“Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge”. Johnson’s Vince Vaughn advice to the Cabinet about how to tackle trans.

29 Mar

When those two great publications The Daily Telegraph and Pink News  both agree something is significant, you naturally take note. The Spring Statement may have overshadowed last Wednesday’s PMQs, but one answer from the session has been touted as representing Julius Boris Caesar wading into the murky Rubicon of the UK’s ongoing gender wars.

Angela Richardson asked Johnson about the Cass Review into the children’s gender identity services at the Portman and Tavistock Clinic, requesting he meet with her to discuss helping young people “who are experiencing gender distress”.

The Prime Minister responded that whilst “we must recognise when people want to make a transition in their lives that they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect”, and added that “when it comes to distinguishing between man and woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”.

A few years ago, such a statement stressing the importance of both basic tolerance and basic biology would have been uncontentious. Yet the debate over transgenderism, self-identification, and its attendant implications for women’s rights has become so polarised that the Prime Minister was pillared by Stonewall and various trans activists.

But allegations of bigotry are hard to square with the words “maximum possible generosity and respect”, or the fact that – notorious 1998 comments about “tank-topped bumboys” asides – Johnson has been consistently progressive on LGBT+ issues.

He was one of the first Conservative politicians to back gay marriage, banned advertising for gay conversion therapy on the Tube as London Mayor, and nodded along vigorously as his wife listed Conservative successes in this area at last October’s Conservative Party Conference. He is hardly Section 28 in human form – an act that he broke the whip to repeal.

Instead, according to those who know his thinking on this personally, Johnson has a long-standing and nuanced position on the trans debate. Commentators who have treated Johnson’s PMQ’s comments as his first testing of the gender wars waters have missed that he used a similar formulation in an interview with GB News last year.

Asked if only women had cervixes – an issue his Opposition equivalent had struggled with – the Prime Minister’s response was hardly dripping in prejudice.  “Biology is very important,” he noted, “but we’ve got a system now in our country, for many, many years in which people… can change gender.” Moreover, “[we] help them to do that, and what I absolutely passionately believe – and I’ve thought this for a long time – is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.”

It is an approach that he apparently replicates in Cabinet. He tells ministers to do two things. First, to copy Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball and to “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge” the trans issue, to prevent opening a toxic culture war. He follows that with a simple exhortation: to be kind.

The desire for kindness motivates many Tories across this debate. Speaking to MPs on both sides, all are quick to stress that their motivation for their stance comes from a place of basic compassion. Whether they are championing gender self-identification or arguing to protect female-only spaces like refuges, all maintain their central objective is to make life easier for some of society’s most vulnerable.

There is widespread support across the party for taking practical measures to aid the average trans person in Britain. On average, as one MP told me, it takes three years for someone considering transitioning to get medical help and access to counselling. Speeding up that process would do much to make a lot of very unhappy people a little happier. These are measures that are supported, and separately suggested to me, by MPs publicly on different sides of the gender self-identification debate.

So if there is a large amount of consensus on these issues amongst Tories, why is the assumption still that it must be a divisive issue? Partially, it is because recent governments have made an active effort to push these issues forwards.

Consultations on reforming the law on gender self-identification were first launched by Theresa May’s government. Although Liz Truss decided against the need for legislation in that area, banning gay conversion therapy was a manifesto commitment in 2019, championed in the Commons by Alicia Kearns, and is likely to be put to a vote this coming year.

Simultaneously, questions of the implications of transgenderism for women’s rights have become regular headlines. A decade ago, stories about someone with a penis winning a female swimming race or of someone self-identifying as a woman committing a rape in a hospital would have seemed almost impossible.

That these are both from the last two weeks shows how trans issues have become part of the national conversation. A considerable number of elected officials privately, and a growing number publicly, are concerned by this, and worry that well-meaning efforts to help trans people may come at the cost of hard-won female rights.

Nevertheless, disputes also arise from participants in this debate talking at cross-purposes. A failure of communication is to blame if MPs from different sides can privately agree over the importance of improving healthcare access for trans people and keeping transwomen out of female-only sports, yet publicly appear poles apart.

Undoubtedly, culture warriors have an interest in riling things up for their fifteen minutes of fame. But the experience of Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend also indicates how conversations can be blunted through a fundamental failure to understand what the other side wants.

