On Monday 12 June, MPs held a debate in response to two petitions, for and against changing the definition of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act. This followed advice from the EHRC stating that such a change could “bring clarity” to the law. It would also serve to remove protections for trans women as women, and vice versa for trans men.
In part one of this series, I spoke about how the debate was a proxy for questioning trans existences more broadly. People react to trans people’s statements about themselves with either acceptance or rejection. Neither side has objective reasons for its reactions. Rejection of the possibility that someone can be trans means that the trans person can’t be trusted – either they’re deluded, or lying.
In part two of this article series, I’ll examine more closely the arguments and assertions that the MPs made. I’ll also talk about how this acceptance or rejection informs the ways the MPs spoke in the debate.
Equality Act: Which lesbians count?
One of the central topics of the debate was the relationship between transness and queer sexuality. In particular, a great deal of focus fell squarely on lesbians and lesbian spaces. This is understandable: if you reject what trans people say, then trans women aren’t women, and their presence in lesbian spaces is read as a violation.
For example, Tonia Antoniazzi opened the discussion by stating:
I heard how, for the lesbians I met, biological sex is fundamental to understanding their rights as same-sex-attracted people, so the grey area that we have is creating ongoing problems for lesbians
Likewise, the SNP’s Joanna Cherry rejects trans people’s statements that they are who they say they are. She repeated the sentiment which Antoniazzi relayed:
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In the short time I have, I want to focus on the right of lesbians and gay men to be same-sex and not same-gender identity attracted, and on our right to freedom of association. The protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as meaning biological sex. Lesbians, gay men and bisexual people all experience same-sex attraction—that is, attraction based on biological sex, not gender identity.
However, there are a few problems here. First, if the “protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as meaning biological sex” in the Equality Act then we wouldn’t be having this debate in the first place.
That aside, it’s undeniable that there are lesbians who don’t date trans women. There are also gay men who don’t date trans men and straight people who don’t date trans people of the opposite gender, for that matter. And, besides that, there are bi people who don’t date trans people full stop. Some, not all, of these groups are vocal about these facts.
However, they’re not the only people out there. What’s more, it’s deeply disingenuous to speak as if that’s the case. There are cis lesbians who date trans women, and cis gays who date trans men. I know because I’ve met them, seen them, spoken to them. I know happy couples of cis and trans people of many different sexualities, and I’d wager that anyone active in a modern queer scene that isn’t explicitly trans-exclusionary could say likewise.
Sexuality is complex
Then, that’s not even to mention the fact that there are lesbians who date trans men and mascs, and a thriving trans femme scene on Grindr. This is because sexuality is complex. You can embrace this or deny it, but you can’t stop it. Yet this is what people like Cherry are doing when they state that queer attraction is based on “biological sex, not gender identity”.
As an aside, people don’t tend to check up on someone’s chromosomes – or whatever other sex marker you set store by – before becoming attracted to them. Unless people can tell with 100% certainty who is trans and who isn’t – and, as came up later in the debate, most people can’t – then there is some component of attraction that isn’t simply based on biological sex.
People of whatever sexuality who don’t want to date trans people are welcome not to. That’s their deal, it’s valid. However, Cherry and the lesbians who spoke to Antoniazzi are not arguing this alone. In fact, they’re going much further.
They also seek to redefine the sexuality of anyone who does love trans people. If, as they say, sexuality is based on ‘biological sex’, then any gay or straight person who loves a trans person is suddenly redefined as bisexual, or similar. This is, to put it bluntly, unacceptable.
Cherry and her like gave no reasons why they get to speak for all lesbians, and why they get to redefine the sexuality of people who disagree. Individuals know best about their sexuality, just as they do their gender – Cherry doesn’t get to speak for them.
What’s more, there are plenty of lesbians who are dog-tired of being used as a political tool for transphobic ends. Among them, Angela Eagle spoke with passion in favour of trans people in the Equality Act debate. She said:
I am also a lesbian. I was only the second out lesbian ever to sit in this place, and the first ever out lesbian Government Minister, so I have had some experience of bigotry, prejudice, misogyny and homophobia—and I recognise a politically induced moral panic when I see one. I also recognise a discredited Government unleashing a culture war for their own divisive ends when I see it.
Here, Eagle recognised the distinct similarities between the homophobic and transphobic movements. To elaborate, both are replete with quickfire accusations of pedophilia, rejections of the ‘natural role’ of the body, and dogwhistles about ‘slippery slopes’. This is why many view transphobia and homophobia as inextricably linked. Quite apart from anything else, no-one ever stopped to check if I was a flamboyant gay or a trans femme (hint, it’s both) before yelling abuse at me.
Likewise, when Cherry attempted to slip in a casual insinuation that lesbians were being “forced to include men in our groups and our dating pool” to date trans women, Eagle was having none of it:
I do not recognise anywhere in the Equality Act that there is a mandate on anyone’s dating pool and who should be in it.
Cherry relied on her fellows disbelieving trans women. She referred to them as “men” and conjured up the spectre of coercion. Eagle, quite correctly, called it out for what it was – a ridiculous exaggeration of the law.
Who speaks for whom?
I would ask why Cherry and her side have to rely on such exaggerations – deliberate or simply mistaken – in order to make their point. If it is such astoundingly common sense, why lie or reach?
In answer, I’d point out that they – the trans-denying – are attempting a linguistic trick. It’s they who are trying to speak for everybody, who are denying the sexualities of trans-inclusive lesbians, gays, and straights. They have to appeal to the idea of the predator because they need their audience to fear trans people. If we are feared, it’s easier to ensure that we are not believed when we say who we are.
Cherry and her side – those who argue in favour of trans-denying lesbians – don’t need to prove that they exist. That much is clearly true. What’s more, their sexuality isn’t being denied.
What Cherry’s side needs to do is prove that trans-affirming lesbians don’t exist, or at least, why it is the trans-denying lesbian alone who deserves protection under the law.
Until they can, their arguments will be obvious in their weakness. What’s more, they’ll continue to be rejected by the community they try so desperately to speak for.
In part three of this series, I’ll speak on the appeals to fear and silencing in the Equality Act debate.
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