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Why the transgender issue matters
The issue has become a test of the openness of political cultures - politicians shouldn’t complain if they’re asked about it.
Increasingly, the issue of transgender rights features prominently in politics and the media. Though activists (on both sides) emphasize the importance of this topic, others argue that it is superfluous. According to this view, transgender rights affect few people and other issues, such as the cost-of-living crisis, are more important. People across the spectrum make this argument, though centrists seem to be well represented.
Ostensibly, this argument has merits. In Western countries, fewer than 1% of people are transgender; resultingly, the chance of encountering a transgender person in a toilet or hospital ward, much less a predatory one, is very small. In sport, tiny proportions of professional athletes are transgender. By some measures, public opinion reflects this. When asked about the issue they were most passionate about, only 6% of British voters mentioned transgender rights.
I do not agree with many of these arguments – in sport, for example, fairness matters as a principle – but, for the purposes of this essay, let us accept that transgender rights are a low salience issue. Consequently, many argue that asking politicians about this issue is a waste of time. But even if one accepts the low salience argument, I do not think that this is the case.
Crucially, the transgender issue has become a test of the openness of political cultures and truthfulness of politicians. To demonstrate how a topic can have low salience yet function as such a thermometer, let us consider an issue which few now consider to be important: the religious tests of 17th century England. At the time, these were crucial; refusal to oppose certain Catholic and nonconformist doctrines, most of which no longer divide Christians, meant exclusion from public life. Notwithstanding its lack of salience, this issue continues to speak to us. Aside from its indictment of the political atmosphere of Restoration England, basic matters of conscience being penalized, we may admire those who refused to lie. Such people were honest in a culture which rewarded hypocrisy, their integrity echoing across centuries. In various guises, this issue recurs across societies; under Communism, generations of Central and Eastern European intellectuals faced a similar choice.
The transgender issue is today’s equivalent. Even if one regards the policy issues as low salience, the right to speak on a matter of conscience is at stake. The analogy with 17th century religion should make one cautious about the durability of one’s position, yet many of us regard sex as an immutable reality. Like no other topic, people falsify their preferences on the transgender issue. There is falsification on both sides - it takes courage to support transgender rights on social media – yet the gender critical position seems to be most falsified; within professional settings, there are strong incentives not to voice gender critical opinions, contrasting with encouragements to endorse the transgender activist position, e.g. the display of pronouns. Whilst regular citizens should be under no obligation to divulge their views, the right not to do this being central to a liberal society, politicians are different; they are supposed to represent the views of constituents and contribute to national debates. If politicians falsify preferences, even on a low salience issue, this indicts the honesty of political cultures and the integrity of individual politicians.
Resultingly, politicians should not complain about questions on this issue. This probing breaks down the wall of silence, making our political culture more truthful. Such questions also show which politicians are prepared to be honest about this issue, whichever position they hold. Admittedly, there is a time and place for these questions. There are numerous important issues, such as the Ukraine war and cost-of-living crisis, meaning that attention should be proportionate; we may baulk at such questioning at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Moreover, we should be mindful of consequences for a vulnerable minority. Though this argument is sometimes used unreasonably, some asserting that the sensibilities of transgender people justify ‘no debate’, the tone of discussion should be respectful. Notwithstanding these caveats, questions about this matter are legitimate. Most have simple answers, the issues being no more complex than ones associated with economic and international crises. As the Labour Party faces the media prior to local elections, it should expect such questioning. If the party gives direct answers, the questions will probably cease.
It is unfortunate that the transgender issue has attained this status; relevant matters could be better resolved without such attention. But for better or worse, this issue has become the primary matter of conscience in Western politics. This does not mean that the transgender issue should dominate agendas, but it does confer a special status on the topic; in liberal democracies, public debate should be as truthful as possible.
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