This story is about a talk given by InsideOUT at the Ministry of Transport. It’s not really about me: instead it’s about how views around gender identity are treated within government and what happens when someone asks questions or dissents.
Like many, I’ve been on a journey when it comes to thinking about the implications of gender identity ideology. I’ve always seen myself as progressive: economically on the left and socially liberal. “So what?” I thought, as I heard about children believing that they were in the wrong body and the growth in so-called gender-neutral toilets. “Live and let live.” But once, on an online Labour Party forum in the UK, I queried the view that transwomen should be able to use female changing spaces. I was told that only bigots thought like that and to educate myself. So I did.
The more I read, the more I saw that people weren’t just being asked to accommodate and empathise with people with such crippling gender dysphoria that they believed they should have been born the opposite sex, but to accept that they actually were the opposite sex. That an unprovable self-proclaimed feeling in a man’s head meant that he should be able to access female sporting competitions, prisons, domestic violence refuges and changing areas. No questions are to be asked: this is a matter of personal identity and only the individual knows whether they are a man or a woman (or, indeed, neither). I have revisited my views many times, but the sense of the absurdity of this proposition has never left me.
Fast forward to late 2021. I had been working as a policy advisor in Wellington at the Ministry of Transport for almost three years when the Ministry hosted a talk by advocacy group InsideOUT. The talk was on “How to Connect with the Rainbow Community”, with a focus on how to be a good LGBTQIA+ ally. Staff were urged to attend by the then chief executive Peter Mersi.
The talk lasted an hour. Much of it was contested opinion and some of it based in activism rather than fact.
The claims ran like this: we know, and the scientific community knows, that sex is not binary but exists on a spectrum; intersex people are as common as red heads; always ask for people’s pronouns and practise using them; don’t ask people to explain their identity (it’s very personal).
The speaker also told us the correct way to talk about sexuality as a LGBTQIA+ ally: we were urged not to say “same-sex attracted” but to say “same-gender attracted”. She explained that this was because “we are talking about feeling attracted to someone based on their expression, you know, and also what you understand their gender to be rather than their actual, like physical characteristics or sex characteristics”.
I think this is wrong, and I think it matters. I believe that telling young lesbian, gay and bisexual people that what they are attracted to is “gender expression” (essentially, haircuts, make up and clothing) and not someone’s sex is regressive. It’s based on sexist stereotypes and denies same-sex attraction.
The speaker then explained what we had to do when faced with language or beliefs that we thought were discriminatory: we were told to challenge them by saying they made us feel uncomfortable.
At the end, I asked if she would take questions. I said that some of what she had said had made me feel uncomfortable. I explained that a relative of mine is a lesbian and asked the speaker whether she thought that lesbians as a group should be willing to accept male people with penises as sexual partners if they identify as women?
We had a short, calm exchange. The below is taken from a recording of the session:
IO: Saying male is part of the problem. We ascribe genders and meanings to bodies that are socially constructed. It’s interesting you focused on penis. It’s part of the narrative that transwomen are a threat to cisgender women.
EB – no, she would say that she is same-sex attracted.
IO: We live and grow up with different generational understandings. That isn’t how our rangatahi would use that language. We hear from them that they identify as lesbians because they are attracted to women. It's less about someone’s sex characteristics and more about the gender of that person.
EB: I think that gets rid of same-sex attraction. Which to her - and me - is denying homosexuality. If you are saying that a lesbian should consider having a relationship with someone that is male bodied – I accept that you disagree with that term but if you are distinguishing between gender and sex we can talk about sex characteristics – then that means that lesbians should be open to having relationships with people who are male bodied, which to me seems... [I tailed off here, somewhat lost for words]
IO: Maybe it’s based on your [relative’s] understanding and that’s her journey, her narrative. But transwomen are women so they need to be included in lesbian communities. They are women. But she can have her own preferences. That’s her prerogative. But it’s important that we shouldn’t erase transwomen from those communities because they are women.
She signalled that was the end of her answer, the audience clapped and we all filed out. I heard no mention of the session from any colleague until, almost a fortnight later, I received a two-page letter from the Deputy Chief Executive who headed up our corporate functions. It was about my behaviour.
“At the presentation … you asked me if I would allow extra time to enable you to ask the presenter a question. I was surprised and disappointed that you chose to use that opportunity to inappropriately challenge the presenter, [Name], and the highly informative presentation she had given us.
It was concerning to me and others that you persistently used language to describe trans women such as 'male-bodied', even after [Name] explained that such language is inappropriate and offensive. Since the presentation I have been advised that a number of other attendees were also offended and shocked by your behaviour.”
She quoted from the Ministry’s code of conduct and said “the Ministry is committed to creating a workplace that is diverse and inclusive, where a variety of voices are encouraged and heard. … I understand that you are entitled to express your views openly. However, having a diverse workplace means that we all are required to be respectful and considerate of others. Your behaviour in the session was not either of those things.”
