What You Need to Know About Transgender Rights

Sophie Sims
Jan 29 · 15 min read

The fight for transgender rights is an urgent battle against what some have called the last bastion of socially acceptable bigotry. If we take the notion seriously that all humans are due equal rights, as many of us do, we must care about the rights of transgender people. We are currently in a situation where transgender rights are so far behind other groups in society that it should be considered a crisis.

The Scale of The Problem

The first parliamentary inquiry into transphobia and discrimination in 2016 reported widespread societal and systemic transphobia. Transgender people face discrimination in almost all aspects of public life. The NHS treats transgender people as second class citizens discriminating against them and failing to meet legal requirements under the equality act. A mental health study on trans people found that 81% of its respondents feared and avoided certain social or public situations, such as gyms, public toilets and shops, while 38% had experienced sexual harassment and 37% physical threats or intimidation for being transgender. Transgender people are under relentless attack from the right-wing press and are, more insidiously, misrepresented in almost all forms of media. One survey found that 48% of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide, compared to about 6% of all 16- to 24-year-olds. The figure for trans people as a whole is around 40%. These high suicide rates are directly related to rejection and discrimination. Furthermore, in 2017 hundreds of transgender people were murdered around the world.

In the face of such dire circumstances it’s vital that we don’t allow the public discourse on transgender rights to be dominated by those intent on spreading hate.

A Moral Panic

For many people the whole concept of being transgender is a new one. Transgender people have always been around, but in modern western society have either been entirely unrepresented or grossly misrepresented in the media. Most people are simply ignorant in a way that it’s difficult to blame them for. Media matters because in becoming a more enlightened society we are reliant on the information we’re being given. That’s why a mainstream media onslaught against trans people is so worrying. We appear to be in the midst of a moral panic about transgender people. It’s imperative that all of us see and call out this propaganda for what it is.

In recent weeks the mainstream media have engaged in a bombardment of hateful fearmongering against transgender people, plastering absurd headline after absurd headline across their front pages.

‘Church: Let Little Boys Wear Tiaras’ objected the Daily Mail with the subheading ‘New advice on transgender bullying for CofE school teachers’. A headline they dragged up from a story that they had already reported on about perfectly sensible advice that needn’t even have anything to do with being transgender. Essentially the advice was for teachers to be cautious about forcing gender stereotypes upon children. For example, if a young girl wants to play with a truck, let her. Exactly what the Daily Mail thinks a better alternative policy would be, I don’t know. But the terrifying message that we are supposed to take from the sensationalist story is that schools are being forced to turn your children transgender.

‘Trans Survey For 10-year-olds’ yelps the Daily Telegraph, in the hope to conjure up a similar fear. The story merely being that in an NHS health survey for children, the question ‘are you comfortable with your gender?’ has been added in attempt to tackle the health crisis that is the extremely high suicide rate amongst young transgender people. The suggestion here is presumably that the concept of gender, which they clearly hold so dear, is in fact so fickle that merely being asked a question might be enough to convert an unwitting child to the opposite gender. Unfortunately, the press is currently littered with such examples of incoherent nonsense.

Transgender: The New Gay

This kind of moral panic should sound familiar to us. It is strikingly reminiscent of the gay panic of the 1980’s. So much so that the press are simply regurgitating the exact same arguments that they would now be shamed for making against gay people.

The UK is still not an easy place to be gay, but gay rights have come on leaps and bounds in the last 30 years. During the 80’s however, amid a similar surge of social anxiety, the public were told by the media that gay rights somehow infringed on children’s rights; that merely acknowledging the existence of gay people was corrupting young, impressionable minds.

At the height of the panic, hate propaganda publication, the Sun, ran with the headline “Vile Book In School: Pupils See Pictures Of Gay Lovers”. The headline referred to a book called ‘Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin’ that was never actually in schools, but shockingly depicted such horror as a child walking down the street with her father and his gay partner. The undue concern over the book, along with other media spin created the space for the Local Government Act 1988 with its infamous ‘Section 28′. Section 28 banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. At that time Margret thatcher worried that “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

In a remarkably similar fashion the Sunday Times recently published an article headed “Gather round class. Thomas The Teddy Wants to be a Girl” suggesting that books that merely acknowledge the existence of transgender people could be “damaging” for children.

The similarities do not stop there. 30 years ago being gay was a mental illness, a phase, attention seeking; the idea of gay rights was political correctness gone mad. And yet here again we find ourselves.

