Thursday, 24 October 2013

Burning Chromosomes

Amid all the recent Skeptics related flap about sex and gender, one thing has stood out to me. It is the assertion that people's  'biological sex' is obvious because of chromosomes. This is a dubious statement for many reasons, but prominent among them is this: of the numerous people I have questioned after they made this statement, all of whom have described themselves with confidence as either male or female, not one has been able to tell me with certainty what their own chromosomes look like.

Let's think about that for a minute.

Considering this, one friend told me that he'd be prepared to make a bet. I respect that position - it's not hard to guess the likely outcome - but it misses the point. The argument that sex is obvious because of chromosomes implies that we are looking at chromosomes and then deciding what sex somebody is (generally referred to as 'gendering' them).

This is patently not what we are doing. We are, as a rule looking at secondary sex characteristics or aspects of presentation (or, in the case of babies, genitals) and deciding, on that basis, what sex category to place people in; then, on that basis, we are making an assumption about what their chromosomes are likely to look like.

Ergo, unless the first we see of someone is a cell under a microscope, chromosomes play no role in what is 'obvious'. They may play a role in confirming or contradicting that later on, but it's rare.

Perhaps what is intended here is the advancement of the idea that sex can always be clarified by chromosomes. This relies on a very dogmatic view of sex in a context where scientists and doctors are far from reaching a consensus (sex can be defined by a number of characteristics that don't always neatly line up), it runs into problems when it comes to individuals with variant sex chromosomes (not super rare) and it plainly doesn't fit with our social reality.

When we look at someone's chromosomes, we may well find that they're not what we expect. Some kinds of intersex people have bodies that look completely male or female whilst their chromosomes might lead you to expect the opposite; to claim that they are 'really' gendered by their chromosomes is to dismiss at a stroke their whole life history. Not only does this render the notion of sex pretty much meaningless (lots of us don't reproduce anyway* but sex has a huge effect on how we interact), but any competent biologist will tell you that genotype does not equal phenotype, for a host of reasons, and phenotype is no less biologically 'real'.

Although many intersex people are identified at birth, many don't find out until much later in life (it's reasonable to suppose that a fair number never know at all). Every now and then a story hits the papers, usually with a lurid headline. A fifty year old man has found out he's really a woman! they tell us, except of course he has done no such thing. If he has always felt comfortable with his male identity, with a body that looks the way it does, he's not likely to change that because of a curious medical detail. His family, friends and workmates may raise eyebrows at the unexpected news but they won't suddenly see him differently. He'll still just be this guy, you know?

If you are minded to dismiss somebody as not 'really' male or female because their chromosomes don't match their appearance, you had better (a) actually know what their chromosomes are instead of basing bullying on a guess, and (b) give serious thought to how you would feel and behave if you discovered your chromosomes were not what you expected. Would you really change your lifestyle completely? Would you start thinking of the life you had lived as false, of yourself as fake? Are chromosomes that important to you?

There is a parallel here with many people's approach to sexual orientation. I have had many conversations with men who tell me they would never feel attracted to a man (by which they usually mean a male-bodied person; and so on, for other categories of sex and orientation). Not wouldn't want to sleep with, which is entirely their prerogative, but wouldn't feel attracted to. I find this odd because when I first notice somebody appealing I'm not usually looking at their genitals or peering at their chromosomes under a microscope. YMMV. I usually notice things like their curves, their (ahem) secondary sexual characteristics, and how they move. Despite my many years of living and working in trans and intersex circles, I have no magical power to perceive either the private anatomy or the gender identity of a fully clothed stranger. Simply considering the statistics, I'm sure I must have been attracted to some people where one of both of those things in fact defied my expectations.** Attraction is not a thing we control and, in most contexts, it's really not a thing we need to worry about that much. After all, we cope with other instances where otherwise cute people turn out to have characteristics that are deal breakers (for instance, I know a fair few people who refuse to sleep with folk who vote Tory, and they don't break down in tears if they discover they've accidentally lusted over one).

