Countering anti-trans bigotry in Britain

October 25, 2018

British socialist Colin Wilson describes how U.S.-style transphobic activism is playing out in Britain — and looks at how the left can organize against it.

THE LAST 12 months have seen the worst attacks on LGBT people in Britain in over 30 years, with trans individuals facing an onslaught in the media and from transphobic activists.

One piece of good news is that the left, the unions and the LGBT movement are standing in solidarity with trans people.

Since last summer, transphobic views have gained an increased hearing in Britain. Transphobic feminists hijacked the front of the London Pride parade in July, and groups with similar ideas have organized meetings, written in the mainstream press and carried out sticker campaigns.

It’s crucial to understand that what has made this campaign possible is support from the right wing. Week after week, articles attacking trans people have appeared in the right-wing press. These pieces rely on what has become a classic right-wing claim — that a stifling orthodoxy, stage-managed by a liberal elite, is censoring legitimate debate.

Marchers build solidarity with the trans community during Brighton Pride 2018
Marchers build solidarity with the trans community during Brighton Pride 2018 (.Martin. | flickr)

Campaigners in these last two weeks, for example, have continued to claim that they cannot speak out — though their views have been represented in a paid full-page ad in a national paper, by columnists throughout the right-wing press, in the cover article in the right-wing weekly the Spectator, and at a meeting in parliament.

THE ARGUMENTS that transphobes have used echo the American right. The whole furor about trans in Britain was sparked by proposed legal reforms to simplify the procedure that trans people could use to get documents like a birth certificate showing their correct sex.

This is important, but not a major change. Allowing people to make a formal legal statement of their gender has been the procedure in countries such as Ireland for some years, and no problems have ever arisen.

So transphobes have tried, with some success, to shift the debate to different topics. First, they talked about responses to children with gender issues, claiming that liberal professionals are encouraging children who are not really trans to transition.

The truth is that there is only one clinic in the whole of Britain dealing with gender-variant children, and far from being coerced into transitioning, they have to endure an 18-month wait for their first appointment.

Second, transphobic campaigners have talked about access to women-only spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms, claiming that easier legal procedures for trans women will be abused by men, who will use them to enter such spaces.

In fact, no change to the law about access to these spaces is planned — and the fact is that men already enter them and abuse women in them, without waiting to use proposed legal changes as an excuse.

What we are seeing here is the first example of American-style culture wars in Britain, and this is a new development.

Abortion is legal in Britain, available for free through the National Health Service, and is not a political issue. There has been a consensus for over 20 years among all major parties in favor of LGBT legal equality, and in favor of legal protections from discrimination. The only major exception to this rule has been the north of Ireland, where the area governed by Britain has neither legal abortion nor equal marriage.

Trans health care, including hormones and surgeries, is available without charge on the National Health Service, though the system isn’t problem-free — waiting times are, again, an issue.

Neoliberal-style LGBT equality always had limits. Its main beneficiaries were what you could call the new, out LGBT bourgeoisie, while it delivered much less for groups like LGBT asylum seekers. But the gains were real.

Now the collapse of the neoliberal center has started to erode this consensus. In particular, right-wing ideologues have been responding to Theresa May’s general election disaster last summer, when she almost lost a vote that she expected to win in a landslide.

Leaders such as May realize that they need new ideas after 10 years of wage stagnation and cuts in public services that mean many people see no reason to support the Conservatives. The only coherent strategy available is a shift further right, toward the politics of rulers like Trump.

Trump has already tried to expel trans people from the U.S. military, and last Sunday, the New York Times reported that his administration “is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.”

The alt-right is mobilizing internationally in support of traditional ideas of men, women and family and against trans people. In Hungary, the far-right, anti-Semitic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has this week banned university gender studies courses on the grounds that “people are born either male or female.”

IN THIS context, it’s good to report that the British left has stood in solidarity with trans people. Last week, speaking at an LGBT media event, Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the Labour Party, gave his firm support to the proposed legal reform, commenting, “Let’s go all the way and get it into law as quickly as we can.”