Finally, she said she hoped I would “take the time to reflect on your actions”.
I didn’t consider I had done anything wrong and I certainly didn’t believe I had breached the code of conduct: I had simply asked a speaker a question. It was a challenging one, but I had done what the speaker had urged us to do: I spoke up when someone used language that made us uncomfortable.
For a junior staff member to receive such a letter from a deputy chief executive was alarming and undoubtedly career limiting. But since I had already decided to leave New Zealand for family reasons I had little to lose. I replied, noting that the Human Rights Commission itself defines transwomen as “someone born with a male body who has a female gender identity” and said that rather than encouraging respect and open acceptance, the Deputy Chief Executive’s letter implied that the Ministry wished to silence people with different views.
We subsequently had a meeting with the Ministry’s HR manager (also attended by a representative of the Free Speech Union at my request) where the Deputy Chief Executive insisted that since the speaker had disliked me using the term “male bodied,” then I should not have used it a second time. That was regardless of the fact that the term is factually correct, or that it is part of the definition of “transwomen” used by the Human Rights Commission. The meeting lasted over an hour, during which time the Deputy Chief Executive repeatedly castigated me, accusing me of being rude and offensive and (in her view) acting inappropriately.
The Ministry’s HR manager (who had not attended the InsideOUT talk) told me that it wasn’t so much the words that I had used that were the problem, it was the tone in which I had said them.
Although the Ministry was keen to emphasise that the letter did not form part of a disciplinary procedure, the Free Speech Union was so concerned about the Ministry’s position that it wrote to the Public Services Commissioner. In its letter it noted that the Ministry appeared to be requiring an employee to distort fact-based language because it was deemed offensive after the fact by colleagues of a different ideological persuasion, despite the fact that the public service should be ideologically neutral. The Public Services Commissioner referred the matter to Peter Mersi, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Transport. Unsurprisingly, he dismissed the Free Speech Union’s concerns. He wrote:
“In her letter, [the Deputy Chief Executive] made it clear that Ms Barraclough is entitled to her own views and did not seek to prevent her from expressing those views. She reminded Ms Barraclough about the Ministry’s expectations and the requirements of our Code of Conduct, which include being respectful and considerate of others. [The Deputy Chief Executive] simply asked Ms Barraclough to take some time to reflect on her behaviour and consider how she might express her views in a manner that is respectful and considerate of those around her. She did not go so far as to allege that Ms Barraclough had breached the Code of Conduct, nor did she make any mention of potential disciplinary consequences.”
Regardless of what public service senior leaders say about people being entitled to their own views and being able to express those views without fear of facing formal disciplinary proceedings, the reality is very different. My experience suggests that there is no acceptable way for a public servant to express the (widely held) belief that there are two sexes, that sex is immutable, and that the sex and the material reality of a person’s body and physiology sometimes matters more than their gender identity.
During my time in government I learnt the importance of definitions. We spent much time thinking about, and discussing, words: who or what would be affected by any regulatory or legislative changes we proposed? Was our language sufficiently clear and accurate? Yet InsideOUT is allowed – even encouraged – to tell public servants to use euphemisms in place of factually correct language. To assign new meanings to commonly understood words, so that “gay” no longer means same-sex attracted but now “same-gender attracted”. Giving InsideOUT an effective veto over the use of certain words and phrases doesn’t just affect a public servant’s ability to raise concerns about their ministry’s changing rooms going mixed sex. It has far wider implications for public servants’ ability to provide robust advice about a range of policy issues affecting all New Zealanders.
It also compromises the political neutrality of the public service. The public service is no longer politically neutral if public servants are not allowed to use fact-based language to describe important matters of public policy. Nor is it politically neutral if junior staff members receive letters from senior leaders accusing them of acting inappropriately and offensively by questioning a predetermined ideological position. The public service is no longer politically neutral if it allows the position of one activist group to drive advice on a contentious social issue. And the public service is no longer politically neutral if leaders claim that “a variety of voices are encouraged and heard” but the reality is that only one particular set of views are encouraged and affirmed while views that surveys show are shared by many New Zealanders are deemed offensive and inappropriate.
I didn’t have to undergo a formal disciplinary procedure to be punished for wrong think. The letter from a DCE tiers higher than me in the Ministry with the ability to commence action against me was a punishment. Attending a meeting with senior leaders in the Ministry to be told repeatedly that I had been rude and offensive and needed to reflect on my actions was a punishment. Being told that I could not use fact-based language, even the very language used by the Human Rights Commission, was a punishment. Knowing that if I was staying in New Zealand that I would have to leave the Ministry of Transport to progress my career was a punishment.
It should not require courage for a public servant in 2023 to say that lesbians are same-sex attracted females.
And yet here we are.