Trans people, and in particular trans children, are under attack. Again. The shared task of socialists is straightforward: trans humanity must be more than defended but also liberated from the conditions that necessitate that constant, repeated need for defence. The working class rises or falls as one.
At the Conservative Party Conference 1987, then Tory Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, said: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” During the Conservative Party Conference 2023, the current Tory Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said: “A man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”
Thatcher’s rhetoric anticipated her introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which in practice, censored the discussion of queer sexualities and genders in schools until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England and Wales. This caused untold harm, shaming queer children, limiting their access to life-saving information and severely constraining the support that teachers, including LGBTQIA+ teachers, felt able to provide. And while in law, the Act only applied to local education authorities – and not to private schools at all – the ideological drive behind it undoubtedly hampered the work of other services trying to support queer communities, whether in the public or voluntary sector.
Section 28 was not a naive line of attack. It technically applied only to LEA policies pertaining to sex education or any discussion of relationships. Nothing formally banned discussion of LGBTQIA+ subjects, but many school governing bodies thought otherwise, and the policy acted to encourage self-censorship. Section 28 specifically banned LEAs from “promoting… the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. LEA Equalities Officers could and did enlighten governing bodies about such technical caveats and encourage schools to adopt better policies – with a sufficiently supportive LEA. But, the media encouraged the view that it was illegal and many heads and governing bodies acted on this mistaken belief.
While the Labour Party now takes credit for the law’s eventual repeal, this happened a staggering six years into a Labour government as a result of grassroots campaigning. History shows that important figures in the Labour leadership were extremely reluctant to confront Tory homophobia or make the repeal of this pernicious legislation a priority. Instead, the Labour leadership supported the broad intent of the legislation with a few minor tweaks and concerned themselves only with the details of words such as “promoting homosexuality” and “the acceptability of homosexuality”, conveniently ignoring that heteronormativity has been promoted and accepted by powerful institutions for centuries.
Today Sunak’s rhetoric takes place in a larger context of anti-trans marginalisation and discrimination. We have seen an 186% increase in anti-trans hate crimes in half a decade, the most significant increase of any category during that period. These include, for example, an arson attack on the home of two transgender women and a gay man, and the brutal murder of sixteen-year-old trans girl Brianna Ghey. This spike in attacks has been linked to the language used by politicians. And it has developed in the context of relentless moral panic sustained by an endemically transphobic mainstream media – not by any means a coincidence.
Sunak’s rhetoric is part of his government’s consistent hostility to queer life. They have overseen and defended a chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, long haunted by credible accusations of transphobia, who herself meets hate organisations like LGBA – founded to exclude and ostracise trans people. The selfsame Sunak was recorded “joking” about transgender women’s genitalia, and the current Equalities Minister was caught misgendering trans women alongside a general history of being hostile to trans people.
In parliament, the Tories have prevaricated on a conversion therapy ban, performing multiple u-turns, including suggesting wrecking exemptions, excluding transgender people from protections, and even threatening to prohibit trans-affirming healthcare. They took the unprecedented step of using a Section 35 block on Scotland’s devolved parliament after it passed a bill to mildly reform the Gender Recognition Act. They have threatened to reform the Equalities Act to limit protections for trans people.
From Thatcher to Sunak, reactionary British leaders showcase how anti-queer moral panics are a staple of British politicians. They have, like far-right politicians internationally, systematically spewed their bigotry over children and young people, which is their current focus.
New draft guidance on transgender pupils deserves the comparison to Section 28; it is a flagrant attempt to harm a group of children who are already facing an unbearable situation, in the context of the recent murder of a trans child.
While the guidance is not backed by changes to the law, it will likely have a chilling effect on the position of trans youth. It will be something schools can and likely sometimes will cite to back often ill-informed decisions where transphobic interests are pitted against those of a trans child. This will lend credibility to anti-trans bigotry.
The advice makes no secret of its intent. It has a general presumption against gender transitioning, against respecting a child’s chosen pronouns, against not deadnaming them, etc. It excludes trans children from gender-appropriate spaces and sports, despite the historic pretext of sports exclusions being generally poorly-evidenced claimed advantages conferred to trans women by puberty in some professional sports.
This essentially mandates the institutionalised bullying of queer children. As well as taking every opportunity to delimit and restrict trans life, it deploys anti-trans language such as “gender identity ideology” that could only generously be called a dog whistle. In stressing the supposed “problem” of social contagion, it gestures at the pseudoscientific anti-trans theory of rapid-onset gender dysphoria – a nonsense idea of gender identity as a dangerous youth trend that has been comprehensively rubbished. It repeats the old homophobic notion that queer sexuality is contagious, now in the context of anti-trans bigotry.
Worse, the guidance refuses to recognise trans children as even trans, on the circular basis that they are not eligible for Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs) that can only be applied for at eighteen. This has no legal relevance to being trans as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, but it does grimly outline the kind of changes they would like to make to that Act if given free enough reign. If being trans is synonymous with having a GRC, this not only erases trans people under eighteen but all nonbinary people (who are also not eligible).