Dawn Butler, the Labour Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, speaking last month at a national conference of trans people and allies, gave firm support for reform and compared the recent transphobic campaign with Clause 28, homophobic legislation passed under Margaret Thatcher in 1988.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), the body which includes almost all British unions, voted to support the reform with not a single union opposed and only one abstaining. LGBT campaigns and groups — media, union groups, Pride marches and Stonewall, Britain’s main LGBT campaigning organization — have without exception backed trans people.

Several days after the right-wing, transphobic ad appeared, a full-page ad backing trans people was published, with sponsorship from LGBT groups, a large public-sector union and various companies.

A further positive development has been the emergence in the last few years of a generation of young trans activists and writers, who have made confident and radical demands for change and connected their analysis of trans oppression with broader issues around gender, social reproduction and capitalism.

But if right-wing support has been essential to the transphobes’ campaign, and almost all of the left has sided with trans people, it’s also true that a small number of left voices have adopted transphobic positions.

Most people on the left first became aware of this last summer, when the Morning Star published an article by Kiri Tunks. The Morning Star, for decades the paper of the Communist Party, now has a declining readership dominated by trade union officials — but it is still published daily and remains an important forum on the left.

Tunks is a long-standing trade unionist with a solid track record of Palestine solidarity work and is currently the president of the National Education Union, the largest British education union. Her article claimed that in debates on trans issues, women were being “abused or silenced.”

This led to a social media furor, and a week later, the Morning Star published a letter in support of Tunks signed by, among others, a former president of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and a former director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the largest British Palestine support group.

Tunks, together with Ruth Serwotka of the Socialist Feminist Network, went on to found Woman’s Place UK, which has organized against trans law reform.

The Morning Star continues to take a transphobic position, despite receiving a petition signed by over a thousand of its younger readers urging change.

THUS, TRANSPHOBIC activism in Britain involves a number of strands, including right-wing journalists, socialist feminists and radical feminists in the 1980s mold, such as the Guardian’s Julie Bindel.

It has also pulled in people committed to a reactionary “common sense” view of gender, along the lines of “Everybody is either a man or a woman, and you just have to accept that unchangeable fact, because it’s biology.” The forums on Mumsnet, a parenting website, have become associated with such views, improbable as that may seem.

Several things characterize all the different currents. First, they don’t refer to the oppression faced by trans people. Stonewall research, for example, shows that one in eight British trans employees has been assaulted at work in the last year.

Second, they never acknowledge that the discussion is dominated by the right, and anyone on the left ought to distance themselves from that. Typically, their position has been the dishonest one that they are simply trying to start a debate, rather than admit that they have firmly held views for which they are campaigning.

Kiri Tunks — the president of a large union and an experienced activist, remember — told the right-wing Telegraph in July: “We are just a group of individuals who are slightly concerned that women are not being allowed to meet up and discuss proposed legislation.”

Finally, while activist groups have worked to look reasonable, examples of horrifying bigotry regularly emerge. For example, A Woman’s Place had to distance itself from one member, scheduled as a speaker for the group, who made anti-Muslim remarks and advocated mandatory sterilization of trans men.

Fair Play for Women, which bought the full-page newspaper ad, responded on Twitter last November to news that scientific advances might allow trans women to give birth. Their tweet mocked this possibility with the words: “Any potential fetus would invade the host’s body & proliferate like 1,000 cancers [evil grin].”

There is no reason to think these transphobic attacks are going away soon. More generally, we’re seeing the end of a political world dominated by the neoliberal center, and that has implications for LGBT politics in Britain.

For the last 20 years, the moderate LGBT campaign group Stonewall has been able to rely on the support of companies at the forefront of British capitalism. If LGBT issues become more controversial, rather than an easy way of getting good public relations, will those companies stay on board?

A more reliable strategy is to expand the actions already taken by some trans activists, such as those who protested outside the Daily Mail newspaper on Friday against its transphobic coverage.

Protests in defense of trans people have a large potential constituency in LGBT groups, through LGBT union structures and among people, especially young people, in general. The film Pride highlighted the tradition of links in Britain between LGBT campaigns and the wider left. It’s time to renew that tradition.

Further Reading

From the archives