Most days, MSPs reply to quite a number of letters and emails from our constituents. Sometimes the reply can offer some practical help, and at other times that’s just not possible. Sometimes the correspondence is about a fundamental difference of political opinion, and of course people have a right to question their representatives about such issues.
In nearly fifteen years in Parliament I don’t think I’ve ever replied to a constituent and seen my words staring back at me in a newspaper a few days later. But that’s the surprise I had today, at the end of Shona Craven’s opinion piece in the National in defence of campaigners against transgender rights.
Since the constituent I replied to has chosen to use the correspondence in this way, I think it’s fair that I offer some context. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on legislation that would make it easier for trans people to apply for legal recognition of their gender, removing some of the barriers such as medical evidence and a two-year delay period. It wouldn’t remove all the requirements, as gender recognition would still be a serious legal process with lifelong consequences. It wouldn’t change the fact that gender recognition protects people’s right to be treated equally in the gender they transition to – trans women are women, trans men are men, and that isn’t changing. Similar legislation has been proposed at UK level but has been delayed. Other countries have already made this kind of change, without problems. A further consultation is due this year on the issues affecting non-binary and intersex people.
My constituent opposes this legislation, and believes not only that “there is a direct conflict between women’s rights and trans rights”, but also that this is the view of “all women whose job does not depend on supporting trans-friendly policies”. This is of course an absurd suggestion, but it’s not uncommon for people opposing one aspect of equality or another to make such unfounded claims of representing a great unheard majority.
It’s undeniable that some people do firmly oppose trans equality, whether out of religious ideology, social conservatism, or simple unthinking prejudice and intolerance. It’s also clear that some people oppose trans equality who reject those labels, but whose hostility to trans rights is rooted in a particular form of feminist theory – though a great many feminists are vocal and passionate supporters of trans people and their rights, and of course vice versa. Indeed anti-trans campaigners casually dismiss the pro-equality views of feminist and women’s organisations, in a way that I find breathtaking.
I’ve seen many people comment that they find trans issues in general difficult to get to grips with. This is a subject that challenges assumptions and ideas about ourselves which are very deep in our culture. Understanding it involves listening to people with lives and identities which are unfamiliar to a lot of people. What’s more, the arguments against trans equality come from such a conflicting set of basic values that it can be baffling. Assertive, self-declared feminists on the same side as the right wing press and the Christian Institute?
But however confusing that might be for someone new to the subject, there are some hard realities that can cut through this.
That starts with the recognition that trans people are under assault. Both politically and physically their lives and identities are being subjected to relentless attack. Research published this week by Stonewall (the organisation named after a riot against police oppression, in which trans people played a critical part) shows that one in eight trans employees were physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the last year; that a quarter of trans people have experienced homelessness; and that the large majority don’t feel able to report hate crimes they experience to the police.
Many national media outlets carry relentlessly hostile coverage, turning the argument for human rights and basic respect into a “culture war” to divide people from one another. That tactic has been used to oppose all forms of equality, time and again down the generations. Progress has been made by people standing together, supporting each other and refusing to accept that your equality or human rights are incompatible with mine.
Maybe I can never fully understand trans people’s lives or what it means to come to terms with a different identity than the one assigned at birth. That doesn’t stop me being an ally for trans rights. In just the same way not being black or being a woman doesn’t stop me trying to be the best ally I can be for antiracism and for feminism.
But if instead we pit these issues against each other, we’ll lose the basic human solidarity which has been at the heart of so many movements for social progress.
We can and should try to understand each other, but even when we find that difficult we can still stand together in each other’s defence. That’s the way we’ve made progress toward equality. Or we can do exactly what the opponents of equality always want us to do by trading my rights off against yours, yours against hers, his against theirs. If we do that, we will all lose. I am delighted that most feminist organisations in Scotland support the Equal Recognition campaign, which seeks progress on trans rights. I’m delighted that all political parties in the Scottish Parliament are led by people who gave their support during the last Holyrood election too (Richard Leonard wasn’t his party’s leader in 2016 of course, but he stood for election on a manifesto which made clear commitments on trans equality).
So in reply to my constituent, who actually asked me to host a meeting for their campaign in Parliament, I have to say No. I would no more do that than I would host a meeting for anti-abortion campaigners seeking to undermine women’s reproductive rights, or anti-Islam campaigners seeking to demonise Muslims for what they wear when they go shopping.
But more than that, I also say this – please remember how much our shared progress toward a more equal society has depended on people standing together, supporting one another and refusing to give in to those who seek to divide us.