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We must simply talk to one another

(Dominika Zarzycka / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Sometimes there are topics that become so difficult , so emotive, it’s easier to stop talking about them at all.

On the whole in British society, we fear saying the wrong thing, unintentionally causing offence. Stigmatisation of an issue eventually leads to such tension that people avoid it completely. 

In recent years open, public debate around issues that affect people who are transgender has become one of these topics. The existing law has been in place for over a decade, and received total cross-party support when it was agreed in Parliament in 2010. The law recognises the need for small numbers of individuals to be able to legally change their gender to better reflect the actual lives they are leading, affording them the dignity and legal protection we would expect for every fellow citizen. More than 10 years on, debate around how that law is working in practice is fraught with difficulty. A small number of highly-vocal groups appear so entrenched, meaningful debate is elusive.  

The United Kingdom law passed in 2010 was ground-breaking at the time but now lags well behind many other nations. So the saddest fact is the disservice we are doing to trans people. By failing to have a worthwhile debate, we miss opportunities to scrutinise how our law and public services are supporting a group of fellow citizens. Angry shouting over Twitter, stigmatises, marginalises, and demeans; it doesn’t provide solutions for anyone.  

There seems to be no such thing as the middle ground

Perhaps a more fruitful approach could be to start by looking at what the law says, and work from there. The Equality Act 2010 is explicit and clear: discrimination, direct or indirect, on the basis of gender reassignment, sex, or sexual orientation is prohibited.  

But still when it comes to how that law is put into practice, the process of gender identification, the use of public bathrooms and changing rooms, or how medical care should be delivered, there seems to be no such thing as the middle ground. Voices which are loud in the public discourse come down very staunchly on one side or the other, so entrenched in their own view and their own agenda that the furious noise cancels itself out. 

Perhaps we should look to history to see how much we have achieved on previously difficult and controversial topics. It wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act 1967 that homosexuality was – to a limited degree – decriminalised. Prior to this, men could be imprisoned for being gay and public opinion towards homosexuality was largely no kinder than the laws which criminalised it. It wouldn’t be until 2001 that the age of consent was equalised; not until 2005 that civil partnerships became legally recognised; and not until 2013 could same-sex couples enjoy the same rights as straight couples to have their relationship recognised by the state through marriage. 

The history of equal rights for gay people is not a direct comparison, nor should trans issues be conflated with homosexuality. However, the fierce opinions and chasmic divisions in 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 learnt. Despite those entrenched views on gay rights, even as recently as 2013 when the Equal Marriage Act was passed, British society has, through debate, discussion and understanding, accepted that all loving couples have a right to the same treatment by the state; including by recognising their right to marry, not just for legal protection but as a way of demonstrating the state values their relationship in the same way as it values any other. This is not to say that there is no discrimination anymore, nor that we have solved every issue; what it does show, however, is that what was once taboo is no longer seen as a threat to society, or frankly even remotely controversial. This progression was possible, and can be possible again. 

It took many years, and it took a change in public opinion driven both by politicians and advocate groups such as Stonewall. What it took most of all, though, was for society to shed its fear of engaging in discussion and debate. We must learn, understand, and to talk to one another; to see each other as fellow citizens, all of whom have the right to expect equal treatment by society and in law.

Maria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke

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