Shirley-Anne Somerville: 'I am a strong supporter of trans rights and equality'
The debate about the rights of transgender people is becoming very polarised. As Cabinet Secretary for Equalities, I have a duty to try to change that and to encourage respectful debate. Setting out my own views and feelings on the matter – while trying to better understand those of others – is a first step.
I am a strong supporter of trans rights and equality. I have met too many trans men and women, particularly young people, who struggle on a daily basis just to feel safe, secure and accepted for who they are, for me to be anything else. The hurdles they face and the damage they often suffer is immense. I want Scotland to be a place where we work to put that right, a country where they do feel safe, secure and accepted. So, I have no hesitation in calling myself a trans ally – and I hope trans women and men see me that way too.
But I am also a woman and a lifelong, passionate feminist – and I know that while the battle for women’s rights and equality has made great strides in recent years, there is still much more to do. I also know that, at times, the progress already made can feel fragile.
Just as the First Minister has herself said in the past, I personally don’t feel conflict between my support for trans rights and my support for women’s rights.
But I know that some do feel that conflict – and that the issues they are raising are not motivated by transphobia but by a concern, sincerely felt, that space hard won by women down the generations will be compromised.
Government has a duty to understand and seek to address the concerns being raised. This is something I have sought to do since taking this post and to which I commit to continue to do.
There is always a danger in over-simplifying complex issues and I am not intending to do so, but it strikes me in listening to some of the concerns raised that, at their core, it is not so much a problem with the rights of trans women but instead a fear of men who abuse women.
The fear is that some men will use trans equality as a Trojan horse to access women and do us harm.
And I understand that. But it means the problem we face is not one of trans women wanting to feel safe and accepted – it is one of how we protect and safeguard women against potentially abusive men. That’s not a new problem in Scottish or global society – nor is it one created by trans women.
If we are able to appreciate this and other perspectives, I believe we can work through many of these issues, address the concerns that are being raised, and make Scotland a place where everyone can feel safe. And do so while standing full square behind the rights of trans men and women not to be discriminated against.
It is also important to point out that Scotland would not be any kind of pioneer in this work, we would simply be catching up with changes that many other countries, including Ireland, have already made.
My last point is this. As I said earlier, people raising genuine concerns about women’s rights shouldn’t suffer knee jerk accusations of transphobia.
However, it is also impossible to deny that there is a considerable degree of transphobia in our society.
I hope, therefore, that – whatever views any of us may hold on the relationship between trans rights and women’s rights – we will all unite against transphobia, just as we do against homophobia and any other form of prejudice and discrimination.
Trans men and women are amongst the most stigmatized groups in our society. They deserve to know that their government is working to change that.
Shirley-Anne Somerville is the Cabinet Secretary for Equalities