Launched to much fanfare by More in Common on 16th June 2022, the Britons and Gender Identity - Navigating Common Ground and Division Report aimed to do what exactly?
We don't know, because it’s actually not particularly clear at any point in the document what the aims and objectives of this study were. And that’s a problem, unfortunately one of many.
Given that the CEO of More in Common and principal author Luke Tryl worked at Stonewall in the past, you would have thought that the issue being approached would have been conducted with more sensitivity and tact than it has been. Wrong again.
It's also been celebrated by allies and claimed by trans hostile activists as an endorsement of their positions, but criticised across the trans community for many different reasons. So on balance did they get it right? Also no.
After spending the day on and off poring over this coupled with copious notes (while down with Covid), this article is going to attempt to do a general critique of the report. In doing so I look at what I think is good, bad and frankly downright terrible.
Let’s start with the good stuff. While there isnt actually much, what is there is actually pretty significant.
Broadly speaking, this report tallies with Stonewall’s Take Pride Report released a few weeks ago which looked at public sentiment to LGBTQ+ people. As with that report, this one largely shows that the British public appear to be sympathetic when it comes to trans people. In many ways the Stonewall report is more relevant and visceral, using highly emotive language for responses that leave little wiggle room for ambiguity in attitudes.
This report however looked at specific issues, which is also useful in some ways.
Probably most importantly, it showed that on average, a quarter of Britons know a transgender person, and that there are some start differences based on generational and political lines.
Almost half of Gen Z people surveyed knew a trans person, with that figure dropping by generation. However, even in the oldest and generally less likely generation to accept trans people, 10% of those surveyed said they knew someone trans.
Interestingly, those who move in progressive political circles are more likely to know a trans person, which at 52% was more than double of any other political grouping. So Starmer and Labour should take note.
It also noted that in terms of political issues, trans people aren’t really on the public’s radar at all. Coming in dead last, this indicates that the last six years of the media led moral panic haven't had much of an effect, and that the UK Government’s attempt to use trans people as a culture war issue have largely been a failure. I say largely, because - well, have a look at ‘The Bad’ coming up. This data also ties in with the available info on massively declining press sales, with the report also indicating that trust in the UK Press was the lowest in Europe.
Media and Conservatives take note!
One other question gave pretty revealing positive answers.
In ‘Is a trans man a man and a trans woman a woman?’, on average almost half of those polled agreed.
Again this was replicated with political progressives with a massive 71% in agreement, but remained consistently high across all political groups but one. In other words, the majority of people appeared to understand and agree that a person’s identity is what makes them a man or a woman, rather than their reproductive biology.
When looked at by generation however, this reveal an even more startling picture.
As expected Gen Z agreed most at 62%, but even 30% of the oldest generation agreed. What is more interesting however is that the number of those disagreeing was broadly consistent at around 30% among all generations, reinforcing that the core opposition to trans people comes from the ‘Backbone Conservatives, Disengaged Traditionalists and and Loyal Nationalists’ groups - effectively the political right-wing who it appears are actually a minority across all generations.
And that's it for the good.
As a community we have two big takeaways here :
Visibility is our greatest tool. It works and that matters - Normalisation in society depends on visibility.
The other is that we are too invested in fighting against a media & social media led moral panic that is loud but largely ineffective. That's not saying we shouldn't do so at all, but that it probably occupies more of our attention than other, more effective activities.
There's some other good stuff around basic privacy in changing rooms etc, but thats not really trans specific, but rather an adjacent issue.
One place where the report really shines is around workplace Equality, Diversity & Inclusion - which actually deserves its own report, and I think Im going to do a separate article on it.
This is where it starts to get problematic.
In terms of the report itself, the way this has been handled is highly damaging to the trans community. I can't tell whether this is intentional or not, but it doesn't really matter as the result is the same.
The framing of the questions are often false binaries, allowing little to no room for nuance. While this is sometimes shown through the answers given, all it does is reinforce already polarised viewpoints rather than identify common ground.
Another major problem in framing is that once again, it is trans women who are demonised throughout. Trans women are targeted in questioning around toilets, changing rooms and sports as ‘flashpoints’, reinforcing the media moral panic messages in ways that are completely unnecessary. These questions could have very easily been posed in neutral terms, encouraging responders to think about both trans men and non binary people, but instead More in Common opt for a sensationalist, highly damaging approach.
