assaults can be committed by women, male visitors, and male staff.
Conservative MP Andrew Lewer went so far as to describe a trans woman treating a female patient who has asked for single-sex care as ‘sexual assault’. Patients are, of course, entitled to reject care from any healthcare professional on any basis. This does not mean they are entitled to know said staff’s medical history.
Suggesting Trans People Are A Threat To Children
The accusation of predation was even stronger in relation to trans people and children.
Alba MP Neale Hanvey and Conservative MP Nick Fletcher both sought to undermine the idea that children could be trans, stoking fears of manipulation and grooming which could lead to regret in later life. This included the painting of imaginary horror stories of future trans regret, all resulting from being ‘allowed to use pronouns at school’.
MP Neale Hanvey said:
‘Children should be free to be their own individual, carefree, special selves, without adults imposing their gendered stereotypes on them. Telling children there is something intrinsically wrong with them is absolutely unforgivable.’
Whilst MP Nick Fletcher stated:
‘If we can stop the use of new gender pronouns in schools, we will stop many issues for our young people later in life, too.’
‘I am standing up for the 12-year-old allowed to use pronouns at school who is being sold a story that she can be something that she never can. I am thinking of her after her transition, when she wakes up one morning when she is 25 and realises that she can no longer have children. She is growing facial hair, her health is generally poor, her bone density is down, her voice has broken, she has no real friends, and she has probably fallen out with mum, who is now broken for letting her take those puberty blockers and hormone replacement tablets. I am thinking of that girl sold a lie by the influencers who have now moved on to another ideology to make them money. No—in this place, we have to make the hard decisions to protect the vulnerable. I know the Government will make the right decision and clarify the Equality Act.’
Conservative MP Nick Fletcher further stoked the toxic atmosphere by painting trans women as potential predators who posed a risk not only to women, but to children too:
‘We are in a position where some biological males believe that they have a right to enter single-sex spaces—female changing rooms. I suspect that when many think of that they think of a grown man—a trans woman—entering a grown woman’s space. That to me is obviously wrong, but my real concern is what happens when a six-year-old girl is in that changing room—somebody’s daughter, somebody’s granddaughter, somebody’s niece. It just is not right.’
Similarly, Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena stated his support for the amendment was because of ‘two young daughters’ who he wanted to ensure were ‘safe’.
The most vile rhetoric of the evening came from Miriam Cates, who appeared to be laughing whilst she claimed that trans women were a threat to the safety of women and girls and were using children to satisfy their sexual fetishes:
‘While academic elites cave in to aggressive and misogynistic trans activism, ordinary women are frightened to go to hospital, ordinary men fear for the safety of their daughters in public toilets, ordinary children are subjected to a psychological experiment in which they are told they can choose their gender, and ordinary toddlers are used to satisfy the sexual fetish of adult men dressed as eroticised women. Understanding the difference between male and female underpins society, safety and security. We must clarify the Equality Act, and give ordinary people the certainty that our laws can be trusted to protect women and children and that sex means sex.’
This vile rhetoric is perhaps unsurprising coming from Miriam Cates, a regressive who has adopted various far right talking points. Cates has been a vocal opponent of fundamental women’s rights who adopts an extremely regressive view on the role of women in society; she has spoken on the importance of women marrying and having children, has established a think-tank committed to opposing no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage, and has spoken against expanding free childcare because childcare ought to be undertaken by mothers staying at home. She has also voted against abortion rights in Northern Ireland, sponsored an amendment which would allow campaigners to harass women seeking reproductive healthcare in the form of ‘silent prayer’ outside of abortion clinics, and is now seeking to limit access to abortion pills in the UK. Beyond this, Cates has also helped push a moral panic concerning child sex education, echoed racist rhetoric surrounding migrants, and is on the board of a Church accused of conducting gay conversion therapy.
Cates’s vile rhetoric was raised in a point of order by SNP MP Hannah Bardell, who identified that Cates was characterising trans people as predators in a way that was ‘deeply undemocratic and deeply worrying’, using language which was ‘unparliamentary’. The Chair, however, refused to take any action.
