The week the tide turned in the gender war


Sport, so focused on winning and losing, on rules and competition, can bring a reductive clarity to the complexities of life. Perhaps that is why the judgement this week of the World Athletics Council was so momentous. Put simply, council president Sebastian Coe had to choose between conflicting “rights” and he decided that the right of those born women to compete fairly trumps the desire to be included in elite sport of those who have gone through male puberty but run or jump as women. “We felt,” he said, “that having transgender athletes competing at elite level would actually compromise the integrity of female competition.”

It can seem that there is no more sensitive an issue than trans rights. But sport, with that same reductive clarity, is not so concerned with sensitivities. It is concerned with the irrefutable reality of the stopwatch and winner’s podium. And they starkly reveal the distortions that testosterone and its consequences for muscle, stature, strength and speed wreak on the track and field. Indeed, so stark and inescapable is the judgement of Lord Coe and his organisation that it de-barbs what elsewhere remains one of society’s thorniest issues. All it took was leadership to act. “For the longest time we knew whether you were male or female mattered in sport,” says Fiona McAnena, director of sport at Fair Play for Women. “There is no science to say that changed. So we are in a strange position where they adopted policies that let certain male-born people into women’s sport without any evidence to say that was reasonable. I think this is now a game-changer.”

It may be elsewhere, too. For the transgender rights fissure that opened up in sport echoes that in politics and society more widely. There, faced with increasing public concern, other leaders are increasingly being forced to choose as well. Equivocation is no longer enough. It was oddly fitting, for example, that Lord Coe’s decision in athletics came on the very same day that SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon left office – a titanic, once unassailable figure finally, if not exclusively, propelled into the political void by her support for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. A leader of long standing who had always seemed so in touch with public sentiment found herself jettisoned, more tone-deaf than deft. For Rishi Sunak in Westminster, the decision to block Sturgeon’s proposed reforms, which would have allowed gender self-identification in those as young as 16, was politically prudent.

That decision did not come in isolation. In fact, it came hard on the heels of the devastating Cass Review which led to the closure of the controversial Tavistock clinic, where children found themselves referred for assessment for puberty-blocking drugs and life-changing surgery without adequate safeguards. And the decision at the end of last year by the charities regulator to launch a statutory inquiry into Mermaids, the transgender campaign group found to be offering harmful breast-binders to girls as young as 13 without their parents’ knowledge. And the announcement a month ago, in the same week that Sturgeon revealed she was stepping down, that the Sandyford clinic – known as “Scotland’s Tavistock” – would be closing its doors to new patients.

For activists on either side of the debate, each of these has represented an ideological battle. Together, however, their outcomes point in one direction. That’s why, in years to come, there is every reason to believe that historians will look back on this week as one in which the battle lines of the trans rights war were redrawn.

The fate of Sturgeon, and her swift overruling by Sunak, certainly suggest that politicians now face a crystallising public sentiment on transgender rights. Just 19 per cent of those polled, for example, disagree with Lord Coe and think that transgender women should be allowed to compete in women-only sporting events. Fewer than half agree that “a trans man is a man and a trans woman is a woman”. On high streets, retailers are being forced to react too. Primark, for example, has had to repeal “gender-neutral” changing areas after female customers said they felt unsafe sharing changing areas with men. The Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith this week found its “all-gender” loos – in which a woman heading to a cubicle would need to walk past five urinals – lambasted for making women feel “incredibly uncomfortable”.

Meanwhile, a school on the Isle of Man was forced to suspend sex education lessons for 11-year-olds after it turned out they were being conducted by a drag queen who allegedly told pupils that there are 73 genders, and excluded one “upset” child who responded that “there are only two”. Children of the same age were also taught about sex-change operations and oral and anal sex.

Fortified by such polling and such excesses, it would seem increasingly easy, then, for any aspiring prime minister to navigate the thicket of trans issues and set out a clear and popular position. Yet for Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, matters are not so simple.

This week, it was reported that advisers have told him that Labour will lose the next general election on “day one” of the campaign if he does not clarify the party’s position on gender recognition. Two years ago, though, it was totally clear. Starmer declared in a video that Labour was “committed to introduce self-declaration for trans people” – just like Sturgeon’s ill-fated legislation. He has also previously said it is “not right” to say only women have a cervix. “If Keir is still being asked by the time the election campaign begins, ‘What is a woman?’ then he’s lost,” the adviser said. “Scotland is a warning to him. He needs to make his position much clearer... [that] self-ID is not going to happen under a Labour government.”

Yet even with such stark warnings, Sir Keir has only muddied, rather than reversed, his position, noting this week that “if we reflect on what’s happened in Scotland, the lesson I take from that is that if you’re going to make reforms, you have to carry the public with you”.

That is as far as he seems willing to go, well aware that he is hemmed in on the Left by activists like the Labour for Trans Rights group, who have already begun a pressure campaign against what they see as the Labour leader’s crumbling support for their position.

“All [Labour frontbenchers] struggle with the questions around what is a woman, is a trans woman a woman when they do this, that and the other, when is a trans woman with a penis a woman,” says one Labour source. For the Labour leader, then, transgender rights are not just a sterile political issue, to be tackled in as expedient a manner as possible; they are a live and passionate topic with the capacity to split the core of the party family and unleash bitter, personally felt feuding that could disrupt what many pollsters predict should otherwise be a smooth passage towards election victory. Will he be prepared to put policy before his party “family”?