Anti-trans Rhetoric

The hatred spread in the media is playing on ignorance of an issue that relatively few people have personal experience of. It’s therefor essential that we educate ourselves. The cases made against transgender rights are so ridiculous and unfounded in reality, that I’m even hesitant to mention them for fear of further promoting them or legitimising them as part of a valid alternative point of view. But the strength of the right-wing media means that they are out there and they are being listened to rightly or not. So I’m going to do my best to succinctly tackle them to show them for the incoherent nonsense that they are.

Converting children

Let’s be clear. No matter how many books you put in a school library, you cannot turn a child transgender, nor vice versa. Some children are transgender, and some are not. The evidence is incontrovertible on this matter. In fact, all professional psychological organisations, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the NHS condemn conversion therapy as dangerous and ineffective. No matter how hard you try you are not going to turn a transgender child cis (non-trans) nor a cisgender child trans. On the other hand, having a book in a school library acknowledging the existence of transgender people; or the NHS having more information on transgender people will save children’s lives.

“But we’ve seen an increase in the number of transgender people” you can hear the bigoted or genuinely confused wail. Consider by comparison that left handedness used to be seen as something to be corrected and children were made to use their right hands. In 1900 there was about 2% prevalence for left handedness in the UK. It’s now at 12.5%. That’s not because more people have become naturally left handed. Nor is it because being left handed has become cool. It’s because we’ve stopped beating children in school and forcing them to write with their right hand. Eventually, people started letting children decide for themselves which hands to use. There wasn’t really a rise in left-handedness so much as there was a rise in left-handed acceptance. An identical thing has happened with an increase in the number of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. They weren’t converted. We just stopped stigmatising and oppressing them. It is likely that the same will continue to happen with transgender people too.

Transgender women are women

Let’s address the idea here that a transgender woman is not a woman. The argument tends to come in two forms. The first seemingly confused criticism is that transgender people’s existence is somehow anti-scientific. Transgender zealots are destroying truth itself, the The Mail proclaimed, but they’re not alone in their confusion. On the face of it, it’s difficult to understand what exactly is being claimed here, but at its core lies the belief that transgender people are mentally ill and deluded about reality. The argument can be summed up like this “He holds the delusion that he is a woman. He’s not a woman. He’s a man. It’s a scientific fact”. Just in case you’re at all tempted by this line of thinking I’ll briefly explain what it means to be transgender.

A transgender woman is (almost always) born with XY chromosomes and male genitals. Is this the scientific reality that transgender people are imagined to be deluded about? It’s true that this is a scientific fact, but it’s not something anyone is trying to deny. To suggest trans women are delusional is to imagine that trans women think they are actually cisgender. The science that matters is ironically often ignored by those making this argument. As a scientific field in it’s infancy it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty exactly what causes a person to be transgender, just as it’s difficult to say exactly what causes a person to be gay. However the Endocrine Society, representing the global medical consensus recently published guidelines stating

“The medical consensus in the late 20th century was that transgender and gender incongruent individuals suffered a mental health disorder termed “gender identity disorder.” Gender identity was considered malleable and subject to external influences. Today, however, this attitude is no longer considered valid. Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity”.

So it seems it is not the transgender community with the tendency for unscientific thinking, but those who try to discredit them. Transgender people are the rationalists. They are concerned with telling the truth for what it is, rather than as culture dictates that it should be.

The second strain to the argument, bizarrely, comes from a small sub-sect of radical feminists — sometimes referred to as ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists’ (TERFs) — who appear to be disproportionately prevalent in Britain, to the bemusement of their American counterparts. Radical Feminists such as Germaine Greer refuse to refer to trans gender women as women. Greer’s views appear to be mostly fuelled by bigotry and her own personal distaste for transgender women. Her main problem seems to be that, in her opinion, many trans women “don’t look like, sound like, or behave like women”. Genius, hey? This doesn’t sound like anything you’d expect a feminist to say. That a woman can be deemed not a woman if they don’t meet other people’s expectations of femininity. I don’t expect she’d be too happy if I told her to grow her hair because I thought that short hair made her look like a man. If her sentiment on trans women needed further elucidating, she has elsewhere described trans women’s mere existence as equivalent to murdering their mothers and of rape.

