Before we hurl insults around about ‘transphobes’ let’s be clear about what we mean

Definitions can be helpful but can also be divisive as we have seen the shift from the IHRA antisemitism working definition to one that has been adopted by governments and institutions:

When anti-semitism still appeared to be the Labour membership’s most glaring problem with intra-party prejudice and related mudslinging, great importance attached to definitions. What might seem to some members a perfectly allowable comment on the Israeli state might to others, using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, be manifestly hateful and targeted.

The party’s adoption of that definition was itself disputed. Labour took on the IHRA definition in 2016, then argued about adopting its examples of antisemitic behaviour. As ugly as this difficulty with internationally agreed terminology might look from outside, the interest in precise wording represented some common ground. On the definition of antisemitism, Labour’s factions were at least able to communicate.

More recently, the party has adopted a working definition of Islamophobia advanced by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims (after consultation with more than 750 British Muslim organisations, 80 academics and 50 MPs). The group’s co-chair Wes Streeting dismissed objections that free speech would suffer. “While our definition cannot prevent false-flag accusations of Islamophobia to shut down reasonable debate and discussion, it does not enable such accusations. In fact, it makes it easier to deal with such behaviour,” he said. “Our definition provides a framework for helping organisations to assess, understand and tackle real hatred, prejudice and discrimination.”

There could hardly be a better case for another considered definition – after a week in which its meaning has been both stretched and contested – of what should be understood by transphobia. Unless we want to leave that job to the courts. Is it allowed, for instance, to satirise self-ID, as in the case of Harry Miller? Yes, says Mr Justice Knowles. And in a passage that might have been inspired by Labour’s pledges: “Some… are readily willing to label those with different viewpoints as ‘transphobic’ or as displaying ‘hatred’ when they are not.”

There are obvious implications for the unprecedented debates prompted by a proposed reform to the Gender Recognition Act, facilitating gender self-identification (ID). Can it be damagingly transphobic – if Miller is not – for people to meet and discuss the possible implications for women-only spaces and safeguarding? Should people be able to meet, without fear of abusive crowds, to share concerns about early gender dysphoria diagnosis/affirmation? Is it actionably bigoted – unlike Miller – to question the fairness of male-bodied athletes competing in women’s elite sport?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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