SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 225 February 2019


Gender recognition

Below we carry a letter from Steve White on the question of trans rights. This is followed by a reply by Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

The article by Sarah Sachs-Eldridge – Gender Recognition Division, Socialism Today No.223, November 2018 – starts with an unknowing sleight of hand. First she states that 48% of trans people have attempted suicide and 55% have been diagnosed with depression and then she uses this fact to implicitly support her claim that we should therefore support legislation to "simplify the process of self-identification". The problem with this claim is that there is no evidence, or reason to suppose, that making it easier for a person to identify as trans will lessen the rates of suicide or depression amongst this population. There may have been multiple causes – and depression and attempted suicides may still be numerous even if the changes take place.

We are then treated to some inaccuracies and a very laboured point about resources. The first inaccuracy is tarring those that support both sides of the argument, those for change and those who oppose changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA 2004), with the same brush. No evidence is given so this point could fairly be dismissed without evidence. However, evidence that does exist supports the assertion that only those that support changes to the GRA have refused to debate in my union, the National Education Union (NEU).

It is only pro-self-identification supporters (trans activists) who attacked a woman at Hyde Park Corner (New Statesman, 13 September 2017), no-platformed Julie Bindel (Hilltop Views, 14 November 2017) and Germaine Greer (The Times, 2 March 2018), and attacked a stall at an anarchist book fair (Helen Steel, 2017). I know of no similar incidents by the supporters against change to the GRA. However, clearly, Sarah is correct about the need for debate to arrive at a collectively agreed solution.

Several paragraphs concentrate on an argument about resources. Sarah does not accept that resources are limited and believes that no such argument should be made. However, this is to deny reality as it currently is because, in the short term, it is clear that additional resources such as conversion of toilets would have to be paid for by those that use them, through increased charges.

Sarah rightly makes points about the alleged undermining of women’s services and rights under the Equality Act that some opponents cite does warrant more discussion; but there is a major difference in the main comparison she makes, winning equal pay for women workers with the current extension of trans rights. The Equality Act came about to protect vulnerable minorities. I think the point she is making is that by fighting capitalism and the bosses over common struggles such as equal pay leads to more concessions for other minorities.

Surely, Sarah is arguing the opposite of this in the case of trans rights? Arguing that getting behind a newly categorised minority, in this case trans people, will somehow lead to bigger and bigger concessions from capital. This case is not clearly made but it could be argued that the price paid for trans rights is not paid by capital but by another vulnerable group, women in this case. This becomes an even bigger price if illegitimate groups are included as vulnerable (men declaring they are women) and in need of protection and occupy women’s spaces and services.

If more trans (mainly men, who on average are stronger than women) occupy existing spaces reserved for women, for example changing rooms, women’s refuges and prisons or whole areas that are entirely the domain of women such as women’s sport, it is women that pay the price. This is especially true if the definition of a trans person is whatever someone claims it is and the person in question has no intention of transitioning, which allows this category to expand without check.

Estimates vary about the number of trans people in this country. It depends on the definition and who decides that definition. A loose interpretation could be more than 200,000 (Government Equalities Office) including those who do not wish to transition but only want to identify. This in turn opens the door to the scientifically unproven but self-identifying category of non-binary.

There are good reasons why women need their own spaces in prisons and changing rooms. They are clearly vulnerable in these two situations. Sarah argues that transwomen are no threat because they are trans and that each case should be judged on its own merits. Yes, this can be agreed with to a point. However, it is very hard to monitor changing rooms for safety. There is probably less danger where there has been a full transition, but arguably a bigger danger with men that self-identify and do not transition – they have xy chromosomes, testosterone, are on average far stronger than women, and have male sex organs.

This clearly is a potential threat to women. It seems to me this must be taken seriously. If the law allowed this category of transwoman into a women’s prison, it should be in a separate facility or wing. Fully transitioned transwomen could be assessed and integrated in women’s prisons depending on the risk assessment.

The question needs to be asked: why would someone self-identify but never actually fully transition? A new law could allow this of course. Also, is it reasonable to frame a law that can be misused by the predatory? To believe that no one would falsely identify in order to take advantage of the vulnerable is to be naive about human nature and credit all with only good intentions. Laws if framed badly can have unintended consequences and we must be wary of this. The Telegraph headline (6 September 2018) makes the dangers clear: ‘Transgender Person Accused of Rape is Remanded into Female Prison and Sexually Assaults Inmates within Days’. It is not being argued here that such sensational headlines will be the norm, but it is being argued that even one such case is too many and the law must be framed to prevent even a single incident.

The final argument I want to make is a philosophical one and one that is not outlined by Sarah: that is, who should decide who is a woman (or man) and what evidence is needed? It is one thing to suffer gender dysphoria and fully transition as many do (4,900 in the UK) and another to self-identify and never transition. This amounts to: ‘I think (or feel) therefore I am’. To frame a law that allows this to be a permanent status with new rights is to invite some, perhaps many, to self-identify for mistaken reasons and not fully commit. This category is now known as trans-trenders in the US. Some in this category transition from man to woman and back, and even back again, and remain unhappy, depressed and maladjusted.

