James Kirkup

What MPs are still getting wrong about the trans debate | 25 February 2019

What MPs are still getting wrong about the trans debate | 25 February 2019
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I am a little late in coming to the recent report on community cohesion by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime. It was published earlier this month but drew little attention at Westminster: yet another example of Brexit smothering the domestic policy agenda, I suppose.

The report has lots to say about lots of different types of nasty behaviour.  Among the topics it covers is the gender debate, the discussion of trans rights and their potential impact on the rights of others.

One one level, this is a good thing.  It is the job of MPs to debate and discuss matters of contention and controversy. This is one such issue, yet it has not been fully debated in Parliament, not least because a lot of MPs are too scared to enter an arena where passions run very high indeed.  In that context, well done to the APPG and especially its chair, Labour’s Paula Sheriff.  The group did something all too rare by asking for, and then considering and publishing, some actual evidence about this particular debate.

Well done, too, for not ducking the fact that women who question the orthodoxies of trans rights (for instance, “trans women are women” and thus entitled to all the same rights as “cis” women) are often faced with abuse, intimidation and violence from people who don’t want such things to be questioned.

Here, it’s worth quoting the report at some length.  (I’ve bolded some key terms and phrases.)

“Some women have raised concerns over people who identify as female but are still to some extent ‘biologically’ male being allowed to use women-only spaces such as female changing rooms or toilets. They object that the terms sex and gender are being used interchangeably and the idea that gender identity is being used to erode sex-based rights and protections. This is argued as being a form of misogyny. They argue that women who object to the inclusion of trans women as female are attacked both online and, in the street, with the term ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’ (or TERF) being used as a term of abuse.

Several of the submissions referred to a few women’s gatherings that were targeted for harassment and threats by trans activists, including a bomb threat made against a meeting of the group A Woman’s Place in Hastings. They also referred to the assault of 60-year-old Maria McLachlan by trans activist Tara Wolf. Ms McLachlan’s experiences in court, where she was reported to have been made to use Ms Wolf’s preferred pronoun, are also cited in several submissions.

“Several of the submissions also included screenshots of social media posts (predominantly Twitter) that contained threats and encouragements of violence towards ‘TERFs’. It can easily be argued that this constitutes hate speech under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which people have been successfully prosecuted for. However, under the legislation as it currently stands, it would be difficult to successfully report this as hate speech as it is not completely clear if the abuse refers to lesbians (sexuality is a category of hate crime) or women (sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 but not a hate crime category under the Criminal Justice Act 2003).

And here is what the group found about the experience of trans people in this debate:

“On the other side of the divide, there are trans activists and their supporters who are reporting similar attacks. Several submissions refer to the presence of a trans-exclusionary group at the head of the London Pride march in July 2018 and the responses to that. One submission state that “Prides final statement... does little to paper over the cracks of transphobic attitudes within the ‘Gay’ community where T-N-B [trans or non-binary] people often feel unwelcome or on sufferance... When those you see as your own people do not accept or support you this is perhaps the hardest form of rejection to accept,”. The same submission (written by someone with both professional and personal experience of these issues) goes on to state that:

“The updating of the Gender Recognition Act is being used as a focus for transphobic groups using emotive language, cis-women [a term used to describe non-transgender women] will be sexually assaulted by penis wielding T-N-B women in public toilets or changing rooms, women only spaces will be invaded by misogynistic ‘men’ who only put on a dress to invade and invalidate those spaces.”

Other submissions make statements including:

“Innocent trans women and girls can be painted as potential rapists before committing any crime.”

Lecture tours have been organised around the UK where trans women are described as a threat to cis women and where parents supporting trans children are accused of child abuse.”

“I have noticed a marked increase in polarisation of extreme anti-transgender views through the growth of certain platforms and anti-trans coverage in the national media.”

In other words, the report described two sets of unpleasant events and experiences.   But those two sets of evidence have differences.

The first evidence set describes acts of violence and threats of violence, acts of such severity that the APPG considers many of them to constitute potential criminal offences.