Beyond the transphobia, if there is a shred of an argument to be found in what this faction of feminists have to say, it’s that ‘transgender women are not women because they have not had the same experience of womanhood as ‘real women’’. The problem with this argument should be obvious. There is no one experience of womanhood. And it may not be wise to appoint middle class, straight, white, university educated, women like Germaine Greer to police what an experience of womanhood should be. The great strides forward made by modern, third wave feminism has been to notice this very fact. The classic feminist analysis of patriarchy is not wrong, but it must avoid the presumption that all women experience it in the same way. Increasing masses of literature describe how women of colour experience discrimination uniquely at the intersection of sexism and racism. Likewise, all women will have their own unique experiences of womanhood. A disabled woman, a woman from Saudi Arabia, a gay woman, a tall woman, a woman president, a female supermodel, a geisha, a homeless woman, a woman brought up in a gated community by rich oligarchs, All these women will have very different experiences of the world. And yet no one is tempted to say that — because of their experience — they are not women. Why do some people attempt to do this to transgender women? Just transphobia. Whilst being transgender brings with it it’s unique forms of discrimination, most of the problems trans women face are principally or explicitly feminist issues. It’s by no means a position of privilege to have been brought up in the wrong gender or face the struggles confronting a trans woman.

Calling a transgender woman a woman is not unscientific, nor is refusing to do so necessary to uphold the principles of feminism. The use of the label ‘woman’ is not so much a question of delusion vs reality as it is a categorisation problem. Borders are not objectively true or false. When I was in school Pluto was considered a planet, now it’s not. The answer to the question how many planets there are in our solar system has changed, but reality has not. The process of changing our categories consisted of tweaking the boundaries based on more information. Rather than looking with blunt tools and seeing only planets and stars, we now have a better picture of reality and can change our method of categorisation accordingly.

It’s obvious to most that physical appearance alone cannot be what makes a man or a woman. Many men look like women and many women look like men. The same is true of genitals. If a man was involved in an accident and lost his genitals would it be fair to consider him less of a man? That’s a rhetorical question, the answer is No. We have seen too that men and women have a multiplicity of experiences, so experience alone cannot be what our judgement turns on. In defining a person’s gender, we have become curiously obsessed with chromosomes as the deciding factor. It’s not clear, scientifically speaking, why this should be the case. It’s true that X and Y have something to do with sex, but the science is far more complex than most people imagine. Around 1 in 100 people are ‘intersex’ meaning they cannot be neatly categorised as Male or Female on the basis of their chromosomes and/or physical characteristics. There are many different varieties of “sex chromosomes” XX, XY, XXY, XYY, XXX, XXYY… I could go on. But the fact is that the phenotypical characteristics that arise from these chromosomes are created in a far from straight forward way. Sarah Richardson, a historian of science explains how mistaken assumptions of early scientific research on sex has mislead popular thinking over the years. The reality is that there are extremely few sexual characteristics solely controlled by the presence or absence of a y chromosome. Sex is not equivalent to chromosomes. Furthermore, as people there is nothing about our subjective experience of ourselves that would suggest we even have chromosomes. Why then should this be the standard by which we organise gender? A far more sensible method of assigning gender is to take a holistic approach in which the deciding factor is an account of that gender from the person it belongs to.

Women only spaces

As part of the media onslaught on transgender people it has been suggested that transgender rights are somehow in conflict with the rights of cisgender women. Imaginary battlegrounds opened up such as women’s shelters, prisons and toilets. The claim is that treating transgender women as women and allowing them access to these spaces somehow puts other women in danger. As it turns out the arguments against trans inclusiveness in women’s spaces are based on pure fabrication.

As trans activist Shon Faye argues, trans women simply must have access to women’s shelters. Though all women may have unique experiences, their needs overlap. Trans women exist in the same system of patriarchy and suffer from the same misogyny on a daily basis. Trans women are at the same risk of gendered violence. The organisations involved in helping women actually agree. A coalition of women’s organisations have released a joint statement. “We do not regard trans equality and women’s equality to be in competition or contradiction with each other”, Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid are trans-inclusive at no detriment to the service they provide. But this does not stop the bigoted right-wing press pretending to campaign on their behalf under the ruse of suddenly caring about the rights of women.

The worry seems to be framed in terms of sensational ‘what ifs’. Just as when gay marriage was legalised we had ‘what if a son marries his father to avoid inheritance tax?’ so we have the ridiculous ‘what if a man simply claims to be a transgender woman, walks in to women’s toilets and sexually assaults women?’ Unfortunately a man can walk in to women’s toilets and assault women whether we have trans equality or not. This is illegal and will continue to be. Moreover, why same sex toilets should be considered a bastion of safety is unclear, many women have been assaulted by women in women’s toilets. In fact whipping up fear about transgender women using women’s toilets creates more problems than it solves. Take the example of Aimee Toms, a cisgender woman who was recently told “You’re disgusting… You don’t belong here” when using female toilets, after being confused for a trans woman, presumably for not meeting some standard of femininity.

