Religion, gender identity and human rights

by | Nov 14, 2017 | News | 0 comments

On the same day in which the Church of England issued transphobic bullying guidance to its schools, a story erupted in the press over a fundamentalist Christian teacher who claimed to have been suspended from work in a (non-faith) academy for accidentally ‘misgendering’ a pupil.  This followed only weeks after conservative Evangelical parents removed their six year old young son from school, stating that they feared he would be disciplined if he expressed any confusion over a transgender child in his class.  In the Isle of Wight case, the school in question was a Church of England school, which maintained its duty to uphold secular law and respect the pupil’s gender identity.

Issues around the experience of transgender and gender fluid people, and responses to them, are high in the public consciousness at present. For instance, the best-selling young adult writer Rick Riordan has introduced a gender fluid character into his current series of stories, and Topshop have made their changing rooms gender neutral, sparking both praise and controversy from different quarters.  Some feminist campaigners assert that promoting trans rights can have a negative impact upon women’s rights, as vulnerable women might be deprived of a ‘safe space’ if biological males are allowed to enter female only areas, and Government proposals backed (in fact pushed) by the Labour Party to make it possible to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate without a medical diagnosis, have been a cause of concern for some people.  As have plans to amend the Equality Act to remove the discretion which public service provides like hospitals and prisons currently have to grant or deny access to single sex services on a case by case basis.

Whatever stance one takes towards gender identity, it is difficult to deny that it is a political and social hot potato at present.  Conservative religious voices and the feminist left may be surprised to find themselves as allies, but voices from both groups are currently clamouring for more social debate around furthering transgender rights, and often make it plain that in their ideal worlds, there would be no further accommodation.

All of which raises interesting questions about the nature of human rights and the reasons why our legal and political system upholds them.  Unfortunately, the cruel reality is that transgender people in our society are still subjected to frequent discrimination, and the suicide rate amongst this community remains distressingly high.  When almost half of young transgender citizens in the UK have attempted to end their own lives, undoubtedly we are collectively failing somewhere, and, inevitably, the outcomes for individuals who are transgender and vulnerable in other ways tend to be especially poor, as the inquest into the death of 21 year old Vikki Thompson in HM Prison Leeds illustrates. All things considered, it is difficult to see how in the cold light of day, critics of transgender rights can justify characterising the broad aim of protecting individuals from harmful prejudice as in any way negative or threatening, but there do remain reasonable questions about how these rights should be weighed against other interests which might by at play in any given context.

Identifying these rights can be complicated, as issues around gender identity are often conflated with other matters, either inevitably or through a confused understanding.  For instance, the needs of individuals who consistently identify with a different gender from that assigned to them at birth, are different from those of a person who identifies as gender fluid.  Sexuality is wholly different from gender, although at times confused in damaging ways.  It goes without saying, being gay or lesbian certainly does not equate to being uncomfortable living as a man or a woman.  However, in a world where homosexuals in Iran are pressurised to surgically change their gender, quite literally in order to survive, we would be delusional to deny that a harmful link can be made. Equally, for those people how argue that gender is fixed, binary and a fundamental part of the human condition, where does this leave people born intersex?

All in all, discussions in relation to transgender issues are apt to raise as many questions as answers, but in seeking a way forward, rigidly categorising society into different and competing groups with conflicting rights is unlikely to be a fruitful approach if we are committed to furthering all human rights.  Rather than pitting religious rights or women’s rights against transgender rights in the abstract, it is far more constructive to look at the different rights and needs in play in a given situation, and try to discern the optimal solution.

Closer examination reveals that Joshua Sutcliffe, the recently suspended teacher, was not removed from the classroom solely for an innocent slip of the tongue.  He consistently refused to refer to the pupil in question by the masculine pronoun, even though the student had made it clear that this was what he felt comfortable with.  Furthermore, Sutcliffe gave an interview on This Morning, setting out his firm rejection of gender dysphoria as a reality, and the complaint which had been raised about his approach had not come from an isolated or casual comment.  Similarly, the parents who chose to withdraw their son from his primary school because of a transgender pupil presented no evidence that he would have faced censure for asking natural and age appropriate questions about one of his classmates.  Consequently, the suggestion that transgender rights easily or automatically posed a threat to religious rights was not warranted in either case.

It is true that clashes of human rights can and do occur, and courts are properly called upon to resolve these.  Nevertheless, presenting the rights of certain groups as intrinsically hostile to the rights of others is neither accurate nor helpful.  Cases must indeed turn on the specific rights and interests of the parties involved and the outcome will always depend upon the facts.  A commitment to human rights means a commitment to all rights recognised by both domestic law and the European Convention, not just those which appear to be coterminous with our own interests.

Related articles 

Oxford teacher Joshua Sutcliffe suspended from the Cherwell School in transgender pupil row (Oxford Mail 17/7/17)

Oxford teacher faces action over misgendering pupil  (BBC News 13/7/17)

Church of England issues transphobic bullying guidance (BBC News 13/7/17)

Transracial man, born white, says he feels Filipino (USA Today 13/7/17)

Parents remove son from school in gender row (BBC News 11/9/17)

Viewers react to Topshop’s gender neutral changing room (Daily Mail 9/11/17)

Gender Identity: What do legal changes have to do with women’s rights? (BBC News 31/7/17)

Transgender woman at male prison did not mean to kill herself, jury finds (The Guardian 19/5/17)

Parliamentary Report on Transgender Equality (Women and Equalities Committee UK Parliament 8/1/16)

Nearly half of young transgender people have attempted suicide-UK survey (The Guardian 19/11/14)

The gay people pushed to change their gender (BBC News 5/11/14)

Some transgender people are not gay (Huffpost 29/8/11)

The Hammer of Thor (Rick Riordan)


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