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The only way to avoid hysteria about trans rights is to ground the debate in real life experiences

Every frontier in the struggle for equality and liberation has only ever been won by walking through fire. Sadly, it seems the fight for trans rights and equality will be no different

Nadia Whittome
Thursday 23 July 2020 19:26 BST
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Aimee Stephens on her fight against transgender discrimination

Much of the media coverage, pundit commentary and social media discussions centred on trans rights are fixated on manufacturing short-term outrage, rarely allowing us intelligent, humane understanding of the real, lived experiences of trans people in our society.

But any public discourse on protecting and advancing the rights of trans people must be firmly grounded in these real-life experiences in order to resist hysteria, abstraction and misinformation. We cannot allow transgender rights to be reduced to statistics, an academic subject or a series of hypothetical scenarios. Everything said on the subject of trans identities has a direct impact on real people and their families.

I would challenge anyone to sit and listen to the story of any trans person without feeling anything but shock and compassion. You will have trouble finding any trans person who doesn’t tell you a backstory including some level of alienation, loss of family, bullying, persecution, difficulties with accessing appropriate healthcare and worse. According to a recent Stonewall report, 41 per cent of trans people have been a victim of a hate crime in the last year while 28 per cent of trans people in a relationship have experienced intimate partner violence, and one in eight have been physically attacked at work by either a colleague or a customer.

We must work towards a future when trans people do not have to experience any of this hardship, but in order to get there we need to listen to, honour and hold their stories with dignity and sensitivity in all our discussions on trans issues and – at the very least – not make their lives any more difficult than they already are.

Much of the focus on trans rights in recent years has revolved around the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). The GRA regulates the process for transgender people to obtain a legal recognition to their gender. Reforming and improving this process is important and necessary – the current system is far too difficult to access and often proves a humiliating experience for those who need it.

Seventy per cent of respondents to the government’s 2018 consultation supported the proposed changes that would simplify the procedure. There have been recent reports that the reform would be shelved, and I challenged the government on this in the strongest terms yesterday, the day that the government was due to publish its response to the consultation.

The GRA proposals have become the topic of unsubstantiated claims that GRA reform would create a loophole for violent men to pose as women to access women’s services. This is not the case: the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has stated clearly that “there is no reason why simplifying the process for obtaining a GRC (Gender Recognition Certificate) should have an effect on these protected spaces and services.”

Arguments along these lines portray transgender people as if they are somehow a threat. Yet this vile trope masks the opposite reality: that trans people are disproportionately likely to face violence, including sexual assault. Transphobia also affects cisgender women who don’t conform to stereotypical ideas of femininity.

The implication that trans individuals are not to be trusted in safe spaces due to them being latent sex offenders is grimly reminiscent of the similarly offensive and prejudiced arguments made in order to exclude gay and bisexual men and women from military service. This led to policies such as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the USA that were only revoked relatively recently. Such views are now rightly seen as deeply homophobic and unfounded. In time, I believe there will be a consensus that opinions expressed about the safety of cis women in the presence of trans women will be viewed in much the same light.

We must not fetishise “debate” as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. If someone wanted to initiate a debate about whether women are innately less intelligent than men or whether disabled people should be paid the same level of wages as non-disabled people, we would rightly be appalled at such a suggestion. The very act of debate in these cases is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.

It is heartening however, that despite years of negative news coverage relating to transgender rights and the Gender Recognition Act, a YouGov poll found that most women are in favour of trans people self-identifying as a gender other than which they were assigned at birth.

Every frontier in the struggle for equality and liberation has only ever been won by walking through fire. Sadly, it seems the fight for trans rights and equality will be no different.

As a trans rights activist, performer and runner up of Rupaul’s Drag Race UK, Divina De Campo put it so eloquently: “Your belief is a belief. My existence is a reality.”

We all have a responsibility to familiarise ourselves with the lived reality of trans people, to ground our discussions in their experiences and to resist the abstraction, hysteria and weaponisation of this equalities agenda by those interested in stoking division, hatred and fear.

Nadia Whittome is a Labour Party MP for Nottingham East

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