The price for getting it wrong remains all too evident. Labour sources recognise that “in many respects [Nicola Sturgeon] was the most successful politician of our generation and yet she was brought down by the GRA [Gender Recognition Act]. The public were in a different place to the politicians”. The cost was high for her party too, which faced an exodus of more than 40 per cent of its members. And in the race to succeed her, Humza Yousaf, who vowed to launch a bid to overturn Westminster’s veto of Sturgeon’s controversial legislation, is now having to trim his position, conceding that he would have to follow legal advice. One advisor tells this paper that Sir Keir has been “spooked” by what happened to Sturgeon and privately suggests he will change tack. “I think he will change his stance – and he will use the Equality Act to dance around the issue of single-sex spaces like shelters and prisons.”

So far Sir Keir has only muddied, rather than reversed, his position - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
So far Sir Keir has only muddied, rather than reversed, his position - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Today, then, it seems that public opinion, the law, and politics are beginning to coalesce coherently around this issue; that viewpoints for so long kept soft by uncertainty and a desire for tolerance are beginning to firm. Minds are being made up. It was only a matter of time. For there was always going to come a moment when, from the safety of posterity, we would look back on the transgender rights activism of the past few years either as a righteous movement which opened society’s eyes to obvious injustice – or an astonishing aberration when, gripped by some delusion, we came en masse to view gender not as objective reality but as a subjective spectrum.

One day, we would have – like Lord Coe – to choose. Or more likely, through a series of decisions, legal, political and incremental, a path would emerge and society would proceed along it, leaving the other path untravelled. This week, it seems we are taking our first steps down one path and not the other.

If so, it signals a momentous potential juncture in a culture war that became a political war. Not an end to that conflict, as Britain’s wartime leader might have said, or even the beginning of the end, but an end of the beginning.

Such martial language may seem inappropriate, but anyone following the transgender fight online can testify to how bitterly and viciously contested it has been. Ask J K Rowling, the Harry Potter author who was universally loved until she made her views clear three years ago, and has since felt scared for her family’s safety. Or Graham Linehan, creator of Father Ted, until his tweets about gender sparked a response that, he says, collapsed both his career and his marriage. Or Kathleen Stock, who had spent 18 happy years as a professor of philosophy at Sussex University before being driven out as a “transphobe” for declaring that biological sex is fixed. Or the peer Baroness Fox of Buckley, who was even disinvited from addressing the debating society at Royal Holloway, University of London, merely for declaring that she found funny a Ricky Gervais skit comparing “old-fashioned women, you know, the ones with wombs” with “the new ones we’ve been seeing lately with beards and cocks”. The theme of the debate? Cancel culture and free speech. Any irony appeared lost on the students.

In the face of such an onslaught, it can seem that the events of the past months are not so much a victory as a course correction, after a period in which fear of being labelled discriminatory silenced many in positions of power and beyond. Now, though, it apparently turns out that the view that society cannot be ruled by social media’s cancel culture mob is widely held.

Certainly, those who have dared speak up now feel that momentum is on their side – “common sense at last” in the words of former runner Liz McColgan. The consequences of this week’s turn then, may be far-reaching. Logically, it means that never again are we likely to dish out puberty blockers to confused children, or carry out irreversible surgery to remove the breasts of young women in an environment that – as the Cass Review into the Tavistock Centre discovered – merely confirmed rather than challenged their desire to proceed with such life-altering measures.

The Cass Review said that the Tavistock Centre, as the only provider of gender identity services for young people in England was ‘not a safe or viable long-term option’ - REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
The Cass Review said that the Tavistock Centre, as the only provider of gender identity services for young people in England was ‘not a safe or viable long-term option’ - REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Never again are politicians likely to support self-declared women with male genitalia being housed in female prisons, or admitted to sports centre changing rooms. Schools will become infinitely more wary of allowing drag queens to deliver sex-ed lessons and preach a gospel of myriad genders. Head teachers will wise up to the fact that teenagers have always sought out ways to seek and win attention and approval during the turbulence of adolescence and that while compassion should be universal, the need for breast binders and gender-neutral toilets might not be.

Perhaps even more importantly, this may be a turning point that will cause us to consider the very nature of democracy, where defence and support of the minority by the majority is absolutely central. How far does society bend to accommodate the needs of the few? How extreme does that accommodation have to be, and how tiny the numbers of the minority, before society can rightly refuse to bend, or yield only a little?

It turns out that such questions have been plaguing us since the dawn of political philosophy. Plato’s great enquiry into the best form of government – The Republic – is prompted by the conflicting interests made inevitable by social diversity. For him, the price of failure to reconcile such conflicts was a civil strife more terrible even than foreign war. The solution was fairness that lay not in blindly treating all the same, but according to the merits of their claims.

The 20th century’s appalling toll of racism, sectarianism, misogyny and homophobia have all accustomed us to the idea that moral justice is wedded to the defence of those fighting for improved rights. Now, uncomfortably, we may have to get used to the idea that in some cases, the majority can sometimes be right, with understanding and tolerance, to push back.