Joyce activated, issue 87

Why sex/gender is not an electoral issue, and why politicians should take it seriously all the same.

Joyce activated, issue 87

Thank you all for your patience while I’ve been posting rather little. The general election has taken up a great deal of time – much more than I expected it to. So I still haven’t finished my article on body dysmorphia, and while I struggle with that I’ll offer some reflections on the campaign period and what it suggests for what comes next.

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It has been obvious for ages that the outcome of the election will be decided by the big issues: cost of living, crime and the state of the NHS, together with immigration, the unsettled state of international affairs and above all that most powerful of political forces: the feeling that it’s “time for a change”. Opinion polls and focus groups show that almost nobody’s vote will be decided by sex/gender – even, in many cases, the vote of women whose lives have been upended by the issue. 

Many of the women who will be voting Conservative, and who may say that this issue is at least partly why, leaned in that direction beforehand anyway. And many women on the Left are going to continue voting Labour after 14 years of the Tories in power, even if they think Labour is getting this particular issue all wrong.

Here’s Karen Ingala Smith, author of “Defending Women’s Spaces”, saying that she will be voting for Labour; she was ejected from the party in 2020 because of her position on the need for genuinely female-only spaces for survivors of male violence to recover. 

Here’s Kathleen Stock saying she will too. 

It’s surely not possible to suggest that these two women don’t care about women’s rights, or that they haven’t thought through the consequences of a Labour government for sex/gender issues.

Here’s More in Common, a public-opinion research outfit, finding that “the debate about transgender people” is the only topic voters think is being talked about too much and not too little. Admittedly the framing is poor, asking about about “transgender people” rather than, say, “the impact of gender-identity ideology on women’s rights and child safeguarding”, but still it’s an interesting data-point.

I had thought that the irrelevance of sex/gender questions to voting intentions would mean that the election period would be quiet for my colleagues and me, and that we could concentrate on preparing to pick up with the relevant people in the new administration in September. I should have known better. After all, British politics was upended less than ten years ago by a very different issue that most voters found tedious and irrelevant to their voting intentions, but which refused to die and went on to blow up politics for several years. 

I’m of course talking about EU membership. I was on the same side as the Establishment then, and I still am. I thought the UK was better off in the EU, for reasons to do with the importance of free trade for economic growth and the delicate situation of Northern Ireland, and I still think that. I think the Brexit settlement was and is rubbish.

So by comparing sex/gender to Brexit, I’m not trying to make a point about right or wrong. I’m saying that I should have been alert to the possibility that when a settlement is simply unacceptable to a significant number of very determined campaigners, it can dominate politics endlessly, no matter how hard party leaders and the people who don’t centre that issue try to ignore it, work around it or deny that it matters, and even if voters say truthfully that they care more about other things. Voters always care about inflation, crime and health care! These things are, like poverty, always with us. That doesn’t mean politicians can ignore issues that animate significant lobbies, or indeed that impact upon people’s lives even if they are regarded by most as irritants or side issues.

I think the dynamics on sex/gender are different from Brexit, in pretty much every respect. Before the Brexit referendum was scheduled, the median voter didn’t think much about Europe, and certainly not when in the ballot box. But when asked a single, straightforward “in or out” question, that voter looked up briefly from everyday life and pressing issues like the state of the economy and said, in effect, “out, since you are bothering to ask. Now get on with making it happen, that’s your job.” And then the issue dominated the headlines for years because politicians were not, in fact, ready or even able to “get on with it”. 

With sex/gender, there is also a determined lobby within Parliament, as there was with Brexit. From the point of view of voters, however, it’s different. Most people agree with what we might frame as the sex-gender insurgents (my side), but they registered yet that this is an issue that politicians can solve. They are reluctant to say what they think or to act on their opinions, both because they fear consequences such as trouble at work or with their indoctrinated children and because they think, fairly enough, that this really is for someone else to sort out. They don’t want to be the ones being “unkind” or saying No; if you probe for a bit they will say they want the politicians whose salaries they pay to do that. In the meantime they think the whole thing is just stupid – which is also fair enough. This has to be the dumbest policy discussion of my lifetime, perhaps of any lifetime ever.

Politicians tend to think that if there’s something they don’t want to talk about, and that voters think is tedious, it won’t come up or they can at least deflect about it. This piece in Prospect is revealing (for readers based outside the UK, Prospect is probably the UK’s most left-wing publication that isn’t actually Communist).

The comment in it by Frances Ryan is a perfect illustration of the mindset that has Labour struggling to talk about this issue. Ryan, who is a disability-rights campaigner, says: “Most people are much more concerned about the fact they can’t get a GP appointment rather than which toilet a trans woman uses.” 

I submit that while the near-impossibility of getting a doctor’s appointment is certainly more salient in the ballot box – it’s part of a general feeling that the country is a mess, and that it’s the fault of the party that’s been in power since 2010 – women who walk into a female-only toilet and find a man who identifies as a woman in there care about that too. And if asked who should solve the problem, they don’t think it should be them. Sooner or later they are going to think that it’s the government’s job to set rules for society on when it’s acceptable to say “no men, not even the ones who identify as women” and when it’s not. They just haven’t got to that point yet.

At the moment, it’s at most feeding into a pervasive suspicion that “they” don’t understand ordinary people, “they” are concerned with trivia like rainbow flags and pronouns, and “they” are woke scolds who lack common sense. And that suspicion absolutely can move the electoral needle, even if people explain it to themselves using broader labels like “culture war” and “woke” rather than trans issues as such. Just look at America. I remember being asked in both the last two elections and saying I didn’t think trans issues were electorally salient. Now I think they are.

