As Covid-19 spread across every continent, the world changed in ways that we could not have anticipated as recently as Christmas. “Self-isolation” and “social distancing” have entered the lexicon and taken root in my mind to such an extent that video clips of people breaking the two-metre rule seem to belong to another age, like old silent movies. These are – to use an overworked expression – unprecedented times.
But trans people have been living in unprecedented times that go back further than Christmas. While previously we were largely ignored by politicians and the media – apart from occasional salacious and often unwelcome feature articles – trans issues have been high in the news agenda for the past three years. That has not always been a blessing.
My ears pricked up when the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee reported on transgender equality early in 2016. The focus on changes to the law, I felt, was misplaced. Maybe I thought we still needed to secure our existing rights? Maybe I had been frustrated by seemingly endless waiting lists for NHS gender services? Maybe I saw the potential for conflict if legal protections focussed not on actions but identity? But I worried that it would not end well.
There is much talk about transgender identities and how to protect them, but identity is subjective. A trans person is trans because they say they are trans. What other definition is possible? Certainly, nobody else can get inside our head to check our thinking. But laws based on self-declaration – relying on a deeply held sense of identity – are at the mercy of thoughts that can neither be proved nor falsified. I would argue that anyone can self-identify as trans, but I also understand the concerns of women who sense the safeguarding hazard if anyone can then self-identify as a woman.
The tragedy for me is not so much the furore that has erupted in politics – though that has not helped trans people who want a quiet life – but the rights and campaigns that have been overlooked, and the relationships that have become strained.
The law is effective when the focus is on actions: our right to do things, and protection from bad things being done to us. While it is illegal to be trans in 14 countries, in the UK we have the freedom to express ourselves in our preferred gender. No longer, for example, can an employee be dismissed when they transition. The Equality Act protects us against harassment and discrimination, while the criminal law cites transphobia as an aggravating factor in hate crime. Those rights must not be taken for granted. Meanwhile those waiting times for specialist healthcare are longer than ever. Trans people who need medical support need appointments rather than promises, and the campaign for better resourcing of gender services is needed more than ever.
While trans people will never agree on everything – we are human after all – divisions over subjective issues are harder to manage. Arguments prefaced by “I think” or “I feel” leave people vulnerable when their claims are challenged. Grace and compassion between political opponents are therefore crucial, but too often in short supply – particularly on social media platforms where much of the debate takes place. Without body language, or even tone of voice, intent and nuance can be lost. But there is always a human being at the far end of the fibre optic, facing unknown pressures, concerns, hurts and fears. Maybe we should ask more often? Certainly, we must not forget the humanity that unites us all.
This Easter – while the government has consigned us to barracks – let’s consider what brings us together in spirit if not in body: as trans people and as human beings. These might be unprecedented times, but they will not last for ever.