The fight for human rights is not a straight path

Sophie Cook holds a trans pride flag in Moscow's Red Square

Seven years ago I wrote about the need for transgender people to come out of the shadows and take our place in society, I’m sorry but I may have been mistaken.

In 2015 society was finally coming to understand that trans people were not the freaks, weirdos or perverts that we had been labelled as for so long.

Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner were taking trans mainstream and straight onto the covers of the world’s press. In my own small way, coming out as transgender in Premier League football, I felt that I was making a difference.

Much as gay rights and acceptance improved greatly after they stopped hiding in the shadows and stood up to express their Pride I felt that it was now time for us to proclaim that we were Trans and proud of it.

Gender dysphoria is a terrible thing that takes a huge emotional, mental and social toll on people, and I believed that having reached the stage where I felt comfortable with myself and my condition that I owed it to my younger, more scared self to stand up and fight for the right to be recognised as a valid member of society.

Transphobia seemed, at that time, to be one of the few forms of hatred that were still, if not accepted, ignored by society. Whilst racism and homophobia were increasingly abhorred by all but the very narrow minded few, trans people were still on the receiving end of the sniggers, tranny jokes and outright abuse.

For a couple of years things improved, education and awareness of transgender identities helped to break down much of the prejudice that we faced. I began to notice a shift in attitudes, and hostility gave way to curiosity, interest and finally openness.

Places and situations which once seemed out of bounds for a trans person began to open up. Despite the fears of friends I found that football was a welcoming and positive environment in which to, not only, express my gender identity but also to talk about diversity and inclusion.

I stood as a candidate in the 2017 General Election and, rather than being ridiculed, secured nearly 21,000, the closest that any transgender candidate has ever come to being elected.

Little did I, nor anyone else, realise then that 2017 was going to be a highpoint for transgender recognition within the UK and that we would soon find ourselves embroiled in a culture war against our very existence.

In July 2018 the UK Government launched a consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. These consultations asked whether the process for transgender people to gain legal recognition in their acquired gender should be reformed.

In the consultation paper, the Government said it wanted to make it easier for transgender people to achieve legal recognition. It said many transgender people felt the current process was “overly intrusive, humiliating and administratively burdensome,” and they argue “by requiring a diagnostic psychiatric report, the process perpetuates the outdated and false assumption that being trans is a mental illness.”

At the time the Gender Recognition Act reforms were hailed as a major step forward for transgender people and their rights but with each new statement about proposed changes the hysteria around transgender women seemed to be growing.

Headlines like PeakTrans, TransCult and Transgender Trend all implied that being trans was a new thing, that the weak minded and sexually confused were jumping on the bandwagon. If being transgender was trendy then I’d never been trendier. But there was nothing new about being trans, transgender people had always existed throughout human history.

Attempts to hijack London Pride by a group of anti-trans activists under the slogan of “Get the L out” were just the beginning of a concerted campaign of hate and misinformation being directed at transgender people by a small but vocal minority.

The cries of “we must protect the girls” created jarring echoes for those of us old enough to remember the same child safety concerns being used to justify anti-LGBT laws like Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” on the grounds that it was a direct threat to our children. The connection between homosexuality and child abuse was as disgusting and incorrect as the current attempts to link transgender people and child abuse or sexual violence.

Any attempt to point out the abhorrent and unsubstantiated nature of these slurs were met with the argument that women’s voices were being silenced. It’s always seemed strange that a small group of people could make the argument that their voice was being denied while writing columns in publications from The Times to the Morning Star, and during regular appearances on TV and radio.

They claimed to want debate around the issues, yet their language continually denied the identities of those they seek to debate with and claims of “I’m not a transphobe but…” followed by misgendering or using the former name of those they are attacking did not constitute anything other than prejudice.

Attempts to debate the issue on Channel 4 resulted in anti-trans campaigners screaming the word “penis” every time the trans woman on the panel spoke, obviously a deeply considered debating position.

We saw claims that trans women were parasitic, misogynistic men dressed up in “woman face” for the purpose of lesbian erasure and yet, living near Brighton and knowing many lesbians, I have never met one who expressed anything but support for transgender people.

After being thrust into the harsh glare of the media spotlight, with the Gender Recognition Act Reform consultation, transgender people were then left high and dry, exposed and vulnerable when in September 2020, Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities, announced that the Government no longer intended to change the criteria in the GRA for legal gender recognition.

This meant that a system based on self-declaration would not be introduced, and actually drew into question rights which trans people had previously enjoyed, prompting Marsha De Cordova, then-Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, to declare that the Government had “let trans people down.”

Stonewall came under sustained attack from the Get The L Out lobby which morphed into the LGB Alliance, and Europe’s best-selling lesbian magazine Diva, which is totally trans inclusive, was forced to publish a message saying that this group does not speak for all lesbians and certainly not for them.

It’s true that women and lesbians have been oppressed over the years, but so have black women and disabled women and transgender women, and gay men, and working-class people and trade unionists and many other groups.

There is no hierarchy of oppression. Human rights are not a nil-sum equation. To grant one group equal rights does not diminish the rights of others. Black rights do not come at the expense of white rights, women’s rights do not come at the expense of men’s rights, and trans rights do not come at the expense of women’s rights.

At all points in the advancement of universal human rights one group or another was told that another group was a threat.

During the fight for civil rights in the US white people were convinced that black rights were a threat to their way of life. In the fight for gay rights, hate preachers whipped up the idea that this would lead to depravity and the end of civilisation.

In both of these cases the defence of children was used to make the argument highly emotive. In the fight for women’s rights men believed that they would lose control of their own lives and that of their households.

In each of the above cases people felt totally justified in their fears, spurred on by others constantly describing horrific threats, none of which were based in fact.

History has shown that these fears were unfounded and, in time, the same will happen in the struggle for equal rights for transgender people. As I said before, the advancement of the rights of one group never meant the diminution of the rights of another group.

I’m not saying that everyone that expresses these fears is a hate preacher, in the same way that not everyone that felt the fear in the previous examples wasn’t.

Some people lead the fear some follow. When the arguments are made so persuasively, so terrifyingly horrific and so widely that the media and government share these ideas, then they become easy to subscribe to.

And the fear mongering does work. 7 years after my transition I’m now more scared of using toilets and changing rooms than ever before. The fear of being attacked or being the subject of a malicious false accusation, the fear is real and it’s an environment that has been growing over recent years.

In coming out of the shadows and claiming our place in society we gained the support and acceptance of a large part of society but seemingly became a target for others.

Every day I see something else in the media, demonising us, dehumanising us, and no matter how strong you are in yourself, sometimes the sheer relentless nature of it can be draining.

Mental health issues are still significantly more likely to affect transgender people, and a large contributing factor is the bigotry and prejudice that they experience on a daily basis. The name-calling, the loss of family and relationships, the diminished career prospects, the violence and the legal challenges against their rights and identity.

We go through hell to finally be our authentic selves and we should be proud of the fact that, even if we haven’t quite won the battle yet, we’re on the road to liberation.

There’s a clue in the word, equality: equal. You cannot demand equality for yourself but not for others — for that is not equality, that is privilege.

We must fight for the rights of all people. We must always stand together, for together we are stronger, and until the day when everyone is equal then none of us are.