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Comment: Boris Johnson is right to pause the ban on trans conversion practices

Comment: Boris Johnson is right to pause the ban on trans conversion practices

Have we reached peak idiocy when the UK’s statutory regulator for equalities is accused of being transphobic, simply for setting out what the law is around equality rather than what some people think it to be?

The much-awaited guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on single-sex spaces, as set out in the Equality Act, was inevitably, as much else is these days, seen through the lens of trans rights.

That meant it was met with predictable howls of fury by some LGBT groups, in particular, and, more extraordinarily, by some feminist groups, who say that the guidance sets too low a bar for services to be able to exclude trans people from spaces designed to be used for people of a single sex, most notably women.

Those services include women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, hospital wards, and changing rooms. Places where women may feel at their most vulnerable, which is why they were designed to be single sex in the first place.

But rules, expectations, and even language, around single-sex spaces, and who can use them and who can be exempt, have become so mired in confusion and the politics of the day that, despite the clarity contained even within their name, the guidance was much needed. 

Just as the use of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have become so interchangable within policy, practice, and service delivery, so too have some people been encouraged to believe that guaranteed access to single-sex spaces is based purely on who you think you are, rather than what your sex might legally be.

The guidance clarifies the legal position as it stands, replaces advice which had previously been misleading, and includes some examples of where it might apply.

So far, so helpful.

But in the current climate, amid a polarised row over the balancing of the rights of women versus those of trans people, instead of this being universally welcomed as a much-needed confirmation of what was actually allowed, it has prompted campaign groups and diversity leaders across the public sector, even from within the NHS, to post declarations on social media that they would not be following the guidance, ergo, they could be at risk of breaking the law.

It’s contrary times when the PM sounds like the voice of reason.

The chief executive of Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust responded to one post urging hospitals to ignore the EHRC guidance with “will do”. She followed this up with a well-advised clarification that she was “committed to ensuring that the Trust remains inclusive for everyone within all the legal parameters”.

Which is interesting because that is exactly what the EHRC guidance was attempting to do. The fact that some believe it gets the balance and tone wrong is simply because they don’t, didn’t, or don’t want to understand the law.

But in yet another week in which the issue of sex and gender has become a political flashpoint, with politicians struggling to answer the question of whether a woman can have a penis, with sports bodies under the spotlight over the question of whether it is fair for a trans woman to compete against biological women, and the UK Government coming under concerted attack for pressing pause on legislating for a ban on trans conversion therapy, which the author Philip Pullman described as “pure, cold-eyed evil”, it is remarkable that amongst all the verbal gymnastics, the one politician to sound the most coherent is Boris Johnson. 

Here is a man, lest we forget, who, while he has been on a journey, on the day after he had made jokes at the expense of trans people, championed the courage of one of his own MPs for announcing that he was trans. 

But notwithstanding his usual bluster, on the same issue that has other politicians tying themselves in knots over fear of getting it wrong he has been unequivocally clear, that biology matters, that women should have access to single-sex spaces, that biological males should not compete against women in sport, and that the safeguarding of children is paramount.

It’s contrary times when the PM sounds like the voice of reason, but on the latter point he is right and while he and everyone else supports a ban on so-called conversion therapies that brutally attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation on the basis that they can “cured”, and which he describes as “utterly abhorrent”, the issues around approaches, particularly, to young people and gender identity are less clear. Sexuality and gender identity are, after all, not the same thing.

Concerns about unintended consequences don’t come from the mouths of religious zealots, transphobes or bigots, rather, they come from respected clinicians who care passionately about the lives of young people

And legislators are rightly nervous about cementing in statute a gender ideology which currently has no status in law and no clear definitions. What can you ban that you can’t name? 

And all those castigating the UK Government for not immediately banning ‘trans conversion therapy’ should read the interim report from Dr Hilary Cass, the respected pediatrician who is currently leading a review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People in England, in which she describes the country’s leading gender identity service as having been left to operate beyond “normal quality controls”.

It is then that you might more fully understand that concerns about unintended consequences don’t come from the mouths of religious zealots, transphobes or bigots, rather, they come from respected clinicians who care passionately about the lives of young people and only have their wellbeing at heart. Which is why, on this one issue, Boris Johnson has been so sure-footed.

And the pomposity and self-righteousness of the groups of individuals that are prepared to turn a blind eye to the fact that we are medicalising children, mainly young women, many of whom are autistic, emotionally troubled, and who in fact may be struggling with their sexuality, without any real scrutiny, evidence or data collection, amounts to neglect on an abhorrent scale.

We only need look at the Ockenden Maternity Review to see that lives can be literally destroyed when ideology takes over from good medical practice that is rooted in sound evidence and with real safeguards. 

And then of course, there is the final contradiction, that if, as we are led to believe, anyone can identify how they wish without need for any medical gatekeeping, or surgery, that a man can be a woman by simple declaration, then why, in God’s name, are we pushing young people towards a lifetime of medical interventions simply to be who they want to be?

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