Is the trans inquiry just a fig leaf?

By Jane Fae

Ground-breaking stuff? Or a fig leaf designed to head-off pressure for real change?

As one of its first projects in the new parliament, the women and equalities committee is inquiring formally into the issue of equality for trans folk. Today they've been taking oral evidence.

But why? Why now? And why bother? Surely trans people have arrived. Not just all the froth, from Vanity Fair to Loose Women, about Kellie Maloney and Caitlyn Jenner.  Surely we've reached the famous 'transgender tipping point', announced so confidently to the world from the front cover of Time magazine last year by trans actress Laverne Cox. Surely the women's committee has better things to do with its time.

The first and most obvious reason is that, for all the positive headlines, progress on the trans front has been patchy and piecemeal stuff. For every heart-warming story of trans acceptance on the part of the public, there are behind-the-scenes stories of discrimination, harassment and abuse. We're not there yet. Not by a long chalk. It is to the credit of the women's committee that they have understood that.

Secondly, almost without exception, trans rights – from healthcare to gender recognition – have been wrung unwillingly from government.  They have been granted, for the most part, only after the courts have warned this or that minister that they would be in near permanent breach of basic human rights legislation if they failed to recognise that trans individuals are people too. They are not joined up. They are, in fact, often no more than sticking plaster – the minimum civil servants think they can get away with, as opposed to addressing the real and underlying issue.

So it is good that this inquiry is intended to be wide-ranging, in a way that previous attempts to look at trans issues have not been. According to the blurb, it will cover issues such as the operation of current law, transphobia and hate crime, the NHS, employment and the workplace, the criminal justice system and issues affecting trans youth.

But – and it is a big but – looking at the way in which it is being conducted fills me with a certain dread. I dread that this inquiry – billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to examine trans issues and maybe put right some continuing injustice – is going to fall very far short of what it could have been.

Let’s start with that list of issues.  Good stuff, all of it – but safe stuff. We know that trans people come in for discrimination and abuse. You only have to read the recent EU report on the issue, which dug deep into everyday trans experience across Europe. Or indeed, just send a middle-ranking civil servant out there to scour the LGBT press and chat to some of the leading organisations.

By structuring the inquiry in this way – asking for submissions around topics that the women's committee believe to be important – it instantly fails the Rumsfeld test. That is, it excludes in advance the "unknown unknowns".

Nowhere in the committee's scope – at least nowhere that instantly jumps out – is it mentioned that the trans community increasingly rejects the whole concept of state-issued 'gender recognition certificates', or that a parliamentary petition on the topic has already gathered the best part of 30,000 signatures.

Nor is there any mention of non-binary, that part of the transgender spectrum for whom medical intervention may be less an issue than a general societal incomprehension of who they are.

Given that the call for written submissions resulted in approximately 280 responses (that took nobody other than the committee itself by surprise) these are major omissions. In part, it's just the result of dumb process, one which insists on defining the scope of an inquiry before taking a single word in evidence. In part, I suspect it comes from a desire to keep the inquiry on safe ground.

The second major 'but' lies in the selection of witnesses. A clear majority of those quizzed by the committee across two days of evidence giving (this week and next) appear to be non-trans.  Within that group, the dominant demographic seems, yet again, to be male, white and middle-aged, usually drawn from the medical/psychological professions.

It's telling, too, that almost the first organisation referred to by committee chair Maria Miller was Stonewall. Once more, it seems, the committee is happier to deal with the safe, the polite and the sanitised over the messier, less palatable reality of everyday trans experience.

Why? There is not a trans person in the country unaware of the difficulties in accessing medical treatment: from waiting lists for treatment, to bureaucratic barriers, to outright abuse at the hands of GP's and clinicians.

If they want figures, set a researcher on it. But if they want to understand the experience, talk to trans people.

We shall, in the fullness of time, see what emerges from all this civility.  The optimist in me remains pleased that parliament is finally taking a wide and considered view of a subject that is, very obviously, close to my own heart. But my cynical self wonders if the answer to the 'why now?' question is rather less palatable.

Maybe the government has finally understood that trans issues are not going to go away.  The community is out and organised and bolshy in a way that it mostly has not been before. So they understand that a safety valve is needed.  What better way to head off awkwardness than providing means for the trans community to let off steam? Produce an inquiry and eventually a report which highlights what is already in the realms of the bleeding obvious. You fix a few of the most glaring injustices and then move on. Then trans issues can be put to one side for a decade, shunted off the parliamentary agenda so ministers can get back to important topics like buy-to-let and bombing Syria.

Listening to the witnesses giving evidence this morning, including many of the same-old-same-old establishment figures, I fear my cynical self may be right.

Jane Fae is a feminist, journalist and campaigner on political and sexual liberty. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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