The Price of Labour’s Transphobia

The Labour Party has lost a seat in a council byelection amid a controversy surrounding their candidate's transphobic views. Rowan Fortune investigates what this means and how socialists should respond.

 

The Labour Party is institutionally transphobic. This is not merely a moral problem but structurally encoded into the Labour Party as a specific electoral project in a particular social context. It is not, therefore, a cause for defeatism in the trans* struggle, even on this hostile terrain, but for calibrating expectations about such an institution to a more comprehensive understanding of its social essence. 

The Labour Party is not and never has been an expression of class struggle or a means to liberate humanity, but is a specific and profoundly flawed site of struggle in which socialists sometimes might operate. Comprehending this should shape socialists’ engagements with the Labour Party when those engagements are judged at all worthwhile, lest entryist “strategies” become pathways to the continuing legacy of our own capitulations to existing social systems and abandonment of socialism. 

“The Labour Party is not and never has been an expression of class struggle or a means to liberate humanity, but is a specific and profoundly flawed site of struggle in which socialists sometimes might operate.”

Transphobia

Every social prejudice, whatever its specifics, is the preconceived hatred of someone or someones for belonging to a group. Alone, however, this tells us almost nothing; prejudices are not abstract; they take place in contexts and histories, with associated ideas and a web of relationships to other social systems. They cannot be understood alone. The challenge with broadening our understanding, however, is that doing so always introduces ambiguities.

Transphobia can roughly be divided into activist and generalised subtypes. Activist transphobia has been given a name by its most prominent advocates: gender critical (GC). As with all organised bigotries, the GC hate cult denies its essence, but the premise of the GC worldview is that trans women are a caricature of cisgender women, trans men are unconscious victims of internalised misogyny, and nonbinary people fall into one or the other depending on their assigned sex; this is transphobic, or transphobia loses its meaning.

For GCs and increasingly some of the broader far right (into which GCs, even those with left backgrounds, fit), transphobia is not just a prejudice, but often an ur prejudice. It is the prejudice that explains and organises all other prejudices. GC antisemitism takes the form of alleging that influential Jews like Soros are promoting “transgender ideology”; GC anti-Black racism compares trans women to white people wearing Black face or misgenders Black women like Caster Semenya; GC homophobia denies the sexualities of trans lesbians and gay trans men, etc. 

That is not to say that transphobia is worse than other prejudices, even contextually (such judgements would be crass). Instead, for those people who subscribe to transphobia as an ur prejudice, the hatred of trans* people is not one belief among many but the lens through which they perceive their other beliefs and take in new information. 

General transphobia is not organised but is the expression of certain ideas that themselves emerge organically from class society, i.e. the ways social reproduction entails the exploitation of women in general and other marginalised groups by demanding that their “domestic” labour be seen as a “gift of nature” rather than as work. This setup entails misogyny, which in turn requires a defence of dehumanising lines around gendered behaviours (including sexuality) and expression.  

When we transition, trans* people come face to face with the pervasiveness of transphobia in our own internalised complexes. We encounter this even in our own beliefs not because of the “truth” of transphobic claims but because of the readymade social basis of transphobia. Self-hatred is inflicted on us by a society that pervasively marginalises and denies our humanity on our terms. Adapting often entails self-denial and hatred.

Without a severe and ongoing reason to undertake a self-examination of such ideas, they take root and spread in anyone’s ways of understanding the gendered world. We trans* people viscerally grasp that such poisonous notions are endemic; it is not a moral condemnation to say that most cis people, especially those who have not experienced a reason to challenge such notions in themselves, will have some prejudiced ideas about trans* people.

While the line between activist and general transphobia is not absolute, the distinction is essential. The former must be firmly rejected, while the latter requires a degree (albeit not infinite) of patient political education and to be robustly challenged in the course of liberatory struggle. 

Transphobia, then, is not a uniquely right-wing problem. And when we talk of transphobia in the Labour Party, we should not be guided in our assessment by Labour’s factionalisms. Even the most organised expression of the Labour left, Momentum, and even at its height, has been riddled with transphobia. Transphobia pulls to the right, but it primarily emerges from the basis of how we experience sensuous everyday life under capitalist conditions and the role allotted to trans* people. Socialists must expect it everywhere.

