The BBC’s Sunday Morning Live is a topical debate show that discusses moral issues on broad number of topics. They often include ethical issues around healthcare, civil liberties, and dominant news stories of the day. Last weekend the panel of guests were faced with a number of interesting topics and the most interesting of these, in my view, was the following question: is there enough understanding of transgender issues? As the discussion progressed I found myself getting slightly enraged at the neutrality that BBC has to show because in my mind the answer was so clearly obvious. So let me elaborate.
Before we even get into whether or not transgender issues are well understood, I would argue that transgenderism is something that is still understood by huge sections of British society. The evidence I would give is a simple comparison with homosexuality. If you stopped someone in the street and asked them if they knew what a gay person was, I am confident that you would get a response that was relatively accurate. Even from someone who is homophobic, bigotry and misconceptions aside, they know what homosexuality is. I honestly don’t believe that the same could be said if the subject of the discussion is what a transgender person is. The related concepts of gender fluidity and non-binary expression, whilst not the same as transgenderism, are even less well known to people who aren’t surrounded by these terms on an almost daily basis.
Moving on from this initial issue of lack of awareness, the question posed on Sunday Morning Live was because the role of transgender people within the Church of England was being debated at the meeting of the General Synod over the weekend. Incidentally, since the programme was broadcast the Church of England’s governing body has backed a motion saying that transgender people should be “welcomed and affirmed by their parish church”. But the question was interesting to me because it revealed that, whilst I knew of some problems facing transgender people, I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which these inconvenience and in some cases emotionally impact trans people. As a result I tackled my ignorance head on by educating myself.
On the panel was the author and trans rights activist Juno Dawson who made an important point about how the Stonewall Schools Report found that 4 out of 10 young transgender people have attempted suicide, and 8 out of 10 young trans people have self-harmed. If this figure is true we are left with a staggering realisation that there is a minority group within British society who feel out of place and desperately need help.
This help needs to be all-encompassing so that social attitudes change towards this community. There are conditions that can be created that make transgenderism a less alien concept to people, for example by normalising the use of unisex bathrooms as some organisations have begun to do. But it also means addressing some premises that people have taken for granted. Whilst staying on the unisex bathrooms example, activists and allies need to vigourously argue in favour of this change by unpacking people’s reactionary prejudices rather than dismissing them as bigoted.
In terms of a practical policy goal that should be the focus of attention, the rights of transgender people in Britain to access medical services is a big issue that I have recently learned about. Although some cosmetic procedures are available on the NHS, the medical hoops that trans people and gender fluid people have to jump through to get access to testosterone and antiandrogens can be needlessly stressful.
In relation to wider society, the most important way of shaping social attitudes towards transgender people would be by increasing the visibility of the community. The BBC was correct to have Juno Dawson on their programme as it allowed the personal experience of a trans person to contribute to a discussion about issues facing the community. But representation goes further than that. In media trans people shouldn’t only be trotted out to talk about trans issues because this smacks of tokenism. I am sure that there are transgender political commentators who are concerned with more widely discussed issues like foreign policy and the economy.
Something that is also not always mentioned is how discussions within the LGBT community often neglect the voices of trans people for whatever reason and this needs to change. The only way that a truly intersectional community can understand the struggles of its constituent groups is through speaking to people of that group. A group of white gay men will not understand the problems of the trans community to the same extent as a black trans woman, and how transphobia and racism impact one another. The LGBT community is a big-tent and therefore activism should not privilege one group’s civil rights above any other group’s.
So to conclude, transgender issues are not understood by a sufficient enough extent. I am not transgender myself so I hope I haven’t downplayed any of the problems facing trans people. When it comes to awareness, I would never argue that people should be well versed in statistics and studies about any political issue because it is not their job to know about these things. That is why is important that people like myself use my platform to promote these issues and that cultural depictions of society challenge preconceived notions about trans people. Any person who even contemplates suicide is someone who has been let down by society, pure and simple.
We need to make sure that trans people are given an opportunity to share their lived experiences as often as possible as without this first-hand testimony many members of the public will not truly appreciate the daily struggles of the trans community. It is also incumbent on other sections of the LGBT community to stand up for their trans comrades as when this label is applied, there is sometimes an assumption that progress for one is progress for all. There needs to be a recognition that the LGBT community has many intersectional concerns that will not be addressed by helping one group. Trans people are often placed under this umbrella and forgotten about but its about time that trans people received the civil rights and protections that all people should have.