Rishi Sunak promised a lot when the general election was announced. One of his plans concerns the ongoing, divisive debate about transgender people.

Here, the Conservatives wanted to remove the 'confusion' which, they felt, dominates the discussion. But if you thought their manifesto would take the heat away, you were in for a disappointment.

Young people who question their gender, it says, will be 'protected' from 'ideologically driven care'. And it promises that 'the contested concept of gender identity is not taught to children' (which sounds like section 28, the Thatcher-era law that banned the discussion of homosexuality in schools).

How phrases like these will settle anything, is anybody's guess.

It is only one of many LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues that are debated today. There is also the question of conversion 'therapy' – methods that seek to turn gay people straight or to change the gender identity of transgender people. Such practices can cause untold suffering, and medical associations have widely condemned them. But attempts to draft laws against them in the UK ran into trouble: some religious organisations feared that this would hamper their work. 'Praying away the gay' as a God-given right.


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To academics who would like to teach LGBT+ matters at universities, this is a challenge. Both sides in these debates present their opinions with vigour and verve. But who got the facts right? Are they all indeed 'facts'? Do you need to bring in all perspectives or are some so far-out they make flat-earthers look good?

These are questions I could not escape when I set up a course on LGBT+ Rights at the University of Edinburgh – the first of its kind in Scotland. I had dealt with LGBT+ matters in my research and other work before (in Scotland, I was member of the Expert Advisory Group on Ending Conversion Practices, which issued recommendations to end conversion 'therapy'). And I had been approached by several students who wanted to write their dissertations on LGBT+ topics; a point that encouraged me to pursue the idea of a Masters course in the field.

Setting it up did not cause great problems. Teaching it, however, was a challenge.

There was the sheer wealth of material that had to be covered. In the last 15 years alone, numerous judgments by human rights courts, opinions by UN bodies and national laws were adopted, against LGBT+ discrimination, about same-sex partnerships, about the need for their protection against violence. So there was no shortage of sources (but also no up-to-date textbook to guide us through the entire course).

And there was the problem of getting lost in a rabbit hole. So many issues exist on the margins of the debate, but are interesting in their own right. (To my students, one of the most fascinating topics was the diary of Yorkshire farmer, who, in 1810, at a time when gay men in England still faced the death penalty, suggested that same-sex attraction existed from childhood on, that it must be considered natural, and that it seems cruel to punish homosexuality with death. Some modern commentators may want to take note).

And yes, there were the hot topics of today, including transgender rights. We certainly did not shy away from a frank discussion, but my students showed great understanding of the challenges that trans people face and (quite rightly) made the point that the vast majority of them, far from causing a danger to anyone, are often themselves victims of discrimination. Often enough, it was the law itself that helped our debate.

Nicola Sturgeon was supportive of the LGBT+ communityNicola Sturgeon was supportive of the LGBT+ community (Image: free)

Yes, judges too had to face a learning curve when it came to LGBT+ matters. But for many years now, the decisions of courts, at least on the international level, and the reports of UN bodies have sought to protect LGBT+ rights; trans rights included.

More than 20 years ago, the European Court of Human Rights highlighted the right of transgender people 'to live in dignity and worth in accordance with the sexual identity chosen by them'. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the procedure for gender recognition should take self-identification as a basis, should be a 'simple administrative process' and 'give minors access to recognition of their gender identity'. In light of that, it seems bizarre to see the Conservative manifesto mention gender identity as a 'contested concept'.

On conversion practices, too, the condemnation by international bodies could not be clearer (the Special Rapporteur on Torture, for one, noted that such practices can 'amount to torture and ill-treatment'). So the legal view is important.

And there is another aspect that I appreciate about it and that helps in the debate: the law calms the waters. There is, after all, a common basis for legal discussion: very often, a human rights treaty that protects people from discrimination. A certain discipline comes with that too: if you apply the law, you have to be consistent. You cannot say you want to remove LGBT+ discrimination and then support discrimination when it comes to trans rights.


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All of that may, at first, seem constricting. But given the current debate on LGBT+ issues, which is often passionate and personal, it is in fact a liberating approach.

So, LGBT+ rights have their place in a university curriculum. We are currently considering a similar course for undergraduate students, but my thoughts also go to colleagues in the field: I hope more courses on this will be set up at other institutions.

It is important that the reasoning voice of the law is heard; and if we are ever to advance, we need a discussion that is led by arguments, not by personal attacks. The subject and our students (LGBT+ or otherwise) deserve no less.

Dr Paul Behrens teaches 'LGBT Rights: A Legal Perspective' at the University of Edinburgh. With Sean Becker, he has published 'Justice After Stonewall: LGBT Life Between Challenge and Change' (Routledge 2023).