Mocking Trans Suicide
One of the most appalling aspects of the debate has already received significant attention on social media. This involved SNP MP Kirsty Blackman sharing that a trans constituent had come to her and had expressed suicidal thoughts:
‘Another trans person came to me. They were not the first to come to me with concerns of this nature. I will paraphrase what they said. When they heard about biological sex being included in the Equality Act and this change being made, they said, “What hope is left? Should I just kill myself now and be done with it?”’
In response to this, MPs Joanna Cherry, Rosie Duffield, and Neale Hanvey were seen apparently mocking this story by rolling their eyes and adopting other exaggerated gestures. Not ashamed by her initial response, Rosie Duffied MP has since responded to a gif of the eye-roll during the discussion of suicide with a laughing emoji.
As a survivor of suicide who was hospitalised following an attempt, I found this particularly galling. Most particularly in light of my initial reporting on the EHRC letter, when the level of panic in the community meant that I received a deluge of emails and direct messages expressing similar distress. This included both suicidal ideation and requests for help in fleeing the country. Trans people continue to be at a massively increased risk of suicide. Many of us will gather on the Trans Day of Remembrance this year to remember amazing members of our community who were lost in this way.
To ‘gender critical’ MPs, this continued tragedy acts as a source of amusement, which they believe they are entitled to publicly mock.
Of course, this is not the first instance of abhorrent behaviour from these MPs.
For example, Alba MP Neale Hanvey has signed an early-day motion tabled by the DUP attacking abortion rights. Hanvey also compared the pro-trans rights position of the SNP to the Taliban and their takeover of Afghanistan.
Rosie Duffield MP continues to maintain the Labour whip despite significant outcry from the queer community over her actions. The decision to retain Duffield has been the subject of much criticism, given recent incidents such as Duffield liking a tweet engaging in holocaust revisionism, suggesting that trans people were not targeted by the Nazis. During breaks in the debate for divisions in Parliament, Duffield could also be seen smiling and chatting with the ‘gender critical’ activists sat in the audience, including Maya Forstater.
Misrepresentation of the Current Law
The debate was also characterised by a complete misunderstanding, or at least misrepresentation of the Equality Act 2010.
In a particular moment of hilarity for the legally minded, MP Neale Hanvey spent much of his speech referencing Aristotle’s conception of equality that ‘Equals should be treated equally, and unequals treated unequally’, stating that ‘as in the days of Aristotle, sex, who is male and who is female has been the bedrock on which we have accommodated fundamental differences.’
Aristotle’s formulation of equality is the classic definition of a ‘formal equality’ approach, whilst the Equality Act 2010 is notable for significantly departing from this approach in favour of a more substantive one. For examples of this, we can look to its prohibition of indirect discrimination, its allowance for ‘positive’ discrimination in certain cases, and in its equal pay provisions. The fact that an MP is unaware of how significantly the legislation departs from Aristotle’s formal approach is deeply concerning and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the Act. It is doubtful that an MP with such a misunderstanding should be proposing ‘clarifications’ (i.e. changes) to that law. Aristotle’s views on sex also led him to conclude that women were inherently inferior to men.
The most common misrepresentation of the law throughout the debate was the pretence that the current law does not allow for the exclusion of trans people from single-sex spaces. As has already been addressed, the Equality Act 2010 already allows for this discrimination in certain cases, where it can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
The proposed amendment, therefore, does not seek to allow the exclusion of trans people from single-sex spaces but rather to make such exclusion automatic. This would apply to many spaces which trans people have used for decades, such as toilets. Such a change would see the exclusion of trans people from public life. Conservative MP Anna Firth made clear that trans people should never be allowed to use the toilets many have been using for the majority of their lives:
‘Families, women and children in Southend West want to know that when the sign on the door says or indicates female, that is not up for negotiation. The only people who should be in that space are biological women. Biological males or trans women or non-binary people should simply not be in those spaces.’
One Conservative MP, Anna Richardson, suggested that this could be remedied by a third unisex option for trans people — a “separate but equal” approach that would require trans people to out themselves and would likely see them subject to greater scrutiny and violence.
