The Missing ‘T’: Baselining Attitudes towards Transgender People in Northern Ireland is a research report on work done for the Life and Times Survey in Northern Ireland. The research was conducted by social scientists based at Queen’s University Belfast and at Ulster University, and the report may be found here:
This report is greatly to be welcomed and it highlights the complexities associated with transgender identity, noting for example that matters of transgender identify are frequently conflated with ‘LGB’ issues. I would suggest, however, that it marks a starting rather than an end point, providing valuable insights that may help to inform further research, not least by helping to refine the nature of questions asked in order to elicit research data.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the data presented by the report is the revelation that ‘a relatively small proportion of people self-identified as prejudiced towards transgender people (21%)’. This may suggest at the outset that the issue of transgender identity is very poorly understood, and that respondents did not have a well developed concept of the core issue on which they were making their response. In my opinion, this is highlighted by the fact that the issue with which respondents appeared to be least comfortable was the right of a transgender person to be issued with a new birth certificate. It may be argued that this is the most personal and least threatening of the scenarios on which respondents were questioned, and to probe this response in greater depth and detail may assist in pinpointing the realities of prejudice against transgender individuals.
In my opinion, the most dangerous aspect of accepting at face value (which the researchers who prepared the report emphatically do not do, but which may be the way in which the matter is interpreted) that there is such a relatively low level of prejudice against transgender individuals in Northern Ireland is that denial may be compounded by complacency. If there is relatively little prejudice, then it might appear that we need to do relatively little and that we have no real need to change the current situation. This is dangerous both socially and in terms of the access of transgender people to adequate medical treatment. To accept this statistic might have the consequence of concealing more deeply the actual state of affairs.
The research report also highlights the fact that ‘Transgender identities are “complex and contested” even within the transgender community’. This is perfectly true, but part of the challenge rises from using a confusing ‘catch all’ definition of being transgender. More precise terminology would assist in the development of discourse. At present, the Stonewall definition of ‘trans’ is so broad it includes cross dressing, an issue which has nothing to do with gender identity. Some organisations offering support to transgender individuals do not differentiate between those who seek a permanent gender transition and those whose sense of their gender identity is more fluid. This is not a matter of seeking to disadvantage cross dressers, individuals whose gender identity is fluid or anyone else, although it does highlight the need for a great deal more sound, scientific research in order to assist in coming to better understandings of these issues. A critical point here is that, in circumstances where medical treatment is difficult to obtain for those who require permanent gender transition, this may be made even more difficult if the issue of being transgender is conflated with that of being gender fluid. It is important to realise that under Equality law, only those who ‘propose to change [their] gender or have done so’ are protected (although laws in respect of discrimination may have broader application). Again, this should not be read as seeking to deny or deprive anyone of rights or to diminish those rights. It is a matter of highlighting and protecting the existing rights of a specifically defined group, as presently stated by law.
I had the privilege of attending the launch of this research report, and was given the opportunity to speak from the floor. I found it very interesting that during the question and answer session following the presentation of the report, the need for a theological perspective on the issue was raised. I made it clear that I could offer only my own theological perspective, that different religions were likely if not bound to respond differently, and that this was likely also to be the case for differing denominations and groupings within religions. I offered as my understanding what I believe to be the basis of the Gospel, that Christ teaches love, and that this is a demanding message, not a simple one. I consider this to be a deeply theological question, not one covered for instance by the idea that ‘love is all you need’, but one that raises profoundly difficult questions (as exemplified, for instance, by the story of the Good Samaritan) about just who constitutes one’s neighbour. The response to this was remarkable, extremely positive and not one that I had encountered before.
This reinforces my impression that we do need a clearly stated theological position, one that encounters the challenge of how, if God created both male and female in His image, God is bound by perceptions of gender. (Again, of course here we have challenges of vocabulary and the dominance of the masculine pronoun in everyday discourse). Highlighting the love rather than the wrath of God has long been central to the shared theology of Non-Subscription (bearing constantly in mind the right to private judgement). The document recently produced by the Congregation for Catholic Education, “Male and Female He created them” provides an ideal opportunity for a more developed theological framework to begin to be articulated.