Free Speech and Changing Narratives

Last week I took advantage of the opportunity offered to me by Maria Miller at the end of the Commons Womens and Equalities Select Committee evidence session on 8 September, and wrote her a letter. Having gone through a fair amount of the written submitted evidence, including those from groups and individuals who don’t believe in the existence of trans people, I thought that perhaps some context was missing. Extracts from my letter follow:

Trans people have existed in all documented cultures throughout history. Whilst we may have been poorly understood and challenged in a large number of them, some cultures respect and even revere such identities. There are UK and US newspaper reports from the 1920s to the 1950s which contain factual accounts of trans people, and indicate they were generally accepted by those around them.

The current medical standards of care had their roots in the 1950s, when urologists decided they wanted a level of cover by asking psychiatrists to assess the mental competence and stability of trans women who were approaching them for surgery. The pathologised model, including delays for hormone treatment and the “real life test”, grew from that point.

In the 1970s some feminists started critiquing trans women (hardly ever trans men) by denying their femininity and dismissing their identity as falsely constructed, a practice that continues to this day in a few marginalised feminist cliques. The oft-used stereotyping of trans women as excessively feminine can also be linked to the requirement by psychiatrists at the time for trans women to demonstrate extreme feminine behaviour and appearance in order to justify treatment –as shown in the 1980 BBC series A Change of Sex. It is not surprising that people desperate for treatment would have jumped through the hoops medics deemed necessary, often through gritted teeth.

This, together with the understanding that trans people needed psychiatric assessment, fed a narrative that trans people should somehow prove who they are. This was often done in a framework that hardly anyone, trans or not, could fulfil. We no longer ask any other group of people, other than perhaps LGBT asylum seekers, to prove their identity within an externally set framework.

This requirement for proof of a misunderstood and increasingly mis-reported reality further reinforced the medical narrative, which in turn fed legal and media perceptions. It also created an incorrect perceived hierarchy, where somebody needed to attain a certain level of “transness” in order to be worthy of treatment, recognition or rights. It led to trans people learning lines and approaches that psychiatrists seemed to expect (such as tropes like “trapped in the wrong body”) in order to maximise the chances of receiving treatment. In such a manner “trans” was clearly positioned, defined and owned by a small group of medics. Rather than being a natural part of human diversity, it was rigorously and routinely pathologised within a vicious circle.

The requirement to prove yourself as “genuinely trans” in some (usually medical) way underpins almost all medical treatment as well as gender recognition and equalities legislation. It is not sufficient simply to be trans, but it must be externally recognised to the standards of others, who can seemingly set whatever hoops they desire. You have seen from the medics before you that “being trans” is often not seen as a desirable outcome. Current NHS practice is still largely predicated upon an outcome of genital surgery, although this has substantially weakened over recent years, and personal autonomy in this area seems to be relatively unimportant compared to a doctor’s desire not to be sued. Interestingly there is no psychiatric assessment mandated for tattoos on an individual’s face, something which will affect day-to-day interactions far more than any genital surgery is likely to do.

In my personal submission I indicated some of the inconsistencies within current marriage law, including inconsistencies not addressed or even introduced in the recent Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. This maintains a perception that society needs to protect itself in some way against trans people, as if gender dysphoria was contagious. Indeed those most vociferously against educating people about LGBT issues are generally those who are most keen to convert people to their own religion or philosophy. In contrast, LGBT activists are simply requesting parity of esteem and are not attempting to convert anyone, instead recognising that people are, for whatever reason, lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (or intersex, non-binary and a whole host of other identities) and that it is impossible to change them – indeed reparative therapy is often damaging, as now recognised by bodies such as the BACP.

To summarise this part of this letter, there is a significant social history and background which underpins the current position trans people find themselves in. It is only relatively recently, when trans people have felt empowered to speak for themselves in any substantial way, that these social assumptions have been challenged.

And then Germaine Greer happened, again. What the Newsnight airing a few days ago did was show how inconsistent she actually is, although possibly not within her own mind. Well, we can all be blind to our own failings. An example was that she consistently referred to trans women as “transsexual men” and “he”, occasionally “he she”, but towards the end insisted that it was only polite that people such as myself be referred to with the pronouns of our choice. But, more importantly, it showed a wide audience, who are slowly coming to terms with the simple fact that trans people exist, the extent of the baffling bigotry that trans people have faced for 40 or more years. It is a rare occurrence when an esteemed BBC interviewer, Kirsty Wark in this instance, actually promotes the arguments underpinning the trans cause.

As is common, social media was suddenly aflame with people vociferously supporting her, usually on the basis of “common sense”. Debates are rumbling on this morning still. Such voices are usually loudest from those who know least. It doesn’t stop the statements being painful, but it does show the substantial hurdle that is still to be overcome.

My own views on “free speech” are nuanced, not black and white. It’s a perfectly admirable goal, as long as it takes place within other perfectly admirable goals, such as a society where no individual is persecuted or disadvantaged. To paraphrase what I said in Parliament in September, free speech is ring-fenced by cultural sensitivities, it is not an absolute. We self-police what we say in terms of what we understand the likely outcomes will be. Speech generally has a purpose, to influence and change the views of those who hear it. As a society we have decided that “hate speech” is not desirable and can be prosecuted under law. The distinction between speech that causes harm and speech that causes offence is deliberately blurred. Indeed, the press’ first defence when challenged on a problematic article is always “free speech”.

But equally there has to be space to explore the “unpopular view”. The Renaissance showed many examples of individuals challenging the rigorously enforced status quo, often at the cost of their own liberties and lives. Truths that we now take as self-evident were once deemed heretical, while mainstream thinking of the time now seems quaint and comedic. Without bold people promoting unpopular ideas, it’s unlikely our society would have evolved beyond a blind and unswerving loyalty to those in power.

With regards to the trans narrative, we are now seeing a rebalancing taking place within society. Those who drove the narrative for years are being challenged as trans people start disassembling the constructs on which it is based. Such adjustments take time, and are often periodically painful.

I find Greer disingenuous. By repeating the mantra that she is only expressing an opinion, she is ignoring the effects that holding to that opinion would (and do) have. Trans people are still far from equal in society. Discrimination in education, employment and housing abounds. Family breakups are still common. The law still carries exemptions in the case of trans people. An opinion that, say, Jews ought to be gassed is, well, an odious opinion, but would (and did) have horrendous effects if acted on. Her opinions about trans women aren’t bold, aren’t informed, but are simply a restating of an orthodoxy that has largely kept trans people hidden and in fear for decades. They only seem controversial now because the narrative is changing.

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