The debate about trans people has become toxic, and language is a big part of the problem. We can do so much better

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The past week has seen one of the strangest political slippages. Individuals, including leaders of the Liberal Democrat and Labor Party, as well as Health Secretary Sajid Javid and various Tory MPs, have all discussed who has and who does not have a cervix. Political discourse has been subsumed into Biology 101, and it makes a lot of people very upset.

What is going on? In recent years, many organizations have begun to use a range of complex and clumsy circumlocutions to respond to the fact that our traditional view of gender no longer works. Many trans women continue to have a prostate, despite surgeries on other more sensitive areas. Many trans men have cervixes. Non-binary people can have either. Or neither. This also applies to the general population.

Meanwhile, medical systems are still stuck in the old format, where it was assumed that women had cervixes and men had prostates. There are two problems with this. First and least important is that some people will be offended or upset. I don’t reject that. However, far more serious is the fact that “just” calling women for cervical tests results in many people not being called. It could even be grounds for a discrimination case. More seriously, the absence of inclusive language could result in people suffering or dying.

So the NHS and various charities started writing stuff like ‘cervical sufferers’ or ‘prostate sufferers’. It’s clumsy and reductive stuff. Poor also for those whose first language is not English or who do not know the anatomical terms. We can do this better.

My two pennies: “cis women, trans men and non-binaries who have a cervix”. Because not all cis women have one anyway. It’s a bit long and I’m open to alternatives.

Unfortunately, any hope of a reasonable debate has come up against the anti-trans wave currently sweeping the UK. Gender-aware transphobes, after years of treating questions about what body parts trans women have or don’t have as some sort of terminal “gotcha” – how very feminist! – have now done a reverse ferret and said that using phrases like “people with x” is a “bad thing” and erases women. Incoherent. But predictable. Also a dog whistle used, increasingly, to deny the validity of trans existence.

More serious is the intervention of the health secretary, who declared it “scientific fact” that only women have cervixes. It’s hypocritical at best. Or just plain ignorant. He is a minister to the Crown, the same Crown that has passed legislation through successive governments that recognizes that in certain circumstances legally male men can also have a cervix. Javid’s comments aren’t all that surprising, however, given his penchant for posture. Remember those power position photos? It’s more or less the same thing. But posing with words, instead of legs. While that may explain why, as trans health care — especially trans men’s health care — hits the pads, he hasn’t bothered to address those in despair and suffering over the shortcomings of the NHS on this front.

And the media? They did exactly what you expected, racking up feigned outrage and tasteless interrogations that do nothing to inform. Hence the tangle of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer and any other vaguely pro-trans politician.

Along the way, they have destroyed any possibility of what they claim to want: a practical debate to solve this problem. Everything became toxic. So, unfortunately, people who have sensible ideas about how to rework language, including lifelong true feminists, no longer dare to express their views on this.

During this time, The Lancetbastion of medical respectability, is taken to task for referring to “bodies with vaginas”. “They are erasing women! we shout. Even if you only have to read on to see that they are not. The word “women” is used later in the same sentence. This too is problematic. The author clearly intends to shed light on the issues that women face. But it comes across as objectifying women as body parts. Again. Wrong Lancet, even if the reason for this awfulness seems more to be an editorial push for elegant variation – using different ways of referring to the same thing, to avoid repetition – than something more suspicious. Except in the perverse non-debate around gender inclusion, such a subtle distinction is likely to get lost.

We need a period of calm. A time when people accept that there is a communication problem and come together to resolve it in a way that respects everyone involved. That’s what it takes. But in these turbulent times, there is little hope.

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