Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Except in the Labour Party, when it’s surprisingly easy. Just ask David Lewis. David, 45, is a member of the Labour Party. After several years of supporting the party, he became a full member last year having been “inspired” by Jeremy Corbyn. Tomorrow, David will be a candidate for election as an office-holder in his Constituency Labour Party in Basingstoke. He is standing for election as women’s officer, a post that Labour rules say can only be held by a woman. David is standing for that post because he is a woman. On Wednesdays, at least. When we spoke yesterday, he put it like this:
“I self-identify as a woman on Wednesdays, between 6.50am when my alarm goes off and around midnight when I go to bed.”
What does self-identifying as a woman mean? In what way is David a woman on Wednesdays?
“My womanness is expressed by my saying ‘I self identify as a woman’ now and again on Wednesdays. I make no changes in my behaviour or my appearance. I keep my name, David and my male pronouns. I wear the same sort of clothes I wear the rest of the week. I keep my beard. I enjoy the full womanness of my beard.”
The Basingstoke Labour Party last week accepted the womanness of David and his beard. He is listed as a candidate for election as CLP Women’s Officer, a post that involves encouraging women to join the party and generally speaking for women, their concerns and their experiences. But who is a woman? In the Labour Party, among other places, the answer to that question is not always as simple as some people might expect.
Labour operates a policy of self-definition: if someone defines themselves as a woman, the party recognises that person as a woman, with no question, verification or scrutiny of that definition. This approach is intended to make the party inclusive and supportive of transwomen, people who were born male and later say they wish to change their gender and be recognised as female. Many advocates of greater legal rights for trans people say that accepting such self-identification is right and fair because “gatekeeping” checks, where trans people are required to “prove” their gender identity to another person or authority, are discriminatory and intrusive. “Transwomen are women,” they say, as if those three words are all that’s needs to settle this matter. More on this later.
The Labour approach on self-defining women also extends to the all-women shortlists used to select the party’s candidate in some parliamentary seats. Some Labour members have doubts about the policy of self-definition. Some are feminists who worry that a policy that allows male-born people (who might have enjoyed the social and economic advantages that are often associated with being male) to compete for and hold women-only posts is unfair to people who were born female (and thus prone to social and economic disadvantage.)
Some raise legal questions. Generally, equalities law doesn’t allow organisations such as Labour to reserve jobs or services for any particular group, but the Equality Act 2010 includes some exemptions for single-sex services, because Parliament wanted to ensure that women could be guaranteed that there are some roles and places where men cannot enter.
Some Labour members have sought to bring a legal challenge against the party for opening up women’s roles to “self-defined” women. They argue that where transwomen are not legally recognised as women (i.e. they do not hold a gender recognition certificate) they cannot be entitled to posts that the law reserves for women. Some women have resigned from Labour over this issue.
Labour’s NEC, meanwhile, has insisted that the policy of treating self-defined women as women will stand. Which brings us back to David Lewis, candidate to be Basingstoke Labour’s women’s officer:
“After I looked at the NEC position and what it really meant, I thought, I’ll put my name forward for women’s officer. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I expected them to say, ‘don’t be silly’ and politely decline my application. But they didn’t. They accepted my candidacy as valid.”
So he’s standing for a woman’s post. Why?
“My priority here is to inform the CLP, and maybe some other people, about what this policy means, about what happens when you say that someone’s gender depends only on what they say and nothing else.”
How would David respond to those who might say he is being offensive or bigoted, that he is trivialising the issues that transgender women face?
“I’d say those people don’t have any right to criticise my gender-identity. If I say I am a woman on Wednesdays, then all they can do is accept that. After all, there are other people who only identify as women on some days of the week and not others, and they are accepted, not criticised.”
“In any case, anyone else’s criticism or questions about my gender identity are just not relevant to the Labour Party at the moment, given the current policy. If I say I’m a woman, I’m a woman.”
Now, if you’re new to this topic, you may by this point have come to appreciate that yes, in today’s Labour Party, anyone can be a woman if they say they are a woman, even David with his beard and his complete lack of any outward effort to live or pass as a woman. And maybe you might think “Yes, well, that’s the loony lefty SJW Labour Party, and nothing to do with the rest of us who aren’t part of it.”
If so, you’d be wrong, because that policy of “self-identification” could become the law for everyone. The Government will shortly bring forward a consultation on amending the law on gender recognition, where some groups will argue that people should be able to define themselves as a woman or a man (and thus obtain the associated legal rights and entitlements) without external check or verification.
Some people think that’s a good idea, because they say the current system institutionalises unfairness to trans people. Some people have doubts, because they worry that such rules could be (ab)used to erode the legal status of women, opening up their roles, jobs and places (for instance, domestic violence shelters, all-women colleges, hospital wards) to people with male socialisation and anatomy.
Many (but not all) of the people who raise questions about self-identified gender rules are women, women who are struggling to make their voices heard in what passes for the public debate about gender, because those who speak out are at risk of abuse and accusations of transphobic bigotry. Or even being assaulted.
Which is why what David Lewis is doing strikes me as important and worthy of attention beyond the lovely town of Basingstoke. David Lewis is a man standing for a post that the rules say should be open only to women. He can do so purely because he has said the words “I am a woman” and rigid adherence to the orthodoxy of “transwomen are women” means no one can question his claim. And if anyone who says “I am a woman” must be treated as a woman and granted the status and rights of a woman, does the word “woman” still have any meaning? You do not, I submit, need to a radical feminist to see that the logic of complete self-identification raises some quite profound questions.
Although I worry he’ll get his share of abuse for it, I think David Lewis deserves praise for what he is doing. He is standing for a woman’s job to make a point about what can happen to women when rules that affect them and their rights are made and enforced on the basis of blind dogma, not balanced debate. “We need to be able to debate this, we need to be able to talk about this without being told we are transphobic and to shut up,” David says, before adding:
“I completely understand the problems that trans people face and I can see the case for reforming a system that some people find difficult and undignified. But I think we have to have a proper debate where both sides are heard and there are people who raising valid questions who are not being heard. In the end, we need to have a compromise. And a good compromise is one where both sides are equally unhappy.”
Does he think there is any chance he might actually win his election and end up being elected as women’s officer? “I am hoping that my local party will be sensible.”