Even after the same sex marriage bill gained its second reading by a thumping majority in the House of Lords yesterday, a number of views that oppose the bill are still getting airtime. Amongst these is Baroness Knight, who introduced the now infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This morning, on BBC Radio 5, she claimed that her concern for children was the primary motivator behind her opposition to the bill.
Alongside this is the government’s apparent view that any spouse of a trans person who wanted a divorce would try to get out of their marriage as quickly as possible. Much of the opposition has revolved around the simple diatribe that marriage is between one man and one woman.
These arguments further demonstrate the sheer ignorance that is widespread about trans and intersex people. Let’s examine these positions further.
Firstly – children. I have two children. They’re now in their teenage years, and my daughter cannot really remember me as anything other than female. My wife and I still live together and love each other. Sure, things were rocky for a while, but we agreed to stay together as long as we could to provide as much security as possible for our young family. I think our marriage, which has looked to outsiders exactly like a same-sex marriage with children for years, is on a surer footing now.
There’s problem number 1 for the opponents. By opposing equal marriage for the sake of children, they’re throwing children in families like mine to the wolves. Our children, our family’s stability, doesn’t even register in their thinking.
But more insidious is the belief that children raised by gay or lesbian parents are disadvantaged by their upbringing, neatly ignoring the thousands of children who are damaged by the behaviour of their heterosexual parents. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” wrote Philip Larkin – a position that’s quietly ignored in the assumption that anything other than a heteronormative upbringing is distinctly second class. But studies don’t bear this position out.
Divorce next. While more marriages are surviving a trans person’s gender transition than before, the proportion which don’t is simply vast. There are many points at which the non-transitioning spouse may decide to throw in the towel. Helen Grant’s statement of the Government’s position seemed to indicate that they simply couldn’t conceive of a spouse who would want to draw out divorce proceedings. Yet, within 10 minutes of me posting a quiet question on Facebook, one trans person came back with exactly that scenario – the spouse had constantly changed their mind at the last moment, restarting negotiations over children and property, dragging their heels about replying to everything.
Why should marriages involving trans people that end because of transition be any different at all from other marriages that break down acrimoniously? Lots of people I’ve spoken to think that it’s probably more likely that people divorcing trans people will become deliberately obstructive, something I’ve seen at second hand on more than one occasion.
That’s why the government holding out on the spousal veto is so objectionable – it hands someone’s gender recognition on a plate to someone who is likely to be hostile to them. Even more fundamental is the idea that, yet again, trans people’s basic rights of identity are dependent upon another person’s goodwill.
The final point is that of complimentarity, as Lord Glenarthur was so fond of stating in yesterday’s debate. I guess this is a reductionist argument that places people’s genitals as the primary determinant of marriageability. Men are complimentary to women, goes the argument, neatly falling into the trap I lay in awareness courses I do that, therefore, all men are basically the same as each other, and all women are basically the same as each other too – and ne’er the twain shall meet. (Cue pictures of Arnold Schwarznegger and pink, fluffy, fairy princesses – it usually gets a laugh.)
Don’t get me wrong – I do think that there are differences between what we generally call male and female. The issue for trans people is usually that their natural behaviour or position of comfort falls the “other side of the fence” – hence the need to transition. But any step beyond basic biological determinism must show that there are massive differences even within the two supposedly distinct sexes, and that the boundary between the two is extremely fuzzy and difficult to place, if it can be placed at all. My son did intersex conditions as part of his Science GCSE a year or two ago.
My response to this binary model is to sweetly ask exactly how the protagonist is defining the sexes, because once you start introducing intersex conditions into the mix, this particular viewpoint becomes very messy indeed. It also assumes that the only difference that is important between people is what’s between their legs. Trans people are frequently reduced by the media, by medics and by civil servants to this status so, in some ways, it’s refreshing to see everyone else tarred by the same brush. However, as a philosophy, it’s on extremely shaky ground, especially when used to try to determine legislation.
Turning back to the children argument – of course, the existence of trans children is known. Groups such as Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence do sterling work in supporting them in a largely uncomprehending world. Children need to feel they are safe – and that includes trans children. Won’t anyone think of them?
Any awareness of trans or intersex people would simply demolish these arguments. Which makes it all the more baffling that the mainstream media has been so slow to pick any of them up. Maybe they’re scared. But the consequence of this media silence has been that arguments such as complimentarity and “what about the children”, arguments that I personally find hugely offensive, go unchecked.
It’s yet another example of the unthinking cisgenderism that is endemic across our culture. And it will only change through visibility.