Gender recognition and unlikely bedfellows

County View

County View
John Healy

Whatever will be the outcome of the Wilson’s Hospital teacher standoff, there is little doubt but that the central dispute is set to become the trip wire for what will become a deeply divisive public issue. And as with all multifaceted issues, even the most unlikely bedfellows – albeit for very varied reasons – are finding themselves lining up together on the same side of the argument.
The question of gender recognition has been thrust back into public prominence of late thanks to two developments. The first is the law passed by the Scottish Parliament in the dying days of 2022, which will allow people to acquire a gender recognition certificate that changes their designated sex in the eyes of the law without – as is still required in the rest of Britain – a medical diagnosis or a long waiting period.
Supporters of self-identification, as the process is called, have hailed the new law as a progressive step forward for transgender rights. They point approvingly to such countries as Ireland, where since 2015 legislation enables anyone over the age of 18 to obtain a gender-recognition certificate without the approval of a medical practitioner.
But the measure has been met with unexpected opposition, not least from feminist campaigners and women’s rights activists, who claim that the new law would be a danger to women and children and would put them at unwarranted risk.
In self-identification jurisdictions, these activists say, ‘biological males’ (or, to use the preferred terminology, those ‘assigned male at birth’ (AMAB)) have accessed domestic violence and homeless shelters for women, they have infiltrated women’s sports changing rooms and schools, women’s workplaces and hospital settings. And they cite with alarm the infamous case of the troubled Irish youth, convicted in 2020 of threats to torture and rape his mother, subsequently issued with a gender recognition certificate to say he is a woman. The youth is now being held in custody in the female wing of Limerick prison.
But the execution of the Scottish law still has a long way to run. The British government is likely to decide that Scotland has exceeded its authority by tampering with the Equality Act, a piece of legislation which is reserved solely for the Parliament in Westminster.
In Britain, there are concerns the new law could bring self-identification into England by the back door, in that it would be open to any citizen to make their way to Scotland and obtain a gender certificate, since the proposed law has no residency requirements. And activists have raised the scare bar by positing that a Scottish-born individual assigned male at birth but who now self-identifies as female could go to an English school and demand a place in a girls’ dormitory or sports team.
Meanwhile, closer to home, bitter divisions have emerged over gender identity and the use of pronouns in schools as a new curriculum on sex education is being prepared for next September.  The curriculum proposes to offer guidance to children on matters of gender identity, pornography and sexual consent. But critics have denounced the plans as posing significant risks to the welfare of children, and accused the curriculum of ignoring the rights of parents as the primary educators in matters of moral behaviour.
The gender-identity issue may well have the effect of polarising opinion and splintering hitherto unshakable alliances. The Scottish debate has divided public opinion to the extent that those who favour independence fear that it might sunder national solidarity. An issue that aligns the views of a progressive group such as Women for Scotland with the most conservative of old-value proponents could make for a strange creature of dissent. And the first calls to revisit the legislation that introduced legal self-identification to Ireland in 2015 are already being heard. And in the United States, medical advocates are calling for a clearer solution – that reference to gender should be completely removed from birth certificates.