Believing six impossible things before breakfast: Jo Swinson on the Today Programme

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. ”

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This morning 9 December 2019 (BBC Sounds, starts at 7:13short clip here) Justin Webb (JW) interviewed Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson (JS) on the Radio 4 Today Programme about the party’s policy on gender self ID.

The transcript

JW: You have entered the debate about trans rights, with great clarity actually, in recent days, you have said you are going to completely reform the GRA, you are going to remove the requirement for medical reports for people to undergo, you are going to scrap the fee, you are going to recognise non binary gender identities; can I ask you this, do you believe that biological sex exists?

JS: Well not on a binary from what I have read, I am not going to pretend that I am an expert in the subject but I don’t think things are as binary as is often presented. I think though this is–

JW: Hang on a minute you do not believe that biological sex exists, that there are men and women, males and females and a vanishingly small amount of people who possibly are indeterminate because of chromosomal abnormalities but actually most people are either male or female, you don’t believe that?

JS: I do believe that most people are, but as you just said there are differences in chromosomal abnormalities and you know different levels, I have read papers but as I say I am not a scientist. But this is not a scientific debate, this is a debate about people and their lives. This is a debate about people who are facing you know extreme prejudice and discrimination, I mean it takes us back to a very similar situation, to where we were on gay rights decades ago, where you know people were being told that they were somehow as a person wrong for you know being who they were, and the vitriol that was heaped on them by society drove people to huge mental health crises, in many cases to misery and sometimes to suicide

JW: Isn’t there a big difference though……

JS: We see that amongst non binary and trans people today and I think we should be making sure that every individual is protected.

JW: To which a lot of feminists would say absolutely, it is about the protection of everyone but for instance when it comes to safe spaces for women, whether its women refuges or whether it’s women’s places in prisons, that it should be possible to say and to say clearly, as the law suggests at the moment, someone who is anatomically, chromosomally male should not get into those spaces, is that something you will keep to or not?

JS: I think the most important thing is to keep people safe, and you know in the example that you give–

JW: So you will keep to it?

JS: Listen!

JW: No hang on a second just answer the question

JS: I am answering the question Justin if you will let me. So when somebody is admitted to a refuge obviously there has to be a degree of risk assessment about what risks that person faces, who there might be that might pose them a risk, and you know we already have this issue, it’s not as if there is not any women that abuse their partners, you know in same sex relationships abuse happens too and so you already have to have processes in place to make sure that if someone is in a refuge that they aren’t then you know having their abusive ex partner placed in the same refuge. So we need to be doing this but it’s on the basis of risks that an individual poses whether they are cis gendered or trans gendered that’s how it needs to be assessed.

JW: I take that point but surely, we are talking down the line, you’re not in the studio here but if you were in the studio here together, you could be all sorts of things superior as it were to me in terms of brain power, in terms of courage and all the rest of it, but if we were face to face, a male and a female, the fact is that I could do you enormous damage because of my male body, the way I am, that is a fact isn’t it, and that is what feminists say, that because of those facts, it is really important that there are places where women are protected across the board not by some individual assessment but just across the board?

JS: Well I do think it’s important that people are protected and I don’t think that there should be some kind of hierarchy of equality, because trans women are some of the most vulnerable women in our society facing huge discrimination and all women who have been on the receiving end of violence deserve to have safe spaces whether they are gay straight or bi, whether they are trans, whether they are cis, whatever their race is whatever background they come from and they need to be protected on that individual basis, and I have to say that you know we are talking about a small, a very small part of the population, and implicit in some of this is an assumption that trans women are in some way more likely to beviolent and it just is not borne out. And I think that there is a demonisation of a community going on here and I often find the media is complicit in it. And I think we have to stand against it–

JW: Well that’s not fair, 1 in 50 male offenders in prison self identifying as transgender, South Yorkshire police saying a rapist who calls themselves female will be allowed to have that recorded as female on their conviction. It’s not made up by the media is it, it happens?

JS: Look I’m not going to suggest that there aren’t individual cases of people trying to game the system but I am suggesting that there is a genuine group of people in our society who are very vulnerable, who are currently being demonised and I do not think that is right.

JW: And I’m certainly not denying that. Ok Jo Swinson thanks very much.

6 impossible things, and 6 things to read if you are tempted to believe them

If you are trying make sense of the extraordinary things that Jo Swinson is struggling to believe or articulate herself, here are some things to read:

  1. “Sex is not binary” — Project Nettie: Females make eggs and gestate live young. Males generate sperm to fertilise the female egg. It is that simple.
  2. “This is just like gay rights” — Jane Clare Jones: Trans rights activism unlike gay rights activism, is not just a movement seeking to ensure that trans people are not discriminated against. It is committed to a fundamental reconceptualisation of the very idea of what makes someone a man or a woman.
  3. “It’s safe to assume that men who identify as women have similar offending patterns as women ” Karen Ingala Smith: There is no credible evidence suggesting that males who identify as trans commit violence against women at lower rates than those who do not. It is not that men who identify as transgender are inherently violent — just that they are no less violent that other males.
  4. “Single sex services are exceptional situations where safety can be preserved through individual risk assessments, even if we make it impossible to recognise sex” Fairplay for Women (by me): The single sex exemptions in the Equality Act are not just about women’s refuges. They allow for sex segregated facilities in all sorts of everyday situations where justified by bodily privacy, fairness and freedom of association. This includes single sex dorms, toilets, changing rooms, hospital wards, smear tests, maternity services, women’s and girls’ charities and associations, girls schools and competitive sports (and women’s refuges, which are not just single sex to keep out the bad men). The legitimacy of all of these situations where women’s needs are recognised is being challenged.
  5. “It is transphobic to question the idea of gender self ID” Kristina Harrison: The allegation of transphobia is not only being made against those who are actually hateful towards trans people, but is now used for anyone who dares dissent from the claims that sex doesn’t matter or who supports sex-based rights. Only one MP has publicly questioned any aspect of the proposal for gender self-ID. This is not healthy for democracy, and does not serve women or trans people well.
  6. “The public is behind this”. Janice Turner: Radical policies, which would change the very definition of men and women have become deeply embedded in our institutions and into political manifestos, entirely against public opinion, without scrutiny or public debate. Jo Swinson is doing us all a favour by bringing this into the light.

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This is mainly where I write about sex and gender

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