(NB An abridged version of this talk was given at the meeting. The Trans Inquiry Report can be read, in all its jaw-dropping glory, here ).
Thank you to Baroness Nicholson for facilitating this meeting.
As I hope is clear to everyone by now — thanks to campaigns like that of A Woman’s Place and Fair Play for Women — when it comes to developing public policy around legally changing sex, there are several sets of interests at stake, and not just one.
To put it in a nutshell: if you’re going to make it very easy for members of the biological male sex, socialised as men, to get the word ‘female’ written on their birth certificates, you are going to get at least two problems, simply put:
· more opportunities for some males to harass females, because now males can be more easily legally treated as females, and so have greater access to females.
· an undermining of the positive actions which have historically promoted equality of opportunity for females; because now some males can ‘self-identify as females’ and so get access to these opportunities (all-women shortlists being the obvious example).
You are also going to get a lot of confusion for questioning, gender-non-conforming, children, working out who they are in a world in which ‘changing sex’ is now apparently easy.
So the question for all of us is: how to balance these competing interests?
I want to talk about how, in attempting to answer that question, public organisations are being misleadingly advised, sometimes with harmful results.
I take it that the selection of advisors on a particular issue should follow four basic and commonsensical principles:
· All groups affected should be represented
· Advisors should have relevant expertise, and should advise only on areas where they have expertise.
· Advisors shouldn’t have backgrounds which undermine their credibility.
· Advisors should, where possible, appeal to independently verified evidence to back up their views.
For an example where these four principles were not put into practice, I’d like to look at the select committee report from the Transgender Equality inquiry, which came out in January 2016.
Just to remind you all: this inquiry recommends removing any substantive constraints on who may legally change sex, for whatever reason. It also recommends a host of other policies: for instance
· Lowering the age at which one can legally change sex, to 16.
· Rescinding current provision in the Equality Act, to allow trans women to work and receive support in occupational settings like rape crisis centres and domestic violence refuges.
So, taking the principles just outlined one by one:
a) Were all affected groups represented, in the choice of witnesses to the Trans Inquiry?
In a word, no.
20 people were called as witnesses to the Inquiry, excluding MPs. 11 of these represented trans advocacy/ lobbying groups. 9 of these were more obviously ‘neutral’. No special advocates for other groups were called as witnesses. For instance:
· female-only groups and services,
· post-operative transsexuals against self-ID, and
· concerned parents of transitioning children
were not properly represented.
In the use of written submissions, there’s also a preponderance of trans advocates listened to, and the ignoring of other groups. To take just one example, 8 points made by transwoman Jane Fae appear in the Final Report. But written submissions such as those of transwoman Miranda Yardley, who is against self-ID; or the well-known academic Professor Sheila Jeffreys, don’t appear anywhere in the Final Report.
Perhaps the general optimistic thought was that trans advocate groups are able to responsibly represent both their own interests and those of competing groups. If so, this was, I suggest, a failure in practice.
We can see this when we look at some examples of what was actually said.
· we find Jay Stewart, Director of Gendered Intelligence, arguing for the removal of sex-separated facilities in schools. This clearly has an impact on female schoolchildren, which should have been considered.
· We find James Morton of the Scottish Trans Alliance, arguing that traumatised female rape victims and domestic abuse victims who feel, as he says ‘uncomfortable’ with transwomen in refuges or rape crisis centres, should be ‘educated’ so that the transwomen can stay. This again discounts the interests of females.
· And we find the conclusion, apparently derived from the submission of Jane Fae, that — quote- ‘It is not unlawful .. to ask a person to produce a Gender Recognition Certificate, but it is in almost all circumstances unnecessary’. Yet there’s no mention in this report of the reasonable objective of getting accurate data about differences between the sexes, in areas where females are disadvantaged: for instance, when recording crime rates; or rates of sexual assault; or the pay gap.
Now, turning to the second principle:
b) Did witnesses to the Trans Inquiry have relevant expertise?
Well, of the 11 trans advocate witnesses that were called, 9 of them were trans people, and the other 2 were parents of trans people.
The perceived expertise of these witnesses seems to come from two things:
· having relevant lived experience; and
· in some cases, also founding or directing a charity or lobbying organisation.
I accept it is important to listen to the lived experience of members of a group of people when deciding on legislation which affects them. However, this is different from straightforwardly accepting recommendations from that group without questioning them. If you compare Patient-Public Involvement guidelines in the NHS: patients and public might be involved in shaping research questions, or in helping clinicians understand the impact of research: but the answers to those questions will still be substantially determined by more appropriately qualified experts.
We can again see the limits of expertise in some of the evidence actually given in the report.
So for instance,
· Take Susie Green, Chair of the charity Mermaids, which supports children in transition and their parents. Green is a former IT manager and parent of a trans child. She is quoted as recommending that puberty-blockers should be made available to older children who are 16 and 17, as well as younger ones. No consideration is given of how this is medically justified.
· James Morton, of the Scottish Trans Alliance, recommends that legal sex changes should be made available to the under-16s.
· Anna Lee, a representative of Lancaster Students Union, with a degree in Mathematics, recommends that national governing bodies for sport should relax their requirements around trans athletes.
In other words, we find frequent confusion between what witnesses are properly equipped to talk about; and matters which they have no expertise to talk knowledgeably about.
