Debate about trans people has become toxic and language is a big part of the problem. We can do so much better

We need a period of calm, some time in which people accept there is a communication issue and come together to fix it in a way that respects all concerned

Jane Fae
Wednesday 29 September 2021 16:14 BST
<p>‘Unfortunately, all hope of reasonable debate has collided with the anti-trans wave now sweeping the UK’ </p>

‘Unfortunately, all hope of reasonable debate has collided with the anti-trans wave now sweeping the UK’

The last week or so has seen a most peculiar political slippage. Individuals, including the Liberal Democrat and Labour Party leaders, as well as Health Secretary Sajid Javid and assorted Tory MPs, have all been discussing who does and who does not have a cervix. Political discourse has been subsumed into Biology 101, and it is making a lot of folks very cross.

What is going on? Over the last few years, many organisations have started using a range of awkward, complex circumlocutions to address the fact that our traditional take on gender no longer works. Many trans women continue to have a prostate, despite surgeries on other more sensitive areas. Many trans men have cervixes. Non-binary folk may have either. Or neither. Which is true of the general population, too.

Meanwhile, medical systems are still stuck in the old format, where it was assumed that women had cervixes and men had prostates. There are two issues with this. First, and least, is that some people will get offended or upset. I’m not dismissing that. However, far more serious is the fact that “just” calling women for cervical testing leads to a lot of people not being called. It might even be grounds for a discrimination case. More seriously, lack of inclusive language could lead to people suffering harm or dying.

So, the NHS and various charities started writing stuff such as “people with cervixes”, or “people with prostates”. It’s clumsy, reductive stuff. Poor, too, for those whose first language is not English or who are unfamiliar with anatomical terms. We can do this better.

My own two pennyworth: “cis women, trans men and non-binaries who have a cervix”. Because not all cis women have them, anyway. It’s a bit of a mouthful, and I am open to alternatives.

Unfortunately, all hope of reasonable debate has collided with the anti-trans wave now sweeping the UK. Gender critical transphobes, after years of treating questions of which body parts trans women have or have not got as some sort of terminal “gotcha” – how very feminist! – have now done a reverse ferret and declared that use of phrases like “people with x” is a “bad thing” and erases women. Incoherent. But predictable. Also a dog-whistle used, increasingly, to deny the validity of trans existence.

More serious is the intervention of the health secretary, who declared it to be “scientific fact” that only women have cervixes. This is disingenuous at best. Or just plain ignorant. He is a Minister of the Crown, the same Crown that has endorsed, through successive governments, laws that acknowledge that, in certain circumstances, legally male folks may also have a cervix. Javid’s comments are not all that surprising, however, given his penchant for posturing. Remember those power stance pics? This is more of the same. But posing with words, instead of legs. Though it may explain why, as trans healthcare – especially trans men’s healthcare – hits the buffers, he has not bothered to respond to those left desperate and in pain by NHS inadequacies on this front.

And the media? They have done exactly as you might expect, piling in with feigned outrage and vapid interrogations that do nothing to inform. Hence the skewering of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer and any other vaguely pro-trans politician.

Along the way, they have destroyed any possibility of the very thing they claim to want: practical debate to fix this issue. The whole thing has become toxic. So, sadly, folks with sensible takes on how to re-work the language, including lifelong actual feminists, no longer dare express a view on this.

Meanwhile, The Lancet, bastion of medical respectability, gets taken to task for referring to “bodies with vaginas”. “They’re erasing women!”, the cry goes up. Even though you only have to carry on reading to see that they’re not. The word “women” is used later in the very same sentence. This, too, is problematic. The writer clearly intends to highlight the issues women face. But it comes across as objectifying women as body parts. Again. Bad Lancet, even if the rationale behind this horror seems more likely an editorial impulse to elegant variation – using different ways to denote the same thing, to avoid repetition – than anything more suspect. Except in the perfervid non-debate around gender inclusivity, such subtle distinction is apt to get lost.

We need a period of calm. Some time in which people accept there is a communication issue and come together to fix it in a way that respects all concerned. It is what is needed. But in these excitable times, there is little hope of that.

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