Changes to the NZ Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill will undermine women’s rights.
Read about the issue below and then if you support the retention of women’s sex-based rights you can countersign the letter to support the supplementary order paper
There is an almighty battle going on about the nature of what it means to be female that is almost hidden to most New Zealanders. This story is about the changes to the gender-id legislation for transgender people in the UK (the proposed Gender Recognition Act) and the parallel changes happening in NZ. At the background is an ideological debate about whether sex (determined by biology) or gender (usually understood as being determined by self perception and / or personal presentation) have primacy in understanding who are women.
As with most ideologies they play out in the real world. In the UK a public consultation on this issue that closed on Monday 23 was open for three and a half months (which of course would be almost unprecedented in New Zealand) including a three day extension due to the high volume of responses. The purpose of the proposed new law in the UK is to allow anyone to obtain a gender recognition certificate in their chosen sex, and thereby to obtain a birth certificate reflecting that change, through a straightforward administrative process. (As in NZ the specific changes will be to birth certificates because transgender people can already apply for driver’s licences and passports in their chosen gender identity). The current requirement for legal verification or medical treatment will be removed. The proposal for an easier process is understandable but the impacts do cut across women’s rights to retain protected spaces and services aimed at women and until the last few days of the consultation public officials and parliamentarians had not acknowledged that.
Many people, including many feminists and people on the left are fiercely protective of transgender people and it is true that they do face specific challenges as well as (in common with women) violence and discrimination from men. Also human rights apply to everyone – they are not allotted based on the kind of person you are or the beliefs you have.
But the divisions go deep. Of considerable importance is freedom of thought. At the moment even to say that, for example, you believe that sex (biological reality) defines women (rather than a sense of being the gender you were born or a different one) is to invite opprobrium from trans people and their allies. In contrast, though it seems to me not credible, many transgender people (though by no means all) make strong claims they have actually changed into people of the opposite kind or that they were born in the wrong body and that surgery and medication aligns them with their true selves. Nonetheless there is a strong argument that this belief be acknowledged, as Julian Norman, quoted in detail below, argues.
Among the potential practical impacts if the law is passed is that protected spaces such as changing rooms, public toilets, and women’s refuges will be able to be shared by anyone who declares themselves to be a woman (regardless of whether or not they have taken any action to change gender such as sex re-assignment surgery, legal recognition or counselling). It opens the possibility that men seeking to access women’s spaces will claim to be women as has already happened to disastrous effect. Sex centred services such as rape crisis centres and women’s counseling services will be open to any men identifying as women both as clients and as counselors. Women are already being joined in sport by transgender women who on average are taller, heavier, stronger and even when medication impacts their testosterone is still permitted to be up to three times more than women athletes have on average per mm of blood. Finally any sex selected benefits that women have such as women’s officers in political parties and unions and any awards set aside for women can be claimed by transgender women including people who have self-declared.
The UK consultation has been controversial. The fear of offending transgender people and their supporters has meant many people including most in the caring professions and education and even most MPS will not speak publicly on the issue. Green MP Caroline Lucas whose party has been very sympathetic to trans people’s concerns has been verbally attacked for even agreeing to meet women who are raising these issues. Recently a group of 54 UK academics have reported that they are concerned about the Act but also about censorship in Universities including harassment of academics seeking to undertake transgender research and calls in the press (and by students) for their dismissal as well ‘no-platforming’ of gender critical views. At a parliamentary meeting with women opposed to gender self-id MPs were so concerned that journalists attending were told not to identify the MPs present, nor what they said, and the Minister hosting the meeting was threatened with legal action.
The fight for transgender people’s rights has taken many twists and turns and although the issue is coming to light for the public the issues have been in gestation for 40 years. Increasingly women who are questioning whether the legislation should go through are being vilified and threatened. Public meetings, even in venues owned by councils, have been closed down or have re-scheduled at the last moment. Websites have been closed down for revealing information about males who have taken on transgender identities and have used them to threaten women . Social media is a zoo where you participate, to some extent, at your own risk but even there those disbelieving in gender ideology have been closed down.
That’s the UK. How are we doing in New Zealand on this issue? Well there’s the rub. A law is currently going through parliament which it appears will have remarkably similar effects. The Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill was intended to be a technical rewrite. Its purpose has been amended to include gender self-id at the Select Committee process on the recommendation of the Green Party. Consequently there has been no opportunity to comment on the Bill as it will be presented. There has therefore been little opportunity to inform people or for public debate about the legislation which is now likely to be presented in Parliament
this week for its second reading after Christmas.
New Zealand group Speak Up for Women is a group of New Zealanders who have been campaigning for the opportunity for women to have their voices heard. Government MPs supporting the Bill have said that it won’t take anything away from women. But Speak Up For Women is concerned about the potential impact on sex-segregated spaces, services and sports, currently protected under the Human Rights Act 1993. They have presented a Supplementary Order Paper to all MPs, which, if it is adopted, will ensure that the Bill does not detract from these protections.
If you are willing you can sign up to an open letter in support of the proposed Supplementary Order Paper. The letter and the proposed change to the law are here on the Speak Up For Women website. You can just provide your name and a bit of information about you and why you support the change proposed by the supplementary order paper .
If you would like to read more before deciding whether to do this there are some references below that cover the issue from a variety of perspectives.
