For parents, the fight to keep sex-segregated spaces goes on

It was Vicki Edwards’s own upbringing which led her to enter one of the most contentious debates of our time – how we should support children who identify as trans. As JK Rowling has found, anyone who criticises the current orthodoxy of unquestioning acceptance is liable to receive a barrage of abuse. But Edwards, who grew up in a traditional working-class household in the Midlands in the 1980s and 1990s, and struggled with knowing she was attracted to girls rather than boys, felt she had to speak out. 

Now the mother of a 12-year old son, Edwards was “obsessed with football” and “never wanted girly clothes or long hair.” If people had told her that she was trans, she would have been delighted: “I could have had my hobbies taken more seriously. I could have openly said, ‘I’m attracted to girls’ without being picked on for being a lesbian. It would have been absolutely amazing.”

She is worried that girls like her who don’t conform to feminine stereotypes are now encouraged to believe they are “really” male – and put on a medical pathway that leads to hormones and surgery. Edwards is a member of the Safe Schools Alliance (SSA), a national coalition of parents, teachers and governors campaigning against what they see as dangerous policies adopted by schools to accommodate trans pupils.

Yesterday’s announcement from Liz Truss that the government is to abandon measures proposed by Theresa May’s government to simplify the process of legally changing sex was welcomed by the SSA, with spokeswoman Tanya Carter describing it as “heartening” that the government has “chosen to listen to the concerns of women’s groups and advocates for children.”

Currently people who want a gender recognition certificate (GRC) must persuade a panel of doctors and lawyers that they have lived as the opposite sex for two years and been diagnosed with gender dysphoria (a mismatch between their birth sex and sense of gender identity). The plan, put out to public consultation in 2018, and endorsed by lobby groups such as Stonewall, was to make the process as simple as filling in a form saying that one wanted to identify as the opposite sex. Approximately 5,000 people have a GRC in the UK: the fear of some campaigners was that the proposed system, known as “self-ID”, would be easy to abuse by male predators wanting access to female spaces.  

Equally importantly, Truss announced new safeguards to protect the single-sex exemptions of the Equality Act. These exemptions, which Stonewall and others had campaigned to abolish, mean that organisations can insist that certain facilities, such as toilets, changing rooms or refuges, are open only to one sex, excluding even those with a GRC. 

What has alarmed SSA and other campaigning organisations is that some public sector organisations are behaving as if the law has already changed to allow self-id, leading, for example, to the rapist Karen White (previously David Thompson) being placed in a women’s prison. Similarly, guidance issued to schools requires them to treat trans children as the sex with which they identify. 

The dramatic rise in young people identifying as trans has made it a particularly fraught issue in schools. The number of children referred to the NHS’s only gender identity clinic, the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust’s gender identity development service (GIDS), rose from 77 in 2009-10 to 2,590 in 2018-19. Most are teenagers, but the youngest is three, and two-thirds are female. GIDS has come under criticism for its readiness to prescribe potentially harmful puberty blockers (offlabel drugs given to children to delay puberty), and 35 members of staff have resigned in three years. 

Time-poor, many schools have turned to trans advocacy groups for advice, resources and training.  Others use a “trans inclusion toolkit”, near-identical versions of which have been produced by numerous local authorities, often with the help of those same groups. 

The toolkits typically require that schools “affirm” children’s identity by using their new name and preferred pronouns. They also advise accommodating their desire to use their preferred facilities, so that boys who identify as girls should be allowed to use girls’ toilets, changing rooms and overnight accommodation. Tanya Carter, an SSA spokeswoman who has four daughters aged 13 to 21, believes that the toolkits “are removing children from our established safeguarding framework, they’re undermining the rights of girls, and they’re impinging on freedom of speech.

Carter, a former chair of governors, points out that the toolkits’ advice that staff members “should keep it a secret if a child has disclosed to them that they’re questioning their gender identity” is an obvious breach of established safeguarding practice, which is to ask the child open-ended questions and to discuss the best way forward for the child’s welfare with the parents. She finds the idea that teenagers of the opposite sex should be allowed to share dormitories “staggering”, noting that there are “serious liability issues” for schools if, for example, a girl became pregnant on a residential trip. The erosion of privacy involved in allowing a teenager to share changing rooms with the opposite sex horrifies Edwards: “I can’t imagine 14-year old girls wanting to get naked or semi-naked in front of a male classmate. It’s excruciating.” 

The authoritarian nature of the guidance is also a concern, argues Carter: “For effective safeguarding you need a culture where everybody is free to openly raise their concerns and know they’ll be taken seriously.” She is worried that unquestioning acceptance of a child’s trans identity may conceal the fact that, as suggested in a Newsnight report in June, many of those children are gays or lesbians scared of coming out to homophobic parents. 

The SSA’s disquiet led it to support a legal challenge by a 13-year old girl to the Trans Inclusion Toolkit issued by Oxfordshire local authority for use in schools and youth organisations, which she felt breached her right to safety and privacy. Before the case came to court, however, Oxfordshire withdrew the toolkit. Since then, 16 more local authorities have followed suit, though some, such as Brighton, have held firm. SSA hopes that Truss’s announcement will force these authorities to withdraw their guidance too. 

This is not the end of the journey, however. Gender identity is not defined in law, nor is it a protected characteristic under the Equality Act – and yet schools have been behaving as it is. Carter intends to fight on, “to undo all the regulatory capture of organisations that have been working outside of the law.”

Liz Truss’s response to the Gender Recognition Act (2004) consultation

  • The process of applying for a gender recognition certificate (GRC) will be put online.
  • The application fee for a GRC will be reduced from £140 to a “nominal” amount.
  • The government will not introduce “self-ID”: people will still require a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and to live for two years as the opposite sex, to receive a GRC.
  • Three new NHS gender clinics will open, to cut waiting lists for trans health care.
  •  The Equality Act’s exemption allowing service providers to restrict access to single-sex spaces on the basis of biological sex if there is a clear justification remains.