That sound you hear is the sound of some of us breathing out again

Christine Burns (Press for Change)



Issue 25
Spring 2004

Well, it was the strangest of sensations to see it happen on the screen in front of us but tonight another piece of history was made. Tonight at just after 6.30pm, as Claire and I held our breath on the ends of a phone line and watched the House of Lords webcast on our respective PC's, the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly to PASS the Gender Recognition Bill virtually unchanged! This isn't the end of the story yet of course .. the Bill now has to repeat the same tortuous process of committee sessions, debates, amendments and votes in the House of Commons. If it moves at about the same speed as it did through the Lords then that will take about another month.

Nevertheless, this one was the part of the process that mattered .. the stage where the Bill was most likely to be damaged by hostile amendments and voting. The hostile amendments were certainly there and, as the Bill entered its final stage in the Lords today, both the level of interest and the level of intellectual content in the debates shot up ... at one point the debating chamber had well over 300 peers in attendance. The most nailbiting stage was an edge-of-the-seat debate on Baroness O'Cathain's amendment to make it possible for Churches to exclude transsexual people if they wished to do so.

Suddenly the debate didn't require an understanding of transsexuality .. this was fundamental stuff about the balance of competing interests when one person's belief is another person's discrimination. It is neither the first nor the last time that such a debate has been or will be aired. O'Cathain's amendment was the most narrowly decided too .. the Government (and us) prevailed by a margin of just four votes (149 against the amendment; 145 in favour).

After that, things settled down rather more. The only other substantive amendment (Lord Marlesford's proposal to strike out the entire clause protecting privacy) was more easily defeated (145 against and only 108 in favour). And then there was the most important vote of all .. on whether the House of Lords should pass the whole Bill.

Claire and I talked nervously on the 'phone as we watched the division take place .. our two computer screens bizarrely out of sync by a few seconds because of the curious way in which webcasting works. For this reason I heard the result from Claire's reaction before I heard it for myself -- but I didn't have to ask her; I could tell by her reaction. Three times as many peers voted in favour of the bill than against it. They voted overwhelmingly for the very provisions which so many people doubted they would accept. The Bill they have voted for is practically the same tonight as the version which first appeared in draft on July 11th last year .. not perfect by any means (and that's the focus of our attention as the Bill now moves to the Commons).

However, the hardest obstacle to legal recognition is now, after all these years, behind us. We can't rest yet. We have to watch and help to guide the Bill through the House of Commons now. Opponents such as the Christian Institute and the Evangelical alliance will not give up just because they've lost this stage tonight - indeed, they are likely to become more determined. This therefore is the time to prepare to start explaining to people the significance of what has passed so far.

We can tell people, for instance, how more than one Bishop stood up tonight and opposed - yes opposed - the amendment to enable churches to discriminate against us. That is very important, because it makes clear that not all religious people are anti-trans. It provides the opportunity for others to speak up too and to begin to show that the extremists (who've so far had the rostrum to themselves) do not speak for the whole Church. These are things we'll expand upon in the days ahead though. For now let's just give thanks ourselves that this harrowing step on the road to equality, privacy and greater social inclusion and understanding has turned out as it did tonight. The Lords have delivered a massively important message.

The most conservative part of our legislature has said overwhelmingly that even if some of its members don't understand Gender Dysphoria they recognise the indivisible principle of protection and respect for minorities in our society. They recognise a matter of human rights when they see one. And they think that, above all, those rights are important enough to support. Have a small personal celebration tonight everyone. It isn't over. But the end is in sight.

Love Christine

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