A couple of weeks ago a 12-point plan emerged on the rights of transgender people. It has not yet been adopted by the Labour Party (this would presumably have to be done at Conference) but two out of the three remaining leadership candidates have endorsed it. I’d like to say why I have problems with it.
The first part of the plan is perfectly fine; it deals with protecting people from abuse and discrimination due to their ‘presentation’ or ‘identification’. That is all of a piece with general anti-discrimination policy, so for me, points one to three are fine. The problems begin with point four which asks us to ‘accept that trans women are women, that trans men are men and that non-binary people are non-binary.’
What’s my beef here? Surely people should be accepted for who and what they are? Yes, I agree – but to accept a person as a fellow human being is not the same as accepting a particular narrative about that person. I’m not sure I even understand what it means to say ‘trans women are women’ and in an environment where it is proposed that people should be simply allowed to self-identify without any kind of medical examination, this is something that requires thought. What is a woman? What does it mean for someone to have male genitalia and say I am a woman? And if we accept this narrative, what follows? There has been little or no public debate on these topics, and without free and open debate how can we achieve any kind of understanding? In the last fifty years or so we’ve had the debate about feminism, we’ve had the debate on gay and lesbian rights and as a society we have come (largely) to a consensus on these issues, one that is enshrined in law. No such debate has taken place on transgender people; the ‘T’ has simply been tacked onto the end of LGB and we are told to accept this or be labelled as haters.
We need to look at the consequences of accepting trans women as women (I’m focussing more on women but there may be problems for cis men as well in men’s groups such as Men in Sheds). We are now obliged to accept the presence of trans women in previously safe environments such as toilets, changing rooms and prisons, and this may present problems for a number of reasons. I’m not suggesting that trans women are likely to be abusers, but that the system itself is open to abuse; that in our rush to be inclusive of some we may actually be excluding others.
But my biggest problem with the plan is point nine, which describes organisations such as A Woman’s Place and the LGB Alliance as ‘transphobic and trans-exclusionary’ hate groups. This is clearly wrong and I hope they will think better of this clause if nothing else. But my plea is this: we desperately need open, tolerant and above all respectful debate. Because without it my fear is that we will be even more divided, both as a party and as a society.