Many constituents have contacted me regarding the Equality Act.

The first thing I want to say is that on all issues of equality we should be trying to bring people together and treat everyone with respect. I deplore the fact that public debate on this issue has become so divisive. We should stand against discrimination, bigotry and hatred and nobody should suffer abuse or violence because of who they are or who they love, and everyone – including trans people – is entitled to equal rights in our society.

By way of background, the Government responded to the petition in January saying: “Under the Equality Act 2010, providers are already able to restrict the use of spaces/services on the basis of sex and/or gender reassignment where justified. Further clarification is not necessary.” The full Government response is on the petition website.

Then, in February, the Women and Equalities Minister wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to ask for its advice on the definition of the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act. The response from the Chair of the EHRC said: “A change to the Equality Act 2010, so that the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ means biological sex, could bring clarity in a number of areas, but potential ambiguity in others.” The EHRC recommended detailed policy and legal analysis to be undertaken, in compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty and with due regard to any possible disadvantages for trans men and trans women. Given some of the criticism there has been of the EHRC, I think this last point is particularly important. It is also worth adding that the Equality Act already makes very specific provision for women only spaces, although there have been some recent court judgments which appear to be contradictory in what is already a complex area of the law.

In response to a Written Question, on 24 April the Equalities Minister advised that “no decisions on any next steps have been made.”

The issue was debated on 12 June and I sat and listened to the whole debate. I have pasted below a link to the record of what was said on both sides of the argument. I think it is well worth reading. The one trans MP was present for part of the debate but did not speak.

As you will see, the Government said that they are still continuing to think about this matter and have taken no decision yet. Any proposals the Government finally brings forward will need to be looked at very carefully, not least because the law in this area is complex. And whatever happens, the Equality Act has really strengthened people’s protections from disadvantage and discrimination, and we must not weaken these protections for people with protected characteristics including gender reassignment which would, of course, remain in place, regardless of any other changes that might be made.

On the general issue of gender recognition certificates, it is important to point out that GRCs are only required for a limited number of purposes, namely, acquiring a new birth certificate, getting married or entering into a civil partnership, or having your new acquired gender recorded on your death certificate. For all other purposes, trans people do not need to have a GRC in order to live their lives.

In terms of documents, they are able to change their gender on, for example, their passport, driving licence, with their employer and their bank, and they do not have to be at least 18 years old in order to do so. These are all things that trans people can do without having to possess a gender recognition certificate, and they are rightly free to live your life in their acquired gender.

The matter which is at the heart of all this is that there is a fundamental and apparently irreconcilable difference of view among those who have written to me about how acquired gender relates to biology; ie about the relationship between gender identity and biology. This is summed up by the question “Is a trans woman a woman?”

The answer, of course, is that a trans woman feels herself to be a woman and wishes to be regarded as such by society, and I strongly support her right on both counts. However, that does not mean of course that she is physically a woman in exactly the same way as someone who was born female is. This should not really be controversial, but I recognise that those on both sides of the debate hold diametrically opposing and passionate views because both feel that their rights are being impinged upon.

To be honest, I don’t know whether it is possible for both views to be reconciled, but regardless of that, we need to uphold fair and equal treatment for all trans people who are amongst the most marginalised and discriminated against sections of our community, and who – as you point out – face an increasing incidence of hate crime which is deeply shocking.

Finally, I fear that the vitriol that is far too evident on some occasions when these matters are discussed is unpleasant and highly damaging to both gender critical feminists and trans people, and makes it more difficult to reach a consensus on the way forward.

I think most people believe in the concept of “live and let live”, and I certainly do.

I hope this is helpful.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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