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Politics and the transgender debate: what is going on?

How did we get here?

In 1923, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, pioneered the first transsexual surgical techniques at the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. From the 1940s, the term “transsexual” was popularised by Hirschfeld’s student Harry Benjamin, who would later describe transsexuality in his 1966 book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, as an innate condition treatable by physical transition. Benjamin's work established the first sex change programmes, providing the cross-sex hormones and surgery that enabled many people to transition.

The transgender movement was also starting to gain momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of the gay rights movement. Many transgender people became involved in the fight for gay and lesbian rights, and the two movements began to overlap, leading to what has become known as the LGBTQ+ movement.

Within Britain, the model for how to approach transgender rights was set by the case of April Ashley, a biological male, who as a transgender woman (Ashley had been only the second Briton to undergo male-to-female gender reassignment surgery) had married the aristocrat Arthur Cameron Corbett. In their divorce case in 1970 (Corbett v Corbett) the judge ruled that Ashley remained a biological man and it was not possible to legally change sex: this made it impossible for people to change their legal gender in England and Wales.

This remained the case for more than 30 years, until in 2002, a transgender woman named Christine Goodwin appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that her inability to amend her birth certificate was a breach of her privacy. The Strasbourg court ruled in her favour, compelling the UK government to introduce the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA). This enabled people to change their legal gender by means of a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).

A GRC instructs the Registrar of Births to issue a new birth certificate with the applicant’s acquired gender, but still under fairly strict requirements such as a medical diagnosis and proof that the individual has lived as their acquired gender for at least two years. This process remains in Britain today.

Where are we now?

Today, the topic of gender ideology is a highly controversial one, characterised by toxicity and accusations. There is now far greater awareness of the consequences of gender ideology: proponents of it suggests that there are more genders than just male and female (trans or otherwise) and argue that there can be as many genders as there are people, with more than 100 terms in use to describe people’s gender, including ‘non-binary’, ‘genderqueer’, and ‘two-spirit’, among others. Opponents of this raise concerns about predatory men having access to women’s spaces, the destruction of women’s opportunities, and the very erasure of the word ‘woman’.

The last decade had seen a huge rise in the numbers of children and young people seeking gender reassignment, with a 1,400% increase for boys and a 5,300% for girls seeking such services, prompting warnings about peer pressure and social forces. Major concerns have been raised about the effect of putting young people on puberty blockers in particular, including, but not limited to, its impact on fertility, brain development and loss of sexual function (for a fuller examination of puberty blockers, see this study from Transgender Trend).

The NHS has now closed the UK’s only dedicated “gender identity clinic”, the Tavistock Centre after a series of safeguarding failures, including fast-tracking children onto harmful drugs, after the Cass Review (the independent review into gender identity services commissioned by NHS England) found that it was not “safe” or “viable.” Concerns have also been raised about transgender activist group Mermaids, who have sent breast binders to children without informing their parents. In the meantime, gender ideology is now routinely taught in classrooms as fact, and some advice issued to schools suggests they should not tell parents if their child wants to change their gender, or even that parents can be referred to social services for not affirming their child’s choices.

The GRC process remains as it was 20 years ago, but transgender activists have been campaigning to have it changed, particularly following the 2016 Women’s and Equalities parliamentary committee’s recommendation that the government should update the Gender Recognition Act to allow “gender self-declaration" and create a legal category for nonbinary. In 2020, however, the Government announced that they did not intend to change the criteria for legal recognition, to the activists’ frustration. The then minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, said: “it is the Government’s view that the balance struck in [the GRA] is correct, in that there are proper checks and balances in the system and also support for people who want to change their legal sex.” For the time being, therefore, a system of “gender self-declaration” is not expected to be introduced.

Organisations like Stonewall, which had formerly been focused on lesbian and gay rights, have shifted their attention to transgender rights, and send representatives to ‘educate’ organisations, which, in their desire to have a reputation for being inclusive, swallow up the ideology they are taught. Debate is often silenced and people are shouted down amid dramatic cries of ‘transphobia’, being ‘terfs’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Scare-statistics – which aren’t accurate – about driving transgender people towards suicide if their identities are not affirmed are bandied around, along with slogans like ‘Trans women are women’ and ‘Trans rights are human rights’ in the absence of discussion. Politicians are often asked ‘What is a woman’, and many are reluctant to answer, for fear of offending either side in the debate. There are calls from trans activists to boycott ‘transphobic’ speakers, or protests to shut down them speaking at all, along with threats and statements that ‘Terfs must die’. High profile recipients of such abuse include the likes of JK Rowling, Kathleen Stock and Joanna Cherry.

However, it does appear that the tide is now turning, with greater awareness of the dangers of ideology; after a number of high-profile incidents, some sports (including athletics) are declaring that they will not accept transgender athletes within women’s competitions, and the UK government have said transgender offenders with a record of violence against women will not be allowed within women’s prisons. Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has stated his belief that parents ought to be fully informed about their children’s activites, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared his belief in the importance of biological sex, and the Government have committed to issuing new guidance to schools around gender by the summer, in addition to blocking the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. It is unclear at present whether the Conversion Therapy Bill will apply to gender as well as sexuality.

What is hap­pen­ing in Scotland?

Most recently, the transgender conversation has focused on Westminster’s moves to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.

The Scottish parliament, sitting at Holyrood since 1999, holds devolved powers under The Scotland Act. The Scottish government (with support from the Scottish Greens, Scottish Labour and Scottish Lib Dems) passed The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill which would change the process required to acquire a GRC.

The Bill would remove the requirement to have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and would dramatically reduce the amount of time someone has to have lived in their preferred gender from two years to just three months (six months for those under the age of 18) before they can apply for a GRC. The Bill would also lower the age limit to apply for a certificate from 18 to 16 years old.

The Bill was fiercely criticised when it was put forward, even within Scotland. A YouGov poll organized by the Times demonstrated that 3 times as many Scots opposed the plans as supported them. The SNP Minister for Community Safety, Ash Regan, resigned citing “negative implications for the safety and dignity of women and girls.” Most startling were the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Raeem Alsalem: he claimed the bill “would potentially open the door for violent males who identify as women to abuse the process of acquiring a gender certificate and the rights that are associated with it.”

In an unprecedented move, the UK government used Section 35 powers to overrule the legislation. These powers allow a UK Secretary of State to block bills if there are reasonable grounds to believe they would hinder legislation which would is reserved to the UK government (in this case, equality laws across the wider UK). Although the then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has since resigned, the new First Minister Humza Yousuf has confirmed that he wants to commence a legal challenge in response to the use of Section 35 and is likely to consult the Supreme Court.

Shortly afterwards, the case of Isla Bryson, a 31-year-old transgender woman who had raped two women while living as a man, attracted major controversy. Despite no previous indications of gender distress, Bryson began to identify as a woman between his first court appearance and his trial preceding conviction, and he was accordingly sent to a woman’s prison. Eventually, then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was forced to state that in future, no transgender prisoner with a history of violence against women would be placed in a female prison. Most commentators, including his former wife, believed this was a mark of opportunism on Bryson’s part, seeking to gain a cushier ride in prison, and a case study of the inherent problems with a system based around self-identification: people will try and game them for their own advantage.

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The discussion around transgender issues can feel confusing, angry and highly polarised; we want to help Christians to understand what is going on and provide you with resources which will equip you to take part in the conversation.

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