While the guidance does back down from an earlier threat to always inform parents when a child socially transitions (a threat that would undoubtedly be illegal on various grounds), it still ignores safeguarding practices. The government suggests an overwhelming presumption in favour of informing parents of any change in a child’s gender, despite evidence that trans children all too often face severe threats from family members. This presumption of informing parents will almost certainly cost lives.
Lawyers, including the government’s own, have warned that the advice might leave schools open to litigation as it violates existing protections for trans children. It is more than plausible that this is an outcome the government finds acceptable. Indeed, that would follow a general pattern that they have adopted in other areas of the culture war.
They develop a controversial position (see the Rwanda policy) that contradicts the law, the courts rule against them, and this becomes the basis: a. for justifying changes to the law more aligned with their reactionary beliefs; and b. to mobilise and agitate their base against the false perception of a “woke” establishment.
So the Conservative Party might be setting up schools for a fall so that they can make overhauling the Equality Act a key General Election battleground. Because Keir Starmer is trying to appeal to reactionary voters, this is perceived as a lose-lose for Labour, who would either have to upset their progressive base or fight the Tories over the culture war. In truth, Labour should robustly fight the Tories on the culture war, and given the weakness of the Tory’s arguments, they could win, but the Labour leadership is opportunistic, unreflective and parochial, and so the Tory perception of weakness might be accurate.
The government are consulting over the draft guidance until March 12. Their press release states: “Parents, teachers, and school leaders are encouraged to respond to the 12-week consultation”, while a Guardian article on the subject quotes the same sentence and then concludes, ‘It does not extend the same invitation to children, or trans people’.
Looking at the consultation itself, there does not seem to be any formal limitation on who can respond. ‘Student’ is listed as a specific category, and so is ‘other’. Organisations of all types are allowed to submit, with ‘trade unions’ in particular listed alongside mainly educational institutions – but trans and LGBTQIA+ organisations are not.
The largest education union, the NEU, have already produced a brief statement on the guidance and indicated that they will have more to say in the New Year. The NASUWT has also made a brief statement. It is essential that all unions act to defend education workers who themselves act in the interests of trans children and young people.
Children, especially trans children (whose existence is now being denied by the government, despite being simultaneously legally recognised in legislation) and most trans people, in general, are key stakeholders. To imply otherwise is deeply prejudiced. The slogan of the disability movement, nothing about us without us, is directly relevant here, and the bias of the government press release, as well as of the draft guidance itself, is something that should be pointed out by all those replying to the consultation.
Talking to supportive people from the LGBTQIA+ charity sector, they suggest that they will be encouraging everyone to reply, and to do so in earnest from early January. Several organisations are likely to issue guidance on filling it out, and there may also be legal challenges ahead of its full implementation.
Stonewall, Galop, Mermaids, and Gendered Intelligence have condemned the guidance. The Guardian, despite its own extensive and shameful record of transphobia, has published the brave response of a young trans boy, Newton Carey, who is powerfully succinct in summarising the injustice of the draft. The words of trans children must be centred by cisgender people (here is a list of LGBTQIA+ terms, including “cisgender”) participating in the fightback against this document. Carey writes:
Transphobic bullying is rampant and I think 100% this guidance only fuels that fire. If I’d been able to exist in my school as a trans kid from the beginning, nobody would have complained because I wasn’t asking for anything special. The only reason other kids saw the difference was because it was pointed out to them.
But cis people absolutely must still also join the fightback. A*CR comrades have written in the past about models of solidarity for trans liberation and will continue to update and refine this work. As a besieged minority, attacked from all corners, trans people are nonetheless also a part of the broader movements of the exploited for whom solidarity is both its means and end.
Without that mass solidarity, the situation is hopeless. As if to demonstrate this point, once again, the Labour Party, the same party that oversaw more than half a decade of Section 28, rushed to welcome the Tory Party’s anti-trans school guidance. We cannot expect much from the opposition, most of the media, and courts and indeed, can only expect unrestrained sadism from the government itself. Trans people certainly cannot afford to wait six years into a potential Starmer government before seeing improvements.
It would be a mistake to see this attack as a merely top-down problem – as if it emanates solely from Sunak and his desperate band of hard-right authoritarians in response to lousy polling and weak electoral coalitions. This is the poisoned fruit of years of highly organised and well-funded anti-trans agitation, and however much that relies on astroturfing and influential backers to gain traction, it also only finds a social basis it can appeal to within a society rife with organic suspicions against queer life.
Overcoming this does not just require a change in the personnel of the state, but a change in society itself, in how our work and social lives are organised, and therefore in ourselves, too, as participants in that change. Trans people represent no threat to cisgender humanity, but their insistence on their own humanity is a threat to the inhuman systems that also exploit, violate and marginalise cis people. The gender binary is part of what holds women responsible for social reproduction and which also brutalises men.
Together, cis and trans, we can be a threat to an inhuman world, and make a human one.
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