9 July 2018

A new gender recognition law risks entrenching identity politics


Last week, the government launched a consultation into plans to reform gender recognition laws in Britain. The Conservatives are considering legislating in line with the fashionable theory that every individual has an absolute right to choose his or her own gender, without meeting tests, medical or otherwise.

When the Government first announced its intentions last October, its support for a system of ‘self-identification’ was explicit. The consultation document softens that tone somewhat, but Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt made the thrust of the proposals clear when she told Pink News that “trans women are women, that is the starting point”.

The assumption is that gender is purely a matter of personal choice, not something that can be classified, measured or assessed objectively. Choice alone is likely to determine whether a person should be treated – by the law and the rest of society – as male, female or any one of a bewildering array of neologisms that describe something “in between”.

Though this is a modish notion whose critics are often demonised as “transphobes”, it is, in fact, a radical move, the possible consequences of which have yet to be fully explored. Until relatively recently, it was perfectly uncontroversial to think of gender as a social and cultural function of biological sex.

Scientists explained that different types of chromosomes, containing genetic information, combined to determine whether a baby was born male or female. For complex hormonal and anatomical reasons, a tiny number of intersex infants fell outside these two categories, but, for most people, gender was a matter of fact: XX or XY, one set of reproductive organs or the other.

The campaign to challenge that view has been highly politicised and sometimes disturbingly aggressive; grounded in an ideology that elevates personal identity to a kind of sacrosanct value. It promotes the notion that individuals have the right to identify themselves in any way they choose and expect others to accept their self-description immediately and unconditionally. Opponents of this dogma, feminist and conservative alike, have been subjected to abuse, ridicule and even violence by the hardline fringes of the trans-lobby.

Special venom, however, has been directed at women who worry that people who have been born as men, some of whom still have male genitalia, could abuse the right to share female-only facilities. Recently, trade union officials, including Unite boss Len McCluskey, signed an open letter expressing concern that transgender rights activists were drawing “the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute” by making women “scared to engage in political life”.

Undoubtedly, it’s important to discuss how those with genuine issues around gender can be made to feel included and valued in our society. The existing law is built around an acceptance of a medical condition, gender dysphoria, experienced by those who, from childhood, feel like they are trapped in the wrong body. This is a sensible and humane approach, and there is nothing wrong with reviewing the legislation to see if it could be made more humane still.

Yet, the Government’s aim is apparently  to “demedicalise” gender altogether, allowing people to alter the sex recorded on their birth certificates without any supporting diagnosis and without evidence that they’ve been living according to the identity that they claim. There’s even a suggestion that there will also be an option to designate one’s gender as ‘X’, which covers a smorgasbord of other alleged, non-binary orientations.

This comes perilously close to satisfying the wilder proponents of left-wing identity politics, who want to destroy distinctions of sex and gender entirely, alongside other categories that we use to order and understand our society.

The notion that there are practically an infinite number of identities, or indeed a spectrum, and that they should each be legally recognised, seems calculated to play upon the confusion that many young people feel as they try to work out their place in the world. Ironically, it also reinforces assumptions that certain characteristics are innately male or female and that those who don’t conform to stereotypes are something else entirely, or something “in between”.

There is a growing suspicion that the genuine concerns of a small number of intersex people and those with gender dysphoria are being exploited by campaigners motivated by more extreme ideas. It might be tempting to dismiss this as a conspiracy theory, but read around the debate a little, particularly as it is articulated in universities, and you will quickly fall down rabbit-holes of the densest, most nonsensical political jargon.

The transgender lobby is deeply postmodern, in the sense that when it attacks the idea that the medical profession can determine a person’s sex, it is rejecting the very existence of objective truth, claiming instead that gender is a merely a phenomenon of individual experience. It also challenges directly some of the assumptions that underpin modern Western society – our ability to distinguish between nature and culture, the separation of public and private life and the idea that theories must be tested against observable facts.

Though their demands focus ostensibly on individual feelings, campaigners also seek to create an ever greater number of classifications of people, all of which can then claim ‘rights’ as a group.

A birth certificate is not currently a document of self-expression or a political statement. It reflects the medically determined fact of a person’s sex, not an individual’s subjective feelings about the matter. If the legislation is reformed along the lines that are suggested, a matter of legal and scientific record will be sacrificed to the modern cult of identity.

There are countless practical difficulties that may be created by allowing individuals to change their gender at a whim. On a broader principle, it is damaging to allow faddish ideas about identity to encroach ever further into politics and law. Most of all, it is dangerous to tell confused young people that society always has to bend to accommodate their idiosyncrasies, rather than helping them instead to find a role in society as it is.

Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author ‘An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit‘.