History lessons

The former deputy editor of the New Statesman, now of The Atlantic, posted this to Twitter:

There’s a lesson there, but it’s not the one Lewis thinks it is.

The reason the GRA wasn’t turned into “culture war fuel” wasn’t anything to do with the Blair government. It was because we didn’t have people spending the best part of two years writing endless articles and constantly going on BBC programmes to talk about how it would redefine the word woman, expose children to predators, force children into surgery and all the other nonsense that’s been flying around for the last couple of years.

That’s not to say people didn’t make those claims. They did. One of the most outspoken opponents was Norman Tebbit, who described gender reassignment surgery as a “practice of sexual mutilation” and tried to wreck the GRA in the House of Lords. Politicians raised concerns about redefining the very meaning of men and women, about trans women dominating women’s sport and about having trans women in female prisons. Tebbit even invoked the spectre of child killer Ian Huntley. Made-up stories about Huntley supposedly transitioning have been used to argue against GRA reform now. Politicians also claimed that trans people were merely suffering from “a serious psychological problem” and that the GRA would bring us into “a dark future of coerced totalitarian-style law making.”

What’s different today is the media. While the same things were said about the GRA then as about GRA reform now, they weren’t amplified and repeated by the press again and again over a period of years. We didn’t have social media and its troll armies, or publications more interested in garnering web traffic than accurate reporting, or current affairs programmes that considered their mission to deliver “a shot of adrenaline” instead of present facts. That’s the lesson.

The other point, that the Blair government deserves credit for its introduction, isn’t true either. The Blair government didn’t introduce the Gender Recognition Act because it wanted to. It did it because it had to, because it was breaking the law. In 2002, the European Court of Human rights ruled that refusing to change a trans person’s birth certificate was a breach of their rights under Article 8 and Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government’s defeat in Goodwin v UK was a key reason for the introduction of the Act.

Blair doesn’t deserve credit; trans people didn’t create or propagate this culture war.

Incidentally, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 effectively undid the damage caused by an older court case, Corbett v Corbett, in 1971. That set back trans rights a great deal because a millionaire, Arthur Corbett, wanted to divorce his wife, April Ashley, without giving her any of his money. By arguing successfully that Ashley, a successful female model, was not and could never be a woman – that penetrative vaginal sex with her didn’t count because her vagina wasn’t there at birth – Corbett was able to get the marriage annulled. Before Corbett v Corbett trans people’s birth certificates were generally changed on the quiet; afterwards, trans people could be and were outed by people in positions of authority, often with awful consequences for their lives and careers.