Transphobia has reached such a point of saturation in the UK that it is hard for those of us on the receiving end even to stay up-to-date with it all. I write a piece about it one week, and the next I could write another few thousand more words on something similar, and follow that up with more during the next week, and the next, and still hardly scratch the surface of all the vile nonsense out there. It feels as if whenever we blink, we miss a new angle, a new degradation, a new variety of the same poison.
The BBC will intimate that trans women are violent rapists targeting cis lesbians, citing a cis lesbian who herself engaged in sexual assault as evidence of this absurdity; the Guardian will use pride month to release a slew of anti-trans hate pieces; the Labour Party will ignore its own LGBT+ group’s complaints against a sitting MP’s record of transphobia; a new anti-trans organisation will erupt hydra-like out of the Open University, and so on and so on.
It is all without end. A relentless parade of bigotry that has seen hate crimes against trans and nonbinary people spike; that takes place while our healthcare is still abysmally subpar; that operates as if we are not routinely denied basic recognition; that ignores expressions of outrage by us and our few allies. Most of us are exhausted, but we do not get to hit some figurative pause button and take a break, as any of the politicians, bureaucrats and journalists who fuel this nightmare always can.
I write this article not from any desire to take on the subject yet again. (And again and again and again.) I write this article while I experience the end of a case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. I do so only because to not speak out against the most recent cluster of inhumanities is something I can scarcely accept in myself, even as I would be better off sleeping or zoning out to music. There comes a point when preserving hope and just witnessing are the same thing.
So here we go again.
The Labour Party
The socialist journalist Owen Jones, a cis gay man, is a stalwart trans and nonbinary ally. In line with his excellent record on the subject, Jones recently called out the Labour Party on Twitter for a particularly heinous display of what I would certainly label the party’s now institutional and endemic transphobia. In two tweets he wrote:
The Council of Europe has voted to back a report condemning rising attacks on the rights of LBGTI people, placing the UK in the same category as Russia, Hungary, Poland and Turkey. This is what the anti-trans campaign in this country has done. It gets worse. Labour representatives on the Council of Europe voted to try and remove the condemnation of Britain, and to remove the paragraph condemning anti-trans narratives.
This move was blasted by LGBT+ Labour too. But that is clearly insufficient. For the foremost progressive party of Britain to take such an action is a disgrace. More, it is a profound mockery of the labour movement tradition which, to be at all meaningful, must be built on a foundation of solidarity and humanism. It is not merely a cowardly course to choose; this intervention represents an active complicity in the spreading and covering up of prejudice. Every Labour MP has a duty to call this out in the strongest terms, or to accept that complicity applies to them too.
Some on the left might immediately see in this an example of the new Labour leadership’s failure. But that is also not good enough either. Not when heavy hitters on the left like John McDonnell have many odious associations in relation to transphobic groups and individuals. Not when the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party proves routinely to be such fairweather friends to trans and nonbinary people. To put that another way, if solidarity is reduced to factional party games it is not solidarity whatsoever.
To further illustrate, Rosie Duffield has rightfully taken criticism from the Labour left for her appalling reputation on trans liberation. She has shown consistent hostility to trans and nonbinary people, for instance retweeting someone calling trans and nonbinary people ‘mostly heterosexuals cosplaying as the opposite sex’. (A clear-cut example of transphobia.) But why has the same scrutiny not been shown to those also on the left with a record of transphobia? The answer is disappointingly obvious.
The Labour left campaign group Momentum has not only failed to robustly call out McDonnell on this issue, but themselves even backed transphobes for internal Labour Party elections, such as Ann Henderson (who has attended meetings by anti-trans organisation Women’s Place UK) and Laura Pidcock (who has engaged in dog-whistle comments such as that the ‘women’s movement needs the space to talk about sex and gender’). At this point, saying that Momentum needs to improve on this issue feels pretty hollow.
None of that is to say that Pidcock, Henderson or McDonnell have been as plainly egregious as Duffield, but after a certain point whether or not they are as bad is inconsequential. We do not put up with a little uncorrected prejudice amongst our allies as we call down fury against the prejudice of our avowed enemies. At least not without exposing ourselves as charlatans and opportunists. The same applies to the Labour right, of course, who are more than willing to indulge in opportunism, but socialists should aspire to be better. On this they have not been.
