Anticipating the Cass Review? A personal historical reflection

CMF Blogs occasionally include posts by guest authors on a variety of topics.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

In light of the recently published Cass Review, guest blogger, Don Horrocks (Retired Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance), offers us a personal, historical reflection on the last 26 years of involvement in the legal landscape surrounding transgenderism.

It seems only yesterday, but in fact it was in 1998 ­ 26 years ago ­ that one or two perceptive individuals in the Evangelical Alliance became alerted to the implications of draft legislation being prepared by the then Labour government. This was to form the Bill which became the Gender Recognition Act in 2004.

In 1998, few people were interested in the subject of ‘transsexuality’ and scarcely any claimed to know much about the subject. However, a few far-seeing individuals realised the implications for society and church in being required by law to recognise biological males as females and vice-versa. In those days, not many appeared to grasp the significance of moves to quietly but deliberately confuse the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. However, in 1998, the Evangelical Alliance considered that some urgently needed research should be carried out and I was commissioned to set up and lead a team to help inform its constituency. It was hoped that such research would provide a reliable base from which to engage with government, church, and society on this potentially critical but obscure subject.

At the same time, as I was finishing off a theological Ph.D., the Evangelical Alliance appointed me to the position of Head of Public Affairs ­ a role I held until retiring in 2015. For many years in this role, amongst other things, I found myself constantly engaged with the increasingly important issue of gender identity, and with the government and public response to the rapid developments that followed.

The first thing I did in 1998 was to assemble an expert working team with the aim of producing a foundational report which could, hopefully, lead to a clear public policy positional statement for the Alliance. This was far from easy to achieve because there were very few ‘experts’ around and those that existed were either unavailable or were reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. Even in those days, campaigners were quick to seek to bring down career professionals by means of public personal attack. However, I succeeded in assembling a Christian team comprising theologians, a general practitioner, someone who had gone down the route of changing gender but had reconsidered, an ethicist, and a paediatrician. We worked together to produce our report, and by the time it was finalised it I had engaged in many hours of discussion and consultation with pro-transgender groups such as ‘Press for Change’ and ‘GIRES’, as well as with a few ‘individuals identifying as transgender.

When the report, simply entitled ‘Transsexuality’, was finally approved by the Evangelical Alliance Council and published in 2000, it included carefully considered affirmations and recommendations that, though now sounding obviously dated, still form the basis for the Evangelical Alliance’s position. I recall that its publication received a mixed reception. It was welcomed by many because it helped clarify the subject at a time when there was very little else in the public domain. Unsurprisingly it was condemned by transgender campaign groups, however, some influential people within the evangelical world, made it clear to me that they considered the whole exercise a ‘waste of time’ because ‘it was a non-issue which would soon disappear’. How wrong they were! Though I was personally accused publicly of being a ‘scaremonger’, virtually everything we warned about has come to pass – and much more!

Following publication of the report, I began to work with Church of England and Roman Catholic bishops as well as government ministers because our informed input to the evolving legislation was keenly sought. I was invited to join a consultation group set up by the then Home Office Minister, Lord Filkin, who was given the job of piloting the Bill through Parliament by Home Secretary David Blunkett. So began a two-year advisory role to help shape the Bill in a way that would hopefully go some way to meet some of the many concerns we had.

Not least of these were a number of the concerns raised today by Hilary Cass. The established understanding of ‘gender dysphoria’ had been that it was a medical or psychological condition that was best treated through psychotherapy. But back in the late 1990s there were one or two prominent private surgeons who were fast-tracking individuals and carrying out radical gender surgery and administering puberty blockers with minimal questions asked. Though I recall at least one of these surgeons was later struck off by the General Medical Council, such individuals were lionised and highly sought after by those who stridently popularised a narrative that they had been ‘born into the wrong body’ and who refused to accept any ‘psychological condition’ approach. We were very concerned then at the rising numbers of those suffering from gender dysphoria who believed that radical surgery was the answer for what medical experts had considered to be ‘psychological conditions’. But even then, warning cases were beginning to appear of people who were regretting their transitioning and were seeking reverse surgery. Nevertheless, it was becoming increasingly difficult to voice traditional understandings publicly, despite longstanding acceptance of psychotherapy as the most appropriate response to gender dysphoria.

My engagement with the Home Office was for many years followed by debates in universities and in the media. I remember, for example, debating with ‘Press for Change’ on Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight programme, as well as later in 2014 with a transgendered theologian on the Radio 4 Beyond Belief programme who was in favour of a ‘gnostic’ understanding of gender identity. I also recall having a one-to-one interview with the then Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, who graciously listened to my concerns and who told me that in his view transsexuality was ‘a medical condition’. Amongst other things, I expressed to him my deep concerns about the dangers of using puberty blockers and he agreed that there was no research information or available evidence regarding their safety, or indeed their long-term effects. Government ministers also accepted but ultimately ignored this fact.

In the end, our parliamentary working group achieved only modest success in helping to shape the Gender Recognition Act. For example, we succeeded in obtaining protection for church ministers who might be faced with being required to marry two people of the same biological sex. However, despite the government accepting our argument that it was not possible to ‘change sex’, one fundamental issue for us remained over the validity of legislating for what was in effect a ‘legal fiction’ – a description that, strangely to us, the government seemed quite happy to promote. But we considered this a potential stumbling block for Christians and others who might regard it as promoting acceptance of ‘illusion’ for ‘truth’. Nevertheless, we were unable to change the government’s mind in this regard.

I have tried to convey a little of the story of early efforts to raise awareness of contemporary deep concerns about ‘gender identity’ at a time when few people knew anything about it and even fewer who understood the issue. Things have moved on a lot since then, however. When reading the Cass report, some people may perhaps sympathise with my sense of grim irony and regret at the thought that many of Dr Cass’s misgivings were effectively anticipated over 26 years ago. How different things might have looked today, and how many peoples’ lives might have turned out differently, had the authorities paid more attention and taken our warnings more seriously. Surely, they are now going to have to take Dr Cass’s warnings seriously. But, after 26 years you may perhaps forgive my fear that it might turn out to be a case of ‘too little, too late’. I sincerely hope not!

Don Horrocks

Retired Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance



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