We need to talk about gender-recognition

For too long, the fear of causing offence has stifled debate over transgender issues.

Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson

During election periods, it is easy to feel as if democracy is back in town. But it is important to remember that voting is just one crucial part of the ongoing democratic process. Democracy is a process of constant deliberation, involving different kinds of engagement between different citizens, in spaces far from the ballot box.

Another crucial part of the democratic process is campaigning: by politicians doing the rounds; by local activists supporting their representatives; and by anyone, anywhere, who simply cares strongly and vocally about one issue or many. Campaigning is central to the battle of ideas that gives life to a vibrant, vital democracy.

Democracy, then, depends on debate and disagreement. Lately, however, it often feels as if these activities have come to be frowned upon – except in certain prescribed formats. Too many people want to shut the debate down, whenever it suits them, whenever it becomes too awkward. Yet consensus means nothing if we’re not allowed to disagree.

Democratic deliberation is premised on the equal right of every citizen to contribute to the self-government of their nation. And this is damaged when important topics are deemed beyond the remit of civil discussion. When voices are quashed. When ‘consensus’ means the forced triumph of acceptable ideas, and ‘tolerance’ is only extended to those with whom one already agrees.

Three weeks ago, we launched a campaign called Radical. Its topic is increasingly familiar: the gender-recognition debate. Discussion of this topic is not only often deemed unacceptable – it is also regularly silenced with threats of physical violence. Those, especially women, who seek to discuss it rigorously regularly find themselves facing sexual jibes, online menace and rape threats.

We were aware of the risk, therefore, of launching a campaign that is explicitly on the side of rigour: a freedom-focused campaign, committed to searching out truth and fighting for it.

Crucial to our campaign is our belief that respect and toleration are central to a good society. People who want to conduct themselves as members of the opposite sex should be entitled to do so. And they should be treated just as respectfully as anyone else. But we also believe that male and female are distinct biological categories. And women are adult female human beings. And that law should not mandate that biological men must be treated as women, or vice versa. And that it is wrong for children to undergo medical interventions intended to make them resemble children of the opposite sex.

These are dangerous views to state today. Thankfully, however, we have not, as yet, faced any threats. Rather, we are grateful for all the messages of support we have received: from seasoned campaigners we have admired from afar, and from concerned people who just want to speak out, and who are relieved to see others able to do so.

These messages have also come from across the political spectrum. The two of us are on the classically liberal side of UK politics – most people would see us as centre-right. But our unfunded campaign is non-party-political and non-partisan.

We hope that the support we have received will help us spread the message – that it is possible to work together and talk about gender recognition rigorously. That this has not already been happening – in our think tanks, in our universities, in our political institutions – is a cause for national embarrassment. The power of suppression and the fear of repercussion are real and strong, but without disagreement, our society is not free.

Brexit may have divided many of us, but arguing about it is perfectly acceptable. Yet, arguing about other important matters, like gender recognition, is seemingly not acceptable. And it urgently needs to be.

The judgement handed down this week in Maya Forstater’s employment tribunal – a judgment stating that Forstater’s belief that sex is biological and immutable is ‘incompatible with human dignity’ – brutally illustrates the real-life consequences of one side of the debate becoming so dominant.

During the election campaign, the only politicians who spoke out on gender recognition, which was embarrassingly off the agenda for the most part, seemed to be those parroting the acceptable line. This is not just cowardly. It also eats away at our democracy.

Ex-Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was justly criticised for her confused views on gender recognition. But she did perform a great service by showing the quagmire we enter when policy thinking is grounded only by attempts to avoid causing offence. This has gone on for far too long. It is time for a commitment to searching out truth – not just on the easy topics, but also on those that are most difficult.

Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson run the campaign, Radical. Follow it on Twitter: @WeAreRadical_

Picture by: Getty.

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Ven Oods

24th December 2019 at 3:47 pm

“Brexit may have divided many of us, but arguing about it is perfectly acceptable.”

Yet, rarely witnessed as anything other than a shouting match…

Hugh Oxford

23rd December 2019 at 7:13 pm

To preserve our freedoms, to promote equality, to fight patriarchy and misogyny and to protect the most vulnerable women in society a raft of anti-gender legislation is urgently needed, and the UK government should proudly pioneer it.

This anti-gender legislation must:

1: Enshrine in law the definition of a woman as a person of the female biological sex, the only exception being those individuals with defined, demonstrable objective chromosomal or physiological abnormalities who do not clearly fit into either sex (as determined by a panel of impartial medical practitioners).

2: Make it illegal to provide a service, run an organisation, organise a sporting event or run a facility for both sexes where it is advertised as being for women or girls.

3: Make it illegal to masquerade as a member of the opposite sex for the purposes of entering a single-sex environment or participating in a single-sex activity.

4: Reinforce the inalienable right to refer to another person using scientifically correct nouns and pronouns (man/woman/boy/girl/he/she) according to their objective biological sex.

5: Abolish the use of the term “gender” in government documents, reports, forms, censuses or surveys, replacing it with “sex”, where the word “gender” has been misapplied.

6: Make it a requirement for organisations to provide facilities such as toilets (where provided) for both sexes.

In summary, the UK government must act now against “gender”: a baseless, transgressive, patriarchal and misogynistic ideology with damaging ramifications for the whole of society, but especially for young, poor and vulnerable women who require single sex environments the most, and all women who face the threat of legal and practical eradication.

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