Sex Matters response to “More in Common”

More in Common is an organisation that seeks to “build societies and communities that are “stronger, more united, and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarisation and social division”. 

Perhaps as a response to this challenge from Maya Forstater, it has applied its approach to the gender wars. Over the past year it ran a series of polls and focus groups, and it has just published the report of its findings, Britons and Gender Identity: Navigating Common Ground and Division.

In its poll 26% of Britons say they strongly agree with the statements “trans women are women” and “trans men are men”. 20% somewhat agree, 22% don’t know, 12% somewhat disagree and 18% strongly disagree. 

More in Common admits that the vaguely phrased question “leaves room for respondents’ own interpretation of what it means to be a trans man and a trans woman”.

When it comes to practical issues most people recognise that sex matters: 

  • 57% think that men who identify as women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports. This has increased by nine percentage points since 2018. 
  • The proportion of people who think “trans women” should be allowed to use women’s changing rooms and toilets falls sharply when they learn that identifying as a woman does not necessarily entail “gender reassignment surgery”. 
  • Only one in four think that males who retain male genitals should be allowed to use women’s changing rooms, and less than one in three think they should be allowed to use women’s toilets. 
  • The majority of Britons do not believe that children under the age of 18 who feel distressed about their sexed body should be given hormone blockers, cross-sex hormones or surgery.

More In Common wants to encourage policy-makers, campaigners and the media to “find fair, common-ground solutions in ways that allow trans people to live their lives with dignity, while at the same time protecting women’s identity and rights – and sustain public trust and confidence in how society navigates an issue of social change.” 

This sounds positive. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that the organisation has a predetermined idea of where that social change should lead. Although it is not yelling “Trans rights are human rights, you bigots!”, it seems to be seeking consensus with the ideological position that “Trans women are women, trans men are men” and to progress towards the goal of allowing some males the right to be in some women’s spaces and sports.

The efforts of those who have made space, against all odds, for a democratic discussion of these issues are disparaged as “noisy debates, inflammatory tweets and reductive questions”.

More in Common proposes a solution that will not work

In focus groups, More in Common finds that Britons take a “live and let live” approach and see a series of practical issues requiring “sensible, sound and tailored” solutions to problems, which balance different interests and competing concerns. We agree. 

But More in Common argues that solution is “a case-by-case approach”, with schools, police forces and employers empowered to make decisions “for different people”.

This kicking the can down the road has been tried before. It doesn’t work for trans-identifying people, it doesn’t work for service providers and it doesn’t work for anybody else. What are needed are clear and fair rules which work for everyone. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission alighted on the individual “case-by-case” solution 12 years ago in its Code of Practice, and is now trying to unpick it in its new guidance on single-sex services. The Sports Councils of the UK considered the case-by-case approach in an extensive process of research and realised that it was not fair, safe or workable (they also said it is likely to be unlawful). 

As the More in Common report highlights, people in focus groups, who won’t have to make the decisions themselves, gravitate towards the case-by-case solution because they want to make the compassionate distinction between people who have had “the op” and those who haven’t. 

But we know that most trans-identifying people do not have genital surgery. And in legal and human-rights terms, the government, employers and service providers cannot give, or withhold, rights or entitlements based on surgery. In most situations it would be inappropriate for service providers to ask about it. 

Furthermore, surgery is not a magical solution. The heartbreaking descriptions by detransitioners such as Ritchie (TullipR) reveal how far the truth can be from the fantasy. After living for ten years “as a woman” and having his testicles removed and penis inverted, he tells of having no sensation in his crotch region, of a neo-vagina that is “so narrow and small that I wouldn’t even be able to have sex if I wanted to” and of taking ten slow, painful minutes every time he empties his bladder. He recognises now that he is not a woman, and that he never was.

Of course we feel compassion for people who have been driven to take this step. But this does not mean that society should make the impossible promise that people can change sex if they have their sexual organs operated on and their reproductive systems removed.

The solution that many compassionate people alight on without knowing much about the issue is simply not a solution that is available. 

What would practical, compassionate solutions be?

There are ways to include people who do not feel comfortable about their sex that don’t involve pushing unrealistic expectations, destroying female-only spaces, judging individuals’ appearance on an impossible “case-by-case” basis, or forcing society to pretend that people can change sex.

The solution is a matter of respecting reasonable, limited privacy: institutions should be clear and straightforward about sex-based rules while also considering how they can accommodate people who would prefer not to answer the question: “What is your biological sex?”.

Practical solutions include:

  • In sport: an open category (for people of any sex or gender identity) and a female category, so that no one is excluded. 
  • In everyday separate-sex facilities such as toilets and changing rooms: clear rules for male and female spaces, and unisex options provided wherever possible. 
  • In specialist single-sex services such as services for survivors of sexual violence: specific provision for trans-identifying people may be needed. 
  • In data collection: a “prefer not to say” option and digital identity solutions that allow people to keep information about their sex private when that information need not be shared. 

More in Common has stepped into the debate, perhaps naively, thinking that there must be an undiscovered, simple middle ground that can be intuited by focus group. 

But rather than helping their participants consider the difficult questions, it has directed them straight from compassion towards the easy discounting of women’s interests (this is what happens with “case-by-case” in practice). For example, More in Common recognises that people are concerned about fairness and safety in sport, but suggests that sex-based rules can be confined to “elite” events, with inclusion based on gender identity in “informal/voluntary events” – as if fairness and safety do not matter for women and girls at local, club and school levels. 

The test for the organisation now is whether it is brave enough to go beyond this first toe in the water and involve itself in honest dialogue aimed at finding practical solutions for accommodating trans-identified people that might actually work.