SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 223 November 2018

Gender recognition division

From July the government ran a six-week consultation on the proposals to review the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) of 2004. According to the Trans Mental Health Survey 2012, "almost half (48%) of trans people in Britain have attempted suicide at least once; 84% have thought about it. More than half (55%) have been diagnosed with depression at some point". Trans people need the legal changes to simplify the process of self-identification; and investment in expanding all public health, support and other services, firstly by ending austerity. Instead of focusing on winning these, however, the debate around the GRA has been made toxic.

Groups and individuals who both support and oppose the right to self-identify have adopted methods including no-platforming, shutting down meetings, threats of violence, intimidation, shaming, and so on. These methods only create an atmosphere of fear where people feel they cannot voice their concerns and are an obstacle to collective solutions being found.

Groups such as Fair Play for Women, Stand for Women and A Women’s Place, argue that self-identification would pose threats to women’s rights. This has been linked to the argument, unfortunately accepted by some on the left, that there is a fixed amount of resources available in society, that we can’t fight against all cuts, and that all the labour movement should do is struggle among ourselves over how existing resources are distributed. To accept that a genuine conflict of interest exists between trans and other women is accepting that we work within the existing limits of capitalism. That means accepting that some groups will suffer oppression and discrimination.

On 8 August 2017, National Union of Teachers vice-president Kiri Tunks wrote in the Morning Star that "the ability to define one’s own ‘gender’… is also likely to impact on society’s ability to plan for and accommodate the needs of its population and the way it attempts to even out inequality… single sex spaces exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face". But what ‘society’ is Kiri talking about?

Society under capitalism is composed of classes. The capitalist class is unable to ‘even out inequality’ because it is woven into the fabric of the system it defends, based on the exploitation of the majority. However, the working class is capable of overcoming inequality and oppression because it is the agent of struggle and capable of leading a fight for socialist change.

Some opponents of GRA reform have attempted to weaponise the Equality Act 2010 in the debate, saying that the right to self-identify for trans people will undermine equality legislation for women and undermine women’s services. But the Equality Act is the combination of four previous acts including the Race Relations Act, and the Equal Pay Act of 1968. That legislation itself was an expression of women workers overcoming the argument that their rights would be an infringement on male workers’ rights. Furthermore, winning the trade unions over to the idea of a fight to improve the pay of all workers and end the ability of Ford company bosses, for instance, to play one group off against another.

The government consultation has taken its lead from this divisive approach. In her introduction Tory MP Penny Mordaunt, the sixth minister for women and equalities since 2014, writes: "We particularly want to hear from women’s groups who we know have expressed some concerns about the implications of our proposals. To be clear – this consultation focuses on the Gender Recognition Act; we are not proposing to amend the Equality Act 2010 and the protections contained within it".

But questions 12 to 19 of the 22 questions are about what respondents believe will be the impact on the Equality Act. For example, No.12 asks: "Do you think that the participation of trans people in sport, as governed by the Equality Act 2010, will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?"

In the Socialist Party submission to this sham consultation we wrote that we do not yet know what changes will be made to the GRA but we do know that Tory austerity, privatisation and school funding cuts have an impact on everyone’s ability to participate in sport. These questions invite speculation and confusion. They throw sand into the rising awareness of what trans oppression is and the need for collective struggle against austerity and oppression.

Question 13B asks: "If you provide a single or separate sex service, do you feel confident in interpreting the Equality Act 2010 with regard to these exemptions?" In its Facebook video guidance to the survey, the Fair Play for Women group says that any man, including convicted rapists, can just claim to be a woman and enter women’s spaces such as showers, sleeping areas and refuges.

There is a real basis for women’s concerns that their rights, access to services and safety are being compromised. An article in the Financial Times highlighted how "in 2016, for example, the decision taken by the Barbican cultural centre in London to convert some women’s toilets into ‘gender neutral’ facilities prompted confusion and chaos, with enormous queues snaking round the foyer during performances. Instead of addressing the already insufficient provision of female cubicles, and in addition constructing a number of gender-neutral bathrooms, the Barbican’s impulse was to transform women’s private spaces". We need to build a movement that can fight for adequate toilets, public services and rights for all.

The Equality Act already allows trans women to access women’s domestic violence refuges. The review of the GRA would not change this. The threat, however, is not from trans people seeking support and services but from Tory austerity often passed on by Labour councils. We demand that they do not pass on Tory austerity and instead fight the cuts.

The fight to keep domestic violence services open is the first task – but also to make them safe for the service users and workers. Women’s Aid in Scotland surveyed service users and workers, and on that basis have an inclusive service open to all women fleeing violence – including trans women who self-identify.

Robust screening processes in refuges ensure that perpetrators of violence are not able to enter refuges or find out information about residents, whatever their gender. Such a screening process could also assess risk to ensure the safety of all. Women who may be at risk to others or themselves may be referred to separate support services. But this requires resources – staff, secure and ongoing funding, and the expansion of public services – and an end to austerity. That means fighting for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle to secure them.

The Equality Act includes a number of exemptions which allows certain groups to be excluded from some spaces and services. How these exemptions are operated should be in the hands of democratic and accountable committees of service users and workers, linked to the fight for greater democratic working-class control and management of services. What are presented as insoluble conflicts between different groups are not. However, they can only be reconciled on the basis of the participation of the working class in the organisation and management of society in the fight for a socialist planned economy to meet the needs of all.

The FT article finishes by warning that "as the government’s public consultation on reforming the 2004 Gender Recognition Act comes to a close, it should be mindful that pitting citizens against one another will only polarise and divide our societies further. Nobody wins in a rivalry of rights". Yes, neither women nor trans people win but, ultimately, the defenders of capitalism win if our movement is divided.

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

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