What we’ve seen in this campaign period in the UK is politician after politician being put on the spot about “trans issues” and responding on the fly or by trotting out half-cooked lines written by advisors who don’t understand the issues. And not getting away with it. It makes them look stupid. Even if people don’t want to hear about trans issues, and even if they don’t list those issues as electorally salient, those responses certainly influence opinions about politicians: whether they’re trustworthy, whether they have a grip on things, whether they have their heads screwed on right. 

And that is salient both for future elections and for the next government. I’ve been saying for ages to other women campaigning on these issues that what we need Labour and Sir Keir Starmer to understand is that as long as he doesn’t actually resolve this issue but instead insists on trying to talk around it, it won’t go away. The next prime minister is going to have a hard enough time, what with the economy, crumbling infrastructure, an ageing population, war in Ukraine and the Middle East, a slow-motion energy crisis, climate change – God I’m depressing myself writing this! – without having every press conference derailed by questions about how many women have penises. 

And it really is rumbling on. Since last Saturday, when an essay by JK Rowling on Labour and women’s rights appeared in the Times (here it is on her own website, sans paywall), questions about gender recognition, the meaning of sex in the Equality Act, what schools should do about gender-distressed children and what they should teach about sex and gender, and above all whether Labour has abandoned women, have dominated the front pages.

I’ve done one interview after another, as have my colleagues at Sex Matters. That’s increasingly including mainstream broadcasters. One by me for Channel 4’s News at 7  was pre-recorded and, as often happens with pre-records, we talked for about ten minutes and it was cut down to 30 seconds. But them’s the breaks, and it’s great to have got even those 30 seconds on the channel's flagship news programme.

I also did an interview with LBC, the station that just a week or two ago, on another show, saw me cut off when I said that castrating a man didn’t make him into a woman. This was a much more civil interview than the earlier one, though still probing. This time we were talking about David Tennant, an actor (he played Dr Who some number of iterations ago), who said a few days ago, while receiving an award for being an LGBT “ally”, that until Kemi Badenoch, the minister for women and equalities “didn’t exist”, he wished she would just “shut up”.

Straight away a difficulty with doing this and other interviews on the same subject is that Tennant has a primary-aged son who identifies as non-binary. I wouldn’t normally talk about people’s children, but the Tennants post about the child a lot on Instagram, so they put this in the public domain themselves. And it is surely relevant to this story. Indeed I would say it’s impossible to explain why Tennant spoke as he did without knowing that within his household he has committed to maintaining the pretence that it is possible to be neither male nor female, and Kemi has been the strongest voice against that idea in government.

I think I managed to talk about this without overstepping the mark, though I’m not entirely sure. But I have severe esprit d’escalier about my final answer, in response to someone who called in to say, more or less, that I was a past-it old bigot and who to get with the programme. To be more precise, he said that my argument that ideas about gender change and non-binary identities weren’t recognised in UK law was a bad argument, because laws could change – look at gay marriage – and that I should recognise that times change.

I replied by pointing out that he had misquoted me – I had actually said that public opinion, the law and reality all agreed with me that sex is binary and can’t change. And then I started talking about the law and why that was of importance to Kemi in her job as minister. Listening back, I think that was a mistake. What I should have said is this:

Of the three things – public opinion, law and reality, the important one is reality. I’m well aware that it’s fashionable right now to pretend that people can change sex. Sometimes good ideas are fashionable, and sometimes terrible ones are, and this one is terrible. That’s because it’s false, and because it’s false it’s harmful. 

It leads directly to grown-ass men stripping off in NHS nurses’ supposedly female-only changing rooms and telling the nurses they’re bigots if they won't get changed in front of those men. 

It leads to rapists in women’s jails. It leads to children being put on a pathway to irreversible, sterilising medical treatments. Your caller can believe fashionable nonsense if he wants, but I'll be standing up for women’s rights and child safeguarding whether it’s fashionable or not, thanks very much.

Oh well, live interviews are stimulating, and next time I’ll do better.

It’s good that our issue is on the front pages. It’s good that politicians are being shown that this isn’t something they can ignore and hope will go away. And it’s good that public opinion is moving remarkably quickly our way – the well-respected British Social Attitudes survey has been asking a very clear question for some years now about whether transgender people should be allowed to change the sex on their birth certificates (unlike most pollsters, it hasn’t obfuscated about assigned at birth or whether “trans women” should be allowed to use women’s spaces). It’s rare to see opinions swinging as fast and hard as this.

Overall, the level of knowledge among the broadcasters, and even more worryingly among the politicians doing the rounds of studios, really wasn’t great. The “Equalities Act” – that’s a sure sign of someone who doesn’t know their stuff; it’s called the Equality Act. “Changing legal gender” – there’s no such thing as “legal gender” in the UK; what “sex” means for a person with a gender-recognition certificate varies from one law to another. Gender-recognition certificates as a kind of “access all opposite-sex areas” pass – they’re a legal fiction which influence a person’s legal status in laws where sex is a factor; there’s no “Who Uses Which Toilets Act”.

I can’t help feeling daunted at the task ahead. It’s more clear every day that the next couple of years are going to be an endless round of explaining the same thing that I’ve been explaining for the past couple of years to people with the same misconceptions, the same misplaced confidence in their own knowledge and the same unwarranted certainty that the solution is straightforward if you can just get “both sides” to move and meet in some fabled middle ground. Everyone thinks this at first, and everyone has to learn the hard way that one “extreme” is actually the centrist position and the other is not just extreme but barking mad and totalitarian.

I’m exhausted just thinking about living through this all again with a new administration. It feels like Groundhog Day.

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