Politicians need to stop blundering in the transgender debate – Gina Davidson

As they walk on eggshells, our elected representatives are mis-speaking about gender and need to start being more precise with their language, writes Gina Davidson.

Labour leadership contenders Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, among others, have seemed unclear about the issue (Picture: John Devlin)
Labour leadership contenders Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, among others, have seemed unclear about the issue (Picture: John Devlin)

If there’s one thing the whole row about proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act has shed some light on, it’s the fact that language, and how we use words, is vital.

According to Labour deputy leadership hopeful Dawn Butler, babies these days are born without a sex. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, what she probably meant, when being quizzed on Good Morning ­Britain earlier this week, was they are born without a gender – that ­cultural imprint that society likes to put on men (masculine) and women (feminine). However, the two words are conflated so often now, politicians are caught out sounding like ­biology-deniers. And therein lies a major problem.

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Sex is biological. Gender – that whole blue for boys, pink for girls pigeon-holing – is cultural. Female babies are not killed in some patriarchal societies around the world because they have the wrong colour of nappies, but because they are the ‘wrong’ sex. Young girls are not ­physically abused by FGM because they wear dresses but because they have a clitoris. Women are not ­discriminated against in the ­workplace because they have long hair, but because they have wombs and might go off on maternity leave.

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Mis-speaking

All of which is why ‘sex’ is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act. Gender is not, because cultural values and fashion change (in Victorian days blue used to be for baby girls). ­Gender reassignment, on the other hand, is a protected characteristic, for no one should be discriminated against if they have decided to live their life as if they are the opposite of their ­biological sex.

So this conflation of sex and gender helps no one: not women, not men, and not transwomen or transmen. And not political leaders.

But this mis-speaking is part of a pattern when it comes to the debate around future trans rights. Lisa Nandy, a contender for Labour leader, faced the opprobrium of many this week when it appeared that she was quite happy with the idea of male sex offenders, child rapists in particular who self-identify as women, being placed in women’s prisons. Again, it’s likely not what she meant, but in her inability to be clear, she left herself open to such an accusation.

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Her competitor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, also had to put out a clarification after she too “mis-spoke” when she seemed to suggest she wanted to remove the Equality Act’s rights for women to single-sex spaces.

Accusations of bigotry

Adding to the language problem are the unhelpful mantras of “no debate” on the issue of reforming the ­Gender Recognition Act, and the accusations of bigotry which fly whenever the fallacy “transwomen are women” is questioned, though I’ve yet to hear an answer to how transwomen are women, when if they were women they would not be transwomen in the first place.

Then there’s the definition of “transgender”, what it means legally as opposed to culturally, and this definition would be affected by the removal of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria as legal reforms propose. Does it therefore lose all meaning and how does that affect those transgender people who already have Gender Recognition Certificates?

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It’s no wonder people fall between the cracks when walking on the ­eggshells of this subject. But words and their definitions matter, especially in law. It’s time for our politicians to stop mis-speaking and let everyone know exactly what they mean.