Caitlyn Jenner: The circle of tolerance has grown wider – just

Persecuted people who run a daily risk of abuse, humiliation, attack and even murder appear to those who fear them as all-powerful giants

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The Independent Online

By now, two years afterwards, few people will recall the case of Lucy Meadows. It was just another of those British media squalls that suddenly brew, rage for a spell and then blow over fast with few traces left behind – except among the victims. This cyclone of fury swirled around the life, and death, of a dedicated primary school teacher who through no choice of her own became the target of a tabloid “character assassination” of stupendous crudity and cruelty.

It not only “sought to ridicule and humiliate” her, a Lancashire coroner judged, but “bring into question her right to pursue her career”. Born Nathan Upton, Lucy Meadows had – with the full approval of her Accrington school authorities – continued to teach during a gender transition that brought down the wrath of those hobnail-booted columnists who grace the pages of the papers that our gutless politicians fear.

You know the type: a six-figure skinhead (male or female), cosseted by some billionaire press magnate, who delights in kicking people from the most vulnerable, defenceless and despised corners of society into a pulp and then craves applause for their ever-so-courageous “political incorrectness”. No one can say for sure whether media monstering played a part in Lucy Meadows’ suicide; she had other problems. But the coroner thought so.

This happened not in 1963 but in 2013. I remembered Lucy Meadows when scanning the backlash against Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, the Olympic gold medallist and member of the Kardashian clan whose own transition has played out in the glare of every media platform from reality TV to social media and (courtesy of a photo shoot by Annie Leibovitz) the cover of Vanity Fair. Now, pile Twitter’s ephemeral wave of spume on top of the ineffably ditzy Kardashian family cavalcade, then season it all with glossy-mag PR, and you have a world-beating recipe for showbiz silliness. So it has proved.

But some principles remain true and precious – such as the right of everyone to live in accordance with their own sense of their nature, identity and destiny – even if a regiment of flakes on Twitter says so. Social progress can, and often does, happen on those scatty margins that the mainstream finds frivolous. Besides, a brief glance at the begrudgers should be enough to reset any wavering ethical compass. In their looking-glass world of paranoia, jackbooted transgender activists have apparently imposed a totalitarian system of truth-denying orthodoxy. In this feverish fantasy, “trans Orwellianism” stifles all dissent.

Yes, we will all have noticed the transgender police spreading their Stalinist terror on every street corner and in every saloon bar. As for last year’s EU-wide survey which revealed that a third of trans people have suffered physical violence or menaces of violence and that “half of the trans respondents indicate that they avoid certain places or locations, notably public transport, for fear of assault, threat or harassment”, that fearsome lobby has obviously fixed the evidence. A separate US study reported that, in its sample, 41 per cent of transgender or “gender-nonconforming” people had attempted suicide.

“Perpetrators of violence and harassment are in most cases unknown males acting in groups,” the EU researchers found. Probably, poor dears, they were just scared out of their wits by the “trans Orwellianism” that poses such a threat to our freedoms. Among the enemies of respect, this reality-reversal mechanism frequently kicks in. Routinely persecuted people who run a daily risk of abuse, humiliation, self-harm, attack and even murder appear to those who fear them as all-powerful giants. In the mirror of hysteria, the victim swells to an ogre’s size.

Faced with these grubby pockets of enduring prejudice, it’s too easy to sound smug. Yes, the more enlightened legions of cyberspace hail the re-emergence of Caitlyn Jenner as a “free soul”. Yet a Lucy Meadows can still undergo tabloid torture, four decades after the travel writer Jan Morris published a myth-busting account of the most intrepid of all her journeys – Conundrum – and more than a century since pioneering medics such as Harry Benjamin and Magnus Hirschfeld began to treat gender variance with compassion rather than contempt. Moreover, a nagging worry persists in the wake of a feelgood fable such as Caitlyn’s story. Does tolerance run in cycles of fashion, and might the growing acceptance of one community be offset by rejection of others?

Look at the dehumanising rhetoric now directed at the most precarious of refugees and migrants, from Calais and Kos to Lampedusa and Harwich. You might begin to wonder whether tolerance, in fact, never grows, but only circulates. On the see-saw of solidarity, in much public debate, one group seems to rise only if another falls. Is our stock of collective sympathy so inelastic and inflexible?

Fitful and flickering, the media beam can make it look that way. If you simply attend to the headlines, then limelight for one cause means obscurity for another. In the Jenner case, the circus will soon enough roll on. The Twitter swarm will seize on another celeb to love-bomb – and then devour. Beneath the fleeting frenzy, though, the contours of the social and legal landscape may have shifted for good. To stay with the protection of trans people, Britain has since 2004 had a Gender Recognition Act that helps to secure their legal status. It came about not because of some A-lister’s fad, but thanks to the advocacy of campaigners such as Christine Burns. When it comes to any human right, it’s always safer to invest your hope and trust in statutes rather than stardust.

More broadly, we have some reasons to be cheerful about the ever-widening radius of respect for different kinds of life. Historically, the claims of once-stigmatised groups have prevailed by a process of accretion rather than substitution. In the language of the game theory developed by mathematician John Nash (killed in a road accident only a fortnight ago), minorities tend to gain a place in the sun not from a zero-sum contest but through positive-sum or win-win strategies. A long-term tide of tolerance will eventually float all boats.

Since no one (even in the Labour Party itself) has a good word to say these days about the Labour government that ended in 2010, let me dissent from the sniping choir. Its parting shot, the unified Equality Act, enshrines, despite its oversights, a much more sophisticated – if you prefer, holistic – idea of rights than the piecemeal anti-discrimination legislation that it updated and replaced.

Remember the brave words of Douglas Carswell, still the only person ever elected as a Ukip MP, soon after he threw off the Tory yoke: “More people are free to grow up and live as they want to live than ever before… What was once dismissed as ‘political correctness gone mad’, we recognise as good manners.” Just so. The philosopher Peter Singer first explored this “expanding circle” of human sympathy and respect, and forcefully argued that in time it can and must stretch to take in non-human animals as well.

In his heartening epic study of the “humanitarian revolution” and the decline of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker deploys another figure: the “escalator of reason”. For Pinker, empathy alone can never be enough, since it still allows us to repudiate those who fall outside our own charmed circle, however wide we try to draw it. But over the past three centuries, “literacy, cosmopolitanism and education” have helped us reason our way into understanding and acceptance. As people get smarter, they get more curious – and tolerant. “The metaphor of an escalator,” he writes, “may seem Whiggish and presentist and historically naïve. Yet it is a kind of Whig history that is supported by the facts.”

At one point in his book, Pinker argues that the mass reading of fiction from the 18th century onwards enabled millions of people to fill the shoes, and share the souls, of distant others. “Reading is a technology for perspective-taking … It’s not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains.” Pinker cites authors from Charles Dickens to Harper Lee, Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Alice Walker, as the secret agents of human solidarity.

I would add the most elegant – if purely fantastic – account of gender transition in English literature. It happens in the middle of Virginia Woolf’s effervescent skit Orlando, when the king’s ambassador in 17th-century Constantinople enters a 10-day trance. At its conclusion, “Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity… Let biologists and psychologists determine. It is enough for us to state the simple fact; Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; when he became a woman and has remained so ever since.”

Some 85 years after Orlando, Woolf’s literary wizardry has morphed into news-stand glitz and online froth. Progress? Of a sort. Even Keeping Up with the Kardashians may help to push Steven Pinker’s “escalator of reason” up a step or two.