Emer McLysaght: Who benefits from hatred of trans people? And who suffers?

The argument shifts from semantics to bathrooms while trans people exist in pain

I was in a conversation some time ago that has stuck with me. It was a casual chat in a professional context. Between the jigs and the reels, the conversation turned to issues of language, and the person said — I’m paraphrasing — that while people deserve respect, they would draw the line at accepting the renaming, say, of a Mother and Baby Room in their place of employment.

I remember wondering if I was managing to keep a straight face and hide my surprise. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had asked right there and then what would happen if one of the many, many of the person’s fellow employees using such a room was a trans man with a baby, or a non-binary person, who felt that they would be unwelcome. I wish I had asked how “Feeding Room” or “Parent and Baby Room” or “Baby Room” would alienate anyone. I wish I had asked what would happen if this same conversation was happening unknowingly with a person or employee who was trans.

I am not a mother, so I can never understand what it means to embody that role. I don’t completely understand the feelings of those who believe that a change from the word “mother” in certain situations is an erasure of motherhood. But I desperately hope mothers can accept that they’re not being erased. Making language inclusive does not erase you, rather it brings those struggling on the fringes of pregnancy, birth and parenthood into the fold. It helps them, but it doesn’t diminish you. Of course, who am I to lecture mothers on how to feel? I’ve got no skin in their game.

I am a woman though. I identify as a woman. I was assigned female at birth. I was raised as a girl, despite the curse of hand-me-downs from two older brothers and have felt largely comfortable living my life thusly. I don’t object to the word “woman” being amended or added to in necessary situations. I know that it doesn’t erase my experience of being a woman. I don’t feel threatened by the acknowledgement of gender nuances in public life.

When the issue was raised around the HSE’s Cervical Check language I questioned myself if I was really okay with just “people with cervixes” in health communication, and I was. It includes me. It includes non-binary people. It includes trans men. It includes everyone at risk from the myriad problems the cervix, the fallopian tubes or that tricky pup the uterus might throw up. Similarly, I hope that men can see that “people with prostates” just get more bums in seats when it comes to detecting early cancers. And actually, the language used by Cervical Check is “women and people with cervixes”. There are those that will argue that it should be “women and other people with cervixes”, which is a semantic snarl in itself.

I’ve also asked myself to play the proverbial advocate of the divil himself and consider the people for whom the term “woman” means decades and centuries of fighting for liberation, recognition and suffrage. If you expand what has been traditionally meant by the word “women” then where is the acknowledgement of living under the shroud of the patriarchy and the ongoing struggle to dismantle those systems that keep that patriarchy keeping on?

When I campaigned in support of Repeal I talked a lot about “women” and “mothers”. I talked about what women had been through before me and what they would go through after me. If I was doing that same campaigning today, I would use the term “pregnant people” where I could, because it includes all the people for whom a crisis pregnancy or a critical health issue related to pregnancy affects. I don’t think that the previous decades of fighting for abortion as healthcare on Irish soil on behalf of women is erased. I think that inclusion only makes movements to fight the patriarchy more progressive, more compassionate and hindsight proof. There are those who will argue that some trans women have already benefitted from living as men and to that I say that if you don’t believe that trans women suffer under the patriarchy then you haven’t spoken to or read about enough trans women.

A lot of things are now accepted or suggested to exist on a spectrum. Gender, sexuality, neuro divergence, intelligence, eyesight, etc, etc, etc. Black and white thinking now equates to just two points or bookends on those spectra, and people are more open and inclined to think of many things in shades of difference rather than right and wrong. As we grow to accept that the world doesn’t exist as a series of binaries, then we have to adapt our world to accommodate and include.

Opinion on trans rights falls on a spectrum too, from total hatred and fear to total acceptance. For as long as semantics, bathrooms, cervixes, and pronouns dominate the conversation, our trans siblings continue to sit on the fringes, waiting to be welcomed into the fold. I think we have to ask ourselves, who benefits from hatred of trans people? And who suffers? And who do you want to help?