Women's Equality party runs consultation on self-identification for trans people

Party hopes to ‘shift the dial’ on fraught debate ahead of decision on Gender Recognition Act

There was an invitation to allow for discomfort and a reminder that there was no such thing as a stupid question, as the Women’s Equality party (WEP) began what has been described as Britain’s largest direct consultation of women on self-identification for transgender people.

Acknowledging on Wednesday night that the issue divided its membership, the WEP has borrowed from the citizens’ assembly model used in Ireland to reach consensus on abortion law, in order to “shift the dial” on a seemingly intractable and often toxic debate.

Sixty party members, selected at random, will hear testimony from witnesses chosen by an advisory group to offer a range of views on WEP policy areas that might be affected by reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004.

The proposals, developed under Theresa May and which the current government is expected to decide on shortly, aim to make it easier for transgender people to change the sex on their birth certificate by removing the requirement for medical evidence of a gender dysphoria diagnosis and enabling them to sign a statutory declaration, known as “self-ID”.

The WEP process, which is facilitated by the independent social research institute NatCen, will last four weeks, and the assembly’s recommendations will then be put to the party’s 30,000-strong membership for consultation.

Wednesday’s evidence session covered three contentious areas: legislation, data and the media’s treatment of the debate. Witnesses have commended the WEP for a “progressive” and “important” exercise.

Polly Morgan, a specialist family lawyer and associate professor at the University of East Anglia, referred to fears that the changes would create a “legislative runaway train”. But, she said, “If we did move to a self-ID system, that could be coupled with safeguards” and the reforms would work with Equality Act provisions. This would allow domestic violence refuges, for example, to be able to exclude trans women if it were “a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim”.

But Rebecca Bull, a solicitor and equal pay expert, sketched a series of scenarios where allowing someone to change their legal sex would have an impact on the Equality Act. She said single-sex services were threatened “because the reason why a woman doesn’t want a trans woman in the same space as her, for example in a changing room, won’t be because they are gender-reassigned, it will be because of their natal sex, and that would not be an admissible argument in law”.

The importance of data in tackling sex discrimination was underlined by Alice Sullivan, professor of quantitative sociology at UCL, who warned of data loss because of a growing confusion between the terms “sex” and “gender”. “This is not just a women’s issue; any political party that values evidence-based policy has to oppose this,” she said.

But James Morton, of the Scottish Trans Alliance, said that after living as a man for 20 years, he was not prepared to tick a “female” box on a form. There must be ways of capturing the data needed to advance equality for all without undermining trans people’s rights, he said, suggesting that, for example, a person could be asked to disclose how they identified in society and then asked separately whether they were trans.

Ruth Serwotka, co-founder of Women’s Place UK, described the “vicious and violent” abuse on social media of women who expressed concerns about sex-based rights, highlighting the recent Twitter hashtag RIPJKRowling. But, she added, it had also been difficult for critical feminist voices to get space in the mainstream media, noting Guardian columns that she believed “opened the door to a view that it was acceptable, progressive even, for a new left misogyny”.

The anonymous testimony of a trans woman and academic included the Guardian in a list of media with anti-trans editorial policies, along with the Times, Telegraph, Mail, Sun, and the BBC’s Newsnight and Today programmes. She picked out a Guardian editorial on the GRA, entitled “Where rights collide”, saying it was not supported by evidence from countries where self-ID had caused “no problems in terms of cis women losing rights or suffering violence”.

A WEP spokesperson said: “The aim of the consultation is to shift the dial on a discussion that can at times feel intractable and even toxic. We want to show that it is possible to forge a space for people with different views, and no views, to come together – to listen, learn and ultimately move towards consensus.”

Contributor

Libby Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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