This has more general relevance to the way that public organisations rely on advice from trans advocates. If you go to the Mermaids website, you find this quote : ‘Mermaids has trained professionals in the NHS, Police Service, Social Services, Schools, CAHMS and the workplace.’ The Gendered Intelligence website says that they offer ‘a number of different trans training packages for staff in schools, colleges, universities and youth services.’
But with what authority? With what expertise? Members of these organisations do not typically have any professional qualifications, and if they do, that’s not the reason they are with those organisations. They are currently advising public bodies on the law, on medicine, on social policy, on education, and so on; and it is very unclear in some cases what their credentials are to do so.
Turning now to the next principle governing selection of advisors:
c) Did any advisors have backgrounds which undermine their credibility?
In my view, the most obvious counter-example here is Jess Bradley, called upon as the very first witness to the Inquiry. Even leaving aside Bradley’s suspension from the NUS since the Inquiry, there is already a strong suggestion of a lack of credibility here, when we consider that Bradley’s associated organisation, Action for Trans Health, publicly calls for, among other things:
· the immediate release and pardon of all trans prisoners;
· an end to all birth certificates; and
· hormones to be prescribed, free and upon request.
All of this suggests Bradley is an extremist who never should have been called to give evidence in the first place. A bit of due diligence could surely have established this.
Finally, I want to ask:
d) Did witnesses appeal to independently verified evidence to back up their views?
In many cases, no. The Trans Inquiry Report is full of emotive-sounding statistics which do not bear up under scrutiny. So, for instance, take the eye-catching claim from the second paragraph of the report: ‘High levels of transphobia are experienced by individuals on a daily basis.’ This is drawn from reports prepared by lobbying organisations, which ask self-selecting participants about what they perceive to be acts of transphobia. Victims of harassment are expected to be able to accurately identify whether the harassment was due to transphobia, or homophobia, for instance. That is often almost impossible for a victim to establish.
(Things aren’t helped here by Stonewall’s influential definition of transphobia: ‘The fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity’. That makes anyone who denies that a transwoman is a woman, for whatever reason, transphobic — far outstripping what any reasonable law would prohibit).
Or consider another highly emotive claim made prominently in the Report:
‘ About half of young trans people and a third of trans adults attempt suicide.”
Digging into the footnotes and other sources, there seem to be two sources for this claim:
· the claim about children comes from a Mermaids powerpoint presentation, and
· the claim about adults comes from a report co-authored by James Morton of the Scottish Trans Alliance.
So in both cases, witnesses to the Inquiry have been instrumental in supplying the data used by the Inquiry. And the studies, when you look at them, are subject to several basic limitations — e.g. self-selecting participants recruited online via support groups; self-report; no comparison class; and some quite odd manipulation of the figures in both cases.
So what is the solution? I suggest we need more academics acting as experts and advisors in this area.
However, we also need to bear in mind three caveats.
First: if those academics are from Gender Studies Departments, we should remember that many academics in such Departments deny that biological sex naturally exists; they think sex is socially constructed. Anyone who sincerely believes this is unlikely to properly consider the interests of the female sex class, in advising on public policy. So, as well as Gender Studies people, we need people from other relevant subject areas: for instance, statisticians, psychologists, psychiatrists, legal theorists, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and so on.
The next caveat is that: the current climate makes it hostile for academics to speak out in these areas, unless their views firmly fall into line with Stonewall’s and Gendered Intelligence’s, etc. Indeed, Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence are frequently brought in to do ‘Equalities’ training in our Universities. My own University has worked hard to become what is known as a ‘Stonewall Diversity Champion’. So University policy on what may permissibly be said and what may not be said, is often written with the advice of lobbying organisations. Because of this interaction between policy in Universities and trans lobbying organisations, academics are often fearful of being disciplined by their employers for speaking critically about trans activism. Vice-chancellors and university managers need to break links with these organisations, and robustly and vocally defend academics’ right to challenge some of the narratives which these organisations disseminate.
The final caveat is this: the refereeing system for AHRC and ESRC research grant applications, journal submissions, and so on, means that those applications and submissions which are critical of accepted narratives are vulnerable to rejection, if they come across the wrong sort of referee. And they will very often come across the wrong sort of referee, given the power dynamics in Universities currently. (Indeed, any academic discussion at all of females, as such, is increasingly vulnerable to rejection. For instance, I was recently told of an article written on vaginisimus, a female medical complaint, which was rejected by a journal partly on the grounds that the author of the article assumed that vaginisimus was something only women could get. I’m not joking.)
To conclude — in case you think that things have changed since the Trans Inquiry, or that I’m out of touch — here are three highly contemporary examples of organisations failing to choose experts wisely:
· This week, in response to a Times investigation into the removal of single-sex dormitories, a spokesman for the Youth Hostel Association said: “The Equalities Act (sic) 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of transgender status’. This interpretation is false — the protected characteristics are gendered reassignment and sex.
· As I speak, Mermaids has as link on its website, under ‘Private Support’, to Dr Helen Webberley, who this week was convicted of having broken the Care Standards Act by running an unlicenced private online clinic for trans youth, including prescribing hormones.
· Also as I speak, Aimee Challenor is still listed as a member of the Stonewall Trans Advisory Group — despite having employed as her election agent, a man on child rape charges. Challenor has been a vocal advocate for Girlguiding’s current, notorious policy, which legitimises placing male-bodied children in showers and tents with female children.
The moral of this story is: public bodies and organisations need to be much more careful about who advises them, and on what. And Universities need to be supported to enable the production of new research which may be highly critical of current accepted thinking in this area.