I apologised for offending transgender people, but that wasn't enough

In the last week, I have met with many different people to learn how to speak about trans issues with more sensitivity

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The Independent Online

Recently, I found myself at the centre of a row about transgender rights. I made some unguarded and ill-informed comments on Twitter that were interpreted, by some, as being transphobic. This was absolutely the last thing I intended, but nevertheless I had managed to greatly offend a lot of trans people and their allies.

It was clear that I’d got things wrong. And so I apologised, and asked trans people who had a expressed a willingness to meet with me and share their insights.

Since then, I’ve been engaged in an effort to listen and understand better, so that in future my words will be more careful and caring. I’ve met and spoken at length with a large number of trans people, and I’ve got more meetings and conversations lined up, but it's already been an enlightening experience, and I have learned a great deal.

No one should be in any doubt that trans people suffer disproportionately from violence and abuse. Rates of self-harm are also worryingly high. Anyone out there who thinks that any trans person’s decision to live their true identity is in any way frivolous needs to think again. It’s often an arduous path as well as a liberating one. Attitudes need to change.

Trans people don’t need empty sympathy, they need our active engagement in the issues they face. There are various further legal reforms that are urgently needed before they can be truly said to be being treated equally in our society. The spousal veto on obtaining a gender recognition certificate (legal confirmation) for instance, is problematic, in an era when gay marriage is acceptable. And the lengthy time-periods still required for those wishing to transition now look increasingly antiquated. As I’ve said, no one looking to transition and to get their gender reassigned does so lightly.

One aspect of the row centred on the use of the prefix “cis”, to indicate someone whose gender identity is in line with their sex at birth. I have no issue with the term, but I understand why some feminists don’t want to embrace the term for themselves, because they fear it commits them to signing up to gender identities that oppress them.

But now I have discussed the term with some trans activists, I think the key here may be to allow a ‘space’ for that discomfort, while making very sure that it can’t get ‘trans-exclusionary’ in its effects.

As for what else I’ve learned, it boils down to being more mindful of how and where to discuss issues that have the potential to be deeply hurtful. Twitter’s 140 characters do not lend themselves to this sort of topic. Abuse on Twitter is easy. Sensitivity and nuance are not. When I’ve been speaking on the phone or - best of all - in person with trans people over the last week, it has been far easier to reach mutual understanding.

And, if there’s been a silver lining to this storm-clouded few days, it’s been that. Despite managing to offend a number of trans people, there were plenty who, generously, still spared the time to help guide me through the whole mess.

I’ve met some great people, and I’m looking forward to meeting more. I’m proud to belong to a political party, the Green Party, that has always led the way on LGBT rights. I’m fortunate to have been able to get to know people such as Charlie Kiss and Stella Gardiner, trans Green Westminster candidates. Out of this unfortunate affair, perhaps some better consciousness can comE not only on my part but more generally.

I’m a Green because I believe in the equality of every person. That’s sometimes easier to say that to live up to. My experiences of the last few weeks, however, has hopefully brought me closer to that.

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