Harold Wilson is once said to have pronounced that, ‘A week is a long time in politics’. For trans people in this first week of October the 2023 Conservative Party conference hasn’t even given us the luxury of half a week.
Tuesday saw a proposal by health secretary, Steven Barclay, that would see transgender people banned from women and men’s hospital wards and prevent patients from being treated by trans members of staff such as doctors, nurses, therapists and ambulance workers. This was followed by Andrew Boff, a 65-year-old Conservative member of the London Assembly and gay man, being marched out of the conference hall after daring to quietly dissent with Suella Braverman’s diatribe about ‘gender ideology’.
Wednesday brought prime minister Rishi Sunak onto the conference hall platform where he announced to thunderous applause:
“And we shouldn’t be bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. A man is a man, a woman is a woman, that’s just common sense.”
For trans people like myself and our allies these announcements have brought a feeling of alienation, despair and the same outrage which Andrew Boff tried to articulate in a conference hall just a few minutes’ walk from one of the UK’s largest LGBTQ+ friendly areas, Manchester’s famous Gay Village. There’s real fear about what comes next.
Performative cruelty is actual cruelty
I’m a trans woman not far off retirement age. Many of my trans peers who are older adults like me have needed hospital treatment for age-related health conditions. I sometimes wonder how long it will be before I join them judging by my aching back and creaking hips and knees from nearly half a century in care. Some of these trans people I know transitioned many years past – in some cases half a century ago. They’ve lived as their affirmed gender all this time. Now they’re expected to just use a men’s ward, for example, where doubtless they’ll be called ‘Mr’. If they need gender-specific healthcare equipment such as catheters these wards won’t have them in stock. They’ll stick out like sore thumbs – all sense of dignity, privacy and respect will be gone.
Trans people like myself usually have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria – it literally means that being treated as my gender assigned at birth causes me intense distress. So I, and my trans peers, face a situation where being treated with the intention of making us better will make us feel ill. Many trans people will be deterred from getting treatment or wait until conditions have progressed when they will need longer and more complex treatment – or become untreatable. Some trans patients may die as a result.
Anti-nuance, anti-complexity, anti-common sense
I know trans workers such as therapists who, having taken up careers in the NHS, now face uncertainty because instead of them being able to work to support all patients they know that other staff will have to be recruited to pick up their work. That’s going to delay discharge from hospitals and increase costs. There has been talk of trans people being accommodated in single rooms. Our health secretary is so out of touch with the NHS that he’s unaware that single rooms are vital to infection control such as preventing the spread of MRSA and Clostridium Difficle. Some patients who are not trans may die as a result.
Sunak said it’s “common sense” that, “A man is a man, a woman is a woman”. Common sense is defined as ‘The basic level of practical knowledge and judgement’. ‘Basic’. I don’t know why I’m trans but it’s something I’ve lived with all my life. ‘Common sense’ didn’t stop me being trans. Instead, it drove me to the depths of anxiety and despair until I’d reached a screaming inside breaking point.
The psychiatrists, therapists, nurses and other clinicians didn’t seem to work at that basic level either. They were highly skilled and knowledgeable professionals. They seemed to know that sex and gender aren’t something to be fixed with the glib statement of ‘that’s just common sense’. They knew our lives are complex and nuanced – not easily reduced to a conference soundbite. They helped me resolve that lifelong agony and helped me live as I live now – a woman in wellbeing, not ill-being. I’ve been able to be the person I should have been all my life – thriving, happy, articulate and even joyful. That’s true of all the trans people I know who have developed new careers, relationships, interests and are living full and productive lives.
Universality: diminishing trans rights diminishes human rights
It’s a longstanding principle of human rights that when rights are given to minority groups they should not be withdrawn. Laws such as the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and 2010 Equality Act allowed trans people to thrive and live as their affirmed gender in all but a few highly restricted settings. The Conservatives, driven by this zealous belief that everything can be changed, now want to remove those rights convinced that ‘common sense’ can overturn complexity and nuance.
The Conservatives preach the mantra of ‘common sense’ as if it is somehow central to being English. One of our greatest English writers though explored the tension between common sense and nuanced complexity in her first novel Sense and Sensibility. The lesson of that book is that common sense does not solve all and sometimes what is needed is sensibility. It’s clearly something the Conservatives need to learn if trans people and other minorities are not to suffer greatly.