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Sex and Gender

No exceptions for single-sex wards

I don’t think exceptions should be made. Not for me; not for anyone. It’s because we have made exceptions that we have got into this mess. That said, I have not always thought this way.

But can’t we agree to make more space for transsexuals?

News that NHS trusts allow “male-born” sex offenders to be placed on female wards has — quite rightly — provoked outrage. All these individuals need to do, it seems, is self-identify as women. While hospital staff are told to conduct risk assessments, we are told that a criminal past is not an automatic barrier to entry.

But where should the line be drawn? While worst case scenarios are easy to judge, real life scenarios are unlikely to be clear cut. Presumably staff would need to consider the severity of the offence, but what about the time that has since elapsed? Should unproven allegations be considered? But perhaps the whole matter is moot? One nurse told The Telegraph that risk assessments did not take place, “as staff were too busy.”

The answer — in my mind — is simple. If the rules say that hospitals must provide single-sex wards, then single-sex wards must be provided. Human beings cannot change sex — so “male-born” people are male to the day we die. The moment we are placed on a hitherto female ward, it becomes mixed-sex. Whatever our history, and however we might identify, we cannot and should not be placed on a female ward.

Women and girls can then be reassured that they are in a single-sex environment. But what would this mean for transsexuals? Would we really have countenanced the beloved Hayley Cropper on a men’s ward at Wetherfield General Hospital? Cropper is not real — of course — but the Coronation Street character influenced the nation. Played by Julie Hesmondhalgh — a female actress — Cropper was portrayed sympathetically as a decent transsexual and won the hearts of viewers. 

But if not Cropper, then what about real-life transsexuals? People like travel writer Jan Morris, perhaps? or me? I transitioned in 2012 and went on to have hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.

I don’t think exceptions should be made. Not for me; not for anyone. It’s because we have made exceptions that we have got into this mess. That said, I have not always thought this way.

Nine years ago, I would have argued that I was a woman and therefore should be housed on a hospital ward with women. That might well have happened. I might not have been able to self-identify a change of birth certificate (and hence my legal sex), but almost everything else was changeable pretty much on demand. Even passports required no more than a supporting letter from a GP. Not everyone agreed — of course — but transsexuals transitioned and got on with life. If we avoided embarrassment or scandal, and did not cause visible distress to others, what was the problem? 

The world changed for transsexuals in around 2014 when campaigning groups including Stonewall UK jumped into the debate and lobbied the Westminster Government to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). They wanted the law changed so that trans people could change our legal sex just because we wanted to. What had previously been a medical issue around the treatment of psychological distress suddenly became a civil rights issue. It felt like a new ideology, replacing facts with feelings: there were calls to establish gender identity as a protected characteristic, presumably to distinguish men from women. That role belongs to biology. I am a science teacher, and I did not like what I saw.

I started my own campaign against GRA reform in 2016. But my focus was the rights of transsexuals. I thought we had a good deal, and I did not want to lose it. In November 2016, I wrote,

“The proposed law might require people in official positions to take trans people at their word, but it cannot regulate social groups that create their own boundaries. Transwomen in particular may find that goodwill is replaced by suspicion should abusive men spot an opportunity to exploit women’s spaces and protections.”

Debbie Hayton, 29 November 2016

Looking back, I do take pride in my prophecy, but I am embarrassed by the focus on myself. I had yet to appreciate the devastating impact of this ideology on children, nor was I aware of the liberties that I had been taking. I might have told myself that I was no threat to women in their spaces, but women had to take my word for it. That was wrong, but — at the time — I had not the slightest inclination that it was wrong.

If I had been a woman I might have known instinctively that women cannot tell the difference between decent males and abusive males but, having never been a woman, it all went over my head. 

Five years later, I hope I know better. Decent males stay out of spaces and places that are designated exclusively for women. We don’t lever our way onto all-women shortlists, for example, and we don’t compete in female sport. How we might “identify” is irrelevant; what matters is our sex. But where does that leave transsexuals?

Mostly, it leaves us where we want to be: with our families, friends and colleagues. Most spaces, places and activities — certainly in UK society — are open to both sexes. But where they are segregated, we need to respect women’s dignity, and their need for privacy. If women and girls have been promised a single-sex space, they deserve to have a single-sex space.

But staying out of the women’s does not necessitate sharing with men. There are alternatives; the last time I was in hospital, I was assigned to a private bay. I certainly didn’t feel discriminated against — rather I felt I had been treated more favourably because I was transsexual.

There are other reasons why someone might not want to share with their own sex. Additional safe-and-secure unisex facilities have long been available across society. I well remember how useful they were to me when my children were young but it would have been better if there were more of them.

The transgender debate is toxic and divisive, with seemingly intractable differences between opposing groups. But, maybe, on the call for extra provision, the interests of different groups align?  This could be an opportunity for us to work together for the common good but it would need a change of strategy. For too long, transgender campaigners have expected women to give up their own spaces. But if we could refocus on a campaign for more space, we might succeed in making society better for everyone.


Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Critic on 4 August 2021: No exceptions for single-sex wards.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

One reply on “No exceptions for single-sex wards”

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