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Rosie Duffield: “You never change sex”

The Labour MP's views on gender self-ID have been met with fierce opposition. Can her party find a compromise?

By Harry Lambert

For at least half a decade now, Labour, like many political parties in the West, has struggled with the contentious issue of “self-ID” – the proposed right of people to self-identity as another sex or gender. Some Labour members and voters, and an undetermined number of the party’s MPs, think that self-ID threatens the rights of women to single-sex spaces. The most prominent critic of the idea within the party is Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury since 2017. When I met Duffield recently, she had little sense of what her party’s policy is, or who is in charge of crafting it.

“In effect the position is to try and please nearly everyone, and the problem with that is sometimes trans rights clash with women’s rights. There’s no getting away from that I’m afraid. Keir [Starmer] has said he wants to protect single-sex spaces, but if you’re hurrying through self-ID, which he has also said he wants to make easier, those two things are going to clash.”

In 2019, Labour committed to self-ID in its election manifesto. If you ask the relevant aides in the party what their policy is today, they will tell you they want the process of changing gender “to be made easier, with safeguards”. They want “modernisation, not self-ID”. What does that mean? The only aspect of the issue on which the party is clear is that no one should be able to change their legal sex before they turn 18, as under existing law. The Scottish government’s gender bill sought to reduce it to 16 (as some in Labour would like), and in practice many children have, in recent years, already begun the process of changing their gender medically.

Labour aides are less clear on the two other key provisions of the UK’s current gender recognition process: the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria (which the Scottish law would abolish), and the requirement that one lives in their acquired gender for two years and commits to doing so thereafter (the SNP wants that time cut to three months for adults before application, and six months for under-18s). Polls show that the public supports the law in its existing form: three in five voters support the two provisions, while only one in six opposes them. When asked directly, voters do not think the process of changing gender should be made easier, by a margin of two to one. 

[Read also: Nicola Sturgeon is right on gender recognition]

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Nevertheless, Labour wants to change these requirements, although it is unclear how. “You don’t necessarily want it to be a medical process,” an informed staffer says, “but if you don’t [have that], what is the safeguard? It serves everyone if we take the heat out of this,” they add, hopefully.

But the issue is full of inherent tensions, Duffield argues. “You either update the [2010] Equality Act to enshrine women’s rights to single-sex spaces, or you carry through self-ID. You cannot do both of those things. A decision has to be made.”

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I was told that Labour will make it explicit that the existing Equality Act – under which you can exclude people from hospital wards, women’s refuges, prisons or female sports on the basis of sex – is “supreme”. (Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, announced this week that the UK government will look to introduce explicit legal protections for those born female.) “It is completely reasonable for sporting bodies, for instance, to make that decision [to exclude trans athletes] if they think the integrity of the sport is at stake,” the Labour staffer tells me. This stance aligns with the public. YouGov found that by almost four to one voters think women’s sport should be reserved for those born female.

These Labour positions are news to Duffield, 51, who had not met with Keir Starmer for 18 months when we spoke, and who was briefed against in January by his communications director, Matthew Doyle. “It would be nice,” Doyle told a reporter while being recorded, for Duffield “to spend a bit more time actually in Canterbury rather than hanging out with JK Rowling”. I ask Duffield whether Doyle has since apologised; Duffield, the party’s sole MP in Kent, was in Canterbury on the day Doyle criticised her. She declined a meeting with him. “He isn’t sorry,” she says, smiling. “He’s just been caught.”

Duffield has been vilified by some on social media for voicing views that largely align with the public. (“There has clearly been a lot of abuse,” the Labour aide says when I ask them about it, “and our position is no one should be subject to that.”) Almost no one in the party will publicly support her. Yet Duffield believes that many Labour MPs agree with her. She says that one recently told her: “You know everyone in the PLP agrees with you? But they’re too afraid to say so.” 

That may be shifting. Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, recently told the New Statesman that “we need to stop gaslighting women, stop silencing women and stop pretending that there aren’t challenges”. Duffield thinks that the party is split between around 20 gender-critical MPs like herself and 10-15 MPs who see no conflict between the rights of biological and trans women, with a great silent majority in between.

The problem with self-ID, Duffield argues, is that “women are being told to go against their instincts. Not just women, but children and men as well. Every woman born, by instinct, knows a man when they’re near her, let me tell you that. Every single woman knows that someone is a man, whether they dress differently or not. Miriam Cates [a Conservative female MP] mentioned that a man came into the bathroom when she was in there – you immediately know that. You feel immediately a little bit like protecting yourself. It’s an instinct. We are born with it. And I won’t be told by anyone to ignore that.”

There are trans women who would strongly reject this view. “The term ‘sex’ is levied as a biological truth in order to make exclusionary arguments about denying trans people services,” as Shon Faye, a trans author, put it in October 2021. “When people talk about male and female they want to make trans women seem like mannish aggressors, so quite quickly a discussion of biology slips into a discussion of behaviour.”

