A planned reform that simplifies how trans people gain recognition of their gender has sparked a wave of attacks on trans people, and not only from the right.
Colin Wilson argues that we urgently need to draw inspiration from the recent Irish campaigns for marriage equality and abortion rights to make sure the reform goes ahead.
Recent months have seen a wave of attacks on trans people in Britain. In the autumn, the government proposed a review of the Gender Recognition Certificate process. This procedure — currently bureaucratic, expensive and involving an assessment by a panel of doctors — allows a trans person to gain legal recognition of their gender. However, being recognised as a woman or man – in contexts from which toilet you can use to which prison you are sent to if convicted of a crime – does not depend on your having a certificate, and many trans people haven’t obtained one.
The government has proposed a simplified procedure, where a person makes a formal legal statement and no doctors are involved, a process comparable to one already in place in Ireland. This small suggested reform has led to attacks against trans people on the scale of those against lesbians and gay men in the 1980s, when we faced the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28, the Thatcher government’s ban on the “promotion of homosexuality”.
The loudest attacks have come from the right-wing press. The Sunday Times in particular has published story after transphobic story. Last October, they attacked trans children’s charity Mermaids, claiming that a court order had banned them from contact with a child, and that the group favours “fast-track cross-sex hormone treatment for children”. The paper later admitted neither claim was true, and apologised.
Last month the Sunday Times reported on a controversy about materials produced by the transphobic group Transgender Trend. Masquerading as a “resource pack” for schools, these materials propagate the notion that liberal professionals are pushing children confused about their gender towards transitioning.
The pack was described by Stonewall, the UK’s most prominent LGBT campaign group, as “dangerous”, “deeply damaging” and “factually inaccurate”. An editorial in the medical journal the Lancet stated last week (30 June 2018) that research shows the importance of “respectful, gender-affirming care of transgender and gender diverse children and adolescents”.
Yet after concerns about Transgender Trend led the Crowdfunder website to temporarily stop accepting donations for the group, the Sunday Times published an article headlined “Trans activist ‘bullies’ stop donations for children’s resource pack”.
The Telegraph has joined in with pieces reworking the hackneyed claim that trans rights are “political correctness gone mad”. Their columnist Allison Pearson wrote a column in October, for example, headlined “When will the madness end in this brave new transgender world?”
Norman Tebbit reached further depths of ignorant bigotry a few days later, conflating trans and intersex people, to whom he referred as “individuals neither fully male nor female” but adding that, in any case, few such people were to be found “in my intake for National Service in 1949”. The Spectator has blamed trans people for the poor quality of NHS mental health services. The Sun ran front-page headlines bemoaning non-existent “trans classes for kids aged 2”. Express columnist Leo McKinstry has claimed that trans people have a “demented grip on our society”.
The claim that trans people set the social agenda is, of course, at odds with reality. Recent research by Stonewall found that 41 percent of trans people have experienced a hate crime because of their gender identity in the last twelve months; 31 percent for non-binary people (those who identify as neither men nor women). For trans people aged 18 to 24 that figure rises to more than half.
Twelve percent of trans employees have been physically attacked by colleagues or customers in the last year. One in four trans people has been homeless at some point in their lives. In March, Naomi Hersi, a black trans woman, was murdered in London. In the US, 28 trans people, mostly trans women of colour, were murdered in 2017, and 14 have been killed so far in 2018. Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the US military, announced in March, will only make things worse.
Of course, reactionary hostility to LGBT people has a long history in Britain. Section 28 effectively banned discussion of lesbian and gay issues in schools in 1988. Theresa May voted against an equal age of consent in 1998, against adoption by same-sex couples in 2002, and was absent for the vote to repeal Section 28 in 2003.
Despite May’s modification of her public position since then, homophobia still plays well in the Tory ranks, as Norman Tebbit’s columns make clear. The Conservative stance on LGBT issues for the last ten years seems, at best, limited to equality before the law. It’s an approach that has particularly benefited those few with money to spend, while doing little for the less privileged and the most vulnerable, such as LGBT refugees.
Since the Tories’ unexpected and disastrous election result last June, however, the right has been casting around for new ideas.