(That strikes me as quite a big deal. An all-party group of MPs and peers has acknowledged something that has been unacknowledged for too long by too many politicians: women who question the trans-rights agenda face real and potentially illegal threats and intimidation.  I hope other journalists, not to mention police forces and prosecutors, take careful note of this.)

The second set of evidence does not detail violence or the threat of violence. It sets out acts and words that have caused distress and unhappiness.  The APPG makes no suggestion that such acts break any law.

Yet consider how that report summarises those two sets of evidence:

“Both sides of the argument illustrate that intra-community tensions are running high around this topic and that there are some on both sides of the divide who are resorting to extreme measures and tactics. On one hand, there are clear examples of threats and calls to violence against women, whilst on the other vulnerable people are being made to feel unwelcome, that they are viewed as a threat and that their identity is invalid. It should be clear that neither is acceptable.”

If you read that quickly, you might nod in agreement, concurring that all sorts of nasty behaviour are bad and should be named as such.

But a closer look shows some real problems.  The biggest is false equivalence.  The APPG, having assembled two sets of evidence about the differing behaviour of two groups of people, has decided to say they are basically the same: inciting violence against women is put on a par with making some trans people feel “unwelcome.”  That, I suggest, is not a reasonable conclusion to reach: threatening violence is a crime; making someone feel unwelcome is not.

To be clear, finding fault with the APPG’s conclusion is not the same as approving of any of the conduct described there. I don’t think trans people should be made to feel unhappy or unwelcome. Nor do I think women should be threatened with violence.  Both are bad. But it is a simple fact that those two problems are of different degrees of severity.   Yet the APPG wants to suggest they are the same, that the evidence it collected indicates equal degrees of fault on both sides. That is not what the evidence shows.

Another flaw in that paragraph centres on reporting of threats.  The APPG found that some women are subject to real threats of violence from some people who advocate trans rights.  The APPG found that some trans people are distressed at “being...viewed as a threat”.   The APPG does not dwell on the possible relationship between those two things. It should.

The facts, as found by the APPG, again: some women are threatened with violence over trans rights.  Some trans people are unhappy that they are seen as a threat to women.   Whose fault is that unhappiness?  The APPG implies that fault lies with the other “side”, meaning with women. The same women who, the APPG finds, face real threats of violence.  Such victim-blaming is bad enough, but the bigger problem is that it means the APPG misses an opportunity to use its evidence to draw a conclusion that would have done real good, actually informing and improving the gender debate.

Here’s what the APPG should have concluded from the evidence it collected:

Some women fear the trans rights agenda could lead to policies and practices that increase the risk of sexual and physical assault to women.  Some women are threatened by trans rights advocates, for questioning trans rights. 

 Some trans people are distressed that some women unduly regard them as a potential threat. 

 That perception is not the fault of women nor of those distressed trans people.  It is the fault of those who bring threats of violence to this debate and use those threats to suppress questions and scrutiny of the trans rights agenda.  People who make such threats are harming women and the great majority of trans people who wish to live the same quiet, happy lives as everyone else.

 People who talk about punching, burning and killing “Terfs” might say they do so to promote trans equality and on behalf of the “trans community” (as if all trans people think the same things) are, in fact, doing real harm to that agenda and that community, by injecting fear and intimidation into the public conversation about an issue that desperately needs care, delicacy and deliberation.  Anyone with the interests of trans people at heart should do a lot more to make clear that the violent narrative of “punch a Terf” and the rest is harmful and must stop. 

That is what the evidence collected by the APPG shows.   Yet instead of saying so, the group decided to play safe and take refuge in the classic political cop-out of finding fault “on both sides.”

I repeat: it’s a good thing that the APPG looked into this issue, and good that it set out the evidence it assembled so clearly.  But it’s regrettable that the group didn’t follow its own evidence more directly and draw attention to the threats against women that leave those women frightened, possibly break the law and definitely poison this debate in a way that is harmful to transgender people.

In short, politicians are doing a bit better at addressing the difficult reality of the gender debate properly, but there’s still some way to go.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

Topics in this articlePoliticsgender