Townsend shared a Tweet of J. K. Rowling’s last year which suggested biologically male rapists were not female. Three men, including local MP Crispin Blunt, complained. Although Surrey’s Conservatives gave Townsend their overwhelming support, she was understandably aggrieved. Blunt had acted from a position of wanting to ensure trans people did not feel victimised – but Townsend has suggested his failure to mention women when reporting her showed that he did not understand that her actions came from a genuine desire to protect women’s’ rights, not blind prejudice.

That is the central issue. Those wishing to protect rights won by women over the last century confront those fighting to extend trans rights in this one. But there is hope that this can be done without public acrimony.

Polling suggests the Prime Minister’s attitude is very similar to that of the general public – supportive, but conscious of issues surrounding biology in particular circumstances, whether the velodrome or female prisons. With a consensus over the importance of practical improvements to help trans people, and as Labour’s frontbench still struggle to define what a woman is or whether they can have a penis, the government – and the Conservative party as a whole – have an excellent opportunity to lead the way.

Daniel Hamilton: The international community must take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed in Ethiopia

12 Nov

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

Until recently, there was a real sense that Ethiopia had turned a corner.

Despite the country’s tragic past, which has seen its people experience the vile deprivations of the communist Derg junta, intractable and bloody feuds with its neighbours and multiple coup d’états, the country has always had a spirit and verve unlike any other in Africa.

The pace of economic development in recent years has been staggering.

Where choking traffic had once paralysed the city, a sparkling new mass transit system rose above the streets to connect those living in formerly isolated suburbs. The new rail link from Addis through the eastern city of Dire Dawa and onto the port of Djibouti – and on to the rest of the world – gave new hope that Ethiopia may finally live up to its potential as Eastern Africa’s manufacturing powerhouse. The city’s myriad jazz bars were packed to the rafters with tourists and locals revelling in the benefits of growing salaries.

Tuesday evening’s plea by the Foreign Office for British citizens to evacuate the country at the earliest opportunity is therefore a painful one for those that know the country well.

Ethiopia’s wholly avoidable collapse into anarchy, just two years after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on improving neighbourly relations with Eritrea, is a stark reminder of the challenges fragile states face.

The roots of this avoidable conflict began last year when the central government authorised what was initially presented as a necessary law enforcement operation against separatist terrorist elements loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north of the country. The operation won widespread support from supporters of the government.

Since then, and with the world distracted by the Coronavirus pandemic, the conflict has grown as an exponential rate. It has ceased to be a battle between the TPLF and central government and mutated into an alliance of nine other restive ethnic groups who, through a marriage of convenience, wish to topple the Abiy government.

Early this month, the Ethiopian Parliament imposed a six-month state of emergency which has handed the central government increasing powers to crack down on terrorism – perceived or imagined – in increasingly heavy-handed ways. Rather than calm the situation, this mechanism has effectively thrown fuel on the fire, with the UN Human Rights Commissioner expressing concern about mass killings of civilians and military personnel on both sides of the conflict.

As I write, the city of Addis Ababa is now at imminent risk of falling to opposition forces whose strength and durability has been underestimated by the central government.

Nobody doubts that the Abiy government has overstepped the mark and surrendered the moral leadership to run a country of more than eighty different ethnicities with a diverse range of culture and religious beliefs. But the opposition’s agenda, in particular that of the TPLF, risks the permanent division of Ethiopia, the permanent displacement of millions of people from their homes and the opening of tribal and ethnic conflicts that could have repercussions far beyond Ethiopia’s borders.

In her excellent article in The Times earlier this week about the element, Alicia Kearns MP highlighted the efforts of the Bosnian Serb to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to serve sectarian agendas.  The same is true for the Ethiopian opposition alliance.

Despite some valiant efforts on the part of local political leaders to force dialogue between opposing factions, domestic solutions to the crisis have failed.

It is now time for the international community to take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed.

There are a number of practical steps that should be taken.

First, it is crucial that urgent humanitarian aid is allowed to reach those that need it most urgently. Across northern Ethiopia, acute food shortages and the looming risk of famine is now impacting an up to seven million people – roughly one in fifteen Ethiopians.  Pressure must be placed both the Abiy government and opposition, both of whom have clear lines of communication with bodies like the Red Cross, to allow them carry out their work unimpeded.  This aid must extend to neighbouring Sudan where the UN projects more than 500,000 Ethiopian refugees will flee in the coming weeks.

