Illustration by Ryan Chapman

How to have a fair discussion about transgender rights

The media’s unbalanced and often misleading coverage of this sensitive topic is making reasonable debate impossible
September 8, 2022

You may have noticed, whether or not you are interested in transgender issues, a fascination with them in the press that borders on the obsessional. Newspapers deliberate which toilets trans people might use, whether a man can have a cervix or woman a penis, whether free speech extends to calling a transgender woman “he.” You may have got the impression, because much of the writing asserts or implies this, that trans people are a threat to women, want to abolish lesbianism, send disgusting messages and make ridiculous demands, and that dangerous ideologues are rushing young girls into operating theatres if they show an interest in things traditionally considered male. 

There are, to be sure, issues of genuine public interest and legitimate viewpoints in the torrent of stories and comments. The problem is with the unbalanced, often misleading and relentless nature of the coverage. 

I am the father of a transgender son. This means that, more than most, I can see the oppressive and sometimes cruel impact of this reporting and commentary. Globally, trans people and their allies face hostility from the likes of the governors of Texas and Florida, the pro-life religious right and Vladimir Putin, so we would be grateful for some respite in the press of our own country. I also find myself in conversation with fair-minded people who say things like “trans issues are too confusing, I don’t know what to think,” or “I wish the debate wasn’t so polarised.” I heartily agree with them—but there would be less confusion and less polarisation if the subject was discussed more fairly and honestly.

Take the case of Allison Bailey, a lesbian and “gender critical” barrister who believes that a woman is defined by her sex, not by the gender with which she identifies—that transgender women, in other words, are men. In 2020 she announced she would be suing her chambers, the human rights specialists Garden Court, after they signed up to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, the stated aim of which is to help organisations achieve “a workplace that truly welcomes, respects and represents LGBTQ+ employees.” Stonewall supports, among other things, the concept of self-identification—which is recognised in 17 countries around the world—whereby people change their legal gender without medical diagnosis and other requirements currently necessary under British law. 

In a series of tweets, Bailey criticised aspects of Garden Court’s policy and called Stonewall’s agenda “one of the most dangerous political and cultural movements we have seen in the west… undemocratic and vicious.” Garden Court tweeted its own statement, stressing its “commitment to promoting equality, fighting discrimination and defending human rights” and announcing that it was “investigating concerns” about Bailey’s comments.

Bailey took both Stonewall and Garden Court to an employment tribunal, alleging that she had been deprived of work and income because of her beliefs, that she had been discriminated against and victimised, and that Stonewall had induced, instructed or caused some of the chambers’ actions, or had tried to do so. At the end of July, she lost her case against Stonewall, as well as on her claims that she had been deprived of work. The tribunal found that Bailey’s gender critical views were protected under the Equality Act—it didn’t have to decide whether those views were correct. She won on the point that, in publicly announcing that Bailey was under investigation, Garden Court had discriminated against her on the basis of her beliefs. For this, she was awarded £22,000 in damages. 

It was a mixed outcome, but that was difficult to tell from the press coverage. “Barrister wins discrimination case against Stonewall,” said a false Daily Telegraph headline, later changed. “Victory for free speech… and women,” the Daily Mail splashed on its front page; “Barrister wins historic battle” they added. Other newspapers celebrated the verdicts with comparable disregard for their complexity.

That same week, you could read that the London arts centre Somerset House and the Competition and Markets Authority were in different ways threatened by trans extremism, and that the Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies had been brought to the brink of financial ruin by “transgender bullies.” A story about an obscure group of “anarchist archaeologists” in the United States, who take the niche position that ancient skeletons should not be categorised by their sex, was given disproportionate prominence.

The following weekend it was Girlguiding’s turn to cause horror, for accepting a seven-year-old child called Rainbow, who is biologically male but identifies as female. The writer Anthony Horowitz lamented in a Telegraph interview that “certain thoughts are not allowed any more, certain activities obviously to do with gender or with ethnicity.” Julie Burchill, in the Mail, co-opted the Lionesses’ footballing success to say we live “in an age when women’s very existence is being denied and we’re being robbed of our hard-won gains—from toilets to trophies—by angry trans activists.” The weekend after that the Bank of England was attacked for putting the “woke” agenda ahead of the economy after it paid Stonewall £10,000 over two years for consulting services.

The imbalance is not confined to the conservative press. Take one BBC article, which concerned trans women allegedly pressuring lesbians who are cisgender—identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth—into having sex with them. It uncritically quoted a transphobic individual and cited partisan and valueless research. It’s still there, though with the headline changed and the more questionable material removed. One trans woman who doesn’t want to be identified—I’ll call her Clare—says that “you wouldn’t see stuff like this about any other group. It is the acceptable face of bigotry.” 

