Gender recognition: woke-ism or human rights?

In late January, just days after the Government in Westminster blocked Scotland’s Gender Recognition Bill, the UK media widely reported the story of Isla Bryson the Trans woman being sent to a women’s prison in Scotland. Bryson was convicted of raping two women when she identified as a man.

Quickly, Bryson became the dominant narrative surrounding the Gender Recognition debate.

The sexual violence committed by this individual was horrendous. Further, it is understandable that many were concerned that she was sent to a women’s prison given this violence.

Isla Bryson does not represent the entire Trans community. This statement is not controversial and should be self-evident. Yet the reporting and debate surrounding this case and the broader issue of gender recognition in the UK illustrate that this is not well understood. Or, certain people in power, with willing allies in the media, are happy to frame the story in this way for their own political interest.

This is not just a story about Scottish devolution. Whilst this controversy will have contributed to Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as First Minister, this is not the key issue. This is not just about an ongoing culture war in western society, specifically gender and so-called identity politics, though this is clearly part of the story. This is about something far more critical.

This debate is about every teenager, anywhere in the world, questioning their gender and sexual identity. This is about the person who after years of suffering, at some point in their lives decides they wish to identify as having a gender identity different to that of their birth.

This debate is about the awful statistics published in a Stonewall report in 2017 showing that:

● 92% of trans young people have thought about taking their own life;
● 84% of trans young people have self-harmed; and
● 45% of trans young people have tried to take their own life.

Stonewall School Report 2017

Recent moves to allow the trans community more rights and recognition have been met with opposition. Some of it is nothing more than prejudice and fear. But there is also an important debate to be had about gender and feminism, a debate which to date has been polarising and gets easily dismissed as a ‘culture war’.

TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is a term used to describe Germaine Greer, J K Rowling or other feminists who are critical of self-ID and other policies which allow people born as males to identify as women. Some of the comments made by these individuals and other TERF feminists have lacked compassion towards the trans community and understandably caused outrage. Some of the responses to these TERF’s has at times also been harsh.

We live in a world where people are socially conditioned to live and act in certain ways due to the gender of their birth. There are biological differences between men and women, yet society places considerable expectations on the role one must play in life based on this. For example, the idea historically that women were homemakers or were more suited to nurturing. Men my contrast are expected to show strength, not show emotions and be the “breadwinner” for the family.

Historically, and still today other societies have viewed gender differently to western society. For example, matriarchal societies continue to exist in parts of the world. In Samoa, the Fa’afafine non-binary or third gender has traditionally been part of their culture.

In our society, we have for centuries lived as a patriarchal, male-dominated culture. It is only just over a century ago that women were given the vote. Within the last half-century that same-sex relationships were decriminalised, and same-sex marriages were legally recognised. While there has been social change, we cannot pretend that old conservative attitudes towards gender and sexuality do not still dominate much of society. It should be no surprise that attempts to change gender recognition laws will be met with resistance.

We also need to understand where some of this opposition comes from. Whilst for many, opposition to trans rights is from a place or fear or lack of understanding. But there are also many who fear what many happen if someone born as a male, can identify as a women, and enter women-only safe spaces.

Figures from Rape Crisis show that one in four women have experienced rape or sexual assault in their life. Women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of domestic violence and homicide. The vast majority of these crimes are committed by men towards women. It is in this context that some fear men being able to identify as women, and why the Isla Bryson case, resulting in such a strong public backlash.

Of course, many of the horrendous statistics on rape and assault of women are as bad and often worse for the trans community. Where are the safe spaces for the trans community? Why should only someone who is a women by birth have access to things like women’s toilets?

The argument goes that the experience of someone born a women is not the same as that of someone who is trans. Except, not all people born women, or men, have the same experience living as that gender. The problem is, our society still has quite a rigid gender binary structure. Over the last century, this has been challenged and moved to an extent but is still largely intact.

It is easy to dismiss this discussion and debate as liberal wokism. For conservatives, both big C and small c, this all feels like a distraction about a small minority. The tendency is to either ignore the debate or use it to divide political opponents, as recently occurred in Scotland.

From a human rights perspective, we should be aiming to build a society where people are not forced to live within strict gender identities, determined by their sex at birth. Should someone wish to change their gender, they should be supported and made to feel safe and loved.

At the same time we cannot ignore voices who fear unintended consequences of reforms. Trans women competing in women sport or men identifying as women potentially committing crimes against women. These issues are not straight forward. The root of the problem is that our structures remain still very binary in terms of gender, and changing this is not easy. Creating safe spaces for people who are non-binary would certainly help, be it in sport or creating safe spaces.

At present, this debate continues to polarise and quickly inflame, with little really improving. For the 14 year old current questioning their gender identity, this debate must add to their stress and confusion considerably. It is for them, and anyone else struggling with their gender identity, that we must now try to move this debate onto human rights.