“Transphobia pulls to the right, but it primarily emerges from the basis of how we experience sensuous everyday life under capitalist conditions and the role allotted to trans* people. Socialists must expect it everywhere.” 

Hackney

As reported by OnLondon and LabourList, as well as in an extensive breakdown by Dr Natacha Kennedy on the website formally known as Twitter, the Labour Hackney byelection candidate Laura Pascal has lost to her Tory rival after a tense and shocking campaign. This was in part centred around allegations of transphobia made against her. Owing to these charges, Pascal was in administrative suspension at the time of the result and would have sat as an independent had she won. 

With Labour leading in national polls and previously winning all three seats in 2022, the loss is widely attributed to Pascal’s transphobic social media activity and taken as clear evidence that transphobia is not so widespread or electorally viable as the Labour leadership increasingly appears to believe in their positioning on the issue. This is not a baseless understanding of the result, but it should be tempered. 

The broader political contestations around the ongoing genocide in Gaza will have influenced voters’ decisions, too, especially with large numbers of Jewish and Muslim constituents (25% Jewish, chiefly ultra-Orthodox, and 14% Muslim). Opposition to traffic calming measures likely played a key role, as did focussed campaigns from the Liberal Democrats and Greens, the latter fielding a Yiddish teacher and member of the Jewish Socialists Group. There is also the Tory candidate’s Jewish conversion and historical involvement in Labour and the Liberal Democrats as a local councillor.

Transphobia is one vector of struggle, but the Black struggle also likely played a factor. Pascal’s transphobia played on the above-mentioned racist trope of comparing trans women to racists donning blackface, a trope that is acutely offensive to multiply-marginalised Black trans women. Moreover, as the Morning Star has correctly noted (an outlet with its own history of failing trans people), this is Diane Abbott’s constituency, a Black, socialist Labour MP who has made charges of racism against her party, charges that fit with a general pattern of anti-Black racism.

What can be said about this result as it pertains to a beleaguered trans community? An important point to note, given the wild swing of support from Labour to Conservative during a time when national opinions are pulling the other way, is that party loyalties are currently not a good gauge of political fortunes and misfortunes. Especially in highly local results, outside of general elections, various other factors are at play, making any straightforward reading of this or that result difficult.

But more specifically to the trans* struggle, the degree of administrative problems reveals something important. It shows that Labour’s attempt to adopt a position of moderate, uncomfortable transphobia, making minor concessions to trans* people while advocating against us and harbouring dangerous bigots, can cause them more headaches than it is worth. Can they learn from this moment? Perhaps, but equally, the assumption that the Labour leadership’s bigotry is merely tactical ignores the deep prejudices Labour has always embodied.

Canterbury

No discussion of transphobia and the Labour Party would be complete without addressing the much more serious subject of the party’s loudest anti-trans MP, Rosie Duffield of the Canterbury constituency. Her outspoken opposition to trans* peoples’ liberation has a long and well-documented history that has brought her into frequent opportunistic alliances with the right. She has often been opposed by young and queer Labour members.

In a puff piece by The Times, Duffield told the right-wing outlet that being criticised by trans* people was akin to living in the fictional Gilead regime depicted by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. As well as absurd, the comparison is transphobic: Gilead oversees a system in which any fertile woman can be systematically and ceremonially raped under state sanction and in which queer people are repressed and even executed. 

Again and again, transphobes such as Duffield equate trans* people to systems and histories of repression that target us. It would be far beyond the demands of the most excessive intellectual charity to assume that such evident and vulgar rhetoric is anything but deliberate, a winking reminder to trans people that while GCs deny our oppression, they also actively court it from the state. 

More recently, Duffield and other transphobic MPs were spotted making dismissive gestures at the mention of trans* suicide in a parliamentary debate on the Equality Act. Duffield was also investigated and cleared by the Labour Party for transphobia and antisemitism after she liked a tweet from an anti-trans activist and former comedian Graham Lineham. 

