Sex matters in a sexist society

Here is the text of a letter I’ve sent to my MP, Caroline Lucas, following the government’s leaked announcement that they do not intend to amend the Gender Recognition Act. 

Dear Caroline,

I was pleased to see reports in last weekend’s Sunday Times that the government is intending to abandon its proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act.

The proposals arising from the 2015 Women and Equalities Select Committee Transgender Equality Inquiry were ill-considered and developed following a flawed process in which women’s organisations were not invited to participate as witnesses.

After the government indicated its intention to implement these proposals, including changes that would have made single-sex services illegal, several grassroots womens campaigns were launched, to defend the existing provisions in the Equality Act. As a result of this campaigning, the government was forced to back down on this intention in 2018, when the consultation on GRA reforms was finally announced.

Nevertheless, many statutory institutions, companies and voluntary sector organisations had meanwhile adopted policies which made it extremely difficult for women to access single-sex provision of services. This is a real setback for women and girls who need female-only space in which to recover from, reflect on and resist the impact of living in a sexist society. As a result of organisations adopting self-id policies:

Liz Truss’s statement to the Women and Equalities Select Committee in April included a welcome commitment to protecting single-sex spaces. This echoes a similar commitment in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto, and I am pleased to see this cross-party support for the existing legal framework set out in the Equality Act. I hope you will issue a statement adding your voice to this consensus.

Sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, because discrimination, harassment and abuse on the basis of sex continue to blight the lives of women and girls in the UK and around the world. It is horrifying that women who have stated this fact, such as Maya Forstater, Kathleen Stock and most recently JK Rowling, are denounced and slandered by people presenting themselves as progressive.

The government’s decision to focus on a symbolic legislative change – introducing a self-declaration basis to the GRC process – rather than any of the material issues raised during the inquiry, was unwise and divisive. Taking a step back in order to proceed in a way that upholds the rights and freedoms of women and trans people is the right thing to do.

Please convey my views to Liz Truss. I would – as ever – be pleased to discuss these issues with you in person, and look forward to receiving your response.


So it goes

When I was little, I sometimes wondered if my dad was The Doctor (not a doctor, but the Doctor, from Doctor Who). It didn’t seem entirely impossible. Like Tom Baker’s time lord, he seemed to know everything. He was quick-witted, playful, questioning, interested in big stories and grand schemes, not small talk and customary habits.

If he wasn’t The Doctor, perhaps he was some other kind of alien, making the best of it after being stranded on earth – a Vulcan, perhaps, like Mr Spock. Like Spock, he was fond of the humans who were his friends, but found them all, above all else, puzzling. People were a mystery to him, but he remained curious for his whole life, finding some resonant chime in the work of other misanthropic, melancholy, mystified men – Lewis Carroll, Samuel  Beckett, Bob Dylan, Ivor Cutler, James Lovelock, Kurt Vonnegut.

He was particularly taken with Vonnegut’s creation, the Tralfamadorians – four-dimensional beings who are able to see all of time laid out before them, and therefore have no conception of the beginning, middle or end of a story. When they see a person who is dead, they simply observe that he is in a bad way at that time. All the other moments of his life remain current for them.

He was fascinated by nature, admired the mathematical properties of plants and championed insects and other unappreciated creatures. He hand-reared butterfly caterpillars each year, picking them nettles from the nearby woods; and we shared our living room with several generations of giant hawk moth caterpillars, who grew so big you could hear them eating. Later in his life, he kept bees on his allotment, as his father had done on the other side of the world, a lifetime before.

Every outing was an opportunity to observe and learn. If we passed people working in the street – telephone engineers, gas repair people or building surveyors – he would very often stop and ask them what they were doing and why, much to their bemusement. He couldn’t pass a skip without having a good look through for something that might come in useful. Throwing things away was a waste, and the house, garden and garage were full of things he had rescued from this unwarranted fate.

Among my favourite playthings, for example, were several huge magnets from the back of old televisions and a jar of ball bearings. Both these wonders were rescued from the local tip, possibly at the same time, as I associate them very closely in my mind. The house was crammed full of interesting things – puzzles, games, books, newspapers, giant cardboard tubes, typewriters, a small printing press. We lived with a broken photocopier at the bottom of the stairs for several years.

He was good with his hands – always making something. He made useful things like furniture, dinners, newsletters and compost bins, but most of the things he made were intricate, beautiful mathematical models – stars, baskets, knots. He made them out of cardboard, wood, string, paper, plastic. His calculations were scribbled on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers. He didn’t have a shed or work room – he worked in the living room, on the floor, leaving sharp knives, hammers or pins liberally scattered around. We didn’t mind – there wasn’t a clear floor or surface in any other part of the house in any case.

We made things together too. Tablet weaving on a loom suspended from the bookshelves in the living room was my introduction to textile arts. When home computers became available, we learned together about programming. We developed slick production techniques for spray-painted posters and banners.

He was an extraordinary man, always stubbornly himself, unable to adapt or fit in, outspoken and blunt, to the point of rudeness. Adults often found him bewildering, but with children he was enchanting, sparking new connections, teasing out ideas, delighting in their discoveries and offering them the kind of focused attention that most parents and teachers don’t have time to give. I am so grateful that he was a chaotic and creative presence for both my kids, throughout their childhoods.

It was an unusual way of living, always striving to understand and make a difference in the present, keeping hold of things for future use and re-use. There was very little time for reflection. But while staying in my childhood home for the last two weeks of my father’s life, I found I could always reach out my hand and touch the past. Objects I have known for decades were sitting in their familiar places, watching us arrive at the end of his story.

I was privileged to be in the room with my dad when he breathed his last breath, and so I know that he was not a time lord. There was no immediate regeneration. As we are humans, not Tralfamadorians, we are forced to live our lives in one direction only. I am immensely sad.

My dad once described the heap of things on our kitchen surfaces as being like a very thick, boiling liquid, slowly turning things up to the top. Each individual life is a brief coincidence of cells, bubbling to the top of the thin layer of inhabitable earth, air and water on the surface of our planet. I think the best we can do is to delight in the absurd fact of being here at all, and try to honour our fellowship with all other living beings.

In memoriam, Richard Ahrens (17/10/1933 – 10/6/2020)