Telegraph writers have started reproducing the tropes of the American right – including condemnation of anyone who opposes bigotry as a “snowflake” and the claim that open discussion of gender and sexuality is being stifled by a powerful liberal orthodoxy. The changes proposed by the government are minor, and similar reforms have not led to any problems in Ireland – so their opponents have cynically tried to shift the ground of debate onto transphobic talking points familiar from the US, such as who can use what toilet and how to respond to children’s gender issues.
It’s “pro-family” groups on the American right, for example, which have promoted the concept of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” – a supposed psychological diagnosis recognised by no professional body and with no scientific basis, which claims to describe a phenomenon where teenagers convince themselves they are trans after watching videos on the internet. The concept has now been taken up by transphobic groups in Britain.
The British transphobic right, however, works in alliance not only with the American right but a small number of feminist groups.
The organisation A Woman’s Place has hosted meetings around Britain, including speakers from groups like Transgender Trend, which advocates against providing supportive healthcare for trans children and teenagers – a group at heightened risk for self-harm and suicide if they don’t receive appropriate care. While claiming to merely facilitate debate, Woman’s Place has repeatedly promoted transphobic attitudes.
Last month, for example, the UK government clarified that it had no plans to change the existing law on women-only spaces. The law stipulates that exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces can only take place in a few, limited situations – though in practice such exclusion is far more common. The government’s statement was then claimed by Women’s Place as a victory – so that many media outlets reported the story by claiming that trans people now could be excluded from women-only spaces in the government’s view, legitimising the oppression of trans women.
The behaviour of some transphobic feminists on social media has been even worse. After Lily Madigan, a trans woman, was elected a Labour Party Women’s Officer last November she faced a torrent of abuse on Twitter, including many tweets that describe her as man, suggest that she is mentally ill, and that her using women’s spaces at her school is an example of “bullying”. Likewise, a petition calling for the British Film Institute to cancel trans woman Munroe Bergdorf as a speaker at a women’s film event repeatedly referred to her as “male”.
Alliances between certain feminist currents and the right might appear surprising, but they are not unprecedented.
In the early 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon formed what the New York Times called “a coalition of radical feminists and conservative women politicians” to try to ban pornography in Minneapolis and Indianapolis. Dworkin welcomed the support of Jerry Falwell, right-wing co-founder of the Moral Majority, stating that “when Jerry Falwell starts saying there’s real harm in pornography, then that is valuable to me.”
Radical feminism as a political current dates back to the late 1960s, when New York campaigners from the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement found it all but impossible to work with left-wing men, many of whom accepted a grossly sexist version of Maoism. The tradition had always highlighted situations of conflict between men and women – for example, some of its most valuable work drew attention to rape and sexual abuse of children.
But by the early 1980s, as the transformative movements of the sixties and seventies died away, many other feminists began to find radical feminism puritanical and divisive.
British feminist Lynne Segal, for example, has recalled how heterosexual feminists became angry at radical feminist denunciations of women who had relationships with men. Radical feminists’ stress on the division between men and women as the crucial conflict in society portrayed each side as forming a monolithic bloc, a situation where men, deliberately working together, used rape and pornography to subordinate women.
For some radical feminists these views led to transphobic arguments. Their claim that conflicts between men and women were both irreconcilable and central to society made them unable to accept people who might have an ambiguous gender, or be of a gender different from the one as which they were initially identified. For all radical feminists’ claimed hostility to the gender binary, such authors originated claims, which transphobic feminists echo today, that being a woman is essentially a question of biology.
Radical feminists took a range of views – Andrea Dworkin was not transphobic. But Mary Daly refused in her book Gyn/Ecology to recognise trans women as women, instead describing them as “castrated males”, while Janice Raymond in her notorious work The Transsexual Empire asserted that the existence of trans people constituted an “attempt to wrest from women the power inherent in female biology”.
Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble was, in part, a polemic against just this kind of gender essentialism – that is, the attribution of fixed and different essences to women and men. Rather than our sense of our gender being a simple expression of our biology, Butler argued, it is much more an internalisation of how we are expected to behave in society, in particular a society which takes sexual difference for granted.