Sex, gender and sexual orientation are complicated things. Unless we're monitoring discrimination or planning to get intimate with someone then they are also, as a rule, none of our business. We don't need to impose dubious scientific definitions on them or get our knickers in a twist trying to reconcile the inherent fuzziness of
biology with a compulsion to neatly index everything. There is variety everywhere in nature - without it, evolution wouldn't work - and any truly scientific approach must acknowledge that. So in the end, it doesn't hurt science to respect people's lived experiences. In this situation at least, there need be no conflict between good science and good manners.

* One definition of sex used in biology holds that females are those individuals in a species who produce larger gametes than other members (males). It would work fairly well except that a significant percentage of individuals in most species, including humans, don't produce any gametes.
**This isn't to suggest that cross dressers set out to deceive people. I start from the assumption that, like me (when not in professional wear) they dress to please themselves, not because they're sleazily determined to seduce me. Others might want to give this approach a try.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Giant Size Television Thing

Following Jamie Oliver’s latest ill though out tirade, it really is time to call time on the giant size television thing.  There are many ways to attack the poor (as the current Westminster government has shown us) but getting in a flap about the size of their TV sets has to be one of the stupidest.

Let’s start with a simple question: when was the last time you saw a small television set? These days, if you’re going to buy one at all, it’s going to be large. It is also, most likely, going to be cheap. We are far from the days when televisions were a luxury item. One can buy them in supermarkets now for less than some people spend on their weekly food shop. They’re also cheap to run when compared with the old cathode ray models, averaging about three pounds a week. That’s pretty good for a box that keeps the kids entertained if you’re working the long hours that most poor people do, or if you’re looking for a job.

Televisions are even cheaper second hand. They have a very low resale value, so if you lose your job, selling your television won’t help you much. The chances are you will have to part with your internet connection, if you had one in the first place (many poor people still don’t) as internet access constitutes a much larger ongoing expense. This means your television will become your main form of access to news. There have been rulings against bailiffs taking televisions in payment of debt, as they are considered essential for keeping people informed about the world. If poor people are forced to get rid of them, that’s a pretty effective way of barring them from any engagement with public life. Losing access to information about current affairs (bearing in mind that many avoid the expense of paying for a daily newspaper) makes it difficult for them to exercise their democratic rights.

To say that poor people should not have access to television is also to say that they should not have access to entertainment. It means their kids will experience social isolation and have difficulty fitting in at school, with a potentially negative consequences for their education. It means that older kids who probably also have few books or toys will have nothing to do but hang around in the streets, and we all know the kind of problems that can lead to. It means that those adults who cannot look for work—who are poor due to illness or disability, or who are full time carers—are deprived of something that can help fill their time. Bear in mind that these are, by and large, not people with the means to buy books or musical instruments or to make regular trips to the cinema or theatre. Television may be all they have.

So why is the possession of a television whilst poor now the subject of so much disapproval? It’s pretty simple: when we go inside the poorest people’s homes, whether directly or via a camera (whose observations we probably see on our own television sets), the TV is generally the only thing we see that looks like it might be worth anything at all. Think about that. There’s usually no computer, no sound system, no attractive furniture, no sports equipment, no art. These are people with next to nothing. Picking on the television is the only effective way to pretend that they are hanging on to some kind of meaningful resource, thereby depriving others. It’s simple propaganda.

Jamie Oliver, who would not be successful himself without television, should know better than to go along with this kind of lie. How are his crusades to change people’s eating habits going to reach their targets if not through their TVs? Yes, it would be better if people engaged in more active pursuits, but that’s not an option for all of them.  Yes, it’s tragic that many are reduced to living life simply as spectators, but the real problem there is lack of opportunity—depriving them even further will not help. We should not be looking at people in desperate situations and asking what they still have that we might take. We should be asking what we can give, how we can increase their opportunities, how we can help them to connect with the world more effectively and thereby improve their own situations. We should think about the roots of the word ‘television’ and try to see a little further ourselves.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Rape jokes: still not big, still not clever

Over the past 24 hours I have been working with my charity, Trans Media Watch, to try and ensure respectful coverage of Chelsea Manning's decision to come out as trans. The fact we've known about the matter for some time didn't really help; we always knew that when she went public the story would be huge, and it has been very hard for us to keep up. Although we're very pleased with how some media outlets have responded, we've also seen a lot of really nasty stuff, some of it in supposedly professional publications and, of course, a lot of it on social media.

