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After His Furious Public Spat With Liz Truss Over Trans Rights, Crispin Blunt Says He Will Not Let The Issue Go

A demonstrator's jacket displaying the gender neutral symbol during a Black Trans Lives Matter protest at Parliament Square, London, 4 July 2020 | PA Images

10 min read

After a bitter internal Tory row over the government's long-awaited response to the Gender Recognition Act, Crispin Blunt has vowed to carry on what he sees as a vital battle for trans rights. Georgina Bailey speaks to him

“The current position cannot stand.”

This was the stark warning Crispin Blunt sent Conservative colleagues following a showdown with minister for women and equalities Liz Truss over the Gender Recognition Act in the Commons last week. 

The clash escalated to the point where it was widely reported Blunt had called for Truss to be “sacked” from the equalities part of her brief; though he later issued a somewhat unconvincing clarification: he said he wanted this part of her job (she is also international trade secretary) to be “given to someone else,” as he felt she did “not have the time or necessary empathy to continue”.

Now, the MP for Reigate has pledged: “I and many many others will not let go until the rights trans people are owed in any society that has respect for universal human rights are delivered.”

“We will press for the results of consultation to be honoured… This old parliamentary dog is not letting go of this bone!” Blunt told a WhatsApp group of sympathetic MPs. 

The row began after it was announced that Truss had dropped plans to de-medicalise the process of individuals legally changing gender identity, including removing the need for a medical report, evidence of having lived in their acquired gender for a period of time, and a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. 

It was the latest stage in a fierce debate that has raged ever since it was announced – by then women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt in 2018 – that the government would consult on updating the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. 

The consultation received over 108,000 responses, of which 7,000 were from trans people, and it quickly became part of the so-called ‘culture war’ on social media, with celebrities like J.K. Rowling becoming part of a storm where women’s rights and the rights of transgender people were pitted against each other. 

This discourse, Blunt says, is a key part of the problem: “They’re not clashing rights, they’re overlapping rights,” he says, before adding: “Trans rights are human rights. Every society should aspire to have universal human rights”. 

Blunt’s view is backed up by nine of the 2019 Conservative intake, who called on the Government last month to “[follow] through on our promises” to the trans community. 

The promises Truss is being held to are not of her making – or even, Blunt claims, her ideology. He alleges that she came into the role “with a particular view”, heavily influenced by women’s groups who do not want to make it easier for trans people to change their gender identity. Representatives for Truss did not respond to a request for comment.

Mordaunt was seen as sympathetic to the claim that the 16-year-old legislation on trans people needed to be changed so that it was easier for them to legally change their gender without a diagnosis, while Truss has said that their main concerns are access to health care and the streamlining of bureaucracy around getting a gender recognition certificate. 

These are both things that the government has committed to addressing, but critics such as Stonewall say the changes “don’t go anywhere near far enough toward… [making] it easier for all trans people to go about their daily life.”. However, those against the concept of self-identification, who had argued a change would undermine women’s rights, welcomed the statement.

Unless you're trans or you have a trans person in your family, you're very unlikely to be familiar with the implications of this

With no legislation forthcoming and Truss showing no signs of moving, some trans activists are disheartened. But Blunt and others on the backbenches are not yet ready to give up their fight, which he sees as being over a fundamental conservative tenet – freedom to live how you choose. 

“Don't expect to get elected if you're going to try and tell everybody  how to behave in all circumstances. Because people aren’t going to let you,” he warns.

Blunt says the issue of trans rights is one that takes considerable time and work to understand fully. 

“Unless you're trans or you have a trans person in your family, you're very unlikely to be familiar with the implications of this. And that was my position until frankly, until the summer,” he explains. 

While the consultation was ongoing, debates about whether “self-identification” poses a risk to cis-women, access to single-sex spaces and the rights and protections afforded of transgender children swirled online during the 21-month waiting period, often turning angry on all sides. 

Blunt says he is dismayed at the talk of “balancing” trans rights with women’s’ rights. He points to the fact that 84% of transgender people in the UK have contemplated suicide, and 50% have attempted it. “That is an indicator the rest of society needs to up our game and understanding [in] how to support these people.”

When it comes to “overlapping rights”, the issues of self-identification and access to single-sex spaces are particular causes for concern amongst some campaigners.

Currently, the Equality Act 2010 states that a trader or service provider must not discriminate against someone on the grounds of whether they’re a woman, a man, or a transgender person (with some exceptions). 

Transgender people cannot be excluded from single sex services provided to people of their acquired gender – regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate – unless there's a good enough reason. Current examples of exemptions include domestic violence refuges set up for women, and some contact sports. 

