The one thing the bitter debate over feminism and trans rights needs right now: a bit of humanity – Laura Waddell

Politicians need to drop the dehumanising rhetoric amid the debate over trans rights, says Laura Waddell.

Trans rights protesters hold a rally outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Trans rights protesters hold a rally outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

While the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) debate drags on and worsens for all involved, two Scottish Parliament motions put forward by SNP MSP Emma Harper and Labour MSP Monica Lennon to mark yesterday’s International Trans Day of Remembrance shows the empathy that should have accompanied the discussion throughout but which has been sorely lacking, to the discredit and shame of several other politicians.

Critics are right to say it’s frustrating to see a country which self-brands as progressive allow discussion to be dragged into the gutter while those whose rights are at stake look on.

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For the sake of trans people, for women, and for the state of our public discourse, enough of the bad faith actions. The Women’s Pledges which have recently sprung up to sit vulture-like on SNP, Labour and Lib Dem fringes are not party affiliated and further single-issue interests under the guise of speaking for all women; the trans-exclusionary alliances with Facebook pages run by young American men attached to Trump, anti-choice, and other pages designed to stoke political fallout from culture wars; the politicians who use the deeply irresponsible, imflammatory, and dishonest phrase ‘war on women’ about the policy consultation and who’ve let the idea they are leading the charge go to their heads.

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Enough of those who direct online mobs to harass trans-inclusive Scottish women’s charities, shelters, libraries, and bookshops, weakening public faith in these important feminist organisations who’ve work with determination and grit over the decades for everything they have. Most of this doesn’t even pertain to the proposed policy which has attracted like a magnet a collected debris of homophobia, misogyny, men who’ve never taken an interest in women’s rights in their puff, conspiracy theorists and party agitators, condensed like a fatberg in the river of Scottish public conversation. None of it pertains to gender-based violence women all over the world face on a daily, structural basis, workplace inequality, or disproportionate effects of austerity on working-class women, all of which adds up to a real war on women, no matter what Twitter valkyries insist while encouraging fear of trans people.

US religious right

Questions also need to be asked about external right-wing interest in Scottish politics. The US religious right are known to have taken interest in anti-LGBT and trans-exclusive groups in the UK, and in some cases, high sums of money have been raised in crowdfunders despite groups refusing to reveal either their identities or to specify their aims. And yet, some of our politicians have engaged with such groups in public.

Is it the case that those jumping on the bandwagon are so drawn to the idea of excluding trans people they are able to turn a blind eye to what they’re aligning themselves with?

Some of these groups exist to promote a traditional family model, explitly stating themselves to be opposed to feminism and abortion. Culture wars being imported from the US is the very last thing we need.

A recent furore around census questions claimed it offered a menu of 23 sexualities. This was quickly shown to be misleading.

The most frequent sexualities of straight, gay, and bi were options but the option for respondants to input ‘other’ dropped down to show previous user contributions, which is where the confusion lay. Some of the contributions will be earnest, others, in the tradition of the census from year dot, will be from jokers. From a data gathering perspective, the suggestive prompt displaying user contributions is not great design. But the misleading interpretation was seized upon by all manner of people in public life, ignoring the more mundane reality in their haste to draw parallels with gender self-identification and mock the spectrum of sexualities as nonsensical.

It was the kind of wilful obfuscation of truth we don’t want to encourage in Scottish politics; a winning-at-all-costs desperation willing to fight dirty and bitter. When some gay people warned the GRA debate was going in a direction which might stoke homophobia, this is why.

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Step out from the trenches

Some engaging in this behaviour were there for Section 28. So where has it all gone so wrong for them? Having questions about the GRA and any policy impact on women’s rights is sensible. Many of the women’s organisations who responded to the original public consultation had nuanced answers, drawing on the wealth of their experience. But these serious discussions are blown up by agitators who’ve dug trenches and declared themselves at war with anyone remotely empathetic towards trans people.

This approach will never, and nor is it intended to, find consensus or solutions. They need to take off the helmet, stop basking in the dubious praise of anonymous Twitter trolls, and rediscover perspective, not least for the sake of the public they’re meant to serve but the dismal tone they set for public discourse on our rights.

Before it was ‘postponed’, an event promoted by Jenny Marra and Joan McAlpine was scheduled to take place in Holyrood on International Trans Day of Remembrance.

The line-up included speakers who’ve claimed trangenderism is a fetish and that trans people “parasitically occupy” women’s bodies. Instead, last night was marked by a candlelit vigil held in front of Parliament, a partnership by groups including Scottish Trans Alliance, Equality Network, Stonewall Scotland, LGBT Youth Scotland and Zero Tolerance. The event notice stated “We believe that equality and human rights for everyone are best achieved through collaborative and constructive engagement across all marginalised groups”.

As Emma Harper said on Twitter about her motion, “It is more important than ever to be open to, value and respect everyone when debating social issues in our society!” Monica Lennon’s motion recognised the “need to tackle inequality in all its forms in order to end violence against groups that continue to be persecuted, including trans and non-binary people in Scotland”. More Scottish politicians need to demonstrate this sentiment and drop dehumanising rhetoric.

This conversation has to move forward, literally; the Act hangs in the balance and must proceed. Doing what’s best for women and trans people depends on our representatives getting a grip and conducting themselves with a bit of humanity.