Remember also that the alternative to allowing trans women to use women’s toilets is to force them to use men’s toilets. An already vulnerable group being forced in to a vulnerable situation and not something likely to make anyone especially comfortable.

Furthermore, if we insist trans women must use men’s public toilets and changing rooms, then likewise trans men must use women’s facilities. That means that people who look like men, and therefore men, can enter women’s changing rooms. Does that make it less likely or more likely that rapists are going to be in women’s spaces?

As unconvincing as these arguments sound in theory, we can also look to examples from reality to show them for the fearmongering that they are. Trans women have already been using female facilities and none of these imaginary problems have arisen. This is also true in countries that have already made it much easier to be transgender, such as Ireland where there is absolutely no evidence of the system being abused.

Once you have dismantled all the half baked arguments against the progress of transgender rights, all you’re really left with is transphobia. Stop being transphobic. You look foolish.

Far from Harmless

So this media onslaught and these anti-trans arguments fall apart upon closer inspection. But the fact that they are so widespread is far from harmless. Consider the kind of society that such a media creates. It creates a hostile environment in which bigots feel emboldened. It makes a minority already disproportionately affected by mental distress feel even more misery when it is constantly spelled out that they are detested, feared and worthy of ridicule.

Why is it, do you think, that the attempted suicide rate for transgender people is so high? The reasons have been studied at length and include rejection by friends and family, discrimination in health care, employment and housing, physical abuse, being treated as different, and internalised self-hatred. All factors made worse by the current hateful state of the media. It’s bullying on a mass scale. Studies demonstrate that trans children who are supported and allowed to express their gender identity rather than being bullied in to conforming to societies expectations have good mental health outcomes.

But the right-wing media is not alone in its guilt. We must all check the transphobia that we hold. Especially if you are a parent. A tut and exclamation that ‘political correctness has gone mad’ could be the difference between your child feeling comfortable talking to you or living in a repressed state of deep shame for the next 20 years of their life.

Transgender campaigner, Paris Lees sums it up when she says “Some children are transgender. You can accept them and love them for who they say they are or make their lives hell — those are the options.”

The Right Side of History

In the instance of transgender issues, ignorance may be a fairer excuse than it usually is. As a society we simply don’t have the information available and relatively few people probably know a transgender man or woman personally. But that excuse has a shelf life and it won’t last very long. The revolution in attitudes towards homosexuality has been the biggest change in a generation. The same is going to happen for transgender rights and things are already looking up. The current splurge of trans hatred has been triggered by the governments announcement of planned reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, streamlining the current cumbersome process of legally changing your gender. And when you have Tory MPs championing trans rights and cross-party consensus you know that progress is being made.

Beyond political progress, transgender people are becoming more visible in society. We’ve seen the emergence of a number of public figures, such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. There are also transgender characters appearing in film and on TV in the likes of Eastenders and trans activists with a voice in independent media such as Paris Lees and Shon Faye. They are vital role models for young transgender people looking for their place in the world.

The biggest reason for the backlash on trans rights is clear. Those on the side of justice and equality are winning. Society is now a better place to be gay and that didn’t happen by accident, it happened because people dedicated their lives to campaigning for equality; even when they were derided and discredited for doing so. People considered annoying belligerents 20 years ago are now heroes of equality. These people are life savers. The very best among us. The kind of people we should all aspire to be. History will not look favourably upon those who are fighting against trans rights. The future is bright. The purveyors of hate will be embarrassed by history and then forgotten.

Further Reading and Resources

Essay on trans rights by Julia Serano: https://medium.com/@juliaserano/transgender-agendas-social-contagion-peer-pressure-and-prevalence-c3694d11ed24

If podcasts are more your thing give this a listen: http://cheerful.libsyn.com/episode-9-transgender-rights-are-human-rights

A great blog about trans issues: https://growinguptransgender.wordpress.com/

LGBT FOUNDATION — Support for transgender people: http://lgbt.foundation/who-we-help/trans-people/resources-for-trans-people/lgbt-foundation-resources-for-trans-people

Standards of care for transgender people: http://www.wpath.org/site_page.cfm?pk_association_webpage_menu=1351&pk_association_webpage=3926

You can also click on any of the articles linked throughout this post to get more information.

Written by

Hi, my name is Sophie. I'm a writer and mindfulness teacher.

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