Amid an increasingly toxic debate about trans rights, transgender philosophy professor Sophie Grace Chappell suggests how to foster tolerance and compassion instead
In June, Sophie Grace Chappell wrote an open letter to Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who has been criticised by the trans community for tweets she posted and an essay she wrote about sex and gender issues. Chappell showed great empathy for Rowling, who had revealed that she was a survivor of sexual violence. Here, she speaks to Positive News about how we can move past the toxicity and come together.
Your letter to JK Rowling was very empathetic. How can we bring more kindness into these conversations?
When people are loved, they’re more secure, less shrill and less aggressive. I haven’t always been completely secure and free from shrillness myself, but when you’re loved by a family it is much easier to be gentle and kind to others. I think the most basic thing to do when people have these fears, is to think about how it looks from their point of view.
If you’re a woman who survived a serious sexual assault, certain things can be triggering for you. I never want to silence people. We need these debates, but we also need to be able to recognise when people are just being unpleasant.
When I get fed up, I listen to You Need To Calm Down by Taylor Swift, which is wonderfully trans-affirming. I love that song. People need to stop hitting the panic button and assuming that the other side are monsters. When we do that, we dig our trenches and we polarise ourselves.
You recently compared the trans experience to being an adoptive parent: can you expand on that?
As an adoptive parent, you’re starting from somewhere different [to biological parents], but you get to the same place. You won’t have the same experience as biological parents, but you’re likely to go through the sleepless nights, to have all the worries about your child. The solidarity has to do with shared experience. People get bound together by the fact that they’re all in the same struggle. In many ways, trans and biological women have the same struggle for women’s rights. There are differences, but there’s more that unites us than divides us.
What can we do to raise children to be tolerant and accepting of differences?
I think the lessons often run the other way. Talking to my own children, the younger generation seem much more tolerant. They’re much more inclined to say, ‘OK, Kevin’s like this,’ or ‘Maria’s like that, that’s fine, that’s her life’. So often it’s the children who have something to teach the parents.
What role has your Christian faith played in helping you realise your gender identity?
It’s been the biggest turnaround of my life. When I was younger, I was convinced it was completely wrong to be gay or to be transgender. I was fighting a civil war in myself. In 1998, I had a religious experience. I was saying to God: ‘Please help me fight this evil side of myself ’. And the way I would describe it is that God said, ‘Sure, I’ll help. You don’t have to fight this war at all. You are the way I made you so please stop wasting your energy fighting it, and work with it.’ I went from hating a side of myself to accepting myself as I am. And I stopped believing that Christianity was a stick to beat myself with, and I started believing that religion is actually about love or it’s not worth having.
The younger generation seem much more tolerant. Often it’s the children who have something to teach the parents
A lot of transphobia is reminiscent of people’s attitudes to gay and lesbian communities in the 70s and 80s. Gay rights have come a long way; does that give you any hope?
It does. The wonderful American philosophy professor Kate Abramson told me about how lesbians were referred to as the ‘lavender menace’. They had people saying that women would be attacked by predatory lesbians and they’d be trying to convert people in the ladies’ [toilets]. This nonsense was talked about the lesbian community in just the way that it’s now being talked about transgender people. So yes, it does seem to me like the ideological machine that generates these monsters is pretty unoriginal.
You’re working on a book about epiphanies. Would you describe your turnaround with your identity as an epiphany?
Yes, it was absolutely fantastic. I think epiphanies can just come to us, but I think we miss a lot of things. If we stopped huffing and puffing and worrying about our own little timetables and took in the beauty around us, we’d see them.
How can we know if we’ve had an epiphany?
There isn’t a clear edge to it. You have the little things like when you see a beautiful flower in the garden and it kind of lights up your system a little bit. There are cases where it’s definitely an epiphany, and there are other cases where it’s too small, really, to count as an epiphany, but that’s fine. The dawn comes gradually and yet we know light from darkness.
Images: Murdo MacLeod
This article was amended on 11 November 2020. The original text suggested that JK Rowling had opposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. Rowling has not publicly opposed the act.