We could all lose ourselves for the rest our days in debates about how society and organizations should become more benign for transgender people. Some of those debates can help all of us appreciate better the diversity of possible gender expressions and gender relations. But some of the debate is also notoriously toxic – unnecessarily antagonistic; full of pitfalls for the unwary traveller; and plagued with requests to accept claims that challenge our common sense, our moral values, our institutions, and even our perception of scientific truth.
I refer you to one peculiarly poignant example of contemporary discourse on gender reform: the recent Scottish Government policy document called Supporting Transgender Young People, which was compiled together with Scottish Trans and LGBT Youth Scotland. It has lots of sound, no-nonsense and carefully worded guidance on how school reforms might improve the support for gender-variant children. But it also has a number of astonishingly radical and perhaps unworkable recommendations for changes in school practice.
Before going into that in detail, I should also say that I’m responding here to a really interesting point that arose today in a conversation on the BBC Scotland (which we recorded this morning for the next Sunday Morning with Cathy MacDonald) with the transgender playwright Jo Clifford. Jo said she believed that in Scotland we would avoid the damaging confrontations between trans activists and feminists that have recently broken out in e.g. USA and England. Though I very much hope she’s right, I have my doubts. Part of my motivation here is to provoke explicit discussion of why such clashes arise, and how we can avoid unhelpful confrontations when we work for gender reform.
Here are some of the relevant background questions that will already be familiar to anyone who has engaged in transgender identity politics:
- Is gender ‘binary’, or a ‘spectrum?’ Or is this just an irresponsibly stark either-or question that needs to be reconsidered? Isn’t it obvious that binary gender differentiation is on the one hand a biological and cultural universal, but equally obvious that gender identities and arrangements are very diverse and fluid?
- Should gender studies and gender awareness training focus mainly on bad gender arrangements and toxic gender beliefs that have been troublesome? Or should we also foster appreciation of the many ways in which gender is a core part of the good society and the good life?
- Has the concept of ‘transphobic’ – along with the associated language policing and the threat of labeling people and accusing them of ‘hate crimes’ – been sufficiently useful to warrant the arguments and offence associated with it? Or is it a gratuitously unkind label that assumes far too much about other people’s values?
- Is the concept of an ‘inner’ sense of a ‘true self’ useful in fostering understanding of how individuals develop a sense of identity? Or is it a piece of individualistic dogma that promotes unrealistic and psychologically unhealthy obsession with the fantasy of a single, essential, and coherent self? Shouldn’t we all recognize that selves and gender identifications are multiple, varied and endlessly provisional – that they vary situationally, and emerge through the life course from complex interactions between the body, the mind, society, and culture?
- When should we, and when shouldn’t we, recognize or dispute an individual’s gender claims? Is gender identity verifiable anyway, or is it just a matter of opinion? And if it’s just subjective not objective or ‘real’, why not just agree to differ about it?
- In what ways could we, and should we, simplify our social arrangements and transform our cultural traditions by abolishing unnecessary gender segregation and gender differentiation?
- In what ways is the pursuit of social progress helped or hindered by confrontational rights claims and by new codes of conduct and legislation? How much faith can we put in formal regulation to resolve problems that require complex interpersonal and cultural adjustments over time?
- Is it possible to be ‘trans-inclusive’ without sacrificing other social goods such as the rights of girls and women to gender-segregated spaces and privacy?
- What does it mean for parents, teachers, and friends to be ‘supportive’ to troubled gender-variant children?
Key issues raised by ‘Supporting Transgender Young People’ guidance.
On the positive and relatively uncontroversial side, this document is in wonderfully clear and persuasive prose which offers lots of really useful background information about the reasons why schools must consider carefully how to offer better support to transgender (and, more broadly gender-variant or gender-questioning) young people. It also offers basic advice about practical ways in which organizations and individuals can be more considerate and supportive – actively listening to young people’s concerns; emphasising the principle that ‘expressing gender is a healthy part of growing up’; enquiring about children’s social support networks and promoting better appreciation of why they matter; making referrals as required when there are signs of severe distress or mental illness; involving transgender pupils in all decisions affecting them.
There are some things that will raise a few eyebrows, such as promotion of gender-neutral school clothing, and gender-neutral ceilidh dancing, but apart from the latter it is mercifully light, and flexible, on matters of language and on freedom to choose cultural options. Much more controversial, however, are the parts that over-confidently recommend practices which the authors must surely know will likely prove troublesome, morally problematic, or impractical, particularly:
- Schools shouldn’t feel obliged to mention transgender issues to parents (p.14), even though they are obliged to respond to children’s gender identity claims with multiple measures that parents would surely want to know about, and would need to know about if they are to provide adequate support.
