Further to my article in this column last week, the Government has intervened to prevent the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition Bill proceeding to receive royal assent.
The debate following the Government’s announcement was a very angry affair. First, because Scottish National Party MPs felt that the Parliament in Edinburg was being slighted by Whitehall. Second, because the debate about sex and gender has been particularly vicious from the outset. Individuals have been treated shamefully when they have expressed concern that the privacy, dignity and safety of women may be compromised when men present themselves as female and are given access to women-only facilities: The philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock was hounded out of the University of Sussex for saying so; The author J K Rowling has been denounced and ‘cancelled’ for agreeing with her; The Labour MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, was heckled by her own side in the Commons last week when the supported the Government’s sensible course of action. These women have been brave. Many others have decided to keep their own counsel because of the vitriol poured out on the women who have broken cover.
I predict that the temperature will rise further because the Government has now committed to bring forward its own legislation to outlaw conversion therapy. This has long been planned but was originally designed to restrict the measure to therapies that purported to convert gay people into heterosexuals. These therapies have a long and bizarre history, from testicle transplants, to lobotomies, exorcisms and hypnosis. My concern about any new law is first, that most of these egregious practices are now unlawful anyway and would constitute an assault. Second, because of the difficulty of defining a new law so it does not constrain freedom of speech.
The intention is now include transgender conversion therapy within the proposed ban. This adds a level of complexity to an already highly emotionally charged debate. When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, he made it clear that his proposal would exclude transgender conversion therapies – he was right to do so, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole- but the current administration has reversed that decision.
The problem remains essentially the same: how to define the law so that it does not prevent freedom of speech. The difficulty is greater however, because there is much less of a consensus.
Young people, including children at school, who are confused about their gender may find themselves considering treatments which will interfere with puberty and have consequences that they may later bitterly regret. It is essential that they think this through and are sure about what they are contemplating. The problem will be to define a law which does not constrain the ability of parents, teachers, clinicians, friends, and why not clergy too, to have serious conversations with children about their decisions.
Standing in the way of such discussions is deeply irresponsible.