The proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) has sparked a bitter divide between the trans community and groups of feminists across the country.
At one protest in Newcastle, the frustration was palpable. Protesters, who chanted “transphobia has got to go”, were upset about a meeting of feminists taking place to discuss their concerns about the reforms to the law.
A protester told Sky News: “No one has the right to tell you how to identify, that is up to you. These groups, they sit and perpetuate hateful rhetoric.”
But feminist campaigner Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, who was speaking at the event having written a book on transgender children, has found herself at the centre of this conflict and warned free speech was being shut down.
“I’m absolutely shocked at the level of vitriol, the level of silencing. Even asking for a discussion is considered transphobic,” she said.
Describing the aggression she had come up against from trans activists, she highlighted one meeting where she was blocked from entering.
“I don’t like being on a stairwell where I’m frightened that I’m going to be pushed down by a man in a balaclava and a mask, who’s telling me that he is a woman and that if I don’t accept that, I’m a Nazi – it’s extremely frightening,” she said.
“Why do I do this? Not because I’m transphobic and illiberal… we shouldn’t have anything that we are frightened to speak about, I’m flagging this up as a societal problem. I don’t think trans women are women. My values are in line with protecting girls.”
The government consultation taking place this summer is to update the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, and the real fly in the ointment is the idea of self-identification – essentially the trans community want to make transitioning less bureaucratic.
The current law requires a doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria, that you have lived in your preferred gender for two years, are assessed by a panel of medical experts, and that you pay around £140.
It is a process described by many trans people as onerous. Although Elijah Harris has fully transitioned, he has not bothered getting a gender recognition certificate.
“If you think about what someone has to go through after everything they’ve already been though, it seems old fashioned and quite sad,” he said.
The government estimates there are up to 500,000 trans people living in the UK, and Sky News research shows 12,253 people were seen at NHS gender identity clinics last year in England alone, but only 4,910 gender certificates have ever been issued since the GRA introduced them in 2004.
The idea now is to do away with the assessment and reduce the admin, allowing self-identification to obtain a gender recognition certificate.
However, staunch feminist campaigners such as Dr Nicola Williams argue the public have not been given enough information to fully understand what is at stake.
She said self-identification could be abused, that it could compromise female-only spaces and described the debate as “an urgent fight for women’s rights”.
“I’ve got no problem with trans people living in role as a woman because gender dysphoria is real,” she said.
“But there are times when biological sex does matter for safeguarding, privacy and dignity, fairness in sports for example, and that’s when the sex of a person must be acknowledged, in a society where we have checks and balances so people don’t abuse the system.
“Essentially any man could change his birth certificate whether trans or not and that’s the issue, that is why this is a bad law, because it’s open to abuse.”
And that fear of the system being abused is what the Man Friday group campaigns to highlight.
It holds meetings and stages stunts to publicise the cause – that it thinks the proposed change in law is ludicrous, potentially dangerous, and an attack on women’s rights.
Sky News joined Hannah Clarke from Man Friday at a stunt in Hampstead, London, where her group claimed to be self-identifying as men in order to swim in the male-only swimming pool.
Ms Clarke said: “We protest against bathrooms and changing rooms but they aren’t really the problem, it’s where women are really vulnerable, that’s the issue – prisons, hospital, refuges.
“It’s been in the news hasn’t it that Ian Huntley wants to identify as a woman and be transferred to a female prison… if anyone can be a woman, what is to protect a woman in a woman’s space?”
At a rally of feminists in Hyde Park, one woman was attacked by a trans activist. It went to court and charges were brought against her attacker, but Maria MacLachlan said the ordeal made her all the more passionate about campaigning for women’s rights.
“My anger could lift a bus” she said. And although she accepts gender dysphoria a real and serious thing, Ms MacLachlan does not believe trans women should have the rights of people born into female body.
“The most they can be is trans women,” she said.
At another feminist meeting, you could hear the chorus from trans protesters outside chanting “No TERFS on our turf”. TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It is what the trans activists have branded the feminists they say campaign against their very existence.
“I’ve had abuse for what I do, been called a TERF… it’s the age old practise to silence women, it’s used to instil fear,” said Dr Williams. She said it was crucial all women – not just trans women – are involved in the debate over the government consultation over the GRA without fear of being accused of transphobia. “It’s not right that we should be silenced,” she added.
Sky News struggled to find transgender people to comment on the issue. Many were afraid of the repercussions, and many refused to go on record alongside the feminists they said denies their very existence.
Jess Bradley, the NUS trans officer in Manchester, identifies as a non-binary woman, and said it was a “hostile time” for the trans community, saying people were “very scared”.
“I know simply by doing this piece of media, I will be hounded on social media, it will have a real material impact on my life,” she said.
“One of the things about the gender recognition debate is it’s given licence to anti-trans activists to feminists using this is an excuse to debate our existence and trans issues in general, in a way that has felt very violent.
“It feels extremely painful to have a group of people campaigning against your participation in every day life.”
Ms Bradley dismissed the claim that self-identification could lead to female-only spaces being compromised.
“If you wanted to go into a female changing room to attack a woman you’d just do it… we’ve had the Equality Act for the last eight years and that is the act that allows trans people to enter women’s spaces. That’s a long time for these abuses to take place but they haven’t, the evidence isn’t there.
“Trans people are vulnerable and disproportionately need access to those services [rape and domestic abuse centres]in a safe and trans-friendly way.”
The British Social Attitudes Survey, an annual study of public beliefs carried out by NatCen, has been looking at opinions about transgender people. They gave this year’s findings exclusively to Sky News.
In general they reveal that people, especially women, appear to be more relaxed about those who are transgender.
Activist Susan Pascoe has fully transitioned – and because of long NHS waiting lists, travelled to India for reassignment surgery.
Ms Pascoe also changed her gender legally on paper so she can marry as a woman and her death certificate will state female. She said this was not a case of feminist rights verses trans rights.
“Feminists are standing up for their rights, and yet they want to deny us our rights, and all we want to do is be ourselves,” she said.
The government consultation on the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 will take place over the summer.
You can watch the Line 18 special programme on the debate on Sky News.
:: Line 18 is a journey through modern Britain in 2018. It runs the length of the UK from Northern Ireland into Scotland, passing through Lancashire, Manchester, the West Midlands, London and Essex.
It will examine the divides and fractures in society through the voices of those affected, and backed up by data which shines a new light on how Britain is changing.
From – SkyNews