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The current ‘debate’ around transgender issues is a waste of everyone’s time, including yours.

Make no mistake, as far as the public conversation is concerned, there is no debate. There are no new ideas being suggested and tested, no scrutiny of evidence, nothing edifying or educational being added to public knowledge and attitudes. The flurries of angry tweets, dogwhistles and media clickbait are at best a waste of time and attention, and at worst a downwards spiral reinforcing negative stereotypes and peddling misinformation.

by Jeremiah Stephenson

Make no mistake, as far as the public conversation is concerned, there is no debate. There are no new ideas being suggested and tested, no scrutiny of evidence, nothing edifying or educational being added to public knowledge and attitudes. The flurries of angry tweets, dogwhistles and media clickbait are at best a waste of time and attention, and at worst a downwards spiral reinforcing negative stereotypes and peddling misinformation.

Concern about protection of free speech might be a hot topic right now (For a prominent, recent example, see the discussion following this letter: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/), but what often gets missed is the issue of relevance. You wouldn’t invite members of the Flat Earth Society to voice their opinions on the latest NASA mission, nor would you expect to see anti-vaccers on the executive board of the WHO. The intervention of celebrities who are critically lacking in expertise (JK Rowling has revealed that she is a sexual assault survivor, which gives her voice more relevance to protection of women’s rights than that of, say, Piers Morgan: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/jk-rowling-says-survivor-of-domestic-abuse-sexual-assault But to apply the experience of being assaulted by a man in a domestic space to potential assault by trans women in public spaces is like me saying that, because I was bitten by a dog as a child, all cats should be denied veterinary care.), experience and willingness to listen and learn in the everyday lives of trans people would be equally laughable if it weren’t so real and harmful. No one needs an amateur psychiatrist.

The irreconcilable gulf between trans people and those campaigning against Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform already exists in the way in which language is used, before you even get around to examining the arguments themselves. Language shapes the conceptual building blocks that people use to think about the world; in cognitive sciences, this is called Framing (See George Lakoff’s book ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate’). For example, an argument against trans rights is nearly always framed as being pro women’s safety. Notice that here, the word ‘women’ will necessarily mean ‘cis women’; the exclusion of trans people exists before a sentence is even built. It’s impossible to find common ground with, or ‘agree to disagree’ with someone whose basic linguistic and conceptual universe can’t even represent you correctly.

To be clear: I am not advocating a blanket ban on discussing anything to do with trans people. There are conversations that certainly need to happen, for example: How should LGBT topics be introduced in schools in a way that builds a safer society for everyone? What safeguards should be introduced in, for example, female prisons to prevent sexual assault on inmates? How should healthcare provision for trans people expand to meet the current NHS targets while adhering to the strictest safety criteria? These, and other conversations, are to be had by specialists in the relevant fields in consultation with those directly affected, and each question will have its own context-specific solution. None of these problems will be solved by a Twitter tirade against trans people’s basic right to exist and use appropriate public services.

More fundamentally, efforts to prevent reform of the GRA are a pointless waste of everyone’s time and energy because, whatever your viewpoint, reform is inevitable. The arguments against GRA reform that have garnered the most media attention have at their core the idea that letting trans women into female only spaces compromises the safety of those spaces. Let’s ignore for now the absence of reported assault cases in countries such as Ireland, which allow GRCs to be issued on the basis of self-determined gender, and take this viewpoint to its logical conclusion(s). There are two ways it can go:

  1. You realise that linking access to single sex spaces to GRA reform is flawed from the outset, as it is not the GRA (2004) that allows trans people to choose which services are appropriate for them, but the Equalities Act (2010) which is a completely separate piece of legislation. Given that the GRA changes nothing about access to single sex spaces, you have no reason to oppose it and it gets reformed.

  2. You already know the GRA is nothing to do with access to single sex spaces, but you are still unhappy with the thought of trans people having free choice over which single sex spaces they can use. You want to make the law stricter, so only trans people with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) proving they have undergone certain medical interventions can access the spaces associated with their chosen gender. In order to maintain this, enforcement squads are posted at the doors to all single sex spaces (take a moment to imagine how much this would cost) and trans people have to show their GRC to be let in. What about cis women who happen to be tall, or flat chested, or present socially in a way that isn’t typically feminine? For this position to be enforced consistently and fairly for the safety of all, everyone would need a GRC – not just trans people. The current system is already behind on processing the applications of trans people for their GRCs; if every UK citizen were to apply it would simply crumble. The only way for it to cope would be to reform the system to make it easier and more streamlined.

Parliament will discuss GRA reform this autumn, where hopefully they will realise for themselves the logical double-bind they land themselves in by following the “safety of single sex spaces argument” through to its logical conclusion. With that obstacle aside, the support from the public is clear: over 100,000 responses with more than 70% in favour of reform. To delay any further, now the results of the consultation have been made public, would constitute a grossly undemocratic move. After all, more upheaval has happened on a much smaller majority.


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