The tweet in question was a roundabout denial of the persecution faced by trans* people under the Nazi regime, a clear instance of transphobic holocaust revisionism. (It is worth noting that the Netflix documentary Eldorado: Everything the Nazis Hate is a historically informed exploration of the history Duffield and Lineham attempted to erase, and worthwhile watching.) 

Despite this baleful track record from one of their MPs, there can be no confidence in the Labour Party tackling such prejudice. Indeed, quite the opposite, as figures in the Labour leadership have apologised to Duffield for queer members’ opposition to her views and thereby signalled their own alignment with her dehumanising beliefs. This is also reflected in their anti-trans policy agenda.

Summary

GCs frequently hide behind a 2021 employment tribunal ruling that deemed their views “worthy of respect”. However, the legal meaning of the ruling, as has been widely noted, regards such “respect” as possessing an unflatteringly low bar; so low, in fact, that Nazism constitutes one of the few belief systems that would fall below it. 

“GCs frequently hide behind a 2021 employment tribunal ruling that deemed their views ‘worthy of respect’. However, the legal meaning of the ruling, as has been widely noted, regards such ‘respect’ as possessing an unflatteringly low bar; so low, in fact, that Nazism constitutes one of the few belief systems that would fall below it.”

This needs to be kept in mind each time GCs perform their routine “just have concerns” song and dance in transphobic media that maintains an air of liberal respectability, such as the Guardian and BBC. The ruling was wrong; that is, it is true that GCs are more respected than neo-nazis, but they are not more deserving of that respect. However, even on its own shoddy terms, this error of judicial opinion means little outside of the endless deceptions of GCs themselves. 

The Labour Party is institutionally transphobic. That is not a judgment; it is an undeniable, easily observable fact. The Labour Party, however, has a long history of deeply embedded prejudices against almost any marginalised group you can mention that exists and has existed in British society. Its sole claim to any credibility in this area of struggle is that the Conservative Party are generally worse. 

“The Labour Party is institutionally transphobic. This is not merely a moral problem but structurally encoded into the Labour Party as a specific electoral project in a particular social context.”

GRT and Black people, Muslims and Jews, cis women as well as trans women, LGB people as well as T people, disabled people, and so on, all faced and still face the endemic, structurally rooted bigotry organic to the normal operations of this party, whose roots are in electoral left anti-socialism (and not even a degenerated tradition of social democracy as is sometimes imagined). Labour likely cannot be saved from these pathologies on its own terms, even if they are still worthwhile fighting against – within and without.

More concerning than Labour is when transphobia finds succour across the general labour movement or even in the far left, what should be the most advanced sections of class consciousness. Combating it requires a renewed commitment to demarcating what is and is not acceptable, backed up by challenges to instances (preferably from other cis people) and potentially expulsion from unions and organisations when merited. Transphobia is a rot eroding not just Labour’s electoral coalitions but, far more significantly, the class struggle in Britain and elsewhere.

As suggested, prejudices do not hatch from elite conspiracies but fester in the roots of everyday life in our alienated societies. Patience must be exercised about unexamined, ignorant transphobic beliefs, but our patience must be over for those who belong explicitly to ideologies such as the GC hate cult. We cannot embrace such people in movements of solidarity; they are enemies of human liberation, and the help they need cannot be given at the expense of the safety and involvement of trans* people.

The real price of Labour’s transphobia, all transphobia, all systemic marginalisation, is not chiefly in the cruel theatre of elections whereby punishing Labour for its hatred puts in place the hateful Tories, but in a diminishment of our humanity. That diminishment is tangible; the harming of trans* people is tied into the harm of all women and sexual minorities, and even of all cis people per se, the maintenance of systems that guarantee generalised misery. We are all made less for it. We are all further removed from the possibility of a human world and future. 

“The real price of Labour’s transphobia, all transphobia, all systemic marginalisation, is not chiefly in the cruel theatre of elections whereby punishing Labour for its hatred puts in place the hateful Tories, but in a diminishment of our humanity.”


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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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