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The Observer opinion piece by Sonia Sodha, April 9th 2023

On Sunday, April 9th 2023, Sonia Sodha wrote an opinion piece in The Observer newspaper in which she welcomed the recent provision of advice by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission to the Minister for Women and Equalities, which advocates that the definition of ‘sex’ in The Equality Act be changed to ‘biological sex’. A text version of the article is below, and with it some observations by TLP on how this journalist (whose anti-trans perspective is well-known and long-standing) has in the view of TLP utterly distorted the situation. It includes both commentary on her explanation of the law and the framing and structuring of her piece which tries to lead the reader to a conclusion deeply hostile to the rights of trans people in the UK and entirely counter to what the trans community seeks. In our view, if implemented, the EHRC’s recommendations would drive trans people out of British society. Our comments, based on a graphic we produced earlier today, are inter-leaved with text as it appeared online. Most replicate the graphic, but we have added some additional material in places. We'd also point out that at no point in the article does Sodha refer to trans women as women (or trans women), nor trans men as men (or trans men). Whilst purporting to cast herself as a voice of 'reason', this unwillingness to grant trans people the basic courtesy of referring to them as they would wish, or to reflect how they live their lives, is we believe another powerful indicator of her true position.

Text Headline:

At last, a consensus is emerging on protecting women-only spaces

TLP: A consensus amongst whom? No LGBT+ organisation in the country supports this. The trans community is unalterably opposed. There is widespread fear. A consensus amongst a few trans-hostile cisgender people, she means. ‘Women-only spaces’ means cisgender women-only spaces, which need “protecting” from trans women. Text Standfirst:

Compassion and common sense are prevailing in a sensitive conflict over rights

TLP: The framing device. Speaks to the Guardian/Observer reader’s self-image. Everything that comes next, it says, is in support of how you are a good person.

Text begins: Unclear law is bad law. Ambiguously drafted statutes result in judges scrabbling to interpret what exactly legislation means when disputes hit the courts and organisations that don’t know what their legal obligations are because even lawyers don’t agree.

TLP: This aims to recruit the reader. Opens with a section with which it’s impossible to disagree. ‘We are the same’ says the author to the reader.

Text continues: The Equality Act is an important piece of legislation passed by Labour in 2010 that enshrines protections against discrimination for many groups. But there’s an ambiguity at its heart: when it refers to “sex” in relation to single-sex spaces, services and sports, does it mean biological sex or legal sex?

TLP: ‘Biological’ sex is impossible to define medically and accurately. The definition in Corbett v. Corbett [1971] P. 83, [1970] 2 All E.R. 33 is not exhaustive. Further, the Equality Act (EA) has been working fine in this regard for 13 years without problems.

Text continues: What might seem an obscure technicality is in reality an important distinction. A separate law passed in 2004 allows someone with a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria to be granted a gender recognition certificate (GRC) that confers the right to be treated as though they were of the opposite sex for many legal purposes. Because the Equality Act doesn’t define “sex”, it’s unclear whether anyone male who has a GRC must be treated as though they were female in equality law and vice versa. TLP: The bigotry is now underway. The term “as though” is used. The GRA 2004 S9, para 1: ‘Where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman).’ There is no lack of clarity about whether a person with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) must be treated in their ‘acquired’ gender under equality law. See Baroness Hale’s speech in A. v. The Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2004] UKHL 21 which discusses the forthcoming Gender Recognition Bill prior to it being enacted. Protection for trans people also goes beyond those with a GRC.

Text continues: This would have unintended consequences. Someone female with a GRC who gets pregnant would not be covered by Equality Act protections against pregnancy and maternity discrimination, for example. TLP: No. The effects of a Gender Recognition Certificate on parenthood are excluded by S.12 of the GRA. Further clarity could be provided by nothing more than a one-line amendment to this specific part of the Equality Act, to ensure that trans men are protected in this situation.

Text continues: It would make it much riskier legally for a service provider to exclude someone male with a GRC from female-only services, such as prisons, rape-crisis centres and changing rooms. It could make it impossible for a care agency to honour a disabled woman’s request for female-only intimate care and for a woman in prison to refuse a strip-search from anyone male. TLP: Sodha here refers to trans women as men as if this were accepted social and legal practice, the bigotry presented as settled reality. The examples she gives are inaccurate – in each situation, a case-by-case assessment, followed by a decision to exclude is 100% legal under the EA. What the EA does not allow is blanket exclusion without cause.