‘In simple terms, the law needs to facilitate: that employers and service providers offer separate facilities for male and female people in situations where sex matters, like toilets, changing rooms, dormitories and so on; and that they do their level best to accommodate people who do not feel comfortable in communal facilities for their own sex, without undermining the privacy and dignity of people of the opposite sex. That usually means a third unisex option. At this point, I must say that it does not mean converting the ladies’ loos, for instance, into unisex and leaving the number of men’s loos intact, as I have seen happen.’
Some MPs rightly noted that the policing of sex and gender in public spaces that the amendment would encourage is not just a threat to trans people, but also to all women. Labour MP Angela Eagle emphasised this threat:
‘The hysterical media coverage that has accompanied this deliberately provoked war on woke has already led to increased policing in public toilets and harassment of non-gender-conforming women by those questioning their right to be there. I have spent my whole political life and my entire time in Parliament working to create greater equality for all and to reduce bigotry and prejudice, and I have always been a committed feminist. The safety of women and the opening up of economic opportunities to them on an equal basis to that for men has always been one of my priorities in politics.’
Labour and Co-operative MP Luke Pollard shared the story of his lesbian friend who, despite being cis, was asked to leave toilets because of gender policing:
’One of my friends, who describes herself as a butch lesbian, has been asked to leave toilets countless times. All she wants to do is go for a wee. But she has been asked to leave toilets countless times because of a rise in hate. She was born a girl; she is now a proud woman—a proud lesbian. But the rise in hate in the debate and around our country means that she worries about going to the toilet because of what other people may think of her. That is not right.’
Some in the debate argued that the current approach, in which service providers have to justify exclusion, is inadequate. This is part of a clear attempt to make discrimination against trans people easier, based purely on prejudice rather than the legitimate aim service providers currently have to demonstrate. Conservative MP Anna Firth made clear that she believes the ban should be automatic, regardless of whether it is proportional or whether such policies would violate the human rights of trans people:
‘“Case by case” simply does not work. Operating without clear rules simply shifts the responsibility to service providers to make very difficult decisions about who should have access to female-only spaces and services, and who should not. A simple search on the internet reveals the extent of the confusion that reigns. To give just one example, the NHS promises single-sex accommodation in hospitals, yet NHS England’s annex B policy tells hospitals to allow trans and non-binary people to choose whether they are housed with men or women.
’The situation is simply not clear. It is said that sporting bodies set sex-based rules, so clarification is not needed. I would say the exact opposite: the law must be clear about sex if sporting bodies are to feel confident setting sex-based rules.’
As I have argued elsewhere, such an approach of automatic discrimination would be incompatible with the international human rights consensus on trans rights, including the case of Goodwin v UK, which forced the development of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in the first place.
The debate was filled with references to ‘biological sex’, with little understanding or explanation of what that actually entails.
Many ‘gender critical’ MPs presented laughably reductionist interpretations of the term.
Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis railed against the idea that sex is assigned at birth, claiming everyone is born a man or a woman and everyone has either XY or XX chromosomes:
‘Someone is not assigned their gender at birth; they are born male or female. A man is an adult human male and a woman is an adult human female. We should not be disputing those facts in the 21st century—these are the basics of biology that we talk about in our classrooms.
’I want to make it perfectly clear: sex is not assigned at birth. You are born a man or you are born a woman. Those are indisputable facts. You have XY chromosomes or XX chromosomes. Again, that is not up for debate or discussion.
’To finish, it is biologically clear that a male has XY chromosomes and a female has XX chromosomes. This is a scientific truth that should not be conflated with any constructed truth.’
Similarly, Conservative MP Andrew Lewer characterised sex as an immutable binary:
‘It is vital that everybody knows what the words “male” and “female” mean, and in which it is vital that those words have their natural meanings: the immutable binary characteristic that all humans, and indeed all mammals, possess from the beginning of their life to the end of it.’
Following this, Lewer stated:
‘Sex is not assigned at birth: sex is observed at birth, as determined by conception.’