Those that suffer gender dysphoria should be helped to consider a way forward. This could include transition but often, especially young people with this condition, do not transition and are happy growing into being gay adults. In other cases, this is the only way to achieve happiness but it is a huge decision. The present arrangements under the GRA support this but are uncomfortably long and arduous for many.

There may be a case for some change – but for a new law to solely rely on self-identification is not the answer in my view. There must be some expert support. It is true that laws allowing self-identification/declaration exist in Ireland and other countries but it is not known because of the short amount of time of their existence if there are negative consequences. Caution is the best way forward: ‘nobody wins’ if poor decisions are made.

Steve White,

Waltham Forest NEU, personal capacity

Reply by Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

We welcome that Steve has responded to the article on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). In 2016 the Tories initiated debate about whether to review this act and make it easier for trans people to self-identify – which they have not yet acted on. This is an issue for the trade union movement because the unions, as the main organisations of the working class, can and have played a key role in the fight for the rights of those who suffer oppression and discrimination under capitalism.

This has recently been celebrated in the film Pride which ends by explaining how the miners were decisive in winning support for LGBT people in the Labour Party which then contributed to increased legal rights. The Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV – a broad campaign initiated by Socialist Party members in the 1990s) won widespread support in the unions, leading workplaces and councils to adopt policy in the interests of victims of domestic violence. We could also point to the role of the unions alongside the struggle of black and Asian workers to break the colour bar and challenge racism.

But despite these heroic struggles and the significant victories they’ve achieved, the fight against discrimination and division remains a key task for the trade unions. In its effort to weaken the collective struggle of the workers and to undermine their demands and aspirations the capitalist class has always sought to divide workers among themselves. That’s because the organised working class is the agent capable of overthrowing capitalism and thereby opening the door to building a socialist society free from oppression and discrimination, with real equality for all.

Hence the importance of the trade unions democratically debating and formulating a programme that can win all sections of the working class to a programme of demands that shows how the needs of all can be met. It is important that such a debate allows all views to be heard. There is nothing to be gained from an atmosphere or language that contributes to people fearing intimidation for expressing their fears or views.

In union conferences where members have heard from trans workers about the discrimination they experience and its impact on them motions in support of the right to self-identify have been passed. This needs to be linked to a programme of fighting for the maximum unity of the working class in action against all cuts, including for councils to adopt no-cuts budgets to defend domestic violence services, as the Women’s Lives Matter campaign calls for.

The Socialist Party supports the right of trans and non-binary people to legally self-identify. The GRA 2004 requires trans people to get a doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria, to ‘prove’ they have lived as their gender for two years, and to seek a recommendation from an unelected and unaccountable committee. We oppose this medicalisation of the process, as well as the financial cost to individuals.

But we do not only seek the legal changes the Tories are consulting on but fight for the services required by trans people, women and all those who suffer under capitalism’s inability to provide a decent life for all, such as the NHS, council housing, free education and an end to poverty pay and precarious working. And we stand for a socialist world where the gender ideology and oppression ultimately used by the economically dominant class to maintain its exploitative rule can be ended.

We do not accept that there is a limited pool of resources and rights that working-class people have to fight each other over. Look at the movement of the yellow vests in France. Their challenge to Macron has already forced him to make €10 billion of concessions. Of course, this is not the end to the attacks that the French working class will have to fight but it gives a glimpse of how mass struggle is capable of making gains.

In 2017 the billionaires made more money than any year on record. We need a society organised in our collective interests and not theirs. Nationalisation of the banking system and the top corporations under democratic control and management would mean that the working class could start to plan the economy in the interests of all.

The working class in struggle has long adopted the slogan of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. That the need for such solidarity is understood by workers was in evidence in the success of the CADV. It won support from all the major unions, many of which had majority male memberships.

It was also demonstrated in 2017 when at Woolwich Ferries a predominantly male workplace was willing to strike in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman union member who faced sexual harassment. The Unite branch built a campaign which posed the question of ‘who controls the workplace?’ The action led to the removal of the most senior manager and the workers demanded that management positions should be filled by an election of the workforce.

This gives a glimpse of the way services could be run to meet the needs of all – with workers, service users and the working class making decisions democratically. However, linked to this is the fight to defend services and improve them. The role for the trade union movement is not as an arbiter of rights and resources but as the organised mass force fighting for what’s needed – starting with ending austerity – and how services, like domestic violence refuges, are run safely, with adequate screening processes, sufficient trained staff and specialisation to meet different needs.

Steve raises a number of issues not all of which we can reply to in detail here. He refers to women-only spaces, including refuges for those fleeing domestic violence, toilets, changing rooms and women’s prisons. We have written about toilets and refuges in previous articles on the GRA. Prisons became a focus in the GRA debate last September when a trans woman, Karen White, sexually assaulted two inmates in New Hall women’s prison near Wakefield, the case to which Steve refers.