When Pidcock recently quit the NEC the glut of solidarity from the Labour Left could have at least been an opportunity for renewed attempts to encourage her to show the same solidarity to trans and nonbinary people. That has not been apparent, and once again the mainstay of the Labour left seems to forget groups of the oppressed when those groups do not serve their immediate interests. We matter when Starmer or the Labour right are transphobic or homophobic, but not when the problem is closer to home.
Anti*Capitalist Resistance (A*CR) member and author Simon Hannah has written in A Party with Socialists in It: A History of the Labour Left, about how Labourism as a tradition has a fundamental problem with solidarity. That is because as an electoralist tradition, Labourism must subordinate struggles against oppression to supporting the needs of forming broader voter coalitions within a prejudicial society. Elections are not processes of struggle conducive to the transformation of society and ourselves as agents, but snapshots of existing opinion that do not serve to shift the terrain on which we fight. Labourism, then, can serve ultimately to dilute and corrupt any politics that grasps at more than just tinkering.
The problem does not end with Labour, however; in fact, even when it comes to recent events the Labour Party is just the start of it. Two new statements from Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have been widely condemned by civil rights and LGBTQ+ organisations.* The EHRC is the official government Equalities Office, supposedly independent of government (although clearly deeply dependent on its favour), and is intended to promote and uphold equality law throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Despite this, it has decided to oppose trans equality and to defend the form of psychological abuse and torture known as conversion therapy for all LGBTQ+ groups, albeit with some distinctions.
The EHRC suggested delaying planned state prohibitions on trans conversion therapy and so-called ‘consensual’ conversion therapy. It must be said foremost that the entire notion of consent here is a travesty. The practice of conversion therapy is in itself a form of homophobic or transphobic abuse, and cannot be consented to. The invocation of that concept in this context suggests that the EHRC believes that to be LGBTQ+ is, at least in some cases, a curable condition. And that belief is deeply bigoted.
As Pink News reported, the exempting of trans and nonbinary people from protection also goes against any notion of equality or fairness. Indeed, the best available evidence for where protection is most needed shows that such a provision makes no sense, as ‘within the response, the EHRC reference the government’s National LGBT Survey that found that trans Britons are “more likely” to be offered or have undergone conversion therapy’. To offer the least protection to those most at risk of a form of abuse seems only to invite harm to a vulnerable community.
The EHRC, not satisfied with opposing such protections, additionally opposed the Scottish government’s plans to provide vital reforms to the gender recognition process there, with the SNP suggesting ways in which to streamline and de-medicalise how trans people gain official recognition. The EHRC’s current chairwoman, Kishwer Falkner, is on record for defending supposedly ‘gender critical’ viewpoints, a euphemism for everyone from ultra-conservative reactionaries to sex essentialist radical feminists who in fact simply oppose trans equality.
In these circumstances it is justified for trans and nonbinary people to therefore conclude that the EHRC is now itself an institutional expression of the wave of moral panic that has been arrayed against us in recent years. With so many facets of society now compromised by this hatred, we find the perfect basis for a deep and abiding sense of despair amongst those impacted, a despair that will untreated create fresh problems such as a turning away from emancipatory hopes and towards forms of political pessimism.
There are no simple prescriptions for the mess in which we find ourselves. Transphobia is just one facet of the general rot that we in the A*CR call creeping fascism. It is a rot that has sunk especially deeply into socialism itself, and it is a rot that has been allowed to generally ravage our societies for far too long already. But it is not the only rot for which all of this is true.
No doubt by the end of next week (or even before) there will be further attacks. Already the Guardian is living up to its general editorial stance of always attacking trans and nonbinary people, writing a passionate defence of the EHRC’s stance. It is hard to know what we should do in the face of this onslaught.
What I do know is that time is running out. And not just for trans and nonbinary people. I have written before that maintaining optimism is the great problem of our age. I find increasingly that my own optimism is running out.
* Mermaids, Trans Radio UK, British LGBT Awards, Jayne Ozanne Foundation, Gendered Intelligence, UK Black Pride, Pride Cymru, Stonewall, Trans Actual, Galop, LGBT Foundation, Gender Identity Research & Education Society, LGBT+ Labour, Equality Network, Consortium, akt, The Rainbow Project, Rainbow Greens, Trans in the City, The Feminist Gender Equality Network, Manchester Pride, Liberty and Amnesty International UK, etc.
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