Gender self-ID raises complex questions. It's not transphobic to ask them

The results of Counting Ourselves, New Zealand's first transgender health survey, have been released.

OPINION: An explainer by Stuff last week on the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill​ (BDMRR) is to be commended as the first New Zealand mainstream media attempt to explain the arguments involved. But there is so much more to this topic that needs to be aired.

The sex self-identification aspect of the bill is only one of a suite of changes that are seeing the replacement of ‘sex’ in law and public policy with the newly introduced concept of ‘gender identity’.

There has been next to no public notification, consultation or media coverage of this. Yet self-identified gender has been the default stance for many government departments since 2018.

Equal pay is now determined by gender identity, not sex; statistical data is likewise collected by gender identity instead of sex. Prison accommodation too is determined by self-identification, meaning that people with fully intact male bodies can be placed with the country’s most vulnerable women.

Jill Abigail was the first Director of Information at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Jill Abigail was the first Director of Information at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

* Explainer: The decades-long battle for gender self-identification
* Bill simplifying birth certificate sex change gains momentum
* Transgender rights debate: Separating the facts from the fiction

The Human Rights Commission has interpreted the Human Rights Act provisions that protected women as also applying to people observed male at birth who identify as women, effectively nullifying the provisions.

Another important issue is changes to language that go well beyond the polite use of preferred pronouns. The term “cis” gender, for example, will be a mystery to the average New Zealander. New language sees women become “birthing parents” instead of mothers, and “pregnant people”, not pregnant women. Period products in schools are directed at “students who menstruate”.

People born male who identify as women are being appointed to jobs previously designated by law as available only to natal women, such as roles in sexual abuse counselling. Thus, the lived experience of natal women in these roles is lost. But probably the issue causing most distress is what is happening to children.

If a new religion was created that encouraged gays and lesbians to be sterilised, would this be acceptable? Yet in teaching our children that it is possible to “change sex”, gender identity activists are doing just that. Transgender medicine uses drugs that suspend puberty and thus the development of sexuality. Almost all children treated with these drugs progress to cross-sex hormones, and many have surgery too.

It is not love and acceptance to encourage children to believe they were “born in the wrong body”. Children can have no concept of the downstream impacts on their later lives of infertility and the inability to respond sexually. They cannot anticipate what these losses entail, let alone the other effects of ongoing medicalisation.

Some parents are starting to push back against the influence of this ideology. They see the exponential rise in teenage girls wanting to be boys. They see the harm being done to young bodies. They understand that children’s freedom to be themselves should not have to include a belief that they need gender identity labels.

Jan Rivers is an independent researcher with a focus on issues of democratic process.
Jan Rivers is an independent researcher with a focus on issues of democratic process.

Such parents, as well as gender-critical feminists, are too readily labelled transphobic in raising these issues. But to dismiss their sincere concerns is to miss a very important point. Gender confusion is common in children. To assume it equates automatically to being transgender is a big mistake.

Increasingly, research shows that gender questioning is closely linked to trauma, sexual abuse, autism, and homophobia both external and internalised. A recent statement from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists acknowledges these factors, saying “comprehensive assessment is crucial”.

Instead of immediate affirmation, a ‘watchful waiting’ approach for a child expressing gender dysphoria allows them time to explore their feelings without making decisions that are irreversible. Studies have shown that gender questioning is resolved by puberty in more than 80 per cent of affected children. A high proportion grow up to be gay or lesbian adults.

In the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, sex self-identification bills have been voted down or withdrawn for the kinds of reasons outlined above.

It is far too easy to slap labels of bigotry and hate speech on people raising concerns. What we really need is a careful, well-informed discussion about how to secure women’s rights, and develop a rights framework for transgender people, without damaging children.

Jill Abigail has been writing on women’s rights issues for over 40 years and was the first Director of Information at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. She is a lesbian and a great-grandmother.

Jan Rivers is an independent researcher with a focus on issues of democratic process. She worked for many years in information management and has a background in lesbian and left-wing activism.