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Why I support trans rights – Part Two

When Ungagged asked me to write about trans rights again I took a deep breath, knowing what the consequences are likely to be for my Twitter notifications!

But I wrote about this topic in March 2019 for Ungagged, expressing a wish that the debate would become more respectful. Instead, it has got much worse. See: Why I support trans rights – Ungagged! (leftungagged.org)

So, for what they are worth, here are my thoughts nearly two and a half years on. This is a long read because there’s lots to say.

Trans lives matter

The adult Scottish trans population is estimated to be between 0.5% – 1% of the population, so at the most just below 50,000 people.

Trans people in Scotland, as elsewhere, are acknowledged to have poorer than average health and life outcomes, and to experience stigma and discrimination.

A major survey of Scottish trans people in 2012 (one of the largest ever conducted) provided a more detailed picture. See: trans_mh_study.pdf (scottishtrans.org)

Trans people’s lives were often constrained, with 81% avoiding some social situations. Most avoided going into public toilets or gyms, for example.

Over half had experienced harassment or other problems at work, and 37% had experienced physical threats and intimidation. There was a disproportionately high experience of homelessness, and a quarter of people had been forced to move away from their family and friends after transitioning.

A very high number of respondents had experienced depression, anxiety, and stress, and a large majority had at some point considered ending their lives. 60% had engaged in some form of substance misuse, and over half had self-harmed.

Thankfully, three quarters of people said that their mental health improved after transitioning, with a marked reduction in suicidal ideation post-transition. However, harassment and prejudice remained a problem for them.

GRA reform (or how amending an obscure piece of bureaucracy became a culture war)

Latest centre of the culture war in Scotland – The Doctors pub, in Edinburgh.

The Scottish Government works with a range of partners to improve outcomes for trans people. Reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) emerged as an ask with the launch of the Equal Recognition Campaign in 2014. See: equal recognition – Improving legal gender recognition in Scotland

This ask was accepted by all major political parties, who made commitments in their 2016 manifestos to modernise the GRA. At that point this was not contentious.

But very soon the discussion around GRA reform erupted into a culture war, with a strongly generational element to it, which was also weaponised politically. Someone may at some point be able to unfankle all the different threads explaining how and why this happened. It’s beyond me.

Whatever the underlying causes, the response to GRA reform has placed trans people, through no choice of their own, in the eye of a perfect political storm, with a fierce debate raging around them concerning not only their rights but often their personal identity.

I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the effects of the proposed amendments to the GRA legislation.

If not, the first consultation document is available here: Review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 – Scottish Government – Citizen Space (consult.gov.scot)

The second consultation – on the draft bill – is available here: Gender Recognitio n Reform (Scotland) Bill: A consultation – Scottish Government – Citizen Space

After reform was shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the SNP’s 2021 manifesto committed to taking it forward in the new parliament, and the Draft Co-operation Agreement with the Greens includes a commitment to introduce a bill within the first year.

So, we can probably expect to see GRA reform being progressed soon. Much as I welcome this, I also feel a bit nervous about what the next months may bring.

It may be helpful to remember that the self-declaration model of legal gender recognition proposed for Scotland has already been successfully adopted in Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta, and Portugal. See: Legal gender recognition in the EU – Publications Office of the EU (europa.eu)

The Swiss Parliament voted to introduce the self-declaration model in December 2020. See: Swiss Parliament passes LGR based on self-determination – TGEU

The government of Finland has also indicated its intention to introduce this model. See: Sanna Marin: The feminist PM leading a coalition of women – BBC News

It is likely more countries will do the same. The self-declaration model of legal gender recognition is regarded as being the most accessible and respectful and the model which reflects the highest human rights standards.

Trans identities are real

From observing and participating in this debate online, I think those who are actively hostile towards trans rights believe that trans identities are bogus. This is implicit, for example, in transphobic jokes about identifying as an attack helicopter etc.

It’s probably not that difficult to persuade people of this. Trans people are a very marginalised group, and most of us start out with very little understanding of their lives. If someone has been persuaded that trans identities are bogus, then of course they are likely to believe that trans people are deluded, at best.

But, in fact, the clear scientific and clinical view is that trans and non-binary identities are real and are not a type of disorder.

To support this, the World Health Organisation has re-classified trans identities to depathologise them and to ensure that gender-affirming healthcare for trans and non-binary people is the norm across the world. See: WHO/Europe | WHO/Europe brief – transgender health in the context of ICD-11

Gender-affirming healthcare includes specialist services such as hormone therapy and surgery for those who want it. (And there is a need to improve these services in Scotland which has been recognised by government).

It also means general healthcare services affirming and respecting the gender identity of trans and non-binary patients. So, for example, inclusive terms such as “chest-feeding” are used in the context of caring for trans or non-binary patients to ensure that they feel comfortable and supported.

Yet there are sustained attacks on any use of trans-inclusive language in the NHS. While not directly related to GRA reform, issues like this contribute to concerns that the wider environment is becoming increasingly hostile for trans and non-binary people.

How to make debate less stigmatising

People are fully entitled to raise any concerns they have about GRA reform, and I do not want to dissuade anyone from doing so. But the way they do that matters.

Presenting any minority group as representing a threat to the majority is harmful. But this is how the discussion on legal gender recognition is often framed, as a choice between trans rights and women’s safety.

It is completely reasonable for people to want to understand what safeguards there are in proposed legislation to prevent bad actors exploiting it. But we have seen some campaigners opposed to reform associating trans women with predators and paedophiles in a clear echo of homophobic campaigns of the past.

