Wednesday 14 July 2021

The trans debate: "Less Yelling, More Conversation"


The Trans Debate: “Less Yelling: More Conversation”

Recently I met a very wise woman, a life-long advocate for freedom of speech and the mother of a Trans child.  Her slogan for getting past seemingly irreconcilable positions on Trans people was “less yelling: more conversation.”  She also though we should stop tossing around words like “Transphobia” when the real problem is often lack of understanding of what it means to be a Trans person, or to feel that one is in the wrong body.

You can obtain some understanding of what it feels like to be in the wrong body by reading Love Lives Here, a recent memoir by Amanda Jette Knox. Knox is both the mother and the wife of Trans women. Her daughter came out as female at the age of 11 and was able to transition relatively easily as she had not yet gone through all the stages of male puberty. Knox’s wife came out as female as an adult after 20 years of marriage as a man. Knox stood by both her daughter and her (now) wife, and seems to have kept her family intact and happy, as this image shows.

It is often difficult to understand people whose life experience in matters of sexuality or gender identity is so different from your own. 25 years ago I interviewed 78 civic leaders in Hamilton, Ontario about gay and lesbian rights (no one was talking about Trans rights at the time). 44 of them  volunteered that knowing someone who was gay had influenced their attitudes to favour gay rights. I wrote that up as an article called “The Gay Cousin:  Learning to Accept Gay Rights.” Similarly, when you know someone who is Trans, or read about their lives, it helps you empathize with them. 

That said, I don’t think any good can come of the current tendency to label women who worry about “fake” Trans people entering women’s “safe” spaces as TERFs (Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists}.  I think Trans people should enjoy all their human rights, as do most of the so-called TERFs, such as the novelist J.K. Rowling.

In 2017 Canada’s Parliament passed “An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.”  This Act added “gender identity or expression” to prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Canada’s Ministry of Justice issued an explanation of what gender identity means: “Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual experience of gender.”  It defined gender expression as “the way in which people publicly present their gender…through such aspects as dress, hair, make-up, body language, and voice.”

Some Canadians seem to think that this definition means that an individual can simply state that they are of one or another gender, and that others must therefore accept them as such. For example, an ostensible male can walk into a woman’s shelter and state that they are a woman, and they would be entitled to a bed Or, a person  imprisoned for rape can simply state that they are a woman, and they must be moved to a women’s prison This does not mean that genuine transgender people should not be moved, as happened in 2017 to a convicted murderer in British Columbia.  Transgender women in men’s prisons risk being attacked.

If an individual can simply say they are a woman and then legally have to be treated as one, without any further evidence such as having lived as a woman, then Canada’s law is a bad one. A government that claims to be concerned about violence against women should know that some male predators will take every advantage they possibly can to gain access to vulnerable women.

Saying this does not make me a “TERF.” It makes me a person who is simultaneously aware that Trans people deserve all their human rights, and that predatory men will take advantage of a practice that permits them into women’s spaces.

Similarly, female scholars who worry about a social-media inspired movement to persuade young people, especially young women, that they are actually Trans are not TERFs. They are people who can simultaneously protect Trans people’s rights and worry that vulnerable young adolescents may ask for life-changing, irreversible surgery that they may not need.

In Sweden, there was a 1,500 per cent increase between 2008 and 2018 in gender dysphoria among people “born as girls” between 13 and 17 years of age.  In the UK, 1,806 girls were referred for gender treatment in 2017/18, as compared to only 40 in 2009/10.  Some of this increase may be because genuinely Trans children now had better access to information and assistance.  But the steep rise also suggests that some of them might have been influenced by social media or by groups of friends.  Some girls may simply have noticed that life is easier if you are male. A Finnish study found that 75 per cent of adolescents who wanted sex-reassignment surgery actually had other psychiatric problems.

There has already been one legal case in the UK in which an adult woman sued the Tavistock institute for removing her breasts when she was 16 and thought she was Transgender: as an adult, she decided she was simply a lesbian woman.  She won her case. 

None of this suggests that children who identify as Trans should not be taken seriously. It does suggest that there are many questions that should be asked.  People who ask these questions should not be considered Transphobic.  Nor should feminists who worry about “trans imposters” be considered TERFS.  It is possible to simultaneously defend the rights of Trans people and worry about poor medical practices, false or misleading information on the Internet, and social movements that persuade vulnerable young people that they are Trans when they may well be suffering from problems other than gender dysphoria, such as being bullied for being gay or lesbian. 

In all these cases, more speech is better than less. And civil discourse is better than yelling and calling each other names.  Sometimes human rights do clash. It is better to discuss the clashes civilly, trying to come to a reasonable resolution or compromise, than to pretend that one or the other side is simply composed of ideologues or bigots.