MPs clash in tense Westminster debate over reforms to the Equality Act

A person holds up a sign in the colours of the trans pride flag (blue, pink and white) reading 'Transphobia is a hate crime' during a protest

Politicians butted heads during a heated Westminster debate on Monday (12 June) over altering the category of ‘sex’ to mean ‘biological sex’ in the Equality Act 2010, with some MPs claiming such a change would “reduce rather than enhance current protections”.

During the debate, politicians debated two different petitions, one of which called for the category of ‘sex’ under the Equality Act to be changed to mean ‘biological sex’ and the other opposing such changes. 

The petition calling for changes achieved 109,463 signatures whilst the petition urging the government not to update the definition amassed 138,886 signatures. 

The debate over the petition’s opposing views comes two months after the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a letter seemingly advocating for sex to be defined as ‘biological sex’ in the Equality Act 2010. 

In April, the chair of the UK’s equalities watchdog Baroness Kishwer Falkner, wrote to women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and provided advice on altering the Equality Act. 

The EHRC chair said whilst there was “no straightforward balance” in the matter, changing the definition of sex to “biological sex” would “bring greater legal clarity” and thus “merits further consideration”. 

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This clarity, she stated, would be particularly seen in eight areas including the existence of single sex spaces, such as “freedom of association for lesbians and gay men”. 

However the EHRC also noted any change has the potential to negatively impact trans people and could cause contentious legal issues, such as a trans man being able to bring a direct or indirect sex discrimination claim “as a woman”. 

Currently, trans men and women who hold a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) have their gender recognised as their legal sex, changing this characteristic to mean ‘biological sex’ could invalidate this legal standing.

Trans activists, and wider allies in the LGBTQ+ community, expressed their horror and concern over the proposed change, which one called a move “driven by political desire and manufactured fear more than any systematic evidence”. 

In May 2023, the UN’s independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, said he was shocked to hear the EHRC does not actually have a clear definition of ‘biological sex’, saying instead the watchdog working on the basis such a definition is simply “not trans”

‘Trans people are being characterised as predators’

During the debate, politicians who support altering the definition, and those opposing it, went head-to-head amid heated discussions over single-sex spaces, discrimination, ‘culture wars’ and wider trans rights. 

In a speech by Miriam Cates, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, she made reference to drag queen events for children, making the abhorrent claim trans rights results in “ordinary toddlers […] used to satisfy the sexual fetish of adult men dressed as eroticized women”. 

Scottish National Party MP for Livingston, Hannah Bardell, was quick to hit back at Cates, stating: “Trans people are being characterised as predators and that is deeply undemocratic and deeply worrying in this debate.  

“That is not what this debate is about and the member to be using language like that in terms like that is unparliamentary.” 

Bardell called a point of order over Cates’ language but this was not considered an issue for the chair.  

Dame Angela Eagle, the Labour MP for Wallasey, said the move to change the Equality Act definition would “mandate exclusion and discrimination against all trans people” whilst also “worsening protections for women and girls”, citing specifically the instances of gender non-conforming women being questioned in toilets due to trans-panic. 

The MP continued that just a small minority of the population are trans and an even smaller population have a GRC: “That’s who we’re afraid of, in all of this,” she said. 

“I’ve spent my whole political life working to create greater equality for all and to reduce bigotry and prejudice,” Eagle explained, “I am, and always have been, a committed feminist.

“The safety of women and the opening up of economic opportunities to them on an equal basis to that of men has always been one of my priorities in politics. 

“I’m also a lesbian, I was only the second out lesbian ever to sit in this place and the first ever out lesbian government minister, and so I have had some experience of bigotry, prejudice, misogyny, and homophobia and I recognise a politically induced moral panic when I see one.” 

Changes could ‘allow discrimination to go unchallenged’

Eagle’s notion of a moral panic was reinforced by Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher, who spoke in support of altering the definition of sex and made bizarre claims about what it is like to be a trans person. 

During his speech, the MP stated a hypothetical trans man would wake up at the age of 25 and find he had “no friends” for being trans, as well as make the discovery that the hormones he chose to take to aid his transition would help him grow a beard. 

Luke Pollard, Plymouth’s first gay MP, doubled down on his support for the trans community in his contribution to the Equality Act debate, pointing out that a change could have potentially negative impacts on intersex people and urged parliament to focus more on healthcare than who uses a toilet. 

“I am worried that this debate […] could lead to a hard roll back of hard won rights for the LGBT+ community, and will potentially exclude more trans people from public spaces and allow discrimination to go unchallenged,” he said. 

One of the more surreal moments came when Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, Jonathan Gullis, launched an attack on Harry Potter actors for not supporting JK Rowling’s views on trans people.

He also claimed “no one is looking for a culture war”, despite claims from members of his own party to the contrary, and spoke using dogwhistles such as “adult human female” – a phrase made popular by anti-trans campaigner Posie Parker.

Conservative MP for Darlington, Peter Gibson, spoke up for trans people, saying “trans people matter to me as part of my family, and trans people matter to me as the people I represent”.

He warned against “fanning the flames of an already inflammatory backdrop,” and stated that updating the Equality Act would be a “knee-jerk” reaction.

He also said that changes, or clarification, to the Act could result in a “two-tier” system for trans people who do, or don’t “pass as cisgender”.

He said changes would only make things easier to discriminate against trans people, and reminded those attending the debate of the small number of trans people in the UK.

“Transgender people should be free to prosper,” he concluded.

‘We continue to fail trans people’

Kirsty Blackman, the SNP MP for Aberdeen North, hit out at the use of the term “ordinary people” during the debate when referring to cisgender people, before stating that “not one person has been able to explain what ‘biological sex’ is”.

“We continue to fail trans people and we continue to fail women,” she added.

“Legislators continue to fail both groups who are considered and treated lesser in society. We are a room of cis people debating trans people once again.”

Kirsten Oswald, SNP MP for East Renfrewshire, criticised the tone of the Equality Act debate and said she was “fed up” that there wasn’t more focus on other issues affecting women – such as buffer zones outside abortion clinics and pay equality – and stated that her rights would not be “diminished” by trans people having theirs upheld.

“We are taking about a small group of vulnerable people,” she added.

“These are the very people who should expect their government to find ways to make life easier and support their rights.”

As Conservative Lewes MP (and parliamentary under-secretary of state for mental health and women’s health strategy) Maria Caulfield, began concluding statements in the debate, it was pointed out by Peter Gibson that trans Bridgend MP Jamie Wallis had left the chamber during the debate and not returned, and Gibson urged those speaking on trans issues to do so with love.

Caulfield spoke about the government’s efforts to update the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate and mentioned new gender identity clinics that have opened across the UK.

She said there was “strong feelings on all sides, as is shown by how many people signed both petitions”, and said the government “recognises the importance of biologic sex.”

“We will come back to this place once we have considered in detail the policy and legal implications of updating or changing the Equality Act.”

This article has been updated as the wrong Plymouth MP was originally named.

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