Trans Allyship in Scotland: Let women listen and be heard in a digitally divisive world - Hannah Brown

As social media continues to divide and overwhelm women in the face of trans rights, a hopeful message of coming together is needed so we can listen and be heard, writes Hannah Brown.

On Thursday, the Scottish Government published responses to a consultation on reforming Scotland’s gender recognition laws to allow a person to self-identify.

A small majority of organisations responding to the consultation broadly supported the proposal.

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In the consultation, one area of shared concern was the nature and tone of the debate and dialogue associated with trans rights more widely.

Trans Rights activists take part in Pride Glasgow through the city centre (Picture: David Cheskin/PA).Trans Rights activists take part in Pride Glasgow through the city centre (Picture: David Cheskin/PA).
Trans Rights activists take part in Pride Glasgow through the city centre (Picture: David Cheskin/PA).

The Scottish Government said there was a consensus that the debate has become ‘highly polarised’ and is seen as ‘toxic’, underpinned by a culture - in particular a social media culture - in which people are being, or feel, bullied and harassed by those taking a different view.

In the face of this, online abuse continues to threaten many women - cis (a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) and trans (a person whose gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth) alike.

Echo chambers and online forums

Abi Shedden, a 50-year-old Scottish trans woman, is all too aware of the transphobic abuse that emerges when the phrase ‘trans issues’ is spoken.

Scotland in the ‘real world’ is an accepting and kind place, Abi - who is self-employed working in the creative industry - tells me.

Online is a different matter.

“On social media, people end up in echo chambers and what can be a minority can feel like a majority,” she says.

“I used to have a Twitter account but very quickly stopped using it as reading the comments really affected my mental health and I only posted a few things.

“Anytime I see a post elsewhere on social media that points to a Twitter post I now just avoid it.”

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Abi, who has two teenage children, also used to have a Mumsnet account but received what she describes as ‘a torrent of abuse’ for using the term ‘cis’ in a post.

She describes her experience of the the culture on Mumsnet as toxic and dangerous to trans women.

Married to a woman for over 15 years, Abi only openly came out as trans two years ago when suicidal thoughts became overwhelming.

“I decided for my kids’ sake that I needed to be here financially to support them,” Abi says through tears.

“My wife and kids are amazing - I’m their dad - they reacted with such dignity and understanding but it’s not been an easy journey for them.

“Their welfare is front and centre to me but I knew that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t come out.”

Allies are available

Trans support groups in Scotland have seen a rise in abuse towards their members which has emerged from online spaces into everyday life.

“With all of the abuse online, from mainstream media and on the streets now, it’s very difficult for trans and non-binary people – and particularly for trans women as they tend to bear the brunt of these attacks,” Ryan McLeod, a development worker for the Lothian Transgender Support Programme tells me.

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The support group is part of LGBT health services and is there for anyone who is struggling, as a reminder that they have many allies despite a toxic culture online and beyond.

“I am often being contacted by people who are having a very difficult time,” says Ryan.

“I hear from those in crisis – that’s terrifyingly common."

No one is saying the plight of trans women should be used to undermine the plight of cis women and if they are, I will have issues with that.

I am not creating a sainthood for all trans women and I would not do these women that disservice.

I have had disagreements with trans women and I have had disagreements with cis women.

There is no denying that cis gender women still face rampant misogyny and abhorrent violence and abuse based on their biological make-up.

Yet, as Elif Shafak writes in her novella How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, “the moment we stop listening to diverse opinions is also when we stop learning”.

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Untold stories keep us apart

An advocate for women’s rights, LGBT rights and freedom of speech, Elif Shafak wrote this uplifting plea in 2020 to reflect on the current ‘age of contagious anxiety’.

Shafak goes on to say that we learn when coming into contact with voices which are different and often challenge our own views and concepts.

As much as I look to fellow cis sisters for knowledge, insight and experience, I urge them not to dismiss those with differing life experiences by banishing with horizontal hostility.

To define two breasts and a vagina as the only source of being a woman, I feel, I would violate and reduce many women.

Simone De Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman,” grasping that our bodies are impacted by our own experiences which allow us to be the people we become.

Being young, I know that I am inexperienced in a lot of my womanhood and life experiences.

I look up to the older women in my life who are most often my inspirations and feminist icons.

But - like all of us – feel different pain that is new and perhaps never experienced by our mothers, sisters, aunts, grans or even perhaps amongst one another in this digitally-, visually-obsessed world.

All lived experiences are to be respected and to be heard.

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“Stories bring us together, untold stories keep us apart,” writes Shafak.

To go against one another would be to give into a patriarchy which sets us against each other from the offset.

So let trans women and all women listen but also be heard.

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