Text continues: It would mean a lesbian support group could not lawfully exclude a male with a GRC who identifies as a lesbian.

This legal ambiguity makes it extremely difficult for small charities and volunteer-run groups to know when it is lawful to offer a female-only service, not least because whether or not someone has a GRC is private information. TLP: It can be asked for in some circumstances

Text continues: But people have so far muddled through in a context where the numbers of GRCs issued are small.

What has moved a clarification from desirable to critical, however, is Scottish legislation that would radically change the basis on which someone can get a GRC. If the Scottish government wins its ongoing legal wrangle with Westminster over its reforms, anyone male – including men who commit voyeurism and exposure, and other abusive predators – could acquire the right to be treated as female on the basis of self-declaration. TLP: Self-ID, a technical simplification of the process of declaring your gender, is now the law in various forms in 20 countries, including Ireland. There have been no problems. It is supported by The Council of Europe, Amnesty International and Liberty. The conflation of trans women with predatory men and sex criminals is a standard trope of this kind of writing, wrapped in a casing of ‘reasonableness’

Text continues: This is the context in which Kemi Badenoch asked the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) if the government should clarify the law to make clear sex means biological sex in the Equality Act. TLP: Equally useful context might also include that Badenoch has been recorded referring to trans women as “men”, (“You now want to have men using women’s bathrooms”), abstained on a vote to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, is opposed to the extension of a conversion therapy ban for trans people and has made false claims about the Editor of Pink News. Her attitude to trans people is well known. The Government Equalities Office, over which Badenoch resides, now routinely drops reference to the ‘T’ when discuss LGBT rights, mentioning only lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Text continues: In a welcome intervention, the commission last week wrote to the equalities minister to say there is indeed a case for doing so.

TLP: ‘Welcome’ to the writer. It has created panic in the UK trans community to whom it could not be more unwelcome (Though we should point out that this EHRC advice has at this point no legal force)

Text continues: This wouldn’t affect the Equality Act’s critical protections against unlawful discrimination for trans people on grounds of gender reassignment. TLP: This is completely untrue Text continues: But it would improve the legal framework in the interests of balancing everyone’s needs, by clarifying the sex-based protections that allow for female-only services for legitimate purposes – such as protecting the privacy, dignity and safety of women who want to access female-only hospital wards or intimate care or who do not want to be imprisoned with or strip searched by anyone male. TLP: Further use of the term ‘male’ despite legal clarity already and irrespective of any trans woman’s personal, legal, biological, endocrinological, hormonal status etc.

Text continues: The law still rightly requires there to be services that meet the needs of trans people and organisations could of course opt to provide some services on the basis of the gender in which people identify, but not at the expense of single-sex provision for women who need it. TLP: Echoes of the ‘separate but equal’ language of apartheid here?

Text continues: This has not stopped some LGBT charities reacting with shamefully irresponsible levels of hyperbole. Mermaids has accused the EHRC of “seeking to strip trans people’s rights”; the chief executive of Stonewall has said it constitutes “a sustained assault on the human rights of trans people”. TLP: The language. ‘Shaming’ of LGBT+ organisations for fighting for the rights of trans people. Heard that before? No LGBT+ organisations support this move. None were consulted. If enacted, trans women would be legally forced to use male toilets, and changing rooms, trans men would be forced into women’s toilets and changing rooms. Some sort of policing of so-called ‘biological’ sex would need to be introduced at entry points. Cis women who ‘look trans’ would be challenged. Reports exist of them being abused/attacked in the US.

Text continues: I suspect the real beef is the failure of the government and the EHRC to align with their controversial worldview that being a woman is purely a matter of self-identification, rendering biological sex irrelevant. TLP: No organisation in the UK has claimed it is “irrelevant”. It has been pointed out that it is immensely complex.

Text continues: Stonewall has openly campaigned for the Equality Act’s protections for single-sex services to be scrapped and organisations it has advised on equalities law have been found to have wrongly understood and applied the law “as Stonewall would prefer it to be”. Its boss has offensively compared the “gender critical” belief that sex and gender identity are distinct concepts to antisemitism.