Yet, if absolute distinctions between men and women are part of radical feminist theory, they are also part of the banal common sense of many people, a common sense which radical feminism to some extent reflects. As Cordelia Fine argues in impressive detail in her book Delusions of Gender, ideas about the nature of men and women inform all our lives, even when we don’t realise it. Most of all, we’ve all been socialised into the belief that men and women are radically different from one another. For all that these ideas are changing, the gender binary remains an accepted fact, and this daily production of “common sense” has much in common with radical feminist assertions about men and women as monolithic and utterly different blocs of people.
To say that transphobic ideas come overwhelmingly from the right, however, is not to deny their existence on the left. At the start of this month the Morning Star included a letter signed by a number of leading “gender critical” campaigners. Unfortunately, the letter was also signed by some leading figures from the trade union movement – a particularly regrettable development, since these figures have much greater social influence than small numbers of transphobic feminists. The politics represented here, among a layer of long-standing leftists and highly-placed union officials, also go back to the 1980s, and reflect a kind of socialist feminism which accepts elements of both a leftist and a radical feminist understanding of the world.
The letter claimed that it was merely seeking to “improve the climate of debate” around trans issues. Yet at no point did this superficially reasonable account even refer to trans oppression. Instead, it gave a highly partisan account of events which made criticisms only of trans people.
As for its claimed desire to improve the climate of debate, it’s striking that the letter’s signatories have had little to say about events at London Pride, when transphobic lesbians hijacked the front of the parade. If anything could have worsened the “climate of debate”, this was it. Yet the letter’s signatories have remained silent rather than criticise people who are, plainly, on the same side as themselves. Their claim to only want a debate is disingenuous. These are experienced activists promoting a firmly-held point of view, and using calls for “debate” to get that reactionary viewpoint on the agenda.
Not all debates are legitimate. No decent person would agree to debate whether black people have lower intelligence than white people, or whether gay men tend to abuse children. Even entertaining the question is to dehumanize these groups. Debating whether trans people endanger women legitimises unfounded bigotry in the same way.
If a transphobic current exists on the left, however, it is clearly a very small minority. The 150 signatories of the Morning Star letter were rapidly outnumbered by those on three letters – from young Morning Star readers, members of the labour movement and delegates at the TUC LGBT conference – with over a thousand signatures between them. The response was impressive in terms not just of numbers, but of the positions held by many signatories in their unions, the Labour Party or in campaign groups.
Delegates at Unite’s policy conference, taking place when the letter was published, condemned Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey for signing it. A letter from McCluskey reaffirming Unite’s commitment to fighting trans oppression quickly appeared in, notably, the Morning Star. LGBT members of the civil servants’ PCS union have, likewise, written an open letter criticising their General Secretary, Mark Serwotka. Unite and TUC LGBT Conference both confirmed their policy supporting trans people. The support of the labour movement for the T in LGBT was clear.
Similarly, the antics of less than a dozen women at the front of London Pride have been condemned in a letter now signed by over two thousand people, as well as by Stonewall and many other groups, forcing the London Pride organisers to attempt an apology for their inept response to the situation. With hindsight, it may well be that both the signatories of the Morning Star letter and the Pride hijackers have overplayed their hand and only highlighted their isolation.
Still, we cannot be complacent. Such campaigners can have an effect. Their support by the right-wing media has ensured that their views are reported by the BBC or the Guardian in the name of “balance”. Millions of people who are uninformed about trans issues can be influenced by those views. Case in point: a YouGov survey found last week that only 18 percent of voters support the government reform plans that will allow trans people to define their own gender without medical approval.
We urgently need to shift British public opinion in the three months before consultation on the reforms closes in October. It’s clear that support for trans people is strong in the unions, among students and among the Labour left, among young people in particular. These groups need to mobilise to submit collective responses to the consultation and to encourage individuals to respond.
More than that, we can draw on the spirit and methods of the Irish campaigns which won marriage equality and abortion rights, with leaflets, stickers and street stalls. Trans people are under attack because they are regarded as the easiest target as regards LGBT people. A defeat for them is a defeat for the whole queer community and will open the door to further attacks on us all. Every advance for trans people knocks back the right, including the homophobes, racists and sexists. We need to move into action to defend our trans comrades.
Stonewall has provided a useful guide to help you respond to the consultation to make sure the voices for equality and respect win out. You don’t have to be an expert to take part.