Other problematic framing is in the failure to provide more nuance via subsequent questions, by not providing an accurate picture of the realities of accessing medical care and legal recognition, as well as the framing of biology as a simplistic, genital essentialist viewpoint.
For example, in order to obtain access to both medical treatment and legal recognition, trans people must be able to access gender-appropriate spaces. Instead of just making questions simply about pre or post-surgery (reinforcing outdated sex / gender binaries and forced medicalisation of identity), both questions should have been asked again with supplemental text along the lines of ‘A trans person must currently use gender-appropriate spaces in order qualify for both medical treatment and legal recognition’ to determine if the answers given changed based on this information.
Similar additional, more valuable data could have been gleaned by including additional framing around the facts that trans people have been legally accessing gender-appropriate spaces for more than half a century, and that sporting provision is allowed for, and governed by sporting bodies themselves under EA2010, and that trans people have been competing in elite sport for decades without issue (Renee Richards anyone?).
The use of these damaging frames effectively promotes leading answers later on around sport, toilets, and changing rooms, and it's this negative framing that is leading trans hostile activists to claim its an endorsement of their trans hostile ideology, which was an open goal to anyone paying any attention to the current situation. More in Common have effectively inflamed things rather than identify common ground for discussion.
In terms of the British public, however, the bad is extremely revealing.
From this report, its clear that the British public is deeply ignorant of the realities of trans lives and experiences - something I myself address every time I run a workshop or talk, and even just chatting to people.
This ignorance runs deep - there is little to no understanding of the complexities and difficulties around either social or medical transition, nor how intrinsically these are tied to legal recognition.
Worryingly, there appears to be a segregationist attitude that runs throughout the responses, with segregationist questions and proposals made around unisex sports, toilets and changing rooms that echo anti-trans talking points. This attitude could have been pointed out in the report as inimical to human rights, but wasn’t, and it also shows that some of the negative media coverage around sports has had an effect.
More worryingly, there seems to be a high regard for believing medical authority over a person’s lived identity, showing that most people seem to view trans people as inauthentic without medical approval, which runs counter to basic human rights and bodily autonomy and acting as a counterpoint to the claims that the public view trans people with sympathy and compassion.
And most worryingly, many people seem to think they are entitled to dictate what medical care a trans person should be able to receive and when, especially for young people - despite complete ignorance of what this actually entails for either children, young people or adults. In other words operating off of gut feeling rather than facts or data.
Then there’s the section about pronouns. While this seems laughable, a disturbingly large proportion of people completely fail to make the connection between using a person's pronouns and basic respect for their identity. This is also reflected throughout the anecdotal messages in the report with misgendering extremely common, signifying a deep lack of respect for trans people’s identities as a whole, rather than the claimed sympathy and compassion.
For the trans community, our takeaways here should be that:
We need to focus on awareness campaigns centred on the realities of accessing transition related care, legal recognition and the processes involved.
For allies it means helping us do that, because that messaging isn't going to come through the media.
One of the first things that jumped out at me in this was that MiC seems to have set out to ‘both sides’ trans issues, framing those who are attempting to remove rights and care as one extreme, and ordinary trans people as activists for defending our right to exist. This is typically trans hostile framing, and its prevalent throughout the report.
On its own this shows that MiC appears to have waded into this with little thought as to the impact or fallout on the community, and worse still without engaging with the community in order to avoid some pretty fundamental problems. In part this seems to be down to a ‘cisgender people are impartial’ attitude, and that reflects in the faming of questions and failures listed above.
It also shows that either MiC were ill prepared to engage in this space, or that this negative framing was entirely deliberate. From the lack of accurate information around current legal rights or access to healthcare, to characterising this as a debate when trans people have been systematically excluded from every conversation, to the perpetuation of stigmatising and damaging stereotypes is appalling, and downright dishonest.
Rather than help, all this report does is to reinforce the media panic stereotypes of trans women as threats and trans people as inauthentic.
I hoped for better. I expected better. There were many opportunities to do better, and to actually help the trans community - opportunities that were missed completely. Why? I have no idea. The speculative part of me wants to say this is a deliberate attempt to reset the conversation afresh, but from a starting point where trans rights commence from a position inferior to that we have now.