What has stood out about the social media stuff - and some of the comments in national newspapers, before editors got to them - is the number of jokes focused on prison rape, and the number of people who seem to find them hilarious. Rape jokes on the internet may be nothing new but the striking thing about these is how many have come from people (mostly men) who just a few weeks ago were up in arms about the abuse many women suffer online. The disconnect is remarkable. These are people who generally seem to think of themselves as the good guys, even as feminists. They would probably be horrified at the thought of making rape jokes about non-trans women. But because Chelsea Manning is trans, she's seen as fair game.

The issue here isn't simply about how Manning's gender is understood, about when she is seen to 'count' s female; it's about why people think that should matter. To put it simply, rape jokes about a man wouldn't be funny either. Avoiding this kind of behaviour isn't simply a box-ticking exercise to make a good impression on influential women. It has been assumed to represent a genuine understanding of how horrific rape is, or at least an appreciation that the subject can be traumatic to others, and the ease with which Manning has been targeted reveals that, in some cases, that simply isn't there. When people make these jokes about Manning, it becomes obvious how hollow that pretence of sympathy was.

There are no doubt people who have made such jokes, or laughed along with them, as a reflex action, without any examination of their import. It's time for those people to think about how they come across. There are others who have approached the subject as gallows humour, who have understood and have aimed to use humour to expose horror. This always has its place, but it needs to be done with great caution in a context where there's already so much carelessly brutal stuff going around.

There's another aspect to this, and that's that rape jokes aimed at women, ugly as they are, tend to be intended to shock. By contrast, much of the joking about Manning has been giggling, conspiratorial stuff, as if it were no more than a little bit of naughtiness. There's a sense that it's socially condoned, or that people expect it to be. We all need to speak out against this. The developing dialogue about abuse hurled at women online must expand and account for the fact that sexual aggression is just as unacceptable no matter whom it refers to.

I would hope that responsible internet users can unite on this. I don't like to think what it says about our society if we can't.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Counting the Cost

There are several reasons why I don't think campaigning for a report button on Twitter is a good idea. Chief among them - yet barely addressed - is the fact that this is fig leaf politics. It's enabling business leaders and politicians to wriggle out of a much bigger problem, which is this: who is going to pay to fix our broken society and why should women and minorities pay for the cost of leaving it the way it is?

First of all, let me clarify that I am not without sympathy for those who have been hurt by threats made against them online. Whilst I think we need to exercise caution in policing slurs, a threat that places somebody in a state of fear and alarm (or which a reasonable person would assume could do so) would, in other circumstances, be considered a crime, and I don't see why it being made online should be seen as making it less serious. I should note that I've received any number of rape and death threats in my time and I have generally laughed them off (most are, all else aside, terribly badly written), but that's me. I'm not easily intimidated in that way, but we don't say it's okay to go around shoving people in the street because the stronger ones won't fall over. I note that most people saying everyone should laugh this off are not members of those groups who can expect to be threatened in person on a frequent basis. Many women and members of minority groups experience that daily; they may find it hard to brush off online threats if they've been raped and assaulted in the past.

That said, I also have some sympathy for certain kinds of trolling - not the sorts that terrify people but the sorts that aim to provoke people for socially or politically important reasons. We have always needed contrary voices in order to enhance public discussion. Often it is only through this kind of provocation that radical perspectives come to be heard at all, and even if some of it seems inept, our society is richer for it. Furthermore, there are groups out there whose very existence is seen as provocation. I worry for the future of my charity if a report button happens because I know there are people out there who would constantly report it as being offensive simply for advocating that trans people have a right to decent treatment. It wouldn't matter if each instance of complaint was dismissed; if it happened frequently enough, we would not be able to communicate using Twitter. The same could go for any number of socially and politically focused organisations, and indeed for feminist advocates who attract the ire of certain groups of men.

Ultimately, though, what worries me most is that a report button - and similar approaches elsewhere - will allow a symbolic gesture to shut off debate in a really important area. Adding a button does not guarantee that Twitter, or any other organisation, will devote any more resources to following up complaints, or doing so promptly. Facebook has report buttons and yet remains notorious as a home for groups discussing rape and violence. Adding a button or clicking a button will not make the problem go away, it will just boost corporate PR.

