Amazingly, it is now 25 years since the first motions-based TUC Lesbian and Gay (as it then was) Conference, following a series of successful but informal “seminars” between 1992 and 1995. But these events grew from a long history of lesbian and gay activism in trade unions, from the founding of “NALGAY” for LGBT+ local authority workers in NALGO (now part of Unison) in 1974, a TUC pamphlet “Unions working for lesbian and gay members” in 1991, activism against Section 28 (in the Local Government Act 1988 forbidding discussion of lesbian and gay issues in schools and libraries), major anti-racist campaigns by black LGBT+ activists, and, notably, Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners in 1984-85.
Despite being based around motions submitted from affiliated trade unions, the TUC LGBT+ Conference does not actually pass binding resolutions or make TUC policy, apart from selecting one of its resolutions to go forward to the agenda of TUC Congress. Its stated purpose is to encourage LGBT+ people to play an active role in the trade union movement, but, more formally, it also elects twenty-four members of the TUC LGBT+ Committee each year. This is an advisory committee; the minutes are received by TUC general council, and advice given is supposed to be in line with policy decisions of the LBGT+ conference, so in a roundabout way the conference does have some indirect influence on TUC policy.
The LGBT+ committee is chaired by a member of TUC general council, appointed by general council. There are six sections: fourteen general seats, two seats reserved for Black members, two for disabled members, two for trans members, two for young people, and two for bisexuals. Shockingly, all conference delegates can vote for all of these sections, whether or not they identify as Black, disabled, trans, bisexual, or are under 26. There is an imbalance in the number of places in each section: this year, not all of the general and bisexual places were filled, and there were no nominations for the young people’s places, but there were contests for the Black, disabled, and trans sections. This means that some delegates in these sections were not elected to the committee while at the same time there are vacancies in other sections.
TUC LGBT+ Conference is traditionally timed for the Thursday and Friday preceding London Pride, so that delegates from outside London can stay over and take part in that event.
The conference this year, over two days 29th and 30th June at Congress House in London, was opened by this year’s TUC President, Maria Exall of CWU, long-standing chair of TUC LGBT+ committee and one of the founders of the conference back in the 1990’s. 217 delegates from 29 unions took part, as well as a number of press, visitors, and observers. Conference welcomed as a speaker Olivia Blake MP, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group and a strong supporter of trans rights and the LGBTQ+ community.
Conference ended on a positive note, defying right-wing narratives with our very own Drag Queen Story time. Sab Samuel, as Aida H Dee, presented the story of “My First Pride” – great fun, and a few tears (at least from this attendee).
Trans and non-binary equality
Five out of 17 motions this year specifically addressed trans equality, but trans issues were a constant theme throughout the conference – recognising increasingly appalling attacks on trans people by the right. For example, Composite 4 “Tackling the Global Rise of LGBT+ Hate” condemned deliberate misinformation about proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, as part of far right campaign of hatred that makes a key target of trans, non-binary and gender-diverse people.
This is a big and welcome change, even if the circumstances are regrettable; back in 2000, TUC Lesbian & Gay Conference (as it was) voted not to include Trans as an issue, apart from transgendered (sic) people identifying as LGB.
The Tories are no friends of trans people. Westminster has taken the unprecedented step of invoking Section 35 of the Scotland Act 2010 to block the Scottish parliament’s bill which would have allowed gender self-identification – the outcome of years of campaigning and hailed at the time as an “historic day for equality” but disgracefully squashed by the UK government. Meanwhile, the inappropriately-named Equality and Human Rights Commission, far from supporting equality or human rights for trans people, intervened to oppose the Scottish government’s proposed changes. The EHRC has also colluded with Tory attempts to remove rights of trans people to be treated as the gender with which they identify under the Equality Act 2010 – more on this below.
International LGBT+ rights
It is not only in the nations of the UK that LGBT+ rights are being rolled back. A motion from CWU deplored the increasingly authoritarian nationalism in Russia, linking the appalling situation for LGBT+ people with attacks on women’s rights and on ethnic minorities. In Qatar, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has callously ignored the criminalisation of the LGBT+ communities and has threatened players who wear the “one love” armband, condemned in a motion by RMT.