There are, of course, some trans people who are predators. But extrapolating the bad behaviour of individuals to stigmatise an entire group is wrong.

Claiming that trans people receive preferential treatment over the majority is also harmful and breeds resentment. Marginalised groups face barriers to equal treatment that the majority do not face. Recognising and responding to that does not confer a form of privilege on them.

The powerful trans lobby” is also a harmful myth. Powerful groups have multiple ways to advance their interests and to ensure that government listens to them. Trans people are not a powerful group and have very limited ways to advance their interests. The choice of whether to listen to trans people rests with those in government – that’s why we saw GRA reform dropped in England after Theresa May, who supports it, was replaced by Boris Johnson, who doesn’t.

It is perfectly possible to raise issues of concern without invoking any of the above arguments, or indeed without rubbishing or ridiculing trans identities. It doesn’t assist the debate, and it opens the door to these tactics being deployed against other marginalised groups.

Too much misinformation

Misinformation is very prevalent in this debate. The subject matter provides a perfect breeding ground, as many of the issues are somewhat obscure and complex. For example, we saw Scottish Government guidance for schools to support trans pupils immediately seized upon by right-wing media and misrepresented as allowing children as young as 4 to change their gender without their parents knowing about it. That is not true.

Another contentious aspect of the debate around GRA reform is trans people’s access to single sex services. There is a lot of misinformation about this too.

Some people have become genuinely convinced that introducing a self-declaration system of legal gender recognition would allow any man to simply declare himself to be a woman to gain immediate access to any single sex space or service. It’s completely understandable that people would be alarmed by this. I would be too. But it’s not true.

The Scottish Government is clear that reforming the legal gender recognition process will not diminish the rights of women and will not have any impact on the provisions in the 2010 Equality Act affecting trans people’s access to single sex services.

Women and GRA reform

There has been a lot of misogyny and transphobia marring the online debate about GRA reform. Both are completely unacceptable.

The problem of misogyny – both on and off-line – is wider than the debate about GRA reform but has become inextricably linked to it in the eyes of many of Scotland’s media.

This can lead to the debate being framed almost as trans people versus women. But this doesn’t square with polling showing that women are more supportive than men of trans identities. See: Where does the British public stand on transgender rights? | YouGov

Framing the debate as feminists versus trans activists isn’t much better. Some feminists are critical of the concept of gender. But many trans activists are also feminists, and most of Scotland’s established feminist organisations are supportive of reforming the GRA as proposed. See: Engender | Engender blog | Statement in support of the Equal Recognition Campaign and reform of the Gender Recognition Act

Despite this complexity, some people clearly feel that a focus on improving trans lives comes at the expense of improving women’s lives. And for some, any system allowing people to change their legal sex has come to be seen as misogynistic.

There is no basis, in my view, to believe that women’s rights have been neglected. Multiple pieces of legislation improving women’s rights were passed by the last parliament, including ground-breaking domestic abuse legislation, improvements to forensic services for survivors of rape and sexual assault, greater protection for women and girls at risk of female genital mutilation, universal provision of free period products, and equal gender representation on public boards.

Fear of male violence is well-founded and that is why Scotland has an explicitly feminist Equally Safe strategy, bringing together the Scottish Government, COSLA, and other partners to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. See: Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy to eradicate violence against women – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

In addition to this, a working group chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is actively considering the introduction of a new standalone offence of misogyny. See: Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland Working Group – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

As well as tackling violence against women and girls, the Scottish Government takes a range of actions to promote equality for women and girls in the workplace and in education. See: Gender equality – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

And the government is taking action to improve women’s health inequalities through a Women’s Health Plan, the first of its kind in the UK. See: Women’s Health Plan – gov.scot (www.gov.scot) 

These are just some of the actions which demonstrate the Scottish Government prioritising women’s rights. Of course, more can always be done but there is no evidence that women’s rights have been neglected by government, quite the reverse.

I believe that robust assurances that GRA reform will have no negative impact on women and girls can be provided during the passage of the bill, and I encourage MSPs to seek those assurances.

But those who advocate, in effect, for repeal of the GRA are destined to be disappointed. Scotland must have a system which allows people to legally change their gender to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. Any move to repeal the current system and not replace it with a new system would be outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament.

As a final point, I find it personally and politically frustrating that other issues which are hugely important to women are not given as much priority as this one. The current consultation on social care reform, for example, is one of the most important in many decades and the outcome will affect almost every woman in the country. See: A National Care Service for Scotland: consultation – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

What now?

We can’t know at this stage whether the online battle around GRA reform will escalate even further. But, somehow, a clear line needs to be drawn between the culture war and the development of legislation.

I am not sure how this can be done, and I think it is going to be very challenging for MSPs. I do have confidence that the majority will approach it in a calm and sensitive way. I hope parliamentarians are given room to reflect. It is very difficult to do that in a debate that is so intensely polarised, and with forgiveness in short supply.

My belief is that, as they work their way through the bill, it will become apparent to more and more people that the scare stories that have been in circulation on social media simply aren’t true.

Our government is doing the right thing. Enabling legal gender recognition through self-declaration ends the harmful pathologising of trans identities and gives trans people back some measure of dignity and control over their own lives.

But GRA reform can’t be seen as an end point. As well as improving specialist trans healthcare, more must be done to challenge transphobia and stigma, bearing in mind that the nature of the discussion around GRA reform may have increased it.

This concern also has a much wider application. Many of our most urgent public policy challenges entail, in part, finding more effective ways to challenge the stigma that can still be attached to marginalised and vulnerable groups and those with poor mental health. This is something we need to get much better at. We can start now.

by Mhairi Hunter

 

 

 

 

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