I spent part of last Thursday in the Public Gallery of the House of Commons watching the first ever parliamentary debate on trans rights. For many of you this is doubtless not very exciting, but considering that trans people had no rights at all in the UK when I first transitioned it was a major step forward for me. Here’s a brief report on the day.
I should start by noting how painless it was to get in. The Parliament website warns you that it may take 1 to 2 hours to get a seat. That’s presumably on a busy day. On a Thursday in December with kids in school, tourists thin on the ground, and no high profile business the House was very quiet. The staff were very polite and helpful, and about the only complaint I could have is that the signage was somewhat confusing. At one point a sign told me that I would have to surrender my phone at the cloakroom, but in fact that wasn’t required. All that they ask is that you don’t take photographs. That’s a weird request given that the whole proceedings are televised, but there it is. Tweeting, however, is perfectly OK. Reception was a bit patchy, but I got a lot of tweeting done.
Those of you who have seen the TV coverage may be dismayed at how empty the House was for the debate. However, that was understandable. There was a by election going on that day. The LibDems had a good chance of winning (and did) so all of their people were out canvassing. Large numbers of Tories and Labour MPs were too. Ben Howlett, the Bath MP whom I had talked to at the party in the Speaker’s House the night before, said he had to ask for special permission from his party to attend the debate.
The one group of MPs with no interest in the by election were the Scottish Nationalists, and they were out in force. In fact they outnumbered the rest of the MPs. Alex Salmond joked at one point that they should be able to make use of their majority, but of course there was little substantive business to discuss.
The debate on trans rights was billed as a parliamentary first because previous discussion had been limited to specific issues. When the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004 MPs were only looking at the narrow issue of legal gender. Although trans people are covered by the Equality Act, there are 8 other protected characteristics that will have had more debate time when the Act was being considered.
We were getting a debate because the Women & Equalities Committee, in the form of its Chair, Maria Miller, has got fed up of government inaction on their Trans Equality Report (published in January). The purpose of the debate was to embarrass the government (ever so slightly, because Miller is a Tory) and encourage them to get on with things.
A few specific things came out of the debate, the most high profile of which is that Ms. Miller introduced a private member’s bill to amend the Equality Act so that it covers “Gender Identity” rather than “Gender Reassignment”. Because the current protected characteristic is tied to people who will have, are having or have had medical treatment, large portions of the trans community are technically uncovered by the Act. Miller’s bill would fix that loophole. The government argues that people are covered if there is a perception that they have the protected characteristic, so there is no need for a change, but that places a much greater burden of proof on those people not having any medical treatment. Also one has to wonder why the government is unwilling to make such a simple, obvious and seemingly uncontroversial change. It remains to be seen how far Ms. Miller’s bill will get.
The SNP announced that 2017 would be the Year of Trans Equality in Scotland. It is as yet unclear what this means. However, SNP speakers were far more radical in their support for trans rights than anyone else. In particular they argued for self-determination of gender, and for gender-neutral passports. Both of these are things the government has firmly rejected. As far as I know, Scotland doesn’t have the right to issue its own passports (yet). However, they do have a lot of their own laws, and a review of those to make space for non-binary people would be a very welcome thing.
For the government, Caroline Dinenage, who is the Minister with specific responsibility for LGBT+ issues, promised to publish an update on the government’s trans equality action plan in 2017. Whether this will actually happen, and if so whether there will be anything concrete in it, remains to be seen. She also noted that the government had committed to an overhaul of the Gender Recognition Act at some point. Hopefully the fact that so many MPs laid into the medical and judicial nature of a process that should be purely bureaucratic will have had some impact on government thinking.
As far as I was concerned, the best thing about the whole day was that MPs from all three of the largest parties spoke warmly and fulsomely in support of trans rights. That’s a massive change from even five years ago. I’m not very confident of actual progress on legislation, but we are now at the point where government has to make excuses for their lack of action while professing to want to make progress. That’s a huge difference, politically speaking, from dismissing the entire idea of trans rights as abhorrent.
Throughout the debate, only one MP spoke against trans rights. That was Labour’s Caroline Flint, who early in the debate tried to derail the whole thing by introducing bathroom panic. The point she tried to make was that women would be at risk from attack by men in gender-neutral toilets, so trans people could only gain rights at the expense of women. This is ridiculous on multiple grounds:
- No one is asking for all toilets to be made gender neutral;
- Many toilets are already gender neutral (Maria Miller gave aircraft as an example) and there is no major problem as a result;
- The sorts of things Flint cited as examples of potential problems are already illegal under existing laws (thank you the SNP member who made this point);
- Contrary to what Flint might believe, trans women are not indistinguishable from “men in dresses” and many of us already use women’s toilets regularly without anyone noticing or being harmed;
- Indeed, those of us with Gender Recognition Certificates already have an absolute legal right to use women’s toilets, and have had for 12 years, so it is a bit late to panic now;
- In any case, in this country, if men want to sneak into women’s toilets to commit assaults, all they have to do is dress as a cleaner;
- In any case, as Maria Miller noted, equality is not a zero sum game; giving some people rights does not mean taking them away from other people.
The last point is crucial. No one in the chamber picked up on this, but by stating that trans people could only have rights at the expense of women Flint was explicitly saying that trans people (of any type) cannot be women.
Of course it was also deeply embarrassing for Labour to have one of their MPs using the same sorts of panic tactics that are favored by extreme right Republicans in the USA. Stephen Doughty, one of the South Wales Labour MPs who spoke in support of trans rights spent about an hour in quiet but animated discussion with Flint after she had been slapped down. Whatever point he was trying to make presumably didn’t get through because as I left Flint was furiously haranguing Hannah Bardell, one of the SNP members who had spoken in the debate. Later she posted a statement saying that she was in favor of trans rights but quoting Sarah Ditum in her support, which is rather like saying you are in favor of immigrants and then favorably quoting Nigel Farage.
If any women readers happen to live in Doncaster and are constituents of Ms. Flint I suggest you drop her a line and ask her to stop being so silly.
In Labour’s defense I should note that several of their MPs spoke in support of trans people and their chief spokesperson on Women and Equalities, Sarah Champion, made one of the best speeches of the debate.
So, that was an historic day. As I noted earlier, nothing concrete may come of it. But politics is very much a game of setting agendas, and that day very much put trans people’s rights on the parliamentary map.