Unfortunately, these are far from the only two countries where LGBT+ people are facing terrible conditions. An emergency motion concerned the recently enacted law in Uganda which has punishments up to and including the death penalty for homosexuality. Disgracefully, the UK has given money to anti-LGBT+ organisations and is proposing to send asylum seekers, including those fleeing LGBT+ persecution, to neighbouring Rwanda. The emergency motion also mentioned Turkey where the recently re-elected President Erdoğan gave a victory speech which included criticism of “LGBT forces” and where Istanbul Pride has been banned since 2015.
Equality and Human Rights Commission
The TUC does not like to directly criticise the EHRC since they have to work together on equality and human rights issues, and Conference took care, in its discussion, to be clear that criticism of the policies and leadership of EHRC does not detract from the rights as workers of civil servants working there. However, the increasingly apparent failures of the EHRC leadership were directly addressed by an emergency motion and in a number of other motions.
The emergency motion particularly regretted three recent actions of the EHRC leadership: failing to criticise government plans for schools to expose gender diverse young people to their parents; failure to condemn governments plans to allow “informed consent” in the long-delayed and inadequate proposed bill to ban conversion therapy; and in supporting Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Women and Equalities in her “clarification” that sex as defined by the Equality Act 2010 means sex as assigned at birth.
Indeed, the EHRC goes further than simply failing to provide leadership, and is actively supporting the excuse of “consent” to conversion therapy, which would drive massive loophole through any legislative ban. Its response to the UK government consultation on banning conversion therapy gives a higher priority to religious freedom than to the needs and lives of LGBT+ people.
It is hard to avoid the impression that EHRC has been captured by a biological essentialist anti-trans agenda and, at best, is a fig-leaf to provide cover for a government intent on a very conservative and regressive agenda. Far from being an independent and vigorous supporter of human rights, the EHRC actively promotes anti-equality – taking a gender-critical view that the rights of cis women are in competition with the rights of trans people, and ignoring intersectionality.
Each year at this conference there is a large intake of new delegates; applause for those who announce themselves as “first time delegate, first time speaking at conference”. Plenty of time is allowed for debates, although speeches have a strict time limit, and delegations encourage as many as wish to speak to do so. This openness is a refreshing change from conferences where the same people are delegates year after year, but there is a risk of a loss of our history, a lack of awareness of how far we have come and of new challenges facing LGBT+ people. Members drift in and out of activism as their lives move on, but there is also value in those who have remained in the LGBT+ and trade union movements over many years.
Some issues that have dominated previous conferences were notably absent. Not a single motion mentioned HIV and of the risks of Covid, despite three motions on health and community services for LGBT+ people. There was also no discussion of same-sex relationships, whether de-facto, civil partnerships, or marriage, despite LGBT+ people not yet having the same rights in all respects as cis-gendered heterosexuals. In fact there was no broader challenge to bourgeois capitalist heteronormative society, no mention of liberation or even of socialism.
Every motion was carried without opposition and with no speeches against, apart from some abstentions by public sector unions not wishing to appear to criticise civil service colleagues. But in the world outside, LGBT+ rights are under serious attack. Trans rights are a battering ram from the right who hate the advances of recent decades. The decision of the US Supreme Court that conservative Christians have a free-speech right to refuse to provide some business services relating to same-sex marriages came after the end of the conference, but is an indication of the way things are heading, not only in the USA but amongst the right everywhere, especially their followers in the UK.
This sombre mood is in contrast to previous TUC LGBT+ conferences when there was a presumption of a general progressive trend, if slow and piecemeal. Amongst the stalls at the conference, a placard-making space under the heading “Pride is a Protest” captured the new mood. The Pride march the following day felt once again more like a demonstration than an apolitical street party parade. Not before time, following years of commercial appropriation of our space, Pride this year saw LGBT+ people join together to express joy, love, hope, celebration of hard-won victories, but also anger and refusal to allow our existence to be denied.
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