- Children should be allowed to choose whichever school toilets and changing rooms they want to use (p.17), even if these are in principle gender-segregated.
- Children should be allowed to participate in sports competitions or any other events as whichever gender they prefer (p.20)
- Even on school trips involving overnight accommodation, they should be allowed to choose whichever gender-specific accommodation they prefer, and ‘there is no reason for parents or carers of the other young people to be informed’ (p.21)
If everyone agreed with the doctrine that no child would be likely to deceitfully identify as ‘transgender’, some of these issues might not be problematic. However they all become very problematic indeed if either a child is deceitful, or if other children become scared because they mistrust a transgender child. For example, if a teenage boy chooses to use the girls’ changing rooms he can’t be excluded, provided he has declared that he feels like a girl. Nor can he be excluded from girls’ dormitories on a school trip. Conversely, a teenage girl must be allowed to sleep in the boys’ dormitory if she chooses, and the school has no requirement to inform any parents of this. And regarding the sports instruction, a boy should be allowed to win the girls’ races, or help the girls’ team to victory, without objection.
If you are charitable and optimistic, it’s not hard to see how in most cases these recommendations would work out just fine both for transgender children and for everyone else. After all, how many instances do you know of fake transgender pupils sexually threatening girls or winning girls’ races? In just about all instances, only genuinely transgender children would avail themselves of these rule changes, and everyone would trust them and feel happy with the outcomes. In many instances, the above recommendations could be implemented in a really good school where there is already a considerate and trustworthy social climate. However, not all schools are like that. Some schools are simply too big for that degree of mutual understanding and trust to be applied. And we’re entering unknown territory: fears about possible deceptions, disruption of girls’ sports, and sexual threats are legitimate and must be considered.
If softened to a much more cautious set of recommendations for open discussion, together with a more substantial and evidence-based approach to gender reassignment for young people, this document might well have an overall benign effect on schools. As presented, it looks like a set of ultra-radical demands based on a ‘trans rights’ agenda that appears remarkably naïve. More worryingly, it also seems astonishingly inconsiderate towards possible parental objections, harms to others, and offence-taking by others. Social progress doesn’t happen by encouraging some people’s rights to trump others, or by alienating teachers and children from parental support, or by committing wilful cultural vandalism.
Kindness and a happiness lens as tools in controversial debate
In modern societies, most of us are being drawn into debates about the challenges posed by increasing demands for transgender recognition. Just about everyone agrees that these debates are fraught and awkward at best, if not outright hostile, polemical, and inconsiderate. A common response is to disengage so as to avoid using the wrong term or saying the wrong thing and being trolled for hate speech. Clashes between feminists and trans activists are particularly poignant, since both clearly have a lot of common interest in promoting gender reform.
So what’s the answer? Maybe we all just need to think a bit harder about how to converse without prompting outrage and competitive victimhood. We can surely all agree that there are some ways in which transgender debates could eventually lead towards a more convivial social climate and make everyone’s lives go better. Trans lobbyists will need to be more cautious before making sweeping claims about essentialised gender identities and associated rights, feminists will need to be more wary of knee-jerk responses when transgender women ask for access to their treasured gender-segregated spaces, and cultural conservatives might consider whether some aspects of gender culture are due for reform.
A more generalisable conclusion might be this: that whichever kinds of social justice agenda you may want to promote, you would be wise to consider prioritising a wellbeing or happiness lens as your overall principle and source of justification. The language of disadvantage, suffering, rights, and obligations is often needed, but everyone should be aware that these predominantly fear-based and pathological ways of discussing morality are liable to spread fear and social discord. They can draw too much of our attention to sufferings and to minority interests, and can distract from the more appreciative and aspirational consideration of how societies and institutions can become more kindly, convivial, and life-enhancing.
A related but different conclusion that is particularly relevant to the recent fall-outs between trans activists and feminists is this: in situations of high uncertainty, where different categories of people have competing claims to rights and to identity recognition, formalised rule-making may not be the most practical way of bringing about reform. Excessively authoritarian rule changes and language policing invariably seem to cause backlashes. But through slower, more informal forms of cultural change we can well imagine a future society where either sex-segregation is largely unnecessary, or where women and men of all ages can safely welcome legitimate transgender people into their sex-segregated institutions.