Campaigners have called for a rethink of a controversial policy to allow transgender people to use a women-only bathing pond after the government said it would maintain the law on single-sex spaces.
The women’s pond on London’s Hampstead Heath has become a battleground in the debate about same-sex spaces after a decision earlier this year to allow trans women access.
Last month women went into the heath’s men-only pond, some dressed in fake beards, to make the point that a policy based on how people identify themselves was open to abuse.
Amy Desir, who led that protest, said the City of London Corporation, which manages the heath, should look again at the policy after the government said it backed women-only spaces.
The equalities minister, Penny Mordaunt, told a committee of MPs last week that the trans community faced “discrimination and bigotry ... very much like what gay men went through in the 1980s” after some people self-defining as a gender different from their biological sex were turned away from single-sex spaces.
But this month, in response to a petition signed by more than 12,000 people, that called on women to be consulted before any new legislation, Mordaunt’s office made it clear that the law on single-sex spaces would not change.
“We have no intention of amending the Equality Act 2010, the legislation that allows for single-sex spaces,” it said.
“Providers of women-only services can continue to provide services in a different way, or even not provide services to trans individuals, provided it is objectively justified on a case-by-case basis.
Desir said: “The Corporation of London made a decision on the women’s pond without actually doing an equality impact assessment, which meant that no women were consulted. It led to a poor policy which is open to exploitation, as we proved at the men’s pond.
“Now that the government has upheld those same-sex exemptions then every organisation needs to go through these policies with a very fine-tooth comb and carry out equality-impact assessments and use them to make a good judgment on who should and shouldn’t be allowed into single-sex spaces.”
Trans campaigners have urged those born as men who now self-identify as women to use the women’s pond.
Desir said the presence of trans women in the female-only pond had changed its atmosphere. She said: “The women’s pond is a space for women. It is where women swim with their daughters in an environment without men. And they should expect to be bathing topless and not be confronted by somebody with a penis in that space.
“There are also people with very strong religious beliefs there and if they think there is a risk of a man being there, then that automatically excludes people from religious communities as well as any women who just don’t feel comfortable with sharing that space.
“Changing the unique character of the women’s pond is a mistake. People are taking advantage of it and it is making women afraid. They should be protected from that.
The government’s statement was welcomed by Woman’s Place, a group formed to discuss the potential implications for women and girls of sharing single-sex spaces.
Philipa Harvey, a co-founder, said: “What we have been campaigning for is at least the maintenance of these single-sex spaces for women to overcome the levels of sexual harassment and violence within society.
She added: “The pond on Hampstead Heath is a place that women should have as a single-sex space. It is a sadness in our society that some women now are not accessing it.”
A spokesperson for the City of London said: “Over the last year, all lifeguards and managers at Hampstead Heath ponds have taken transgender-awareness training courses, which have been offered to, and taken by, the ponds’ swimming associations as well.
“We are working with the LGBTQ community to ensure our facilities are fit to serve the needs of everyone who enjoys them, and will continue to do so in the future.”
Stonewall, Britain’s biggest LGBT charity, attacked the “toxic” way the issue had been reported.
Paul Twocock, director of campaigns, policy and research, said: “Trans people can and have been using the toilets that match their gender for years without issue. This is another media-generated ‘debate’ based on inaccurate information. This is not what reform of the Gender Recognition Act is about because the law already states that trans people can access single-sex spaces that match their gender, and should not be discriminated against.
“The exemptions to this rule only apply to sensitive and complex services, for example refuges, where services can exclude trans people if they can demonstrate that is absolutely necessary, for example if inclusion would put that trans person at risk. However, these exemptions are rarely used and in almost all situations trans people are treated equally as is required by our equality laws.”
He added: “We need urgent reform of the Gender Recognition Act to guarantee the safety and dignity of trans and non-binary people.”