This moment in the trans debate reminds me of the fight for gay rights

Published by The ipaper (2nd July, 2018)

More than a decade ago I was listening to a radio item about transgender people when I made some glib comment about ‘sex changes’. My son, then a teenager but raised in such a different time, instantly reprimanded me by reminding me how much I hated homophobic statements made by ill-informed older generations when I was his age. ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you are doing the same.’

His comment stuck with me. Look at how papers featured warm coverage of Olympic diver Tom Daley and his husband, as they expressed their happiness over birth of their first child. This joyful story symbolises how fast attitudes can change in society. It is not that long since it was seen as acceptable for crass caricatures of gay people to be shown on prime time television sitcoms, while politicians barred ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as a ‘pretend family relationship’, cheered on by bigots filling pages of some newspapers with bile about straying from ‘natural sexuality’.

Now there is fierce debate over gender identity that seems to contain echoes of the campaign for gay and lesbian equality. My generation has been on a learning curve, struggling with complex, profound and unfamiliar subjects that cut to the heart of humanity. Fear and fury seem to drive much of the conversation, sadly, even in unlikely corners of the media, with issues over child protection, mental health, ‘normality’ and public safety thrown up again as hurdles against progress. I am often surprised and shocked by comments I hear on this issue in supposedly liberal circles.

This week the battle flares up with the launch of a consultation over the long-awaited reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. This will spark fireworks, given the ferocity of debate over gender fluidity and resistance to change in some quarters. It is an important test for the Tory party, which stood firm on gay marriage despite loud opposition, yet has since drifted to the right, and also for Westminster as a whole, when politics is looking so infantile over Brexit. The current system imposes a two-year, medically-sanctioned process for trans people wishing to gain a gender recognition certificate. This is bureaucratic, humiliating and a waste of health resources, so ministers rightly said the process should be ‘demedicalised’.

They should stay firm to the idea of self-declaration. It has been adopted in countries from Argentina and Colombia through to Belgium, Ireland, Norway and Portugal, where there is scarce evidence it is used by sexual predators to abuse or harass women. Yet there are signs that this timid government will proceed with caution: it has said in advance of this consultation that it will still allow women-only services and groups to exclude transgender people.

Partly this is due to the intensity of debate and a backlash against moving towards trans equality, especially from a few prominent older feminists – which as ‘socialist, feminist, lesbian, left wing’ protest singer Grace Petrie said at a concert I attended last week, baffles many younger activists. No doubt I will be flamed for daring enter a discussion that arouses such anxiety and anger. And yes, there have been dodgy tactics displayed by both sides – including those extremists getting foes banned from universities and shutting down gatherings of those opposed to their cause.

I understand the government’s desire to cool passions in order to negotiate a tricky path through a moral, political and social maze. But we must recognise history is repeating itself – with fears over gender fluidity replacing hostility to gay rights. Activists, politicians and journalists should ponder issues of stigmatisation. Women putting on fake beards to protest trans females being permitted to use a women-only bathing pond in Hampstead demeans a struggle for equality among a disempowered slice of society that faces disturbing levels of hostility and violence. Such stunts imply people switch gender on a whim, rather than often struggling for years before taking the decision to transition.

Prejudice impedes progress. This is not to ignore complex and controversial issues that need resolution, just as society grappled with subjects such as gay marriage and adoption amid concern from traditionalists and religious communities. School uniforms, shared toilets and shop changing rooms seem easily soluble. Far more difficult are discussions and justified questions over trans children, safe spaces, womens’ refuges, prisons and sporting contests. But even these can be resolved with civility, patience and, above all, sympathy for everyone’s right to live how they want and present themselves as they wish.

This recognition of a less binary society can be baffling, and democracy demands compromise. But this is not about fads and fashion, as some say dismissively. We are witnessing a cultural change that will be bitterly contested before it is rapidly absorbed. For all the furore, much of the public already seem pretty relaxed on transgender issues, with two-thirds saying they are comfortable with transgender primary school teachers in the last British Social Attitudes study. Interestingly given the outcry, women seem significantly more supportive than men; only 13 per cent said they are discomforted by trans women using their toilets.

Penny Mordaunt, the latest minister for women and equalities, says the government must show leadership on this issue, so hopefully she will stand firm even as she tries to detoxify a ferocious debate. ‘The discrimination and bigotry the trans community faces is very much like what gay men went through in the 1980s,’ she told parliament last month. ‘I said to a meeting the other day that none of us were in politics at that time, but we must ask ourselves whether if we had been we would have stood up for that community?’ As my son pointed out, this is a question we should all ask ourselves.

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