In contentious debates where there are two or more positions to be taken, the media often take the one least favourable to what most trans people feel are their rights. Trans people are caricatured with reference to the most extreme, eccentric or marginal individuals. Reporting is often inaccurate and significant information withheld. Supposed victims of cancel culture are given the opportunity to lament, loudly and often, that they have been silenced. Meanwhile, in the storm of words about their identities and their futures, the voices of transgender people are hard to find. “There is very, very rarely a positive story,” as Clare puts it, “that just allows trans people to be normal, nothing that normalises or humanises us.” 

The media have created the impression that an omnipotent gang is oppressing the public and its cherished institutions. The reality is that trans people are among the most vulnerable in British society, on average less financially secure and more prone to mental health difficulties than the general population. They are a small minority—estimated at about 1 per cent of the UK population—with little representation in government or the higher echelons of business, media and the law. Despite claims that medical transition can be obtained with dangerous ease, trans people typically endure years-long NHS waiting times. 

They are subject to frequent harassment. A 2018 report by YouGov and Stonewall found that one in eight trans employees had been physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the previous year. Anti-trans hate crime recorded by the police is increasing, but still underreported. Repeated media stories that portray them as threatening, ridiculous, too strident or as people whose rights don’t need to be taken seriously can only encourage further hostility. 

Individual stories give an idea of what goes on. A trans teenager, for example, read this in a messaging app group of which she was part:

Aurora is a tranny. Make fun of her.
And abuse her. 

Who the fuck is Aurora

Willy girl in our school

Oh the fucking tranny

Tranny? What a loser

Dirty tranny lgbtq fucking bitch

“How many containers of urine left by my front door,” posted Clare on social media, “how many times all my window box and hanging baskets are emptied over the path, how much nasty somethings splashed on my door, how many smashed plant pots, how much stuff put on my car to ruin the paint work, does it take to become personal, and not just ‘kids larking about?’”

Robin White, a transgender barrister who represented Stonewall in Allison Bailey’s case, and for over 40 years a volunteer in the charitable sector, discovered a repulsive series of emails written about her during a dispute about a local organisation. “I’ve had to read 30 to 40 statements,” she told me, “along the lines of ‘palace revolutions usually result in firing squads,’ ‘How about firing a red hot poker up her so-called fanny?’ and ‘I think she lost all her common sense with her bollocks.’” There were references to people coming round to visit “wearing balaclavas and carrying pickaxe handles and ‘not for sticking up her arse either.’” Recipients of these emails, some of whom White thought were her friends, failed to challenge them. 

Consistently negative coverage can only embolden those who perpetrate abuse and add to the distress of those suffering it. We know that hostile reporting on asylum seekers and objectifying portrayals of women affect their treatment. The same is true of dehumanising descriptions of trans people. “Media interest is disproportionate,” says White. “[As a trans person] you face that prejudice every day that you open a newspaper. You dread what social media will be like. Being a political football, you feel kicked all the time.” 

There are other consequences of misinformation and imbalance. Cisgender women who look a bit masculine are challenged when they want to use a woman’s toilet. Trans people are less likely to come out. Parents are less likely to support their trans children. If issues around healthcare are misreported, difficult decisions become harder still.

The media storm has influenced politics, too. Although UK voters are more worried about issues including the cost-of-living crisis or the climate emergency, contenders in the Conservative leadership election kept returning to trans rights. Kemi Badenoch railed against gender-neutral toilets. Penny Mordaunt renounced pro-trans lines she had previously taken. Rishi Sunak vowed to review the 2010 Equalities Act, which lists gender reassignment among its protected characteristics. 

Consistently negative coverage can only embolden those who perpetrate abuse

Suella Braverman, the former attorney general and now home secretary, has said schools don’t have to accommodate transgender children by using the pronouns that are right for them, letting them wear a uniform or use toilets appropriate to their identity. She stated that it is illegal for schools to offer only unisex toilets, and that “pupils should not be punished for refusing to adopt a preferred pronoun for a gender-questioning child.”

What is lacking, among all this grandstanding, is sympathy for or understanding of the predicaments of trans children and adults. Your identity, if you are trans, is not a fad or a craze. It is not an easy choice. It is a deep and inescapable part of who you are. According to Braverman, teachers shouldn’t be supported by the law to stop trans pupils being bullied through the persistent use of the wrong pronouns. This is senseless, and sends the message that trans children’s identities are not to be taken seriously.

Many or most of those who write and edit the material that I describe stress that they are not transphobic. Their fight, they argue, is with organisations like Stonewall, who they say espouse intransigent and dangerous positions that do trans people themselves no favours and with extremists who try to shut down free speech. They highlight the anonymous online abuse handed out to gender critical people. They tell of trans friends who agree with them. They say they are raising reasonable concerns.

It’s fair to challenge, if you wish, Stonewall’s support for self-identification. It is not transphobic to worry about the effects on women of male-bodied people entering their spaces. Nobody should be silenced or hounded from their jobs for having strongly held opinions on these subjects, unless the expression of these views constitutes harassment or hate speech. Violent and sexualised abuse, addressed to whomever from whomever, is at all times vile.