The government is not proposing to change any rules on access to single-sex spaces, something Blunt welcomes. In fact, he was more concerned that the rights trans people had on single-sex spaces would be eroded.

However, there is also a fear that the proposals for self-identification would make women’s refuges, prisons and women’s only spaces unsafe.

Blunt has spent time talking to colleagues who hold those anxieties, and says he understands where they come from. 

“Unless you get quite deeply into this and think this through and have both the empathy and the time to get yourself into that place of understanding it's quite easy to think that there are real problems here about men pretending to be women in order to assault women. That men will seek to take improper advantage of rights afforded to people to take a particular gender identity for improper reasons,” he explains.

“There's a fear that has been stoked amongst women about the implications of this. And it is certainly true that far, far too many women have been victims of male violence.”  

Has there been any threat from those people who so self identify? Has anything actually happened?

Blunt’s answer on the source of the concerns is unlikely to endear him to women’s rights groups: he dismisses these fears as the product of primarily US-based religious zealots, who have “alighted on the trans issue” and tried to split LGB issues away from transgender issues to “manipulate” activists. 

He claims that they are using some women’s rights groups as a front to help enact their belief that “God has ordained what your sex is, and you are not entitled to change your gender identity, and that gender and sex are precisely the same thing.” 

He also says there is a misunderstanding of the term “self-identification”. Blunt supports the government assertion that the process requires formality, but rejects that it requires the current level of medical examination and diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

“That’s the most objectionable bit. Then it's simply a question of what the appropriate formality is around the self-identification… the formality can simply be the same way as one might go and take an oath”, he says. Indeed, the British Medical Association also recently passed a motion calling on the Government to “allow transgender and nonbinary individuals to gain legal recognition of their gender by witnessed, sworn statement”.

But in practical terms, how does he believe fears around self-identification can be assuaged? 

“On evidence. If people are required to undergo a formal self-identification process, where they have done elsewhere in the world where that then led to those people who have self-identified in a different gender to one into the biological sex they were born into. Has there been any threat from those people who so self identify? Has anything actually happened?”

He points to Argentina, the first country to allow self-identification eight years ago, where the only issue he is aware of is where someone fraudulently changed their gender to access their pension earlier. 

“Of course there are threats, there is a threat to women from men. And women will have experienced that intimidation and violence… The threat is not coming from trans women. Of all groups of people from whom women might feel a threat, trans women are probably the least likely source,” Blunt says. 

When discussing how this can practically be tackled, he calls the conduct of the online debate “shocking”. “The opponents of giving trans people the support of universal human rights will often see it as a clash of competing rights between women and trans people.”

“You've had strident women's rights campaigners... who have provoked trans people to respond often in an angry and confrontational way, and that is unsurprising because this is a central assault on their identity,” Blunt says.

So does Blunt, the Conservative MP for Reigate since 1997 who was nearly deselected after coming out as gay in 2010, believe the government is transphobic? 

“I think most people haven't got a clue in this area. Basically, we do not understand trans issues. They are complex. And I think the truth is that Liz [Truss] arrived in the equalities brief with a particular view strongly influenced by the part of the women's lobby that's decided to identify trans [issues] as a problem for them,” Blunt says.

The Conservative Party I joined had the torch of freedom as its logo. Personal liberty, and liberty at every level, was what I thought was in the army to defend

In an attempt to better understand differing views in his party, Blunt met with three Conservative colleagues who were closer to Truss’ alleged viewpoint than his on the issue to try and discern the best way forward. In these discussions, he recognised the anxieties around “shortcuts” being taken when supporting transgender children and the pressure some felt was being applied on particularly tomboyish girls to change their gender identity. 

He attempted to put together solutions to these in a paper he presented to the government – which was condemned by some activists as a “backroom deal” 

His proposals included better regulated, centrally mandated relationship and sex education (RSE) in school, removed from the influence of activist groups on both sides and local parents to put the responsibility on government rather than teachers – although he does believe that parents should be able to remove their children from classes if they wish.   

He is also supportive of proper funding for gender services so that experienced doctors don’t feel pressured to take unseemly shortcuts when advising children and their families.

To his Conservative colleagues, he says that this is a fundamental issue of personal freedom, and warns that the party will face electoral challenges if it is seen to be taking its lead from social conservatives, saying “it is not “defensible” in a “modern society”. 

“People should be free to live their lives as they wish. And if someone takes a decision in their life in a particular way, it is not going to have an impact on the rest of society. The requirement should be to understand and indeed celebrate the diversity that these decisions then bring to our society, and not frown at the lack of conformity to a set of rules that have come from generations past,” Blunt explains.

“The Conservative Party I joined had the torch of freedom as its logo. Personal liberty, and liberty at every level, was what I thought was in the army to defend.”

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