Of course, such representations of sex are utterly false based on the science - intersex people exist, and are often coercively assigned a sex at birth. A study by Timmermans et al, for example, highlights how entirely arbitrary ‘gender destinies’ are decided for intersex children based on the desire of the parents, with reassurance that the intersex child can always be reassigned as the opposite sex if desired. This was noted by Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran in response to a similar statement from Conservative MP Ranil Jayarwardena, which he promptly ignored:
‘I remember that when my first daughter was born we did not find out the sex before, so there was a 50:50 chance. That is basic biology. We all know what the two sexes are. We all know what sex we are and what sex our children are.’
‘Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that intersex people exist?’
‘I am sure that the hon. Lady will deal with that in her comments and that she will be staying for the whole debate. I will conclude my remarks so that other Members can have their say. I want to talk about the fact that we all know which sex we are and what sex our children are. We know that the two sexes—male and female—are fundamental to our very existence.’
A number of MPs addressed this biological illiteracy. For example, SNP MP Kirsty Blackman stated:
‘We have talked about biological sex a number of times, but not one person has been able to explain what it is. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) gave a good stab at it, talking about XX and XY chromosomes. I have no idea what my chromosomes are. I assume that they are probably XY [sic], but I do not know—I have not got a clue what they are. I have a fair idea of what my genitals look like and how they compare with how other people’s look, but if we are talking about biological sex there needs to be a definition that everybody in this room can agree with. Nobody has been able to provide such a definition.’
The descriptions of sex proposed by ‘gender critical’ MPs was insightfully summarised by Labour MP Olivia Blake:
‘There is a risk in this House of us talking about GCSE biology rather than actually [sic] biology.’
Of course, the EHRC itself has been forced to admit that it has not consulted with any biologists and has no definition of ‘biological sex’. Rather, ‘biology’ has little to do with the definition of sex being proposed by the EHRC, with the change instead representing a reversion to the definition of legal sex predating the Gender Recognition Act 2004 — simply what is recorded on an individual's birth certificate at the time of birth. The Gender Recognition Act currently allows the amendment of such birth certificates upon obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate, at which point a trans individual becomes their acquired sex for all legal purposes.
More concerning than this complete misunderstanding of biology, however, was the regressive and essentialist conception of sex proposed by MP Miriam Cates. I will supply it in full as I feel it speaks for itself:
‘Despite the semantic acrobatics employed by some to dodge the question, we all know, instinctively and intrinsically, what a woman is. The sex binary—the biological state of being either male or female—evolved hundreds of millions years ago, before we humans walked the earth. Being able to tell the difference between a man and a woman is not a matter of acquired knowledge. It is as instinctive as being able to tell up from down. Indeed, our survival as a species depends on it; if we want to reproduce, and to protect ourselves and our children, we had better know the difference between a man and a woman.
’Men and women are different physically, psychologically, sexually and socially. All civilisations are built on an understanding of these differences, creating structures, rules and boundaries to protect women and children from male violence and to preserve the dignity of both sexes. There is nothing more destabilising to society than to dismantle the legal, social and cultural guardrails that protect women and children by pretending that males become females and vice versa, and allowing that to creep into our law.’
It is deeply concerning that a supposedly ‘feminist’ ‘gender critical’ movement has chosen to ally itself with those who adopt such explicitly sexist positions.
Trans people should be relieved to note that — despite this prevailing toxicity — there were a number of contributions made which were explicitly trans positive.
Labour MP Angela Eagle noted the threat posed to trans people by such an amendment, stating:
‘It would practically disapply important parts of the Gender Recognition Act and be in breach of our international human rights obligations. It would take away rights that have been enjoyed for almost 20 years by the small minority of our population who are trans.
’Some 7,000 people have a gender recognition certificate. That is who we are afraid of in all this. A change to the Equality Act’s definition of sex to biological sex would have a huge effect on all trans people by effectively mandating their exclusion from public spaces unless they use facilities in their so-called birth gender, which would be humiliating and damaging to them. It would lead to the policing of women’s spaces, which would problematise non-gender-conforming women and girls who are not trans. That is happening now with all the hostility.’
