I have not been following the transgender debate within Labour very closely. I did see reports that Lisa Nandy, Angela Rayner, RLB and Dawn Butler had signed a trans rights pledge. The pledge calls for women rights groups to be expelled from the party. Dawn Butler’s comment that children are born without a gender was widely reported.
I was listening to an episode of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg the other day. The subject was Hannah Arendt, who wrote about totalitarianism. She made the point that under a totalitarian regime people cannot hold on to their own truth. If the regime said day was night, then that was the case. That is the situation that we are getting into with trans rights.
The Gender Recognition Act 2004 gives people the right to be recognised in a new gender. I think most people would support that if the person has undergone a medical transition. The Act allows people to have a new birth certificate in their new gender. That in my opinion is a mistake.
Over the past 5 years or so, the trans rights movement has been arguing for self ID. This is something that many women’s rights groups oppose. It is one thing for people who have had a lot of surgery to say they have changed sex. It is quite another matter for men who have had no surgery whatsoever to declare that they are female. It forces people to deny the truth of their own eyes. This is the faultline between the trans rights movement and the women’s rights movement. That is somewhat ironic as the feminists in the Labour Party are far more liberal than the rest of the population.
I have been doing some reading around trans issues in recent weeks. I found is this by Professor Dave Curtis, from UCL on his Twitter feed:
Sex is not a spectrum and is not assigned at birth
Scientists refer to: genetic or chromosomal sex, dependent on whether one has a copy of the SRY gene which is usually on the Y chromosome; gonadal or genital sex, dependent on whether one has testes or ovaries; anatomical or phenotypic sex, dependent on having typically male or female sex organs and secondary sexual characteristics. With normal development, if a copy of the SRY gene is present then it causes the testes to develop and the testes produce androgens which cause the male anatomy to develop, whereas without an SRY gene ovaries and female anatomy develop.
In the vast majority of cases all three categories of sex (chromosomal, gonadal and anatomical) coincide so that nearly everybody has a biological sex which is clearly either male or female. Exceptions to this, referred to as disorders of sexual development, occur in fewer than 1 in 5,000 people. Even for these people almost all of them have a clear chromosomal, genital and anatomical sex, although these may not be congruent with each other. A very small number of people have intermediate or indeterminate genital anatomy.
For all useful intents and purposes sex can be regarded as binary. Scientists understand that the term “spectrum” refers to something which changes quantitatively and smoothly in one dimension so that any value on the range is equally possible. With sex, there are only two categories, male and female, and even if we want to take account of disorders of sexual development we cannot say that this produces anything like a spectrum. It would be a bit like saying that because some people can have nine fingers and others eleven, the number of fingers is a spectrum. Except that at least with number of fingers we are talking about a quantitative measure whereas with sex we are talking about two different categories.
Again, for almost everybody sex is observed, not assigned. Of course it may well be observed before birth in an ultrasound scan. For almost nobody is it “assigned”. We assign names to our children, but not sex. Only in extremely rare cases is there any doubt about the sex of a baby and only in these cases might there be some need for sex to be “assigned”.
Because the issues about sex tend to come up when trans people are being discussed, the next thing to say is that these exceptions to normal sexual development have nothing at all to do with being trans. It’s something of a mystery why they get brought up, it seems often to be to muddy the water. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of anybody who was trans who did not have completely normal sexual development and was not obviously chromosomally, genitally and anatomically either male or female. Of course, theoretically it could happen but I’m just saying that the two issues have nothing to do with each other.
Trans people have a gender identity which is discordant with their biological sex. Hormone treatments and/or surgery can modify physical characteristics to some extent in order to produce an approximation to an alternative anatomical sex, but of course have no effect on the underlying chromosomal sex. Such interventions do not result in a change of biological sex, which is immutable. Whether anybody wants to say that they have “changed sex” depends entirely on definition and if one defined sex according to approximate anatomy then one might say this. My view is that biologists in general would not declare that the results of medical and/or surgical treatment could result in a change of sex.
What he is saying in effect is that the law enables people to do something which is biologically impossible. If he is right then all the other tenets of trans right ideology also fall away.