Something extraordinary happened in Parliament last week: a debate took place about the terms “sex” and “gender” in the U.K.’s Equality Act. Members of Parliament discussed how to safeguard transgender-identifying people while also protecting women’s rights to single-sex spaces, sports, and health care. If occasionally heated and emotive, the discussion was also thoughtful and intelligent—two qualities absent from previous parliamentary debates on this issue.
The debate resulted from two public petitions. According to U.K. law, British citizens can launch an official petition on the government’s website, with those gaining over 100,000 signatures considered for a parliamentary debate. Over the past few months, two competing petitions have circulated. The first called upon the government to update the Equality Act 2010 to clarify that the definition of “sex” in the law referred to biological sex, not “gender identity.” The second asked the government not to amend the definition of sex.
The Equality Act 2010 drew together the U.K.’s disparate antidiscrimination legislation into one law. It aimed to clarify and strengthen protections for people at risk of discrimination in the workplace or the broader society by specifying nine distinct “protected characteristics.” These included age, race, religion, sexual orientation, and, significantly, sex and gender reassignment. “Sex” was widely understood to mean sexual equality for women, while gender reassignment was defined as protecting people “proposing to undergo, undergoing or having undergone a process to reassign your sex.”
Back in 2010, transgender children were a rarity. Drag queens performed in nightclubs, not libraries. Transsexuals and cross-dressers existed, of course, but they were, for the most part, seen as individuals seeking to live life on their own terms, not advocates of fundamentally changing what it means to be human. A decade on, transgender ideology has come to dominate our schools, universities, health service, and other public institutions. From sports to domestic-violence care centers, from prisons to hospital wards, the idea that gender identity trumps biological sex—and that to argue otherwise is not just discriminatory but potentially illegal—has taken hold. To reach this point, activists had to exploit confusions built into the very framework of the 2010 Act.
The activists’ mantra that “trans women are women” suggests that, in an act akin to transubstantiation, males can transform into females and vice versa. The assumption that “gender reassignment” means “a process to reassign your sex” only reinforces this magical thinking. In this way, the U.K.’s Equality Act offers protection to one group of people according to sex and, at the same time, to another group based on the idea that sex is not immutable but changes immediately when someone “proposes” a new identity. This wiggle room has allowed the misunderstanding that gender identity is a protected characteristic to creep into policy and practice—a misunderstanding rarely clarified by LGBTQ campaigning groups such as Stonewall.
Hence this week’s events in Parliament. Petitioners were right to call for the law to be clarified. Those agitating for the status quo know that current confusions are open to manipulation. Yet what was perhaps most astonishing was the fact that this debate even took place. Transgender activists have long maintained a “no debate” principle, arguing that all discussion of competing rights is a denial of transgender people’s “existence.” This prohibition on debate has sparked accusations of censorship in publishing, journalism, and academia. For politicians to stand up in Parliament and discuss definitions of sex and gender—and debate the point at which expanding protections for one group impinges upon the rights of another—was itself a victory for rationality. Indeed, Tonia Antoniazzi, the MP chairing the session, began by saying: “Many people have told me that this is something that they are afraid to speak of, and some say it should not be discussed at all. Others have told me of how they are relieved and happy that we are finally discussing it in Parliament.”
This placatory comment was immediately met with the threat, from another MP, Layla Moran, that discussion itself is dangerous and can trigger violence: “On her point about people being scared to talk about the subject, is she also aware of people like my constituents, who have written to me to say that they are scared that it is going to be talked about? Whenever such things are spoken about in Parliament, there is then a rise in hatred and violence.”
But ultimately, the presumption that it was time to talk won out. As Antoniazzi put it: “We are legislators, and where there is something that needs to be addressed, as there is in these two petitions, it is down to us to stand up and make that change and have the conversation. It goes with the job, I am afraid.”
Other speakers made clear that the purpose of the debate was to “mark the difficult lines between which individuals’ and collective rights are drawn.” This point was considered in relation to the “public sector equality duty to consider the needs of women separately from those of trans women” but also in terms of “same-sex-attracted people [having] opportunities to associate with each other.” As another participant put it: “If we do not say that “sex” in the Equality Act means biological sex, we may as well scrap the protection of sexual orientation.” In a sad reflection on the cowardice of our political class, it has become all too rare to hear MPs speak as plainly as this: “Biologically, males cannot become females and vice versa. That is true whatever pronouns people want to use for themselves, whether they wish to take hormones or have surgery. These are plain, biological facts, but they have become controversial.”
Another noted: “I want to make it perfectly clear: sex is not assigned at birth. You are born a man or you are born a woman. Those are indisputable facts. You have XY chromosomes or XX chromosomes. Again, that is not up for debate or discussion. . . . This is a scientific truth that should not be conflated with any constructed truth.”
As the debate progressed, what became increasingly clear was that this was about far more than adding or removing words from a decade-old piece of legislation or specifying which groups of people have legal protections. In clarifying definitions of sex and gender and confirming that sex is not randomly “assigned at birth” but a fundamental part of our biology that cannot be changed, MPs sent an important message about the nature of reality itself. As one said:
I am standing up for the 12-year-old allowed to use pronouns at school who is being sold a story that she can be something that she never can. I am thinking of her after her transition, when she wakes up one morning when she is 25 and realises that she can no longer have children. She is growing facial hair, her health is generally poor, her bone density is down, her voice has broken, she has no real friends, and she has probably fallen out with mum, who is now broken for letting her take those puberty blockers and hormone replacement tablets. I am thinking of that girl sold a lie by the influencers who have now moved on to another ideology to make them money.
This gets to the heart of what is at stake in the debate about sex and gender. Lying to children about the capacity for humans literally to change from one sex to another is immoral. It sets young people up for a lifetime of disappointment simply to appease the fantasies of adults.
Of course, not all of the debate was so rational. A Scottish National Party MP said of one of her constituents: “When they heard about biological sex being included in the Equality Act and this change being made, they said, ‘What hope is left? Should I just kill myself now and be done with it?’”
This scurrilous resort to threats of suicide is a form of blackmail designed to stop discussion. It sends a dangerous message: that deciding to kill yourself is, somehow, a “normal” response to the discussion of ideas. This line of argument continued outside of Parliament. A Labour Party MP, who did not attend the discussion herself, tweeted: “I want to apologise to all trans people forced to listen to their very existence being debated.” The implication that MPs were debating the right of transgender people to live is a complete distortion of reality.
The use of hyperbole and threats to close down discussion is even worse in the U.S., where national policy and rhetoric on transgender issues is far more divorced from good sense. When asked by a reporter what the Biden administration would have to say to parents “worried that their daughter may have to compete against a male and worried about their daughter’s safety,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre replied: “That is a dangerous thing to say.” This continual raising of the stakes is again designed to silence.
The freedom to debate issues around sex and gender must be defended. Without discussion, steps cannot be taken to safeguard children and defend women’s rights. Yet the U.K. and the U.S. are diverging ever further in approach. Whereas the U.K. has recently taken steps to limit severely the prescribing of puberty-blocking hormones to children, the California State Senate wants parents who fail to “affirm” their child’s gender identity to be classified as “abusive.” And while some states have restricted dangerous “gender-affirming” procedures, the federal government in Washington promises to fight these efforts.
What’s turned the tide toward debate in the U.K. is, alas, no Damascene conversion but something more pragmatic. MPs seem to have realized that they will continue to be asked the question, “What is a woman?”—and that how they answer will determine their likely reelection. In the U.K., standing up for sex over gender is looking like a vote-winner.
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