The UK Economist magazine thought this issue to be of such importance that it invited and published 20 articles from multiple perspectives to coincide with the start of the consultation. Amongst other findings it showed that while all three main UK parties supported self-id only 18% of people surveyed did (more detail here).
Amongst the articles are the following:
Women arguing against self-id
Philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock writes that changing the concept of “woman” will cause unintended harms.
Feminist author Sarah Ditum writes about the way language is already being changed to take account of transwomen’s sensitivities avoiding using the word woman and replacing it with language that does not offend transgender women.
Transgender women’s perspectives arguing for caution
Debbie Hayton and Kristina Harrison who are both transgender woman write about the importance of some external process to validate a claim of being transgender and the need for an accommodation of women’s and transgender rights respectively
Men writing on women’s & transgender issues?
Spectator columnist James Kirkup has written extensively on the issue for many months. The point he makes in his article is that compared with women his commentary has not been vilified and attacked in contrast to many women who have questioned whether self-id is justified.
On the other side of the argument are women arguing in favour of self-id.
They include Sally Hines, a professor at the University of Leeds who argues that contrasting trans and women’s rights as oppositional is a false binary. She writes that “By the 1990s multi-faceted gender identities and experiences were embraced by feminist scholars who wrote against a biologically-determined feminist theory that excluded trans women.” Emily Brothers argues that the fight for trans-rights has much in common with the fight for women’s and gay and lesbian rights which preceded it and hence feminists and others should support it.
NZ Feminist and blogger Renee Gerlich recently wrote about the censorship, big money, blackmail and backlash are intimidating New Zealand women from speaking out on gender identity.
Writer, broadcaster, former politician and the former UK Equalities Human Rights Commissioner Trevor Phillips, under whose watch the original UK Gender Recognition Act was implemented, wrote recently that “Allowing people to declare their own gender would make a mockery of Britain’s decades-long struggle for fairness”
Julian Norman a barrister and human rights specialist said recently in a meeting in the UK House of Lords that a stronger right for freedom of belief related to beliefs on sex and gender is needed. She said
“Failure to share someone’s belief is not the same as mockery or disdain for it. It cannot be beyond the wit of the legislature to protect the beliefs of those who believe they have an innate gender, protect the rights of others to agnosticism on the point, whilst also maintaining sex based protections.
If gender identity is innate, then the cultural norms attached to the female sex, which we call gender, and which have historically served to oppress women, are not a bug, but a design feature. A philosophy which seeks to ascribe women’s oppression globally and historically to something innate within them – whether that is wandering wombs, or phrenology, or evolutionary psychology – has never ended well for women. We should be extremely slow to codify in law such a perspective.”
Speak up for Women is the NZ group demanding the bill be put on hold until there is a chance to have a say on the changes included in the bill.
UK organisations working to make people aware of changes to the Gender Reassignment Act
Jan Rivers says
When you say “invites consideration of discrimination on the basis of gender” the crucial issue for me is this expressed by Julian Norman above and it relates to freedom of belief.
““Failure to share someone’s belief is not the same as mockery or disdain for it. It cannot be beyond the wit of the legislature to protect the beliefs of those who believe they have an innate gender, protect the rights of others to agnosticism on the point, whilst also maintaining sex based protections.”
I think freedom of belief on this issue is as important as freedom of religion used to be. It is needed to protect transgender people’s beliefs and their rights, particularly to allow young people to fully explore their beliefs about themselves before they make a rash decision (60-90% of young people referred to gender clinics accommodate to their born sex as they mature) and allow gender sceptical people to believe that gender identity has no basis in reality.
At the moment people who have skin in the game on all sides of this are frightened, angry and facing some of the most acute discrimination I have seen in my lifetime.
Marilyn Head says
Sorry Jan I couldn’t disagree more . The issues raised have to do with gender. Threatening violent behaviour is unacceptable regardless of who it is directed at or who it is perpetrated by. Transgender women have just as much right to feel safe as anyone else and arguably have far fewer environments where they are in fact safe. The focus of the article is misdirected, and I think the solution is misguided in that invites consideration of discrimination on the basis of gender, which is absolutely unacceptable in any form. I am reminded of how shocked I was to discover that womens refuges did not let boys over 10 or 12 years old stay with their mothers – a typically double blow for children who need more help and inclusion, not less! The focus should be on ensuring all people are safe, and properly supported and that there are appropriate systems , – education, regulations and monitoring that assure that in all environments.
Isla MacGregor, Women Speak Tasmania says
An excellent summary of the issues that all New Zealand politicians should be reading about if they are to understand that a proper community consultation needs to be undertaken on this debate. Thorough assessment for any human rights legislation is essential as is weighing up any collateral damage especially to women and girls of knee jerk legislation
Judi Pattison says
This is an excellent article with one of the best sets of resources I’ve seen anywhere. It is coherent, accessible and fair. Well done, Jan Rivers. Congratulations to publicgood.org for making it available.
Jan Rivers says
Thank you Judi. I started off realising I was scared to speak out on this issue and then the shame of being scared got the better of me.
The more I read the more important I think it is that people understand what is happening.
We all have rights and we rely on government acting in our name to balance them. That isn’t happening here in NZ at the moment.