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When Lily Madigan, a 19-year-old transgender woman, was elected as a Labour Party women’s officer and applied for the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, social media squabbles between transgender activists and women’s rights campaigners exploded into the mainstream.
The public must wonder what has been going on. A lot, it seems. The Labour councillor who was a referee on Ms Madigan’s application said the party had decided that “transgender women are women”, and he fundamentally believed that Lily is a woman.
People fundamentally believe lots of things but that does not necessarily make them true. We don’t legislate on the basis of astrology or homeopathy, for example, yet the government is considering reforms to the Gender Recognition Act that may allow people to self-identify their legal sex based on their fundamental beliefs.
As a transgender woman I find that deeply troubling. The mechanism by which our legal sex can be changed underpins the equality legislation that protects transgender rights. I am a science teacher, and that protection was vital when I transitioned in school five years ago.
The same piece of legislation defends women’s rights. Some women have perceived a conflict and they are asking hard questions. If anyone can self-identify as a woman, what does the word woman even mean? My dictionary tells me that a woman is an adult human female, but that does not fit well with the claim that “transgender women are women”. This is painful territory for transgender people, and it is tempting to shut down debate and dismiss concerns as transphobia. But concerns don’t go away, they fester, and we risk transgender-acceptance being replaced by transgender-suspicion.
To command respect, we need to ground our laws in scientific truth and in society. Science cannot be fooled. The two sexes do have different roles in the propagation of our species and women’s officers need to empathise with the issues that females face. Society grants trans people the right to change their legal sex, but we have responsibilities in return. Those of us socialised as boys need to think carefully before taking places in schemes designed to compensate the rather different formative experience of girls.
The Gender Recognition Act does need to be slimmed down and simplified. But no act of parliament can guarantee acceptance of our identities. That comes down to us: how we live our lives as transgender women.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and transgender activist