I don't know what they actually intended with this report, but in terms of their mission to ‘understand the forces driving us apart, to find common ground and help to bring people together to tackle our shared challenges’ it seems to have failed completely. You cant bring people together when you've completely failed to listen to the trans community AND you misrepresent the current situation we face.
That's not to say it hasn't been useful in some ways, but given that the trans hostile lobby are claiming it as a victory it seems to be an epic fail, and it’s probably probably more damaging in the longer term than many people realise.
I've no idea if MiC considers themselves allies, but if so they should take some time to reflect on these failures, as should every other ally who has lauded this ‘report’.
We contacted Luke Tryl at More in Common about this 'report', and he kindly agreed to answer some questions in relation to both it and the reaction from the trans community. We thank Luke for taking the time and actually being willing to respond, unlike many other organisations.
The questions from Claire and the answers from Luke are reproduced without amendment below, in blue.
1) What was the intent and objective behind doing this research and report?
As an organisation dedicated to tackling polarisation and building social cohesion, we believe that the way many discussions about gender identity, trans inclusion and sex and gender based rights are being conducted online is not helping anyone.
In particular, some of the language directed at trans people has been deeply hurtful, dehumanising and offensive, while those who have raised questions/concerns about the implications of trans inclusion on women’s only spaces/sex-based rights have found themselves labelled bigots. What’s more, as many have also pointed out since the publication of the report, there are people involved in this debate (who hold different views) facing serious and violent threats to their livelihoods and personal security on a regular basis – threats which cannot and should not be tolerated in a pluralist democracy.
From our work on other issues often badged as ‘culture wars’, we know the sound and fury of elite debates often doesn’t match where the public are at. But there has been very little deep engagement or exploration of the public’s views. If we are going to chart a way forward and make progress then understanding where there are areas of public consensus (and disagreement) is important. Similarly, we know that when people feel like they aren’t being listened to on these issues that in of itself is a recipe for breeding resentment. Our report was an attempt to help change that and to understand where the public are on these issues. That is not to say, and we are very clear in the report to point this out, that minority rights should be decided by majority public opinion – but rather that public engagement can provide the basis for a broader, more inclusive, conversation.
In framing the questions, we wanted to strike the balance between understanding where the public are on some of the issues that have been raised in the media, with the fact that many of these issues do not lend themselves to simple yes/no answers. They require a range of definitions and conversations to understand the public’s starting point. We also had to be prepared for layers of nuance and varied opinions from those who have had less engagement with or expertise on the different topics. That is why for instance we conducted a series of focus groups before asking the poll questions (as is a good practice) to understand what the key issues for the public were, and then followed up with additional subsequent focus groups. The use of focus groups allowed us to have a much richer, more nuanced conversation than simply using poll questions alone – not least because as others have pointed out people will have different interpretations of what it means to be trans – hence we left the poll question on whether a trans man is a man or a trans woman is a woman neutral and used focus groups to help understand how people defined that question. We were transparent in the report about how they responded. All discussions were approached sensitively.
We didn’t engage with any external groups, other than our pollsters, who are members of the British Polling Council before formulating the questions. Given that this is such a contested area, to do so could have left us facing accusations of bias and undermined the credibility of the report. There are others who have done good work on the experiences of trans people, this report did not seek to duplicate or replace that.
(no answer provided)
Our hope is that this report provides the basis for having a more constructive, good faith public conversation about gender identity and identifies meaningful areas to make progress in a way that is different from what we see playing out online or in some of the media.
In answer to your final question. As we say in the report, we have tried as faithfully as possible to report the views of the public, rather than our own opinions and I think we achieved that.
However, as you asked about my personal views –having spent the majority of my career working on equalities related issues – whether it has been tackling homophobic bullying at Stonewall, or helping to champion new legislation on gender pay gap transparency and cross-governmental work to tackle violence against women and girls as a special advisor for the Government Equalities Office, encouraging a focus on disadvantaged white working class communities in the Department for Education, or working to tackle discrimination against girls in education during my time at Ofsted – I hope you can see I am firmly committed to playing my (very small) part in helping to create a country where marginalised, minority or silenced groups can live their lives happily and free from discrimination, which of course includes those who are trans.
I hope that the polling and the focus group findings will make a contribution, not least by making clear that the public start from a position of understanding and compassion and that the policy and media debate would do well to take heed of those starting points.
Words by Claire
17th June 2022 & 22nd June 2022