Second, immediate pressure must be placed upon the Turkish government to cease its sale of military equipment to the Abiy government. In particular, the sale of Bayraktar drone systems, whose use by Azerbaijan in its recent war with Armenia saw entire battalions of troops liquidated at the press of a button, must end. The use of “drones of mass destruction” is not an appropriate application of military force on Abiy’s government – it has the potential to be a war crime.  Unless the supply of these weapons is limited, one can expect the death toll to rise by tens of thousands in the coming weeks.

Third, the issue of Ethiopia’s preferential access to international trade accord should also be urgently examined.  President Biden has already made steps to exclude Ethiopia from the terms of the US African Grown and Opportunity Act processes which gives the country duty-free access to most goods it exports to America – a move which has caused fury among Abey loyalists that have sought to frame the US as a hostile power with sympathies for the opposition.

Given the sensitivities regarding the US’s role in the country, the support of China – which recently dropped its opposition to a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of conflict – in blocking the export of supply and export routes controlled by both the government and opposition forces via the port of Doraleh (which is de facto controlled by Beijing) will be crucial.

Fourth, it is important that a constitutional settlement is found that allows for the integrity of the Ethiopian state to be maintained while granting appropriate rights of self-government to minorities. The African Union’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo is well placed to lead such an effort given his successful efforts to lead a multi-ethnic government while serving as Nigerian President.

Fifth and finally, it is incumbent on governments globally and international institutions to put in place a solid plan to prevent the conflict spilling over from Ethiopia into neighbouring states. This will involve the provision of aid on the ground and an intensification of support for peacekeeping efforts.

Kenya, which shares long border with Ethiopia has long had its own domestic problems with separatist movements and is experiencing a devastating drought. Sudan, which only gained independence in 2011 after a protracted civil war, has long looked to Ethiopia as the guarantor of its own peace process.  Instability in Ethiopia, the region’s largest economy, risks crippling South Sudan’s already-fragile supply chains of everything from oil to basic foodstuffs and empowering rebel forces. Sudan, which has already taken in thousands of Ethiopian refugees, is struggling to navigate the fallout of its own military coup last month.

We are all aware of the impact of impact of ethnic conflicts and the mass loss of lives they have wrought on Eastern Africa in the past forty years. The images of barbarity in Rwanda and Sudan should rightly continue to haunt an international community that was too slow to act to prevent genocide.

In international relations, though, the price of delays and indecision in heading off genocide and famine is widely known – but often forgotten.

Rather than risk sleepwalking into another catastrophe, now is the time for the international community to force the country’s warring factions to the negotiating table and draw this latest tragic chapter in Ethiopian history to a close.

Radical: A response to Nicola Richards and Alicia Kearns’ recent piece on the Gender Recognition Act

1 Sep

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they found Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

We’ve been writing this fortnightly column about sex and gender since March. We’ve covered a range of topics relating to relevant matters of law, philosophy, and public policy, but we’ve been clear from the outset about where we’re coming from:

Of course trans people should be treated just the same as anyone else, all things being equal. But it’s also the case that biological women need societal recognition of their right to certain single-sex spaces. And the denial of the concept of biological truth leads only to an anti-vaxxing hellhole.

We’ve also been clear that we’re writing these columns because people on the centre-right have, too often, been missing from this important contemporary debate. We wanted to share what we’ve learnt and provoke discussion, and felt well placed to do this.

One of us, Victoria, is a party member and activist, and a classic conservative; the other of us, Rebecca, is a former party member and PPC, and a libertarian. Our shared values, and our differences of opinion, mean that, between us, we have a lot in common with most of the ConHome readership, which itself is varied in many ways.

So, we want to use this fortnight’s column to pave the way to search out points of commonality with some Conservative MPs – Nicola Richards, Alicia Kearns, and several other co-authors – who wrote a piece here last week.

Maybe you saw it then, or read about it in the papers. Now, the conclusions of their piece, regarding matters of sex and gender, were different from ours: not least in that they support a move to “self-ID”, and we don’t. But it seems clear that their article comes from a place of goodwill, and we’re keen to engage with its writers. 

We want to know more about their views, particularly regarding some key issues about which we feel they could’ve been clearer. We’re also keen to know your answers to the questions we’re going to pose to them now:

Q1 Are you clear about the content of the Gender Recognition Act?

