Equalities minister admits shock over ‘polarised views’ on trans rights

Baroness Williams, Susan Williams the equalities minister

Equalities minister Baroness Williams has said she was taken aback by the backlash against transgender rights reforms, and vowed to push ahead with changes.

In an interview with PinkNews, the junior government minister acknowledged the “polarised views on this issue,” but said the government will forge ahead with creating a “less bureaucratic process in future for transgender people.”

Denying claims that Brexit has led to policy delays, the Baroness said plans for changes to gender recognition laws will progress “in the next 12 months.”

Q. Maria Miller, the head of Parliament’s equalities committee, has suggested that the equalities agenda has been delayed due to the uncertainties caused by Brexit. Do you agree with that?

A. I agree that Brexit is obviously taking up an awful lot of government time, but it certainly hasn’t stopped us.

We’re getting on with our work. And obviously during that time we’ve had the LGBT survey, which was the the biggest in the world.

We’ve got over 75 commitments in our action plan going forward… we’re not stopping work.

Q. The consultation on the Gender Recognition Act closed in October, but we’re still waiting for the results. When is that going to happen?

A. We’ve had over 100,000 replies to the consultation. We won’t rush into these things.

We had a huge LGBT+ survey that was very informative in what it told us — we’ve got an action plan for that — and we’ll work through the consultation. It will be in due course, to use that terrible government phrase.

Members of the transgender community and their supporters attend a rally for transgender equality on Capitol Hill, June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC

The UK government received over 100,000 responses to the Gender Recognition Act consultation (Drew Angerer/Getty)

Q. When can people expect to see firm proposals being tabled?

A. I would say, in the next 12 months, or so, we will see what has come out of those consultation responses.

Q. What do you make of the backlash from feminist groups?

A. I found it quite unexpected. I must confess, it took me aback, the sheer strength of feeling.

I think what we have to realise is, the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004, some 15 years ago, and we’re not trying to go [back].

Some people are trying to reverse-engineer what’s gone on, but what we want is a less bureaucratic process in future for transgender people.

As a government you have to take a balanced response and do the right thing, but I can certainly acknowledge there have been many varied responses to it.

Q Would you feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with a trans woman, for instance?

A. I pretty much would, yes. I have no issues with that.

But, I am sensitive to some of the situations that have gone on, that actually have compromised people.

Is that because the people are transgender, or is that because of the types of people that they are?

I think we’ve got to take a level-headed approach to this and not take one event as the basis for legislation or changing the system.

LGBT activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall, October 24, 2018 in New York City

Equalities minister: “Nobody should be placed in a space that is going to put them at risk” (Drew Angerer/Getty)

Q. The Ministry of Justice is reviewing a policy that states trans women should be placed in women’s prisons in the first instance. In the past, we’ve seen trans women in men’s prisons take their own lives. Do you worry that reversing the current policy could lead to that?

A. I think you’ve hit upon something which we should be mindful of… [but] it’s not just trans women in women’s spaces, but trans men in men’s spaces. We just need to be sensitive to the needs of everybody in our society, so we have an appropriate solution.

I think what it’s worth doing is making sure that the environment in which people find themselves is appropriate for their needs, and the needs of others around them, without taking one singular stance.

Q When would it be appropriate for the right space for a trans woman to be a men’s prison?

A. It would be absolutely down to the risk assessment made on that individual, when for example they enter the prison estate.

Nobody should be placed in a space that is going to put them at risk, or indeed put others around them at risk.

Q. The MoJ’s review has caused a few jitters around the policy towards single-sex spaces. Is the government still committed to policies on trans-inclusive single-sex spaces?

A. Yes. We might need to look at the guidance around it, but I think definitely that we shouldn’t take a knee-jerk reaction to this.

We should make sure that single-sex spaces, which they have been since 2004, are trans inclusive.