The seriousness, sensitivity and complexity of the subject deserves better than the one-sided journalism that it receives. It requires editors to give fair attention to the other side of a given argument, to tell the whole story, to give voice and humanity to the people for whom these debates are personal. It is not reasonable to act as though all those you disagree with have the positions of the most extreme on their side. It is honest to acknowledge extremism on your own.

If you defend the right of cisgender women to exclude transgender women from their spaces, you should address the question of where the latter can go, as there is no doubt that they face a significant risk of harassment if they have to use men’s facilities. If you raise fears about the effects of puberty blockers on children, you should acknowledge the devastating and lifelong effect on them (if blockers are withheld) of developing physical characteristics they do not want. If you celebrate the exclusion of transgender girls and women from rugby or swimming, you should explain what people who love their sport, adult and child, professional and amateur, are supposed to do.

If you defend gender critical individuals against hostile reactions to their statements, you should give a clear account of what they said that caused offence. Report legal cases accurately and consistently, rather than emphasising victories for one side and burying those for the other. If such complexities cannot be contained within a single article, editors have a responsibility to ensure they are represented in the publication as a whole.

On some of these points I take issue with my own newspaper, the Observer. In April last year it gave my son and me the opportunity to talk about our perspectives on trans issues, for which we are grateful. It’s a paper I’ve admired since childhood. My colleagues are smart, thoughtful and fair people. But overall coverage of trans issues is, I believe, unbalanced. 

Gender critical activists like Bailey are championed, with little space given to countervailing points of view. One columnist pulled the debate about women-only spaces into an article about the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa and the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. Writing like this is at best insensitive: it’s hard to imagine such connections being made between horrific crimes and the interests of other minorities.

Gender critical activists are championed with little space given to countervailing points of view

Another article, celebrating the victory in a free speech judgment of a former policeman called Harry Miller, who had been reported to his force by a member of the public who objected to his tweets, didn’t mention a poem addressed to an imaginary trans woman, approvingly retweeted by him, that was at the centre of the case: 

Your breasts are made of silicone/ your vagina goes nowhere / And we can tell the difference / Even when you are not there/ Your hormones are synthetic / And let’s just cross this bridge / What you have, you stupid man / Is male privilege.

It’s hard for the general reader, I submit, to form an opinion on the issues at stake if they don’t know this obnoxious but crucial detail.

Much of the heat in the transgender debate turns around the words “trans women are men,” sometimes accompanied by a refusal to use the pronouns requested by individuals. This phrase may sound reasonable to you, but it tells trans people that whatever struggles they have undergone to discover and establish their identity are meaningless. It says they are not real. “They’re not seeing you for who you are,” says Clare, of the people who call her “he” or “him”; “you feel that you’re not welcome.” 

A document called the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights tries to base the view that trans women are men in international law. It claims that “the concept of ‘gender identity’ makes socially constructed stereotypes, which organise and maintain women’s inequality, into essential and innate conditions, thereby undermining women’s sex-based rights.” Trans rights, it says, are inimical to women’s rights, and therefore trans women should be denied the protections accorded to the cisgender women. 

The declaration calls for the global exclusion of trans people from services and spaces dedicated to the wellbeing of women, the prohibition of surrogate motherhood, an end to state funding of educational institutions that promote “the concept of ‘gender identity’” and a total ban on treatments such as puberty blockers for transgender under-18s. The declaration avoids the term “transgender women,” calling them instead “men who claim a female ‘gender identity.’” These positions are harsh and illiberal. 

An early signatory of the declaration was the philosopher Kathleen Stock, who in her book Material Girls says that trans people are “immersed in a fiction.” Last year Stock resigned from the University of Sussex, citing the hostility she received from colleagues and students for her gender critical views. She received sympathetic and extensive coverage in the media, including the BBC and the Observer. What was lacking in this coverage was much attempt to explain why Stock’s critics felt the way they did—about her support for a declaration that denies trans women’s identity—which should be part of any honest account of her story.

Respected gender critical figures aren’t always reasonable or fair—some of them, sometimes, descend into outright nastiness. One called trans women “blackface actors,” another supported the idea that transgender people’s use of their chosen pronouns was comparable to the date rape drug Rohypnol because it was meant to “numb” and “confuse” people, and recently saw fit to attack the intersex woman athlete Caster Semenya’s right to compete. Another likened medical gender reassignment to forced lobotomies and compulsory sterilisation in the name of eugenics—which tells trans people that what for them is a voluntary and life-enhancing procedure is similar to some of the most sinister practices of the 20th century. 

It’s hard to have a calm and open debate with statements like this in plain sight. I would ask of reasonable people inclined to support gender critical positions to be clear: with which, if any, of these statements do you agree, and why? If you do not agree with them, please could you disown them? You are welcome to identify comparably toxic positions on the pro-trans side, and ask similar questions of me and other trans allies. Most trans people would like nothing better than to live their lives in peace, without being the subject of endless -discussion. But, if there has to be debate, is it too much to ask that the intellectual junk and spite be cleared out of the way? Perhaps then it will be possible to have a discussion that is not confusing and not polarised.