Free Speech

In the UK there are laws against “hate speech”. Of course speaking or writing in such a way as to promulgate hate against vulnerable groups is a bad thing. But knowing where to draw the line between hate and uncomfortable argument is difficult. When the legislation against hate speech was introduced, comedians and churchmen united in their opposition – the former because they wished to be able to lampoon religion and the latter because they wished to retain the freedom to debate the validity of competing world views.

Mermaids is a group that campaigns on behalf of gender-dysphoric children. As is to be expected for a campaigning group, it takes an uncompromising stance on the issues that concern it. But the issues that affect the people Mermaids aims to support – gender dysphoric children – are complex. Medical professionals agree that determining how best to help this group is a non-trivial task. I’ve written elsewhere about the problematic and propagandist position of Mermaids on suicide rates in gender-dysphoric children.

Recently Mermaids made a complaint against a Catholic writer, Caroline Farrow, who raised concerns about the treatment of gender-dysphoric children. In a TV interview Farrow misgendered the transgender daughter of Mermaids’ founder Susie Green. I have every sympathy with Green’s sensitivity to misgendering of her daughter; she has every right to be upset about it and no doubt this is a kind of petty and (often) deliberate offence that is wearing and depressing to contend with.

But is it a hate crime? Farrow later claimed that the misgendering was an error and apologised. Green pointed to a deleted Tweet by Farrow in which she said, in relation to Green’s daughter, “What she did to her own son is illegal. She mutilated him by having him castrated and rendered sterile while he was still a child” (The Guardian 20/3/19) and made a complaint to the police that a hate crime had been committed. If convicted Farrow could serve up to two years in prison. However, Green later decided to retract the complaint.

The specific details of the case are perhaps less significant than the point of principle. As far as I can tell, Farrow was expressing in trenchant terms an objection to approaches to the handling of TG children that are favoured by Mermaids but which it can be argues are problematic. At what stage in development is it clear that an individual is irrevocably committed to a transition to the opposite gender? I do not believe that there is a clear medical consensus on when this occurs, and I am not – as a gender dysphoric individual – at all clear that the more extreme claims supported by activist groups like Mermaids (effectively that a boy who claims to be a girl must be a girl) are supportable. Green took a child too young to receive surgery in the UK to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery. Was she a resonsible caring parent or not? Is the age threshold for SRS in the UK a protection for those too early in their development to be capable of making an informed decision about an irrevocable life choice, or an institutional embodiment of transphobia?

There seem to be no easy answers here. It would help if the temperature of the debate could be lowered and thoughtful and rational debate could hold sway. But is it helpful to wield the very big stick of a police investigation for hate speech for the use of provocative rhetoric? I am not at all convinced that this is a helpful or necessary sanction. Recently Germaine Greer provoked the ire of the TG community by asserting “just because you cut off your dick it doesn’t make you a woman”. Was this hate speech or a very direct statement of an uncomfortable truth? I feel that it was very definitely the latter. There is a nettle to be grasped. Talk of hate speech makes this less likely, not more so.

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