This week I signed a letter supporting trans rights which led, inevitably, to a couple of fairly lively days on twitter.
Twitter is very much the wrong forum on which to discuss such a polarised issue, so I was pleased when Ungagged asked me to write about this subject as it allows me to expand on why I signed the letter and to reflect on what makes the online discussion so toxic.
At the heart of the debate is a proposed change to the Gender Recognition Act to simplify the process by which trans people can change their birth certificates to match their other documentation and to reflect how they live their lives, by allowing them to self-declare their gender identity (self-ID). The change would also give legal recognition to people who have a non-binary gender identity.
In many ways this would simply update gender recognition legislation to reflect the way self-ID already operates in practice in almost all public and private situations. However, it is happening at a time when gender identity has become part of a raging online debate.
I reached my view on GRA reform on the basis of the evidence available to me. Yet I have been accused of supporting trans rights because I am performatively woke, or a cultist or because I am the kind of woman who wants to please men. (The latter suggestion would greatly surprise the men in my life!) More offensively, it has been repeatedly suggested that, because I support a change to allow trans people to change their birth certificates more easily, I do not care about women and girls being raped or sexually abused.
This level of toxicity is why many people simply do not participate in the discussion.
I became more involved in the online discussion because I saw suggestions that self-ID should be rolled back and that really disturbed me. Self-ID enables people to live their lives as who they really are and to get the right support at the right time from public services in a way that respects their privacy and dignity. I was also seeing in some social media posts a kind of incipient moral panic which reminded me of fear-based campaigns, such as the one to keep Section 28 in place.
Other people will have very different perceptions of the debate – I fully accept that – but this is mine and it’s why I became more vocal.
The campaigns to repeal Section 28 and, more recently, to introduce equal marriage were won convincingly – but we should never forget that those campaigns took their toll on people. It was distressing for gay people to hear that they were a threat to children, could only have a “pretended” family or should not have the same right as everyone else to marry the person they love. That’s why it was so important that it wasn’t left to gay people to make the case for change alone.
In the same way it must be very distressing to be trans right now. Imagine going online and being surrounded by voices suggesting that you are either deluded or a sexual predator. Imagine a debate about whether your identity – who you are – is even real. Yet all too often that is how this discussion is framed. It’s appalling. The debate urgently needs to be re-framed in a more respectful way and we all need to play our part in bringing that about.
This does not mean that there are no issues or concerns around gender recognition. All legislation will throw up anomalies and potential unintended consequences which would need to be addressed. So too would concerns about safeguarding.
The issue of safeguarding is perhaps the most toxic aspect of the debate.
Inevitably, if people are told that the government wants to legislate in a way that will allow male sexual predators to access women-only spaces they will react with fear and alarm. It’s also inevitable that others will react angrily to that suggestion and will dismiss it as transphobic. This in turn inevitably leads to accusations that those people care more about the rights of trans people than they do about the safety of women and girls. We can see how discussions become poisonous very quickly.
There is an agenda at play here, one which will be recognised by other minority groups. But we do need to take concerns extremely seriously.
It is clear that the public will want to be reassured that rigorous safeguarding procedures are in place in women-only spaces. This can and should be done. I would expect that the parliamentary process will enable the issue of safeguarding to be examined in a very thorough way to provide that assurance.
But it needs to be done respectfully. I have, for example, seen people on twitter question the integrity of organisations such as Rape Crisis because they receive public funding. This is disrespectful at best. At worst it is an attempt to de-legitimise the expertise of those who provide frontline services to vulnerable women and girls.
Then, of course, there is the continuing focus on bathrooms and changing rooms.
In my view there is a very legitimate debate to be had about public toilet and changing facilities. If I ruled the world, individual changing cubicles in every setting would be the law. An expansion in the number of gender neutral individual toilet cubicles – with baby changing facilities – would also be on the cards. And we need many more accessible Changing Places toilets for older children and adults too.
But, as interesting as a discussion of public toilet and changing facilities is, it has very little to do with changing the Gender Recognition Act. The fact is that, whether we know it or not, we have all shared and continue to share toilets and other facilities with trans people with no impact.
I believe that, ultimately, the same would be true of the proposed change to gender recognition laws. In reality it would have little or no impact on the lives of the vast majority of people. But it would help to make life easier for trans and non-binary people – and that’s very much worth doing.
One final word. This debate has reinforced the extent to which many Scottish women live in daily fear of men. It shows us a world where the possession of a penis automatically makes someone a threat. I hope Scottish men are paying attention to that. There is clearly much still to be done to reduce the impact of misogyny and male violence in Scotland and to create a safer society for all women and girls. When the debate about GRA reform is over, that battle will still remain. Stick around and help us win it.