Thousands of transgender people and their allies take to the streets for London’s first ever Trans+ Pride march on 14 September, 2019. (WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The departing chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said that the “toxic debate” over trans rights will prove damaging to UK society if it continues.

Wow. We, for one, are well and truly shocked by this.

David Isaac, who departed Saturday (August 8) following four years at the agency, suggested in an interview with The Observer that “both groups” may have more in common than believed and urged them to engage in “respectful listening” to move forward.

But while a “toxic” atmosphere may pervade online chatrooms and social media websites, the trans rights debate in the UK is undoubtedly weighted.

As rumours heave that the ruling Conservative Party are set to roll back trans rights in what activists are comparing to “Section 28”, monitoring groups have highlighted that the trans community are hounded, dehumanised and demonised by the UK’s mainstream media on a regular basis.

Crucial reforms to the Gender Recognition Act  – the bedrock of gender recognition law in the UK – have been punctured by delays, seeding a drawn-out battle steeped in transphobic vitriol from some lawmakers and anti-trans groups determined to stymie the life-changing reforms.

Trans folk have, in the meantime, been subjected to rocketing rates of discrimination against them, whether it be the biting words from columnists or transphobia that curdles into violence.

Former head of top human rights group: ‘Toxic debate is shutting down freedom of expression and stifling discussion’.

“We’ve been calling for greater protection for trans people, but I’m concerned, not just about the polarisation, but also the toxic nature of debate, which is about shutting down freedom of expression and stifling discussion,” Isaac said.

“We have to acknowledge there are lots of difficult issues in relation to women-only spaces, but shouting at each other doesn’t help anybody. We need to move beyond that toxic debate so talking to each other, engaging in respectful listening even if you disagree, that’s the way forward.”

Isaac stressed that the EHRC supports the GRA reforms, which make it easier for trans folk to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate, which, in the eyes of the law, recognised that their gender identity matches that of their sex.

These reforms are also overwhelmingly supported by women – 57 per cent – according to a YouGov poll on behalf of PinkNews. 

‘We as a society would suffer enormously if in a decade’s time we were still having this debate.’

Isaac urged the two camps to “listen to other views”.

“There are lots of women who have been physically abused who are fearful, and we’ve got both groups who are anxious about being physically abused and are the subject of hate crimes, and this is currently the very thing that unites them,” he said.

“It’s just that we’ve got a few areas [where there is disagreement] – toilets, refugees and the age at which young people can actually begin treatment or block their hormone development – but on the rest there is real consensus, and we never talk about that.”

The GRA reforms have been repeatedly hampered by government ministers, which Isaac said was “disappointing”. He called on decision-makers to look to countries such as France, where trans folk can change necessary gender markers without medical or government intervention, as a blueprint.

However, he said that such counties are “are more liberal environments where there is less polarisation,” reflecting a recent report by the European Commission that placed the UK’s legal recognition of trans people among the very worst in Europe.

“They haven’t had the same toxic debate, and we need to learn from that and work out how we can replicate that,” he said.

“We as a society would suffer enormously if in a decade’s time we were still having this debate.”