Judith Green on the Gender Recognition Act and the fight for women’s sex-based rights in the UK

Judith Green is a longtime political activist who lives and works in Cambridge, England. Recently, she launched Woman’s Place UK along with a number of other women, in response to proposed changes to the UK Gender Recognition Act. I corresponded with her online to learn more about her work, interest in the issue of gender identity legislation, and the aims of her group.

MEGHAN MURPHY: Tell me about your political background. What is your history in activism? What is your political ideology?

JUDITH GREEN: You could say I grew up with political causes. My mum had come to the UK as a South African exile during the apartheid era. My grandparents were political in various ways — against apartheid, for women’s rights. They also emigrated to the UK — it would have been to Baltimore, except my grandmother was on some kind exclusion list as a communist — a hangover from the McCarthy period. Tracing further back, great-grandparents in several branches of the family tree were communists or socialists. I’m a believer in nurture not nature on these questions, but you could certainly say I was born into politics.

My mother took my older sister to the famous demonstration against the Vietnam war at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square when she was still in her pushchair (or stroller, as you would say in North America). I’m a bit younger so missed out on that, but remember being taken on massive Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstrations as a child. We protested the US invasion of Grenada, supported the Nicaraguan Revolution, boycotted South African goods — all the good causes, sometimes winning, often losing. We hosted Wapping strikers when they came to speak at a local meeting during their long struggle against Rupert Murdoch’s Times International. My mum was also part of a women’s group which organized a local conference on women and health.

So, I was always encouraged to think about politics, to speak up, and make a contribution. My first independent political activity was in Youth CND. Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was really inspirational, and although I only went a few times during that period, my times at Greenham were really formative. I gravitated to the part of the left that supported autonomous organization of specially oppressed groups — women, black people, lesbians, gay men, etc. — and I got myself a pretty thorough education in Marxism. Although I am no longer in organized far left politics, I am still really grateful for that foundation in Marxism — it really helps for clarity of thinking about the material basis of oppression and the importance of understanding structures.

What I didn’t get through my involvement in the far left was a very good education in feminism. The women’s liberation movement in the UK was in decline through the 1980s. There had been bitter polemical — and sometimes very personal — struggles within women’s liberation between socialist and radical feminists. The legacy of that, for me as a teenage girl in the orbit of socialist feminism, was a fairly dismal education on radical feminism. Lynne Segal’s book, Is the future female?: Troubled thoughts on contemporary feminism, in which radical feminists are cast as biological essentialists — is an example of the kind of misrepresentation of radical feminism that I accepted pretty much without question.

So, I’ve been active in politics since my teens. I had a long hiatus from party politics when the Labour Party marched to the right under Tony Blair, and stopped going to every demonstration and meeting when I got busy with my children and work. I still signed petitions and supported good causes, but just couldn’t sustain the level of activity.

I rejoined the Labour Party in 2010 after their defeat in the election, in part to cast my vote for Diane Abbott in the leadership elections, and have become a workplace representative for my union.

MM: What led you to become interested in the gender identity debate?

JG: There was a period in late 2012 when the UK media was saturated with news of serial sexual abuse of children by celebrities such as Jimmy Savile. At the same time there was also a huge scandal about how a British far left group, the Socialist Workers Party, had handled a complaint by a member that she had been raped by the then National Secretary. I followed the debates obsessively, and, carrying my own burdens of having been sexually abused in childhood, went into a simultaneous personal and political crisis. For the six months after a brave woman called Frances Andrade killed herself, having testified against her abuser, I was at my worst — really unable to function properly. Politically, I wanted to know why the left seemed so irredeemably crap on the issue of violence against women, and I was ragingly angry about it — both on my own behalf and on behalf of all the women that this supposedly progressive movement was failing.

I go into all that because it’s the backdrop against which I learned that a small radical feminist conference, Radfem 2013, had been chucked out of the London Irish Centre by a pincer movement of Men’s Rights Activists and transactivists. I had always been affiliated with a part of the left that upheld autonomous self-organization. So, although I was sure at that time I definitely didn’t agree with radical feminists (in fact, I knew bugger all about their politics!), I certainly felt strongly they had a right to meet as women, without males.