[Read also: Shon Faye wants a “deeper conversation” about trans liberation]

Duffield does not believe she is doing that. Her concern is not trans women but predatory men; men who will take advantage of a society that defines single-sex spaces not by biology but by self-identification. “We are mostly smaller and more vulnerable physically than men, and some men exploit that – we know that,” she argues. “So it is vital women are allowed to pay attention to their instincts. When someone is telling you to address them differently, they’re telling you your instinct isn’t important. Your thoughts, feelings and perceptions are more irrelevant than their desire to be called something else by you.”

“My personal belief,” says Duffield, “is you never change sex. You can change gender identity and you can ask society to respect you in that new gender, but you are biologically never going to be a woman who’s experienced puberty. You cannot understand what it’s like, in every sense of the word, to be a woman if you were born as a man.”

Duffield does not think trans or gay rights have been advanced by being treated as one. “Sexuality is innate, and you’re born with it – don’t conflate it with gender identity,” she argues. “A lot of my gay friends,” she says, “find aspects of self-ID homophobic. If you are born a male, you live as a male and you father children, and you decide that your gender identity is now female, don’t call yourself a lesbian – you’re not. I think that is deeply insulting.

“Gender-critical women believe that it doesn’t matter when you want to climb trees, or whether you want to ‘dress as a boy’. Because you can still be a woman.” What society needs to do, Duffield believes, is to expand its conception of what a man or woman is, rather than redefining what men and women are. 

Why is the subject so fraught? For Duffield, who lived through the fights within Labour over Brexit and anti-Semitism, “this is the only issue I’ve been involved in where there is no attempt at collegiate discussion. It’s so divided.” Any fence-sitting by Starmer, she believes, is only going to alienate both sides.

Ben Bradshaw, a fellow Labour MP and the former culture secretary, is a public critic of Duffield’s. He pushed back against some of her views when we spoke. “Ireland already has self-ID, of course, as do a growing number of European countries. So I think the tide of history is going steadily in one direction,” he argues.

“As far as I’m concerned, Labour’s position is absolutely clear and should not be controversial,” Bradshaw continues, “which is that we favour reforming the gender recognition process to demedicalise it, to reduce the degrading treatment that trans people who want to transition need to go through. We believe there’s absolutely no conflict between trans rights and the protection of safe spaces under the Equality Act.” Bradshaw believes this is “certainly Keir’s position” and the position of most Labour MPs. 

I put the polling data to him. “Of course public opinion in a democracy matters,” he says. “But if governments had always only been guided by public opinion, we wouldn’t have had any of the social advances in this country.”

What of Duffield’s concerns? “Well, predatory cis men [cis is a term used by some to describe those who are not trans] take advantage of people all the time,” Bradshaw contends. “I mean, they kill thousands of women every year, right? The idea that suddenly the danger to women, or anyone else, is going to increase incrementally from cis men because they decide to pretend that they’re trans is totally ludicrous. It’s moral panic – nothing more.”

These lines of tension are familiar. But is there more harmony between Duffield and Bradshaw than it appears? Is there a landing zone for an agreement on sex and gender within Labour before the 2024 general election?

The disagreements between the two feel as if they become less severe as they get more specific. Bradshaw accepts that trans women may be excluded from specific spaces under the Equality Act (“Yes, in certain circumstances”) and does not think JK Rowling’s recent creation of a single-sex women’s refuge in Scotland was transphobic. (“There’s no problem with Rowling doing what she wants to do,” he says. “It’s just not what most refuges are comfortable with.”) Bradshaw is also open to the fact that sporting bodies may find it necessary to limit their competitions to those born female. (“Domestic and international sporting bodies are feeling their way very sensitively based on the evidence on all of these issues.”) He also thinks Isla Bryson, the convicted Scottish rapist who identified as a trans woman when awaiting her trial, was rightly removed from a woman’s prison. (“As far as I understand it, she was always kept segregated.”)

Duffield is unconvinced that agreement can easily be found. She brings up the case of the transgender comedian and Labour activist Eddie Izzard. “We’re talking about people who are describing themselves as being in ‘girl mode’ and in ‘boy mode’ – you can’t legislate for that. I don’t believe anyone believes that Eddie Izzard dressing ‘as a woman’ has become one. And therefore why are we being told to address him as a her?”

She thinks the issue is more divisive than anti-Semitism was for the party, but also sees parallels in how silent many of her party’s MPs are on the issue. She understands why other gender-critical voices in the party are quiet – “there are a lot of people that would like to see some horrible things happen to me,” she points out – but Duffield wishes that powerful men who agree with her position would speak out. When she meets young gender-critical women she now advises them not to speak up. “I have to admit, I advise them not to talk about their views, because I want them to be able to have a career. I don’t want them to be cancelled in their worlds.”

When I caught up with Bradshaw after Badenoch’s announcement of a change to the Equality Act, he decried the move, which he saw as a culture war ploy by the Tories, one that is bound to fail and only serves to demonise trans people. Labour did not initially oppose Badenoch’s decision: “Clarification is a good thing,” a party spokesman told the Times this week. “We will look closely at what’s brought forward.”

The tension for Starmer is whether he can satisfy both Bradshaw and Duffield as he bids for power. He has made no attempt to broker a compromise between the two in the first three years of his leadership. But any fissures over this issue are sure to resurface in an election campaign – both the press and the Tories will make sure of that.

[See also: Glenda Jackson: “It is never, ever a level playing field”]

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