Worse than this is the political jumping on the bandwagon (and here I do not include politicians like Stella Creasy who have been campaigning on related issues for a long time). This is a boost for David Cameron's equally ill-thought-out internet porn filter scheme. It allows politicians to look as if they care about violence against women without ever putting their money where their mouths are. If Cameron gave a damn, he wouldn't have taken funding away from battered women's shelters.

Here's the crux of the problem: misogyny wasn't invented by the internet. It may sometimes take more exaggerated forms there but the real reason it's becoming a political issue is not that there's more of it, it's that women are able to raise their voices, en masse, in protest. Projects like Everyday Sexism have helped to demonstrate the scale of the problem, online and off. Men who used to keep their hatred within all-male groups are now expressing it where women can observe it, and are having to contend with the fact that women don't like it. Hence all the nonsensical attempts to drown out women's voices in the name of free speech.

Ever since our society started to recognise that women are human beings with a right to expect the same opportunities in life as men, our society has been heading towards this confrontation. We have reached a point where it is no longer possible to ignore the aggression that many women routinely face from many men. We need to have a social solution, a cultural solution, a political solution - and there will be no persuading women to return to the meek days of accepting their fate. But what really makes this frightening for politicians is that we need an economic solution.

Every debate about dealing with misogyny stops short when it comes to finance. We are at a point where we don't need hand wringing and sympathetic speeches, we need serious investment. We need the police to be adequately funded to follow things up every time a credible threat or rape or violence is made, every time a woman is groped on a bus, every time she faces sexual harassment in a workplace that fails to take action. Restricting follow-up to high threshold cases isn't good enough. It isn't good enough because there is a cost to all this freewheeling abuse and right now women (along with other targeted groups like gay people) are bearing all of that cost themselves. Ultimately, the question must be why our society thinks it's okay for half its members to bear the whole of this cost rather than everyone paying their share, fairly, through the tax system, through government action to tackle the problem.

The same applies when it comes to child protection. We get endless soundbites and new schemes to encourage reporting. We don't see the organisations things are reported to getting anything like adequate resources for follow-up. Once again, one group is left to pay the price, in suffering, of society's failure to put its money where its mouth is.

The real reason very little is done to tackle misogynistic aggression is that it's so endemic the cost would be huge. That's a tough thing for politicians to take on, but what they need to understand is that the cost of doing nothing is also huge. Those who are paying it now will not put up with that forever. They are voters too, and politically, they are waking up to this. They will not be placated for long by being given buttons. It is time for real action.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Protection Racket

The latest wave of moral panic around protecting children has inspired David Cameron to announce that, from the latter part of this year, all ISPs will be required to use a opt-in system where users only get access to adult content if they register first. Aside from the general unworkability of this, his evident cluelessness about the technical issues involved and the massive concerns about state control of content that it raises, there's another important point that needs to be addressed, and that's that in some cases, it will do the very opposite of protecting children - it will leave them cut off from resources they desperately need.

It was in the early 'nineties that I first became aware of what filtering out 'adult' content actually means. At that point I was helping to maintain a safer sex advice website and I was shocked when we were told it was being blacklisted by several search engines which deemed it pornographic. There were no images on the site apart from logos and everything was written in a very plain style, with nothing intended to titillate (rather than getting people excited we wanted them to stop and think). But there were those words, 'sex' and 'sexual', and there was some discussion of taboo body parts, and that was enough.

When I got angry about this, a colleague suggested that I look into the status of another site I wrote for, which was aimed at young LGBT people and had no sexual content at all. Sure enough, I discovered this was blocked too. And it wasn't just because certain terms ended in '-sexual' - further research showed that some search engines blocked on the basis of words like 'gay' and 'lesbian', as a matter of course.

Two decades on, much has improved. It's probable that most ISPs will have the sense to keep general LGB sites accessible, at least once the problem is pointed out to them. These sites can be a vital resource to young people facing daily hostility at home or at school. But what about trans people in the same situation? It is, sadly, still the case that the most heavily promoted sites using the terms 'transsexual' and 'transgender' are pornographic. Search engines have got savvy about this but a lazy ISP will find it much easier simply to deem everywhere with those terms 'adult', leaving vulnerable young people without anywhere they can find support, community or access to vital health information.

