The EHRC Listens to Women

The Equality and Human Rights Commission published two statements this week, regarding the reform of the Gender Recognition Act in Scotland and the government consultation on the draft conversion therapy bill. Their stance basically boils down to the urging of caution and the recommendation that more discussion is needed in order to make sure that everyone’s rights are taken into account. Nevertheless, it has resulted in a tsunami of hyperbole from trans activist groups and allies.

Mermaids called it ‘a shameful act of trans exclusion’ and ‘a systemic oppression of the trans community.’ Stonewall says it is an ‘attack on trans equality’ and moreover the statements ‘seek to exclude trans people from improved rights and protections’. Gendered Intelligence goes further: ‘Their guidance suggests that abuse is ok as long as it’s happening to trans people.’ Pride Cymru called it an ‘ill-informed and dangerous transphobic stance.’

The EHRC’s crime, according to trans ally Maggie Chapman MSP on Radio 4’s Today programme, is that it has paid attention to people who are ‘transphobic or misinformed’. Stonewall blames ‘a noisy minority of anti-trans activists’, Pride Cymru said the EHRC had ‘endorsed dog-whistle transphobia’, LGBTQ Labour refer to a ‘moral panic…which has created a deeply hostile environment for trans and non-binary people’ and Mermaids accuses the EHRC of being ‘captured by anti-trans rhetoric.’ Owen Jones claims the EHRC have made a ‘public U-turn on trans rights.’

This is familiar language to the women who have been fighting to get their voices heard for over a decade. Those wild accusations against a human rights body, simply for doing its job properly and considering the rights of every protected group equally, echo the abuse directed at women over the years for defending women’s rights as they currently stand. Being accused of hatred and bigotry isn’t much fun and can have an impact on work and friendships and mental health, but most of all it distracts from the real issues and puts off anybody else thinking of having an opinion. That’s partly the point of course.

It is ironic to all the women involved in grassroots organising, that the very groups who have had the ear of the EHRC and the Government Equalities Office for so long, and have kept feminists out by a strategy of smear tactics and #NoDebate, are now the ones to be so upset that things aren’t going completely their way. They have become used to being consulted on ‘trans issues’ exclusively and are now outraged that it’s not just them anymore. It must be awful for them.

Stonewall et al have never engaged with the evidence from women’s rights campaigners and they have never expressed any concern at all that the changes they are lobbying for could have a negative impact on any other protected group. They are not interested in a ‘balance of rights.’ They have expected legislators to share their uncompromising stance, and largely their expectations have been met.

Back in 2015 when the Women and Equalities Select Committee held the first Trans Inquiry, not many people outside of the trans community were even aware that it was happening. Feminists who had been following the legislation closely for years nevertheless contributed a significant number of submissions to the inquiry. The pattern was set by that inquiry: no women’s groups were invited to give verbal evidence, trans issues were only to be discussed by trans people and there was to be no debate. Debate became a dirty word, equivalent to genocide: feminists who wanted to talk about women’s rights were accused of debating trans people’s right to exist. Maria Miller set the ball rolling in smearing ‘purported feminists’ as being legitimate targets for abuse, the Trans Report was a wholly biased document, skewed towards trans demands at the expense of women’s existing rights, and Gendered Intelligence were promptly hired to write the GEO Trans Guide for Service Providers. It all seemed to be neatly sewn up.

Feminists though are a determined bunch.

By the time of the GRA Consultation of 2018 there was a huge groundswell of grassroots women’s groups who were well-educated on the issues and informed of exactly what was at stake. The word had to be spread on social media and in private networks because there were no established women’s organisations mobilising support and there was very little balanced media coverage to alert women to the assault on their rights. Not even Woman’s Hour would touch the subject until the day before the public consultation closed. A small number of journalists and broadcasters had nevertheless begun to turn the tide in the media and the voices of women could no longer be so easily ignored – this time women were invited to give evidence, both written and then in verbal evidence sessions at the GEO. It was still a hostile environment: questions were like accusations, we were on the back foot from the start. The picture painted by trans activists over the years had clearly had an influence: we were not just giving evidence, we were having to defend ourselves from the outset.

A couple of years later a similar tone of hostility can be witnessed in the 2020 WESC Inquiry into the Reform of the GRA: women were being invited into a discussion which concerned their rights, but not, it seems, as equals. The impression was that women’s motives were still not to be trusted. The degree of respect afforded to the trans witnesses, even down to using their titles in the introductions, was not afforded to the female witnesses, despite their academic qualifications and articulate arguments.

Throughout all the political engagement over the years, women have been at a disadvantage: the disadvantage that comes from somebody else having got there first and laid the groundwork for the tone of the debate. Women were deliberately kept out of the process, then reluctantly admitted, then eventually grudgingly listened to. Behind the scenes women have been gathering evidence, conducting research and raising awareness. The landscape of feminist activism has completely changed since trans lobbyists first started calling us ‘transphobic bigots in need of education’ all those years ago. Many more specialist grassroots groups have grown up through local networks: groups of parents and teachers, academics, LGB people, lawyers, medical professionals, politicians of all parties, therapists, detransitioners, sports professionals – any area where the chilling effect of gender ideology has been making an adverse impact on other people’s rights. The level of education around the issues has skyrocketed but the insults and abuse have strangely remained the same.

The purpose of trans rights hyperbole is to smear the opposition and close down their arguments, but it’s looking now as if they may have overplayed their hand. Public institutions, including government departments, have recently been leaving the Stonewall Diversity Scheme and finding that the world hasn’t come to an end. The EHRC itself left the scheme last year and it’s hard not to suppose that this has had an impact on their current stance. There is a sense that the stranglehold on public opinion is lessening.

The length of time it has taken for women’s rights to be considered in this debate has been frequently frustrating, but in one sense it has benefited the case being made. The more time that it takes, the more examples come to light, not just from the UK but from all over the world, which illustrate the unintended but highly predictable consequences of legislation which makes sex a matter of personal choice rather than a material reality. Well publicised stories of males winning women’s swimming races, males assaulting women in prison, academics being hounded out of university careers, and many others, just keep coming. No wonder the EHRC’s call for ‘more consultation’ has sent the trans lobby groups into such a tailspin.

It’s tiresome and predictable that once again their reaction to this perceived setback is to insult and threaten not just the people that the EHRC have listened to, but now the EHRC itself. As a handful of the UK’s trans organisations threaten to pull out of the government’s LGBT Safe to be Me conference this summer, Stonewall call on the UN to ‘urgently review’ the EHRC and Gendered Intelligence threaten to ‘cut ties’ with the EHRC (Which begs the question ‘What ties?’) the pressure is clearly on. To those of us who have seen it all before it looks a lot like sour grapes.

Bullying tactics such as these aim to shame and discredit everyone into silence, but it hasn’t worked on feminists, and we’ve been putting up with this for years. It’s taken a huge amount of work, determination and courage and some individual women have paid a considerable personal price. Let’s hope the EHRC shows as much bottle.

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