Our CEO, Sam Smethers, reflects on the importance of empathy in order to balance the rights of both women and trans women in relation to the debate around sex and gender identity.

I warn you now, this is unusually long from me... you may want to get yourself a drink and settle down into a comfy chair before you read it.

I am reading Difficult Women by Helen Lewis at the moment. A brilliant book, it has made me ask, was Millicent Fawcett a Difficult Woman? Well, in some respects, no, when compared with the Suffragettes. In the end, she was a woman the Government could do business with, but speaking in public from a young age, insisting she had a voice to be heard at a time when women had no rights at all, leading the campaign for the vote for decades and transforming women's rights, that qualifies her in my book. I am also asking myself, am I difficult enough? For me, it's about independent (evidence-based) thinking, clarity of voice and speaking truth to power. On the issue of sex, gender and identity I have refused to simply pick a side, although I am repeatedly told to, and instead maintain that this is complicated and there are competing rights that need to be recognised. In a world where if you are not for us, you must be against us, this is characterised by some as weak or a betrayal of women. But I think it is the only responsible position for us to take.

I hesitate to write this as I know that whatever I say will be picked over, selectively quoted and misrepresented. But to say nothing is wrong too. You can read what Fawcett has said already on this issue in our Sex, Gender and Gender Identity Q and A and my comment responding to criticism of Women's Place UK. I have been very careful about what I say publicly because both transgender people and women who are vocal and visible in defence of sex-based rights and single-sex spaces are repeatedly targeted with violence, abuse, and threats. Transphobia and misogyny are real and words can fan the flames of hate and division but can also help us find a way forward. So it needs a thoughtful, measured responsible intervention. I know, good luck with that on Twitter. So I'm not tweeting this, I'm writing about it.

The fact that rights can come into conflict is not new. It is often a balancing act between the rights of different groups. Free speech is not an absolute right, it is a conditional one because what we say and how we say it can impact negatively on the rights of others. For example, misogynistic or racist hate speech can cause real harm to women or people of colour. Look at the spike in hate crime against Muslims during the EU referendum campaign, for example. However right or justified we believe ourselves to be, we do all have the responsibility to think about the impact our words can have on others.


Some views will never be reconciled and peaceful co-existence is the best that can be achieved, at least in the short-term, but even deep divisions can be overcome. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is an example of an agreement to disagree, a carefully crafted balancing act that both sides could live with. So what is possible on the issue of sex-based rights and trans rights? Is that the best we can hope for? Right now, that would be progress. But I also think we should be aiming higher to try to find a progressive way forward for both trans rights and women's rights. But in order to do that we need to understand where the other side is coming from. We need a heavy dose of empathy, we need to recognise the fears on each side and we need to talk to each other, even if the temptation is to dismiss the views we are hearing.

There are two defining fears. For women, the fear of male violence defines and shapes our world view. This frames the issue of trans rights because some women feel this threat is not being acknowledged as part of the discussion of gender self-identification. For trans people, it is the fear that they will not be recognised and accepted for who they are. This informs their response when the fear of male violence is raised because, for trans women at least, they see themselves as women who are more likely than any other group to be targeted by violence, not the perpetrators of violence. This, in turn, prompts accusations of transphobia.

Whatever your perspective, it is hard to truly listen to the other side, especially when we are fearful or don't like what they say. Walking in someone else's shoes is largely absent. But more than anything else it is what is needed.

If someone describes you as a man when you regard yourself to be a woman and have done for some time, it is bound to be hurtful, distressing and will undermine your ability to live the life you choose. It goes to the very heart of who you are. I think this is why trans people often refer to others denying their right to exist. Because it is about their very identity. Those on the other side of the debate strongly deny this is what they are trying to do at all and just don't accept that argument. But it's an example of the way in which on the fundamentals each side is missing and misunderstanding the other.

If you are a woman looking around a changing room and see someone who is male-bodied you will probably feel awkward, embarrassed, less safe, even if they pose absolutely no threat to you at all. You may want to go somewhere else. If that woman is a survivor of a sexual assault or rape, she could be triggered to relive her trauma as a result of that incident. She's not transphobic but she is probably penis-phobic. Fair enough, so would I be in that situation. Don't tell her she's wrong. Respect her need for privacy, dignity, and safety. The same goes for lesbians who are accused of being transphobic because they don't want to have sex with a transwoman who is male-bodied. Surely who they have sex with is up to them isn't it?