I wrote a pithy letter to the London Irish Centre protesting their cowardice. I started to read more, and discovered that radical feminists are not — on the whole — biological determinists or essentialists, and really warmed to their insistence on the importance of naming male violence. I read a lot. One very influential article I read was Elizabeth Hungerford’s article, “A feminist critique of cisgender” — she’s not a Marxist, but has a more clearly materialist analysis than most of the output of the supposedly Marxist left on this question. For a while I stopped calling myself a socialist feminist (though I remained a socialist) and started to call myself a materialist feminist, in an effort to straddle the materialist end of that incredibly broad and varied movement of radical feminism and Marxism. I’d like to see a socialist feminism that is not positioned in an antagonistic way to radical feminism as has often been the case in the past, but which is about acknowledging that socialist women have important work to do inside the labour movement, particularly in challenging ideas that support the exploitative sex industry, on pornography, on male violence in general, and sexual violence in particular, and of course on the question of whether sex as a category is permitted to be distinguished from gender, and whether women are permitted to organize as a sex against sexism.

MM: Tell me about Woman’s Place UK? How did it come to be? What is its purpose? Who is involved?

We are from different walks of life — in trade unions, women’s organizations, academia, the health service — we mostly come from socialist and trade union backgrounds and are alarmed at the silencing of women’s voices. A few of us decided to attend a meeting held in central London about the Gender Recognition Act. The events there — the assault of a woman at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where those attending the meeting had assembled — really reinforced that now was the time to speak up and take action. Woman’s Place UK is a campaign to retain, strengthen, and extend the sex-based rights and protections that exist under exemptions in UK equality law, and to ensure that women’s voices are heard in discussion about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Our launch statement, as well as our five demands, can be found on our Twitter account @Womans_Place_UK and Facebook page.

We’re finding the response to our materials really positive, and have been praised on Mumsnet (a big UK forum aimed at mothers) for our work to defend women’s rights. We’re not a membership organization but invite anyone who finds our materials useful to use them, and more and more people are doing so.

MM: Tell me about the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), as it stands currently, and the proposed changes. What are your concerns about these changes? What are you asking of MPs? Who is behind the push to have these changes instituted?

JG: Since the passing of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in 2004, the UK has had a mechanism by which a person can acquire a legally recognized gender different from their sex. Under that law, a person with a gender recognition certificate (GRC) becomes legally the other sex for most purposes, though there are exemptions set out within the GRA itself. For example, the inheritance of aristocratic titles is exempt, as are what are termed “gender-affected” sports. This was passed under Blair’s Labour government after a decade long campaign by Press for Change, and a number of important legal cases about privacy and the right to family life going to the European Court of Human Rights.

To be able to get a Gender Recognition Certificate currently, one has to be over 18, diagnosed with gender dysphoria, have lived in one’s acquired gender for at least two years, and intend to do so permanently.

In 2010, the UK’s legislation on sex, race, and disability discrimination was brought together under the Equality Act, together with six other protected characteristics, one of which is “gender reassignment.” This is a broader category than people with GRCs, and protects from discrimination anyone proposing to undergo gender reassignment, as well as those in the process of doing so and who have done so.  At the same time, the Equality Act has exemptions that permit single-sex services, occupations, communal accommodation, and sporting activities where these are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

In 2015, a new Conservative Party Government was elected (the previous government had been a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition). The first act of the new Women and Equalities Select Committee, under Tory MP Maria Miller, was to hold an inquiry into Transgender Rights. This inquiry called plenty of transgender campaigning organizations (which had proliferated since the passing of the GRA) to give oral evidence, but not a single women’s organization. That report recommended that Gender Recognition Certificates should be issued without any conditions, but by a process of self-declaration, and that exemptions protecting single-sex spaces should be reduced or removed.

The government’s response to the report recommendations was not to accept them immediately but to promise a review of the current law. Miller introduced a private member’s bill in the last parliament with the aim of pushing through the recommendations despite lack of formal government support. It never got past the first reading because Tory leader Theresa May called a snap election for June 2017. The election was something of a disaster for her as the conservatives lost their majority and are now forced into an agreement with the very socially conservative and sectarian party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whom they depend to stay in power.

