ActionAid has been criticised by campaigners over the language it has used in an email to a supporter about trans rights.
ActionAid's policy on trans issues came under scrutiny after a supporter sent an email requesting that it use the term “sex” instead of “gender” in its campaigning material. In the charity's response, a member of staff used the phrase: “ActionAid UK understands there is no such thing as a ‘biologically female/male body’.”
Critics described this as “gobsmacking” and argued that it undermines ActionAid’s aims.
The employee had taken the phrase from an internal document that the charity says is part of a listening exercise and not formal policy.
Critics: ‘Gender and sex are being conflated’
In a Medium article, Sarah Phillimore said that she had been alerted to campaign material from ActionAid which asked supporters to contact their MPs and ensure that “gender equality is prioritised and that aid is properly scrutinised”.
Phillimore, a family lawyer, said the supporter asked ActionAid to change the word “gender” to “sex”, because: “These words are being conflated on a regular basis and it is causing issues. Women and girls are being discriminated against and abused on the basis of their sex.”
She says ActionAid replied to say: “It is important to us that we are clear that when we are talking about women and girls, we are including transgender women and girls in our definition of women and girls.
“ActionAid UK defines women and girls as anyone who self-identifies as a woman or a girl. Allowing self-determination of our bodies is a basic feminist principle. ActionAid UK understands there is no such thing as a ‘biologically female/male body’, and that a person’s genitalia doesn’t determine their gender.
“As such, we’ve used the word gender not sex, and include trans women and girls in our definition of women and girls. ActionAid UK also recognises that many non-binary people and trans men face gender discrimination.”
‘Signed-off at the top’
A second Medium article was published by Maya Forstater. She posted excerpts from the ActionAid policy document and said she was concerned that the charity had “signed this off at the highest level”.
She said that for ActionAid to deny biological sex was “utterly gobsmacking”.
After quoting examples of types of violence experienced by women and girls, she added: “ActionAid’s response suggests these things don’t happen to women and girls on account of being born female, but because they self-determined into the class of people to whom these things happen (and could self determine out).”
Forstater is currently appealing an Employment Tribunal case after a judge ruled against her claim for unfair dismissal from a think tank where she was contracting.
She had claimed that views she expressed on Twitter about trans issues were a protected belief, but the judge said they were “absolutist”, highlighting that “she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity”.
Forstater argues that “sex is real, immutable and important for women’s right and child protection. I believe that recognising this is compatible with upholding transgender people having the same rights as everyone else”.
ActionAid: ‘We’re committed to tolerance’
ActionAid said that the line regarding biological sex was not its official policy and that the document is part of an internal listening exercise.
A spokesperson said: “ActionAid wants to see an end to all forms of violence against all women and girls and is committed to acting with fairness, tolerance and respect for the inherent value of all human individuals and with an awareness of different cultural beliefs.
“A line was shared with a supporter from an internal document that is part of our ongoing diversity and inclusion programme of work. The document contained a phrase about biological sex which represents one of the diverse views at ActionAid. The document in question was not an official ActionAid policy.
“ActionAid is designing a listening process, with a view to consulting widely on this issue and want to be open to including as many perspectives as we can. This will include not just experts and organisations, but colleagues and rights-holders across the global ActionAid Federation and a broad range of stakeholders including our staff.”