One thing I’ve learnt about Brighton and Hove Council is that it’s not exactly the same as other councils around the country. It’s the only one to be run by the Green party and it’s the only one I know of where a councillor has been kicked out of their party because they disagree with same-sex marriage. I was not completely surprised therefore when I saw the headlines that they are considering removing all references to personal titles including Mr and Mrs from official paperwork because they may offend the transgender community.
I’ve thought hard about whether I should actually write this post as it’s nowhere near as big a story as some articles are making it out to be and I don’t really want to add to the hype and misinformation. The council has published a paper on the negative experiences of the local transgender community with proposals of how these can be addressed. This will go before the council in December for approval and one of the proposals is the option that the council should abolish honorifics in its communications with residents. Also suggested are transgender friendly sessions at gyms and swimming pools and more unisex/gender neutral toilets. The council won’t be removing the use of titles unless it there is a vote in favour of the change.
Let’s hope they see sense and don’t make such a foolish decision; and this is the reason why it would be foolish:
Even allowing for Brighton’s large LGBT community, the number of transgender people in the area must make up a small proportion of the population. Nationally there are no recorded figures of the number of transgender people, so we don’t have any idea. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have guessed the number to be between 65,000 and 300,000 from very limited evidence. Transgender in itself is a subjective term covering a range of people whose gender identity does not completely match assigned sex. It doesn’t just cover transsexuals of which there were approximately 1500-2400 living in the UK in 2000.
The fact that this paper focusses on the transgender community is not actually the main issue. It’s more about whether the views of a small minority should be allowed to dictate how everyone is treated, because they might possibly be offended. If you asked any group of people if they would like anything a council does to be changed to suit their interests, you would expect to get a whole list of points, most of which would contradict another groups’ somewhere down the line. Should the concerns of a few transgender people who possibly don’t feel comfortable putting a title on a form be sufficient reason to stop the rest of us doing so?
The question that Brighton and Hove Council should be asking along with most of the rest of us is, ‘Will this do more harm than good?’ It’s one that often gets missed or ignored by those zealous to promote the views of a particular group in society. Plenty of people could be accused of falling into this same nepotistic trap including Christians at times. None of us are immune from these inclinations. We naturally want to protect our own even sometimes at the inconvenience or expense of others.
A misunderstanding of equality is often used to justify such feelings and demands. Equality is not about the equal right to not be offended or deciding that one community’s interests should benefit from positive discrimination to make them more ‘equal’. True equality is really a simple concept. All of us whether we’re young or old, make or female, straight, gay or transgender have the same value as the person next to us whoever they may be. No human has the right to be superior to any other. It’s not a new way of thinking by any means. Paul in his letter to the Galatians writes:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
The second problem we encounter with equality is what we do when we perceive there to be inequalities between different people. Sometimes as in the case of the Brighton and Hove Council paper being different is confused with inequality, which demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding and wisdom.
I’m different to every other person on this planet. There are some aspects of who I am that I’m not always happy with, that I feel can hold me back in certain situations compared to others who have maybe had a better education, have better looks, or more money for example. If I want to see a change in this state of affairs, the way to go about it is to try to better myself if possible, but what I don’t have any intention of doing is dragging others down to my level by penalising them in some way. Certainly I’ll fight prejudice if I see it, but the use of titles such as Mr or Mrs is not there to deliberately discriminate against those with gender identity issues.
Jim Wallis, the respected American Christian writer and political activist best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners and spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama writes about this desire by some to strip away our identity in the name of equality in his book Seven Ways to Change the World. He uses a passage from Revelation as a starting point:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)
‘The revelation narrative is powerful and clear. This great multitude of people “from every nation, from all tribes, peoples and languages” are affirmed in their very diversity. They are different from one another and that is assumed to be just fine, even good. they are not amalgamated into one homogenised race or people but retain their cultural distinctiveness. They are present before the throne in all their diversities, we assume, of language, culture, race, gender and class. But before the Lamb and the throne they are absolutely equal.’
We continue to see a trend from so-called progressives, often under the banner of political correctness, to try to remove distinctions between individuals and suppress what makes us who we are in order to make us a more ‘equal’ society. This is the main difficulty I have with the proposals to allow gay marriage. Even if it goes through there will still be a distinction between a homosexual marriage and a heterosexual one that can never be entirely ignored. The term marriage will take on a new meaning. Whilst there are plenty of people who feel this is a good thing, there are also a large number for whom part of their identity is through marriage and they are not enjoying the fact that this proposed change will in some way water down that identity against their wishes.
My title of Mr is very important to me. With a name like Gillan which often gets mistaken for Gillian, I’m often assumed to be female by those who haven’t met me in person. Having that honorific at the start of my name helps to give others the chance to avoid making errors and reduces embarrassment, which can often be the case. Without Mr or those other titles we all just become ‘its’ and part of our personal make-up is ignored and suppressed.
Paul again in 1 Corinthians 12 talks about Christians being the Body of Christ which is made up of many parts, all with their own functions and purposes. He describes the need to give honour and value to everyone and especially to those who are less obvious and potentially seen as less important. He also explains the dangers of us wanting to be the same and rejecting our individual identities and how that goes against the way God created us. This letter was written to Christians, but it has just as much relevance to any society and all those who live in it. If you want to go about defining what equality really means, this is as good a place as any to start.
After all this discussion about what equality is or isn’t, often the answer to a problem doesn’t require a lecture or a great analysis of rights and wrongs. If Brighton and Hove Council really feel that they have been offending transgender residents for so long, why not just give them the option of choosing ‘Other’ when they select their title from the drop down list on the form and let them decide what they want to be called. It really isn’t any more complicated than that.