Eagle also rightly identified the current attack on trans people as a moral panic, similar to previous attacks on LGBT+ people:
‘I am also a lesbian. I was only the second out lesbian ever to sit in this place, and the first ever out lesbian Government Minister, so I have had some experience of bigotry, prejudice, misogyny and homophobia—and I recognise a politically induced moral panic when I see one. I also recognise a discredited Government unleashing a culture war for their own divisive ends when I see it. Those seeking to weaponise anti-trans fear for their own purposes have other issues in their sights: principally, inclusive sex education and women’s abortion rights, as we have seen in the USA, where over 400 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation have been introduced in state legislatures already this year.
‘The attack on trans people’s rights to exist and to live with respect and dignity in an accepting society is designed as a wedge issue that will open up the others. It is a gateway to wider homophobia, as the steady rise in hostility to LGBTQ+ people in the street attests to. I was around when it happened before in the 1980s with the enactment of section 28, which sought successfully to scapegoat LGBT+ young people and drive them into hiding. It caused untold misery for narrow political ends, wrecking the lives of LGBT+ people for generations. We should not be contemplating doing it again.’
MPs Nia Griffith and Hannah Bardell also identified this pattern. They further emphasised the importance they felt, as lesbians, in standing with trans people - as the vast majority of cis lesbians do:
‘I commend the hon. Lady for making a passionate and common-sense contribution to the debate. I am sure she agrees that some of what we have heard today is just feeding into the moral panic; some of the arguments are just cut and pasted from what gay and lesbian people faced decades ago. Does she agree, as a lesbian, that trans people do not threaten us? In fact, they enhance our existence.’
‘Absolutely. As a fellow lesbian, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady; they are absolutely not a threat. More importantly than that, they need our support now more than ever.’
The good news: a lack of Government appetite
As I have previously outlined, the proposed amendment to the Equality Act 2010 poses a significant threat to the trans community. It is with some relief, therefore, that this Government seems to have little appetite for bringing the change.
Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield emphasised the need to:
‘consider, both in policy terms and in legal terms, the potential implications of this change before we take any further decisions.’
Caulfield further noted that:
‘As we have heard, there are many views on this issue. That is why it is important that we take the time to properly consider the policy around it and take in the legal considerations, too. There are clearly cases where people are struggling to make practical decisions on a day-by-day basis with the Act as it stands. However, we do not want to create additional unforeseen problems by changing or clarifying the Equality Act.
‘The hon. and learned Lady highlights the diversity of views in this space. That is why it is so important to take proper consideration and time before deciding our next steps. I know that Members will be eager to hear updates and reassurances, as well as the timeline for our next steps. However, the issues under discussion today are complex, and we need to proceed carefully and respectfully. As we have heard, a wide number of people will be affected by any change. I hope that Members will agree that it is only right and proper that we take timely consideration of the advice that we have been given before coming to any conclusions.’
Caulfield repeatedly emphasised that the Government was still ‘considering the next steps’, whilst emphasising that the current law already allows for the exclusion of trans people from single-sex spaces where this can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim:
‘I will touch on some of the issues that were raised in the debate, particularly around single-sex spaces. I would like to reassure Members that the Government are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. We recognise that being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is an important principle, and—to answer the question from the hon. Member for Oxford East—should be maintained.
‘As many here will already know, under the Equality Act, providers are already able to restrict the use of spaces on the basis of sex and/or gender reassignment where justified. The Act provides protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation across a number of grounds, including sex. We are committed to upholding Britain’s long-standing record of protecting the rights of individuals against unlawful discrimination.
‘The EHRC has published guidance on the existing legislation, which provides much-needed clarity to those offering single-sex spaces. It does not change the legal position or the law. As that guidance makes clear, it is currently entirely acceptable for providers of single-sex services to take account of the biological sex of their service users. Where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, the Equality Act is also clear that service providers can exclude, modify or limit access for transgender people even when they have a gender recognition certificate.’
Given the lack of remaining Parliamentary time before the next election, this insistence on the need to take time, and on the exclusion already possible under the law, should be taken as a reassuring sign to trans people that we are unlikely to see such legislative change until after the next election.