At party conferences it is normal to face an airport-style frisk. Although not overly intrusive, it is always done by someone of the same sex and many people would strongly object on grounds of privacy if it were not.
So it would probably surprise many of the delegates returning from Manchester this week to learn that the UK Government is considering changes to transgender legislation which would effectively bring to an end the right to be searched by someone of your own sex, and have a much wider impact on privacy between men and women - as well as reducing the protections which society offers to children.
This has come about as a result of the bold recommendations contained in a report by the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee in December 2015, now under consideration by ministers.
The most concerning recommendation is that anyone will be able to legally define themselves as whichever sex they wish through a simple administrative procedure. At present anyone wanting to redefine the sex they were born has to apply for a certificate to a body called the Gender Recognition Panel, and offer evidence to back up their request. This would usually include evidence that they had lived as their chosen sex for a period of time and possibly undergone surgery.
A decision to scrap this would mean that people will simply fill in a form online, and hey presto, they will have changed sex (at least as far as the law is concerned).
This will have a profound impact on the rights of others to maintain sex-based boundaries, protections and rights.
The Sexual Discrimination Act seeks equality of pay and treatment in work but does allow employers, in certain instances, to stipulate that they want either a man or woman. For example, somebody seeking a carer for a female might well stipulate, for obvious reasons of privacy, that the job should only be taken by a female. Those having to undertake physical searches of people, for example in prisons or police stations (or party conferences), have to be of the same sex as those being searched.
At a stroke, this will have ended because the effect of this legislation will be to treat “gender” and “sex” as being the same. In reality “sex” is something we are born into and cannot be changed while “gender” is harder to define and refers to the roles which most of us take on as a result of the sex we are born into. In the future, people changing gender will have the right to undertake roles and be in places that are currently reserved for members of one sex.
It is worth bearing in mind that when the Gender Recognition Act was implemented in 2004, there was an assumption that most transgender people would have undergone, or be about to undergo surgery. This is certainly not the case now. Only about 25 per cent of transgender people undergo any surgery at all, meaning that three quarters of transgender women are in possession of a fully functioning penis. This has already led to obvious problems. In a recent well-publicised case, a male prisoner serving a sentence for rape reassigned “herself” as female. Insisting on the right to be sent to a female prison, they were subsequently sectioned after making unwanted sexual advances. We have also heard recently of convicted sex offenders identifying as women while in prison - 11 cases in one sex offenders' institution for example. Should these prisoners be re-housed in the female prison estate amongst very vulnerable women?
If legislation is passed, then these invasions of privacy will be commonplace. There will be little point in bothering with male and female segregated toilets or changing rooms because anyone will be able to go where they wish, and any attempt to question this could well end up being seen as an infringement of human rights, and a hate crime as well.
The report does not explain how we can reach a balance between the rights of people to re-define their gender with the rights of those who were born male or female to maintain privacy.
The report also calls for sex change drugs to be made much more widely available to minors, although this already seems to be happening. A GP in my own constituency is being investigated for giving “puberty blockers” to children as young as 12.
Some boys want to play with stereotypical ‘girl's toys’ and experiment with dressing up, and vice versa, and this reflects a broad range of normal childhood interests. This has probably always happened and I believe that the best approach is to simply accept itand allow children to develop their own interests. Some of the current discourse about gender encourages people to think a child should transition to being the opposite sex if they don’t conform to the gender stereotypes for their own sex and see it as an issue requiring powerful drugs.
Children may want to be different in many ways. Some teenage boys want to build muscle while some teenage girls want to be unhealthily thin. Responsible parents can encourage them to go to the gym or take exercise but would never suggest they start taking steroids or other drugs. We need to encourage our children to love the bodies they have, not to yearn for something else and to take drugs to get it.
Puberty blockers are described as being fully reversible but there is no evidence to support this claim, nor any understanding of the long-term effects on children’s health and their developing brains. Some effects of cross sex hormones are irreversible. There are sad stories online of teenagers who believed they were born into the wrong body and were encouraged to undergo drug treatment and sometimes surgery before realising they had made a mistake and have been left with irreversible effects. Young women who take testosterone are left with permanently deeper voices, body and facial hair and male pattern baldness even if they only take it for a short time.
I do not seek to deny that some people feel a deep seated need to change their sex, and would never want to stop them from living their life as they feel most comfortable. But at the same time we must ensure that by extending the rights of one group we do not deny the rights of others.
I also believe that transgender people suffer from verbal and physical abuse and would strongly support measures to protect them from this. However, we should be able to discuss our feelings about transgender issues without being accused of committing hate crimes as I recently was. Last week a 60 year-old women’s rights campaigner was assaulted by a transgender activist, presumably a biological male. This violence which was supported by a number of fellow activists is equally unacceptable.
The government said after the general election that it is going to “listen much harder to people”. I believe this and look forward to it. There are clear biological differences between the two sexes. If things that have been taken for granted for centuries are suddenly turned upside down, then at the very least we should be able to openly discuss our concerns without the risk of verbal and physical abuse.