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Trans lives in Scotland: imbalances of power and the limits of respectful debate

By 10th November 2021 No Comments

Kevin Guyan

Researcher, EDI Scotland


In 2019, the Scottish Government initiated a second consultation about proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), aimed at simplifying the process for changing the sex marker on an individual’s birth certificate. As Minister Shirley-Anne Sommerville acknowledged when condemning transphobic responses to the first consultation, debates on trans rights have become more polarised, with trans people facing increased scrutiny and hostility. What she and many others (in politics, the media and academia) have not sufficiently addressed is that debates on trans rights entail an asymmetric distribution of power. Those who oppose the recognition or inclusion of trans people in society are often given as much say as trans people themselves; but trans people are not simply arguing points of principle: they are fighting for survival and the right to an authentic existence.

The idea that debate about the lives and experience of people who constitute minority groups is conducted on a level playing field is a fiction. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has articulated the limitations of such debate, stressing that trans-exclusionary and transphobic arguments do not simply articulate an alternative viewpoint, but attempt to ‘chip away’ at the existence of trans people. She also notes that the format of most debates requires participants to exchange rebuttals, information that contradicts or nullifies evidence presented by your opponent. This is problematic when individuals are asked to provide evidence that demonstrates their right to an authentic life.[1] The imbalance of power means that one party is expected only to bring evidence based on external observations, whereas the other party is expected to bring both objective evidence and evidence based on their lived experience – all whilst debating the validity of that lived experience.

In my view, debate can become irresponsible when it is set up in such a way. When someone believes that everyone’s sex is either male or female, confirmed at birth and immutable, the personal testimonies of trans people are unlikely to convince them otherwise. And when the evidence provided fails to satisfy an opponent’s demands, the staging of a debate and its illusion of reciprocal dialogue can actually result in entrenched positions. Worse, it can lend authority to what might look like majority viewpoints (through sheer strength of numbers) or even strengthen people’s calls for an individual’s or a group’s erasure. For trans people, in other words, debate can sometimes be a trap. To put it another way, debates that look responsible are not always so. They may be conducted politely, respectfully and with what looks like evidence-based arguments on both sides; but those ‘trappings’ of responsible debate can mask serious imbalances in power and even be used as a tactic to undermine, marginalise or exclude people.

Ahmed proposes one solution to this imbalance of power when she declares that “A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates is thus a key tactic for survival”. Several LGBTQ rights groups have adopted this strategy, refusing to put forward representatives to ‘debate’ with trans-exclusionary campaigners. As Ahmed observes, “There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect (or intent on) arguing for the elimination of others at the table”. The idea that some issues related to people’s lives and experience are beyond debate is not particularly radical. In public forums in Scotland, it is no longer acceptable to ‘debate’ whether Black people are equal to White people, whether there is a role for disabled people in the workforce or whether people who follow a religion should be free to practise their faith. A responsible approach to debate recognises that power is unequally distributed in society and that concepts such as freedom of speech are not universally inclusive. Principle 8 of the Young Academy of Scotland’s Charter foregrounds the need for those engaged in debate to consider ‘imbalances in power’, whilst Principle 1 highlights the need for contributions to consider both evidence and experience. When viewed together, these principles underscore the limits of certain kinds of ‘debate’ and might be cited, when necessary, to justify refusal to participate, as part of a survival strategy for minoritised groups when faced with calls to ‘debate’ their lives and experiences.

It is a privilege to engage in a debate when you have nothing to lose. In thinking more about ‘responsible debate’, we must address the smokescreen of ‘respectful debate’ and recognise the power imbalances that occur when an individual’s right to an authentic existence is ‘up for debate’. The practice of debate is not an equalising phenomenon; it can shed light on issues, but also operate as a tactic to exclude individuals from public life. For those who manage forums where debates occur, such as journal editors and convenors of parliamentary committees, there is a need to acknowledge the limitations of respectful debate. This might involve strategies to address power imbalances between majority and minoritised groups, reflexive consideration of when (if ever) you should host debates that only amplify the views of those who bring expertise and not experience of the topic they wish to scrutinise, and recognise that the refusal of an individual or group to engage in ‘debate’ is a valid strategy for survival.

The arguments sketched here demand consideration if we are to move beyond the kinds of imbalanced consultation exercises which both the Scottish and UK governments have recently conducted on the GRA. But they also go well beyond the staging, reform or repudiation of debates on trans rights. It is important that anyone interested in responsible debate scrutinises the ways that traditional set-ups can manufacture a veneer of respectability whilst maintaining power imbalances. We must remain mindful not only of the limitations of responsible debate, but also of the ways in which a semblance of respectability can mask a multitude of problems.

Charter for Responsible Debate report cover

This article is part of a series of reflective blog posts on our Charter for Responsible Debate.  It was originally published in our Responsible Debate project report, which also includes the full text of the Charter, an overview of how we created it, and an exercise pack for using the Charter in our everyday lives.

Our Charter for Responsible Debate proposes nine general principles for responsible public debate. They are based on our belief that joint decision-making should be informed, respectful and inclusive.

We hope that the Charter will kick-start some wider conversations about how we can listen well to each other, even when we disagree, and how we can work together to find common ground and a sense of shared purpose. This is key to improving the culture of debate in all areas of our lives: in person and on social media, locally, nationally and internationally.

We hope you will join our growing movement by signing our charter pledge and trying out the principles of Responsible Debate in your everyday life!

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download the Responsible Debate report