If the proposed filters come into operation, it is probable that every site on safer sex will have to fight to remain accessible, and the evidence shows us that it is young people who are most in need of the information these sites carry. Furthermore, it will be harder for young people facing sexual abuse to access support online. I can remember how I felt when Childline started, how I wished it had been there for me. There are now lots of places that offer children help but lots are needed, as not every child will be comfortable with the same set of options and not every child will look for help using the same kind of search terms. How many would end up disappearing due to the language they used?

Even when it comes to images, there are entirely appropriate reasons why, sometimes, children should have access to images of genitals. In some cases they're an appropriate part of conversations on safer sex; in others, they're important to helping young people feel comfortable about their bodies and recognise the diversity out there. They are particularly important for young intersex people trying to come to terms with bodily differences that doctors and family members may simply refuse to discuss. It is much better for young people to be able to access educational and support resources online than to rely on peer gossip or take a chance on trusting an adult to give advice when they are in a very vulnerable situation. School advisors and so on are not an adequate substitute because thy often lack training on trans and intersex issues.

By restricting access to legitimate resources, internet filters put already marginalised young people at even greater risk. Yes, online predation is a danger, but so are in-person abuse, bullying, isolation, unplanned pregnancy and lack of access to appropriate medical support. Among the few things research tells us about child molesters in general is that they seek out children who are poorly informed about sexual and bodily issues, and who lack confidence. Internet filters could easily make children more vulnerable in this way, too.

Of course it's possible that any successfully introduced filter will take account of these problems and invest the resources to make sure support and information sites are not affected. Given the history of this area, however, I'm not holding out much hope. Whilst I doubt Cameron's proposals will easily find solid form at all, it's important that we have this conversation, because current discussions are ignoring the complexity of child protection issues and ignoring the fact that the internet provides services that the state itself is failing to provide to certain groups. Any curtailment of access to information must be approached with extreme caution and this matters at least as much when it applies to children as when it applies to adults.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Time After Time

As both the Catholic Church and the Liberal Democrats reel before fresh allegations about abuse an institutional failures to investigate abuse allegations, I have to ask, didn't we go through all this just a couple of months ago with the Savile scandal? Whilst I never seriously expected the revolution in attitudes that many people talked about then, even I have been astounded by quite how quickly important lessons have been forgotten.

There is – quite rightly – hesitation about discussing some of these issues just now. The accusations against Cardinal O'Brien and Lord Rennard have thus far been untested in a court of law and we should always give people the benefit of the doubt in such cases. But hiding behind this is another issue with much wider-reaching potential consequences, and that's something that isn't being discussed aggressively enough. Why do we tolerate, again and again, the failure to investigate? Why is so much airtime devoted to people saying “He was a very nice man who wouldn't do that sort of thing,” and so little attention given to the other side of the story?

Being generous, we might say that there re some things so horrific people don't want to talk about them, or don't know how to do so; or we might suggest that these discussions are avoided in order to reduce the stress caused to those who have been abused. The balance of reporting and comment by some institutions, however, suggests something else. Several people have already noted that Nick Clegg's vague statements about having heard something but not having evidence is already reminiscent of that hideous line from the Savile scandal “We had no evidence – only the women.” Similarly Newsnight, so superficially contrite after its failures in the Savile case, couldn't be apologist enough when discussing the Pope's resignation, doing nothing to challenge guests who dismissed allegations about the concealment of child abuse as some sort of mild unpleasantness. Everybody loved the Pope, they said, showing again that footage of people running after his car in Edinburgh which had the sound cut out if it to suggest said people were fans, when they were actually shouting in protest. Literally silencing voices of dissent.

The BBC's initial line on Cardinal O'Brien was similar. There was a huge emphasis on his good work and a focus on how unfortunate it was that he should be accused of unpleasantness (which it certainly is, if the allegations are untrue, but hardly in proportion to the suffering of others if they are not). But the worst came from the Cardinal himself, dismissing historic child abuse with the line “It was a different time,” as if there were, at some point in our recent past, a time when somebody might have inadvertently assumed it was okay to rape a child. In fact, the time when those alleged (and some proven) incidents occurred was much like our own, right down to the preference for covering it up, making it look as if it has all gone away.

It doesn't go away.

