Coronavirus has closed schools, grounded planes and even delayed the start of the cricket county championship, but it has not shut down the transgender debate. This often toxic and divisive issue has proved to be one of the hardiest items in the news agenda in recent years. And even a pandemic has done little to limit the exposure.
Birth certificates are the latest topic to provoke fury. But now there is a difference. While the discussion up to now has broadly surrounded the documents of transgender people, the Court of Appeal has just upheld a ruling about the documents of their children.
The case had been brought by Freddy McConnell, a transgender man, who wanted to change the way that he was described on his son’s birth certificate: a child he gave birth to in 2018. Last September, Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the High Court’s family division, ruled that people who give birth are legally mothers. On Wednesday morning, three appeal court judges agreed. This confirmed that legally, McConnell remains the mother of his son.
It’s tempting to switch off here. After all, the transgender topic does seem to be never-ending. Surely there are more pressing things right now to think about? Yet this does matter. Why? Because language matters; it mediates our understanding of things. When we change the meaning of words we change the way we think.
The word woman has been the subject of open warfare on social media. The last time I checked, the lexicographers still held to the definition that we have always known, adult human female, but they are under huge pressure from activists to extend it to any man who defines himself as a woman. Language matters because many women do not want to be redefined, certainly not by subjective feelings.
This time, the word mother is under threat. Is it really an issue? Shouldn’t society try and be nice to people? If removing the word mother from a little boy’s birth certificate validates his parent’s gender identity, isn’t that a good thing?
I put these questions to my own son this morning. He also has a transgender parent – me – but at the age of 19 he is old enough to know his own mind. I suggested to him that I might want to be redesignated as mother on his birth certificate. He is one anecdote, but typical I suspect. He grimaced slightly and asserted that, ‘My birth certificate is about my identity, not yours.’
And there is the nub of this problem. While the ‘woman’ debate has pitched a small minority of transgender people against a rather larger group of women, the ‘mother’ debate pitches one individual against another.
Transgender people, who can provide evidence of medical need, have been able to alter the sex recorded on our own birth certificates since the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004. Essentially, it protects our privacy by preventing us from being identified as transgender by the public records of birth. That right to respect for private and family life is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But changing the birth certificate of our children hardly protects them from being identified as different. To have no mother shown would be remarkable and draw attention to an unusual parentage.
In this febrile debate where identity appears to be paramount, whose identity should take priority? Should a child’s birth certificate record the factual details of their birth and list their mother – the person who gave birth to them – in the same way as other birth certificates? Or should the word mother be removed in order to validate the parent’s gender identity? My son was in no doubt. His birth certificate listed his mother and father in the usual way and that’s how he wanted it.
As he told me, ‘I have one mother, and its not you…Dad.’ That is the truth, and it is not something we necessarily need to deny in order to live fulfilling lives as transgender people. Society can – and does – accommodate us quite successfully, without the need to actually revolve around us.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 1 May 2020: Freddy McConnell and the mother of fights.