The election was also a massive triumph for left wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, proving wrong cynical detractors on the right of his own party and, although not achieving an election victory, making Labour appear a government in waiting. The Labour Manifesto had committed them to reforming the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act 2010, changing the protected characteristic of “gender assignment” [sic — the actual term is gender reassignment] to “gender identity” and removing outdated language such as “transsexual,” but had not made any reference to changing the route by which GRC was acquired or removing exemptions.

The new Conservative minority government promptly announced that it intended to reform the GRA in line with the Miller inquiry report, perhaps in an effort to appear socially liberal to compensate for the deal they had done with the DUP. They may also have seen some advantage in demedicalizing trans status — currently waiting lists to be assessed and receive a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in the NHS are very long, and there has been pressure from trans campaigners to shorten the wait. By decoupling the process of legal transition from diagnosis, arguments for NHS resources are defused. Unfortunately, there is pretty much a cross-party consensus that all of this is a good idea, despite having not consulted women or looked at the evidence. Woman’s Place UK is determined to make MPs of all parties think again.

There may be a consultation on the proposed changes in the new year, with a view to bringing in legislation later in this parliament. There’s no text of the proposed bill, but it’s reasonable to assume that it will be based on the Miller report recommendations, and that there will ramifications for the Equality Act as well as the Gender Recognition Act, since the two are so closely related.

MM: What has been the response to your work in general? What has been the response from fellow leftists/socialists?

JG: There’s no real settled opinion on the left and amongst socialists. Despite claims that there is “no debate,” there is actually a very heated one going on. There are, of course, many who accept the trans lobby’s view that sex is an individual matter we can decide for ourselves, rather than a material reality with social significance in a sexist society. This view is also quite pervasive among a wide range of liberal and progressive opinion, though mainly because they don’t want to cause upset, rather than because they’ve thought about it in any depth. The ugliness of the online discussion has carried over into the debate on the left, so that women who believe sex matters and can’t be self-determined, and their allies, are routinely referred to as being equivalent to racists and antisemites. It’s going to take a visible shift of public opinion to make the left and socialists catch up with what most people — and especially women — know to be true about the social significance of sex and the need for sex-based rights and protections. I am confident that the trade union movement is coming to an understanding that gender self-identity could undermine UK sex discrimination law and make exemptions to protect women’s services meaningless. It’s also fair to say that there is a strand within feminism that believes being inclusive is more important than protecting women’s rights. We are winning more and more women to the banner that their rights matter. We don’t underestimate the hard work though.

MM: How do you respond to accusations of “transphobia”?

JG: It’s not transphobic to know and say that sex is a material reality. It’s not transphobic to know that the material reality of sex has social significance in a sexist society. What is happening is that there are disagreements about gender stereotyping, about women-only spaces, and about the differences between sex and gender — and this is all being labelled “transphobic.” It’s a very effective means of inhibiting women’s speech, particularly since women are socialized to put the needs of others above their own and to be accommodating. Physical attacks on gender non-conforming people — including those who identify as trans — are not being carried out by feminists and are not influenced by feminists. They are the result of the same sexism and enforcement of masculinity that feminists fight against. I’d like to see men being more inclusive of gender non-conforming males in their spaces.

MM: What’s next for your group? What kinds of activism are you planning/working on?

JG: We’ve just had a really successful meeting in Cambridge where we gave a platform to women who had been prevented from speaking on this issue. There’s a huge demand from local women to meet together — so that’s going to happen — and I think that will start to be replicated across the country, as we have meetings and not just social media interactions. We have a petition about a proposal to make the question about sex in the census non-mandatory, which we are keen to promote. We are asking people to write to their MPs and have guidance on this available on our Facebook page, and we think that is having an effect. The most encouraging thing has been the numbers of women in public life — the media, trade unions, parliamentarians — who have reached out to us to say how glad they are that there is now a public voice articulating women’s widespread concerns after a long period of being silenced. And, of course, all the approaches we’ve had from ordinary women, as well as the anti-sexist, pro-feminist men who support our work. We’ve come a long way, really quickly, since September when we formed, and we just plan to keep going!

MM: Great! Thank you so much for all of your work on this issue.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.