Last month I was told by a specialist doctor that I may very well be correct in identifying the abuse I experienced as a child as a factor in triggering the illness which keeps me housebound today. Autoimmune diseases are significantly more common in child abuse victims. So are more obvious things like PTSD which can, in some cases, be equally crippling. So are anger issues that often lead to the breakdown of relationships in adult life. So are difficulties in communicating that make it difficult for survivors to find steady employment, make them vulnerable to prejudice like that displayed in the Daily Mail's hatchet job on poor Steve Mesham – and make it difficult for them to pursue those responsible. For some, it gets better. For others, the damage never goes away. The pain never stops. Why, then, did Cardinal O'Brien think it was okay to talk about things happening “long ago” as if that means we should forget about it?

Simon Wiesenthal said that we should not dismiss historic crimes because that sends a damaging message – not simply that if one evades justice for long enough one can get away with them, but that we, as a society, are prepared to tolerate all kinds of horrors once the pursuit of justice become socially or politically inconvenient. This was true in the 1940s when he began his work and it's true today. It is a different thing from saying that we should not forgive. Forgiveness has its value, but we cannot forgive when there is no repentance – we cannot simply sit back and pretend it never happened and look away as it happens again.

Cardinal O'Brien, whether inspired by contrition or convenience, has at least had the wit to resign. Indeed, there are many who argue that the Pope's surprise exit was similarly motivated. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, won't let go of the shovel, digging himself a deeper hole with every utterance. He doesn't seem to understand that this isn't about the principle of habeas corpus – it's about whether or not those lower down on the social ladder have access to justice at all. The proper thing to do now is to stop trying to explain what happened and support an independent investigation, which must be conducted in as transparent a manner as possible.

I hesitate to single out the LibDems for this kind of criticism because, though they are the ones under the spotlight just now, they are hardly the only political party to have had difficulties around such issues. I have written here before of the problematic attitude of some Conservatives towards rape and sexual harassment. I don't know what the Labour Party is like these days but twenty years ago, when I was a member, I encountered individuals there who were notorious for their wandering hands, a problem routinely ignored by those higher up. It would surprise me if any major party were exempt from such problems. Abusive individuals will always be there. The issue is what organisations – and society at large – do about them. When I talk to other people who have experienced abuse, they frequently tell me that they told someone at the time, or that people advised them later that they'd had suspicions. By and large, abusers don't operate completely unseen. They get away with it because other people choose not to look. We need to start challenging that.

The media has a very particular role to play here. Institutions like the BBC need to stop cosying up to establishment figures, acting as if they couldn't possibly do bad things. One of the ways abusers escape justice comes down to people refusing to believe bad things about their friends. Friendship means giving people the benefit of the doubt. It can mean supporting them emotionally if they are distressed to find themselves the target of allegations. It should not mean assuming that they are beyond reproach. The simple fact of the matter is that anybody can hurt others, and the ability to achieve a respectable position in politics or to become a religious leader is meaningless.

Justice, if it is to have any meaning, must apply universally. The assumption of innocence must apply to everyone – not just the accused, but also their accusers. It is not acceptable to write off confirmed institutional abuse as a little late unpleasantness. Those who have done harm, whether directly or through concealment, have a duty to put it right, not least by approaching it with honesty – and until they do so, they don't deserve anybody's respect. They certainly don't deserve to be accorded moral authority.

Joseph Butler argued that God created the conscience so that we can tell for ourselves whether something is right or wrong. It is time certain people stopped hiding behind rulebooks or fellow politicians and started analysing theirs.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Intersectionality, Solidarity and Sense

Sometimes one knows that an idea has finally made it into the public consciousness only when newspaper articles appear and attack it. For me, after years of slogging away in silence, the sudden fuss about intersectionality is itself rewarding. But though it is now visible, it is still poorly understood, and it's a shame to see so many smart people floundering over it. It's also a shame to see it being treated as antithetical to solidarity, when in fact they are mutually supportive concepts.