Karen White was on remand for multiple rapes, grievous bodily harm and other sexual offences when she was transferred to New Hall. In responding to the attacks, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, linked White’s assaults to some of the changes in prison policy that have taken place. In 2016 a new policy was introduced which stipulates that prisons must recognise gender-fluid and non-binary inmates and, if a transgender person is sufficiently advanced in their gender reassignment process, they may be placed in the estate of their acquired gender. However, White’s assaults appear to be related to mistakes in the assessment of her potential to attack – not what prison she was in.

A local transgender case board made up of prison managers and psychologists normally decides where to place trans prisoners. If that board’s decision is challenged, a local review board considers the evidence. In this case, Jenny-Anne Bishop of the transgender rights group Transform reported that the case board failed to take Karen White’s offending history into account. The wrong conclusion would be that winding back the right to self-identify would guarantee women’s safety. It couldn’t and would put trans people at greater risk too.

The Howard League’s website quotes from the Special Rapporteur on Torture to the Human Rights Council (United Nations, 2001) which found that "in particular, transsexual and transgendered persons, especially male-to-female transsexual inmates, are said to be at great risk of physical and sexual abuse by prison guards and fellow prisoners if placed within the general prison population in men’s prisons". Between 2015 and 2017 three openly transgender women took their own lives in custody in English prisons: Vikki Thompson, Joanne Latham and Jenny Swift. The difficulty of accessing a gender recognition certificate led them to being placed in the wrong prisons.

However, how decisions about who goes to prison and where, and how they are held, is posed by this case. Over half of women in prison have been victims of domestic violence. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 29,485 assault incidents in jails in England and Wales in 2017, up 13% on 2016. The figures also show there were 44,651 incidents of self-harm among inmates that year, up by 11% on 2016.

This time, Frances Crook correctly linked the deaths with overcrowding: "The numbers hide the true extent of misery for prisoners and families – and for staff, who have been given the impossible task of keeping people safe in overcrowded prisons starved of resources". While prisoner numbers have gone up, around 7,000 prison officers have been lost since 2010, with an estimated 6,000-plus years of prison officer experience lost in 2017 alone.

At New Hall, inmates have been put at risk by these cuts. From April 2017 to March 2018, 16% of prisoners there were in overcrowded cells, 62 inmates on average. The Annual Report of the Independent Monitoring Board (July 2017) said: "There is a framework for assessing and working with women who are sexual offenders… but there are restraints due to staff shortages and high workloads".

Robust screening processes, with democratic and accountable committees that include prison trade unions and prisoners, could reduce the chances of placing perpetrators of violence where they can harm others, whatever their gender. Prisoners who may be a risk to others or themselves could then be referred to separate support services. But this all requires resources – staff, secure and ongoing funding, 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.

This raises the need for democratic control by the working class over the judicial system, such as election of judges, accountability of the police, etc. Not locking up those who pose no threat to others and ending overcrowding would also contribute to safety. The prison officers’ trade union, the POA, has been fighting the enormous cuts to prison staff as well as the overcrowding and privatisation of prisons.

The trade union movement cannot limit itself to fighting for rights that only affect most or all workers. That would lead to a weakening of the movement and organisation of the working class. Similarly, the idea that sections suffering double and triple oppression, such as women, LGBT workers, black workers, etc, must somehow fight their own battles is also false. Instead, it is necessary to win all these groups to the struggle for socialism and an understanding of their place in the class struggle in order to be able to achieve the socialist transformation of society.

Socialists stand for the right of individuals to live as they wish, as long as no one else suffers as a consequence. We reject the lie that trans people are in any way to blame for deficiencies in women’s services. The responsibility lies with the Tories, their Blairite accomplices in local councils, and the trade union leaders who have failed to give a lead to the anger against austerity.

Steve asks, "who should decide who is a woman?" In today’s capitalist world being a woman means to suffer oppression and discrimination. Across the world this includes male violence, including some instances of it being legally sanctioned or tolerated; unequal rights; poor health, femicide, death in childbirth and denial of access to abortion; lower pay rates and being concentrated in low-paying sectors, such as care, retail and cleaning; sexual harassment and rape. Women also bear the greatest burden of austerity.

As we have explained in previous issues of Socialism Today, however, institutionalised male dominance is not universal, has not always existed and, therefore, won’t always exist. It is not inherent in men but derives from the link between the emergence of societies based on class division and oppression, and women’s oppression. In the formation of the first class societies based on private property, women became the property of men within the family unit.

Capitalism, the dominant form of class society today, has inherited much of the gender ideology of the previous class societies to suit its economic interests. At the same time, those ideas have been challenged by developments within capitalism, the growth of the working class, the mass participation of women in the workplace, etc.

Therefore, it is not the role of the trade unions to police the perimeters of womanhood. Nor do we accept that anyone else – the police, judges or any other part of the capitalist state – has the right to play that role. The conclusion the trade union movement must draw from this is the need to build a movement of the working class to change society. That means drawing in all sections and linking it to the fight for a socialist society free from oppression and discrimination.

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