TLP: Untrue. Stonewall campaigned that trans women not be excluded from single-sex spaces at all, because they are women. The Parliamentary Women & Equalities Committee agreed. This quote is from a GC barrister’s opinion, not a court, later demolished by Trans Legal Project. Stonewall does not give legal advice.

Text continues: It has ludicrously tried and failed to get the UN to downgrade its rating of the EHRC as a national equalities regulator for daring to consider the needs of women who believe sex remains relevant. TLP: It along with a number of trans rights group sought to have the EHRC downgraded by the UN’s Accreditation body, GANHRI. GANHRI reaccredited the EHRC and the attempt was unsuccessful. However, the EHRC was censured with 7 (equal most with El Salvador) recommendations which needed attention. Most other reaccredited countries received at most 2 recommendations. These include specific instructions to ensure that groups representing LGBT+ people were better served. It also asked them to make their appointment process more transparent. The EHRC has, as far as we know, not implemented any of GANHRI’s recommendations

Text continues: Stonewall has had an impressively firm grip on how public sector organisations view the law through membership schemes and diversity rankings, which the information commissioner has said gives it “a significant degree of influence” over workplace policies. Even the EHRC, the independent arbiter of how equalities law is applied by public bodies, used to be a member of Stonewall’s scheme, implying there was once a degree of regulatory capture of a body supposed to balance protections for all groups. TLP: EHRC, the “independent arbiter”: 1. Commissioners are appointed by the government. Well-known anti-trans figures amongst them, some have represented anti-trans groups in court.

2. Condemned by previous Chairman of Commissioners for political bias

3. Riven with resignations over this issue, mostly from legal experts working for them.

4. In a recent meeting with trans rights activists to try and explain this ‘advice’, the staff, including Marcial Boo, the CEO and Melanie Field, were completely unable to justify it.

5. Censured by the UN’s Human Rights accreditation body in 2022

Text continues: But there is a new political consensus emerging that to clarify the Equality Act’s sex-based protections would be a good thing. Labour shadow ministers such as Shabana Mahmood have welcomed the EHRC’s recommendation for a review.

Women have been vilified for the moderate opinion shared by many that sex remains relevant in law and society.

That consensus – encompassing the Conservative government, the opposition and a regulator that has newly rediscovered its independence – is also reflective of public attitudes: research suggests that many people rightly take a “live and let live” approach to how people identify, but believe sex remains relevant in areas such as sport and single-sex spaces. TLP: A ‘consensus’ that does not involve any LGBT+ rights groups nor any of those whom it will profoundly affect? A surprising use of the term. The EHRC’s “newly rediscovered…independence”? See above.

Text continues: It remains extraordinary that in a context where campaigners have tried to intimidate people into adopting their worldview on pain of being tarred a bigot, women have been vilified for the moderate opinion shared by many that sex remains relevant in law and society. People have endured bullying and harassment, unlawful workplace discrimination, violent protest and illicit police action. There are important takeaways from this sorry saga: the moral cowardice of leaders in big institutions who allowed this to happen; the insight that frightening people into taking up your cause is no substitute for winning hearts and minds. TLP: Given that there is no problem to fix here, this is world class DARVO

Text continues: But my overwhelming feeling at this advent of compassionate common sense is a massive sense of relief. Relief that we may be approaching a time where we can all acknowledge a disabled woman’s right to turn down intimate care from anyone male alongside the need of a trans survivor of domestic abuse to access appropriate services, and agree both are things a humane society must accommodate.

TLP: Repetition that trans women are male. Language is carefully framed to give the impression that the ‘debate’ is now over. Having abused trans people and supporters in the previous paragraph, the aim is to wrong foot opponents into seeming unreasonable (again). Faux compassion here is suggesting that separate but equal facilities can be set up for excluded trans people. ************

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1 Comment

Jun 13, 2023

I came across this article by chance and am very glad of it for it has articulated many of my thoughts and fears. Sonia Sodha is indeed speaking of apartheid and her refusal to write of trans women is very apparent. It appears to me that the Guardian is repeating history ie an editorial line which has long been trans supportive whilst giving a platform to a correspondent vehemently anti trans pace Julie Birchill


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