Perhaps the mos bizarre part of the debate has been the argument that use of the term intersectionality is inherently problematic because it excludes the uneducated. The very fact that this debate is going on means it can hardly continue to be considered obscure. Furthermore, much of said debate is being conducted across a vast international network of computers which would seem to offer the option of just going and looking it up. It's pretty insulting for any of us to suggest our readers aren't capable of doing so. And whilst I'm not about to suggest we all start writing like Judith Butler, she has a point when she notes that sometimes we need to be precise about concepts. Not everything can be effectively explained in words of under three syllables.

I also find it bizarre that intersectionality is supposed to be such a difficult concept to grasp. I've now seen several people argue that people are being asked to waste time trying to understand it when they could be devoting themselves directly to The Struggle. That's like advising an army to go to war without wasting time on training. Anti-intellectualism is never pretty but in this case t borders on the ridiculous. The public is now largely familiar with the concept of people potentially being members of stigmatised groups. The average person understands that some people have a harder time in life because they're female or because they have dark skin. Is it so tricky to grasp that a woman might be black or that a gay man might be disabled? Is it so hard to understand that we all have advantages and disadvantages, and that these might sometimes compound each other? The angst about privilege obscures the real point – that if you're not a dick to people, and if you apologise when you upset someone unnecessarily, you'll get along just fine. Want to avoid causing accidental upset in the first place? Then, as journalists should know, there's this thing called research.

It's particularly ironic that the most recent fuss should have kicked off over trans issues because this is actually one of the easier areas in which to get it right. My charity, Trans Media Watch, is always ready to give free advice and support in this area. We have lots of resources for journalists on our website. We don't expect the people who come to us to understand everything at the outset and we don't get offended if people use clumsy language in their approaches to us. Whilst there are naturally disagreements about things like language between different trans individuals, we can let you know what the majority think and where there are areas of sensitivity. We're not saying that working with us is proof against getting shouted at – there's always someone on the internet looking for a fight – but most people will cut you some slack if they know you've made an effort.

Among other things, we can advise on how trans issues intersect with other areas – for instance, what it might mean to be trans and elderly or trans and a Muslim. These are not trivial issues, not silly little details getting in the way of some greater agenda. They can each bring up specific problems that limit people's ability to participate in wider society – and, if they are so inclined, to participate in political activism.

As a disabled person, I find myself at the sharp end of this quite a lot. I've often been excluded from political events simply because I haven't been able to access the venues where they've been held. When there are a limited number of venues for lgbt people in my home city of Glasgow, it matters that I can't get into most of them. I can't be part of a wider movement if it's shutting me out and this – often in subtler ways – is what happens to a lot of people with intersectional issues. Faced with this, it’s pretty frustrating for us to see ourselves treated as the butt of jokes – examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad – first by the right wing press and now by the left. This crops up everywhere from hiring decisions to health service access to safety discussions around 'non-lethal' weapons. We are treated as if, because there are fewer of us, our rights don't matter. The irony is, of course, that whilst there might be fewer of us in any one group, together we constitute the majority of the population.

If we are the majority, we are asked, why do we need special treatment? The answer is that rather than crafting rules with multiple exceptions we need to be better at creating simple rules in the first place – a good rule will take into account people's varied needs. Much of it simply comes down to respect and good manners, and to asking people when we're not sure about things – but there is an underlying responsibility and that is the responsibility to be aware of the diversity of human experience. To not simply assume that one's own experience can be extrapolated to everybody else. To apply a little sensitivity – not just for the sake of trying to look good, but for the sake of becoming better at social interaction.

What works for the individual works for the movement. When we talk about solidarity and the importance of togetherness, we need to understand what that togetherness means. Feminists have complained for a long time about approaches to inclusion that expect women to behave just like men – approaches that take no account of the differing issues they are likely to have to deal with in life. Such approaches end up excluding women and the movements that use them thereby end up missing out on the talents individual women might contribute, as well as the perspective their shared difference of experience might bring. This weakens those movements. An inclusive movement – one that acknowledges and makes room for diversity – is a stronger movement. This is real togetherness.

It is time for people to realise that there need be no conflict between recognition of social minority issues and of class issues, between fighting or social change and upholding liberal values. The belief that such a conflict is necessary has been a gift to the traditionalist right. It is not giving due consideration to intersectionality that divides us – it is getting into petty arguments over it. The way to avoid this is not to shut down minority voices but to listen, learn, and move on. To respect that those voices matter, that they are part of us. To show solidarity.