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The NUS and the Transgenderism Debate That Wasn't

Mal Fletcher
Posted 30 October 2015
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In the past week, the National Union of Students in Britain cancelled a scheduled address by author and iconoclast Germaine Greer.

The change of heart came about because of Ms Greer's views on transgenderism – and in particular how it relates to women. As far as I can tell, Germaine Greer was not scheduled to address the NUS event on this issue.

I do not know Ms Greer’s views in detail, having only read scant reports about them in the press. I have not heard Ms Greer speak on them and have not read anything she has written about them. So, this piece is intended neither as an apologetic for nor a criticism of those views.

The issue I want to address is whether the NUS should make a practice of effectively closing down a debate before it has begun.

Clearly, the NUS has a responsibility to guard its public podium. A national body ostensibly representing students and their best interests has a duty, for example, to avoid promoting the extremist views of religio-political figures who serve as recruiters or apologists for terrorist agencies.

The fundamental direction of the teachings of such figures has been recognised, by a fairly broad public consensus, as harmful to the fundamental social order.

They call for, among other things, the end of social cohesion and the violent overthrow of society's institutions.

Society has no qualms about denying these people a public platform – though, thankfully, we still wrestle with ourselves to avoid what Orwell called “thought crime”; the oppression of people who dare even to think differently.

However, there are other ethical and moral questions for which the jury of informed public opinion is still very much in deliberation – if not decidedly hung. This is arguably true in the case of transgenderism.

As yet, there has been no wide-ranging public debate on the issue, in terms of its potential impact on the social fabric and, perhaps especially, its consequences for the development of children and young people.

Most of the noise we’ve heard in the media has been about the challenges facing individual adults who choose to undergo transgender medical procedures.

We've also been treated to a number of reports on children who have requested gender realignment. If some of these reports are accurate, a growing number of children are dissatisfied with the gender assigned them by nature.

What is missing from the discussion is the fact that what some are calling gender confusion is often a part of the normal development of a child's sexual identity.

Children and young teenagers experience a wide range of emotions and questions regarding gender identity and roles at different stages of their growth.

Psychologists have long known, for example, that children and teenagers will at one time or another feel physically attracted to the opposite sex. In most cases, though clearly not all, these feelings are isolated, intermittent and unsustained; they emerge as a natural part of the exploration of identity.

The same is apparently true of other core aspects of our personalities. The establishment of a sense of self, especially within children, is a process, not an event.

For certain children, this inner experimentation may express itself outwardly in forms of behaviour which don't seem appropriate to their gender. In these cases, little boys might like to dress up as girls and vice versa.

Some may even request that they be treated as members of the opposite sex.

Does this mean that they would benefit from gender reassignment? It may simply mean that they need empathy, patience and support from parents and carers who understand that gender identity is, to an extent, fluid in all children - at least for a time.

This fluidity, of course, may be prolonged, this confusion further entrenched, if the surrounding culture ignores it, telling the young – and their parents – that radical gender reassignment is the best and most celebrated option for them.

Might a perceived rise in the popularity of gender realignment among children be due to the fact that parents are confused about how gender identity emerges in the first place?

Yes, there will be individual cases in which children exhibit prolonged behaviour that breaks with the norm. These children will need to be treated with respect and empathy, their cases looked at with an emphasis on compassion. 

They must not be used as stalking horses for one side or the other in a debate about public ethics or morality.

Yet a society that refuses to call anything ‘normal’ is self-evidently a society without norms, which are a core component of identity and culture. It is a society which weakens itself by, as a default, treating exceptions as norms.

Overall, the psychological or societal benefits of transgenderism may be treated as foregone conclusions by some, but these judgements are arrived at without informed discussion or debate in the wider society.

(A few split screen head-to-head yes/no segments on news shows hardly constitute wide-ranging and fully informed debates.)

As is often the case with ultra-liberal positions, advocates of gender realignment seem to have reached the puzzling conclusion that if only a relatively few people are taking up the option of gender surgery, it must be because there are thousands more who feel repressed by societal norms and need to be liberated.

This might suit a particular drive within ultra-liberalism to recast society in its own image, but it is hardly the basis for a social policy which will affect generations to come.

The NUS, which is a national network of student union groups, does some fine work among students across the UK. At its best, it seeks to give a collective voice to the concerns of students and issues affecting them. At its worst, perhaps its internal politics sometimes cause it to behave as a lobby group for broader liberal agendas.

However, on issues like transgenderism, organisations like the NUS, which ought to be broad-church, should at the very least acknowledge that no consensus has been reached and allow honest, though not intemperate, discussion.

To disallow open debate is to practice intellectual fascism, the core doctrine of which is to deny others a right that one demands for oneself – the right of freedom of expression and belief.

** See Mal Fletcher's Video Log on this issue.  


What’s your view?

Are student unions becoming too restrictive when it comes to debates?



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