You note “there are many misconceptions” about proposed reforms to the GRA. Unfortunately, you’ve adopted misconceptions, yourselves. For instance, you refer to a person changing their “gender” on their birth certificate. Yet, despite the confusing language regarding “gender recognition” in the legislation, a GRC doesn’t change the gender noted on a birth certificate (because gender isn’t recorded there). Rather, it changes someone’s sex, for legal purposes – to align it with the gender with which they identify.

Your confusion is understandable, in some ways: the wording of the relevant section of the GRA uses “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, and doesn’t define either. But it’s important that lawmakers – and particularly those agitating for profound change – are clear and specific, rather than helping to spread misinformation. Sadly, this is not the only example of misinformation we noted in your piece. 

Q2 Do you accept that the distinction between sex and gender is an important one?

We believe it’s crucial: that “sex” relates to matters of biology (whether someone is a member of the female sex set, or the male sex set), and that “gender” is a matter of social convention (how someone sees themself in relation to stereotypical societal norms regarding the two sex sets).

Moreover, we believe this distinction reflects why it’s neither illiberal nor hateful to oppose self-ID. People should be free to behave and present themselves in accordance with whichever (unharmful) norms they prefer, but there are good reasons to avoid pretending that sex-set membership is a matter of personal choice or feelings. 

There’s no law here against exercising “gender expression” – which is a private matter for individuals – and it would be profoundly illiberal to instate one. Indeed, there’s significant legal protection under the Equality Act and criminal law for anyone identifying as a member of the opposite sex.

Sex-set membership itself, however, is highly relevant to important matters of public concern, including those as basic and obvious as the data collection required to underpin medical-resource allocation.

We strongly believe, therefore, that whilst goverments should not be concerned with how people present themselves, healthcare concerns provide just one clear reason why the state must remain interested in, and objective about, matters of sex.

Accuracy and clarity is vital, here, and should be unobscured by personal impressions relating to sex-set stereotypes about matters such as as dress sense. 

Q3 Do you believe that trans people should have access to single-sex services and spaces intended for the opposite sex, including refuges and prison wings?

We were concerned by your claim that: “Trans people can already use, and have always been able to use, services matching their gender, regardless of whether they have the certificate. Services such as Domestic Violence Refuges have always been able to exclude a trans person in certain circumstances, if it is proportionate and regardless of whether they have a GRC. This is covered by the Equalities Act”.

Again, this is complicated, and the legislation is not clear, but the grounds on which trans people can be excluded from single-sex spaces under the Equality Act are actually general and wide-ranging.

Activist groups, such as Stonewall, like to pretend this isn’t the case, and public bodies, such as the EHRC, which should know better, have issued misleading guidance (currently subject to legal challenge) that tries to limit this to “exceptional” or “limited” circumstances.

But do you really believe that, in 2010, parliament intended that the very wide protected characteristic of gender reassignment – “proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex” – generally entitled men in that position to use women’s changing rooms and refuges?

Rather, what is clear from the act, is that it was intended for people with this protected characteristic to be protected from discrimination (such as in the workplace), not that they were to be entitled to be treated as a member of the opposite sex. 

Moreover, you claim that “we are the party that ensures people have the freedom to live their lives as they wish”. Now, this is a contestable and partial account of Conservative Party philosophy.

But, putting that aside, aren’t you concerned by the idea of the Government violating women’s rights to organise themselves, and to consent to whom it is they share private spaces with? Or the ability of businesses and charities to provide services that respect and protect women’s interests and preferences?

Q4 Do you believe that doctors should be allowed to perform non-reversible medical interventions on under-16s, in order to help them physicalise their gender expression?

We believe that adults should be free to seek medical intervention to make their bodies resemble the opposite sex. We also believe, however, that there’s no justification for prescribing puberty blockers (which the NHS no longer states to be reversible) or hormome therapies to children.

Indeed, it’s clear that these interventions are, like FGM, a form of child abuse, and we are keen to share with you our full findings on this topic as a matter of urgency. 

Q5 Do you believe in free debate about these matters?

We hope you’ll agree that our questions are neither inherently hateful nor phobic. We certainly agree with you that improving mental health services for trans people is important, and that fighting against hateful prejudice of all kinds is both good and necessary.

We hope you agree with us, however, that people should be able to discuss their views openly about these matters, and that the serious professional consequences and personal abuse that too many – from JK Rowling, downwards – have faced for doing so, are worrying and wrong.