We just need to talk to each other
4 minute read
Sometimes there are topics that get so difficult, so emotional, that it’s easier to stop talking about them altogether.
On the whole, in British society, we fear saying the wrong thing, unintentionally offending. The stigma of a problem eventually leads to such tension that people avoid it altogether.
In recent years, open and public debate on issues that affect transgender people has become one such topic. The existing law has been in place for over a decade and received full cross-party support when it was passed through Parliament in 2010. The law recognizes the need for a small number of individuals to be able to legally change their gender to better reflect the real life they lead, providing them with the dignity and legal protection we expect of every citizen. More than 10 years later, the debate over how this law works in practice is fraught with pitfalls. A small number of highly vocal groups seem so entrenched that meaningful debate is elusive.
The UK law passed in 2010 was groundbreaking at the time, but it now lags far behind many other countries. So the saddest fact is the disservice we do to trans people. By failing to have a meaningful debate, we miss opportunities to examine how our law and our public services support a group of fellow citizens. Angry cries on Twitter stigmatize, marginalize and belittle; it does not provide solutions to anyone.
It seems there’s no middle ground
A more fruitful approach might perhaps be to start by looking at what the law says and go from there. The Equality Act 2010 is explicit and clear: discrimination, direct or indirect, on grounds of gender reassignment, sex or sexual orientation is prohibited.
But when it comes to how this law is put into practice, the process of gender identification, the use of public restrooms and changing rooms, or how medical care should be provided, it does not there doesn’t seem to be any common ground. Voices that are loud in public discourse speak very firmly on one side or the other, so rooted in their own vision and agenda that the furious noise cancels out.
Perhaps we should look to history to see how much we have accomplished on previously difficult and controversial topics. It was not until the Sexual Offenses Act 1967 that homosexuality was – to some extent – decriminalised. Before that, men could be imprisoned for being gay, and public opinion toward homosexuality was largely no kinder than the laws that criminalized it. It was not until 2001 that the age of consent was equalized; it was not until 2005 that civil partnerships became legally recognised; and it wasn’t until 2013 that same-sex couples could enjoy the same rights as opposite-sex couples to have their relationship recognized by the state through marriage.
The history of equal rights for gay men is not a direct comparison, and trans issues should not be confused with homosexuality. However, the fierce opinions and chaotic divisions of opinion bear a striking resemblance to the tone of today’s debate on trans issues. Perhaps we need to pause and consider for a moment what we have learned. Despite these entrenched views on gay rights, even in 2013 when the Equal Marriage Act was passed, British society through debate, discussion and understanding accepted that all couples in love have the right equal treatment by the state; including recognizing their right to marry, not just for legal protection, but as a way to demonstrate that the state values their relationship the same way it values any other. This does not mean that there is no more discrimination, nor that we have solved all the problems; what it shows, however, is that what was once taboo is no longer seen as a threat to society, or even downright controversial. This progression was possible, and can be again.
It took many years, and it took a shift in public opinion driven by both politicians and advocacy groups such as Stonewall. What was needed above all, however, was for society to rid itself of its fear of engaging in discussion and debate. We must learn, understand and talk to each other; see themselves as fellow citizens, who all have the right to expect equal treatment from society and the law.
Maria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke
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