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Gender Debate Social acceptance of trans people springs from our relationship with society – and that works both ways

DEBBIE HAYTON calls for more careful consideration of different points of view if trans people are to overthrow their oppression

Guardian columnist Owen Jones predicted last week that history will damn anti-trans zealots as it has judged those who resisted gay rights. 

I’m a trans woman, so for me this is personal. Transphobic keyboard warriors have called for me to be sacked from my job as a teacher and a supposedly respectable Christian charity misgenders me deliberately on its website. 

Five years ago, Richard Littlejohn, another columnist in another newspaper, wrote about another trans teacher and declared: “He’s [sic] not only in the wrong body … he’s [sic] in the wrong job.”

That teacher, Lucy Meadows, took her own life three months later.
Deplorably, those right-wing reactionaries have never flinched from their positions. Jones compared the moral panic to the Section 28 arguments a generation ago. 

In some respects, he is right. The same groups that campaigned against equal marriage now bash trans people. Their homophobia merges with their transphobia and I stand with him against them.

However, we need to keep our focus. While social conservatives act with impunity, the spotlight has fallen on women’s groups who fear that proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) may compromise their own rights. 

Last year, the House of Commons women and equalities select committee recommended that individuals should be able to self-identify their gender and that the protected characteristic should be changed from gender reassignment to gender identity.

This all sounds very technical and it is. The scope of the GRA is also limited. It allows a trans person to change the sex on their birth certificate. Meanwhile, passports, driving licences, financial and medical records can be changed under more informal procedures than were in place long before the GRA existed.

But those technical changes crystallise wider concerns. Self-identification moves the basis of trans rights from how we live our lives to how we identify and facts and evidence give way to feelings and opinions. 

We do not build other laws on such ethereal foundations. At the end of a long day in school, I sometimes feel like I am 70, but alas I can’t self-identify myself into drawing my pension just yet. 

If anyone could self-identify as a woman, how can we define the word “woman” without resorting to circular reasoning? And without clear definitions, how can society maintain the integrity of sex-based protections?

Not surprisingly, women have been speaking out. We need to listen to them and not instantly denounce them as transphobes. 

Section 28 analogies break down here. Gay rights do not have an impact on heterosexual rights, but women’s rights may well be affected if society changes the definitions of men and women. 
Trans people and women face oppression from the same groups that seek to impose their vision of traditional family values on society. 

The trans community is small and vulnerable. We need to maintain the widespread trust and confidence of women to defend ourselves from the anti-trans zealots. History may well judge those people, though, sadly, they couldn’t seem to care less.

We therefore ignore women’s concerns at our peril. Women who were once enthusiastic allies of trans people are now more suspicious. The group with most to lose are trans women like me. 

Social acceptance springs from our relationship with society, and that works both ways. The law can command others to tolerate me, but it can never guarantee their acceptance. 

Pieces of paper may give me the right to enter female spaces, but it can never prevent women from leaving en masse at the same time. 

The Gender Recognition Act does need to be slimmed down and streamlined, but we need to consult widely and more carefully before we proceed. Women’s voices were overlooked by the women and equalities committee. The government must not make the same mistake.

Debbie Hayton is a member of the TUC LGBT+ Committee. She is writing here in a personal capacity.

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