From theory to reality

But why are we here at all? Some feminists believe that sex is observed at birth, we are either born male or female and it is impossible to change sex. For them, this is as true as the fact that the world is round. They argue that women are a biological sex class, oppressed because of their biology, and anyone claiming to be a woman who was not born female is really male, and that gender is a social construct imposed upon us, not an innate feeling. Others argue that it is gender identity that matters not biological sex. They refer to babies being assigned female or male at birth, that it is possible for someone to feel they are in the wrong body and to want to change their gender identity. They believe gender identity to be a sense of self, an innate feeling. For trans people, living in the wrong gender is traumatic and harmful for their wellbeing. The freedom to live as your authentic self is what matters. Personally, I identify with gender-critical feminism, but I recognise that there are other feminist perspectives. I believe that theories and beliefs are useful but they are there to guide us not to imprison us, so I won't be limited by either world view. I also believe in valuing and recognising difference.

The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 gave people the right to legally change their sex after undergoing a defined process. So whether ideologically or physically we believe this is possible, legally it certainly has been for some considerable time. I accept this basic reality and regard trans women as women and trans men as men. I also accept the arguments made by trans people that living in their chosen identity is fundamentally important for them and this should be respected. But I think there are some circumstances in which biological sex takes precedence over gender identity and this is important when balancing rights when there is or maybe a conflict. For those who argue that there is no conflict, I think that is disingenuous and doesn't help to move us on. We have to confront the reality of why and how that conflict arises and then navigate it. The proposal to move to gender self-ID has been the catalyst for the current heated debate. I think there is a case for reforming the GRA to create a simpler, less medicalised process but alongside that, we also have to protect single-sex spaces.

Why we need single-sex spaces

In single-sex spaces such as rape crisis centres or domestic violence refuges, some of the users of those services, who are traumatised women, may feel less safe if they perceive there to be a male-bodied person in the room. So excluding someone on the basis of sex is justified (and currently permitted under the Equality Act) as a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim'. However, trans people need access to these services too and have as much right to have their needs met. Some service providers already find a way to do this (e.g. risk assessments, creating alternative sessions or spaces). The way forward is to provide services in a way that respects the needs of both groups rather than just shut trans people out. But importantly, without losing those sex-based exemptions in the legislation. Of course, cash-starved specialist women's services need significantly more money if they are to be able to respond to demand at all.

Women's prisons are another consideration where the population is vulnerable, likely to have experienced abuse and most shouldn't be in prison at all. It is not appropriate or safe to house trans women in the male estate. But there have been issues with some trans women in the female estate who have presented a risk to women. Concerns have been raised by the British Psychological Society that there are some men who are falsely claiming trans identities to get access to vulnerable women. This suggests that existing risk assessment processes are not reliable and so the prison system has to find another way to accommodate trans women without putting other women at risk.

Changing facilities or toilets are spaces where in some cases women's spaces are being replaced with gender-neutral spaces. Yet some women do not feel as safe in those spaces. They argue their privacy is compromised and they don't want to use facilities that are not exclusively for women. Of course, trans women will have been using these changing rooms or toilets for years, but the fear is not about trans women but that gender-neutral spaces now permit men to come into those spaces. This is not a baseless fear. Evidence shows that sexual harassment often happens because the opportunity has been created. By replacing women's provision with gender-neutral (which incidentally, is sometimes not gender-neutral at all, it is just labelled as such, e.g. when you have to walk past a urinal to get to a cubicle) we are increasing the opportunity for harassment and sexual assault from men. The answer is to place gender-neutral alongside—not instead of—women-only spaces. But for some trans women when they hear these arguments, they feel they are being labelled as violent men, not that we are talking about violent men who are not trans women. So both sides of the issue miss each other again, yet male violence is something that is targeted at all women including trans women so it is an area of common ground.

There is supposed to be guidance to help service providers navigate all of this. But that is sorely lacking at the moment. Service providers need clarity so that they can understand how to meet the needs of all users, why we need single-sex spaces and when it is legitimate to exclude someone from a single-sex space.

Gender stereotypes

Because I am an optimist I want to end on some common ground. Transwomen experience the same misogyny in their day to day lives as those who are biologically female. They are also subject to the same stereotypes which imprison all of us. Fawcett's Gender Stereotypes Commission in Early Childhood is looking at the harm gender stereotypes in childhood can cause later in life. There we see the need for all children to be free to be the people they want to be. But the fact that three-quarters of the children who want to transition are girls who want to be boys should trouble us. It suggests being a woman in our society is drawn far too narrowly and frankly, it's just not very appealing. Our concept of ideal femininity and womanhood, even the drive towards perfection, particularly for younger women, excludes many women whose self is drawn in a wholly different but no less womanly way.

Living as our authentic selves is what we all want isn't it? History tells us that what is regarded as normal and acceptable changes over time. It must, otherwise, women would all still be back at square one without voting rights, Harvey Weinstein would never have been brought to trial and we would have no gay rights. So I will be safeguarding and progressing women's rights while also supporting advances in trans rights. That is the only side I want to be on.