Beyond the soundbite: Labour and the trans community

On the first day of Conference the newly appointed Shadow Equalities Secretary Anneliese Dodds came to the podium and spoke of “a Labour government that acknowledges that trans rights are human rights and that would reform the Gender Recognition Act to enable a process for self-identification while continuing to support the 2010 Equalities Act.”

Among trans members of the Party, the response was subdued. The previous two weeks had seen a string of trans members resigning from the Party, citing a lack of confidence that the Party had the will to deal with its transphobia problem. The question for us all was, what would these words mean in practice ? Were they the words of a politician who cared more about soundbites than solutions ? Or was she serious about wanting to address the needs of the trans community ?

Of perhaps greater interest was an announcement the previous day by LGBT+ Labour that the Party would be introducing a code of conduct around transphobia. Now a code of conduct alone doesn’t solve any problems. It’s just a bit of paper. People need to know it exists, they need to know why it exists, there needs to be general acceptance of it, and there needs to be a will to enforce it.

This week many people will for the first time have heard Labour leaders talking about trans issues – and impressions will have been mixed at best. Starmer was asked by Marr whether “someone who thinks only women have a cervix” was welcome in the Party, a clear reference to Rosie Duffield. Starmer responded by trying to set out the Party’s agreed position on trans rights, but Marr wanted to know whether he thought the statement was transphobic. Looking like a man out of his comfort zone, Starmer managed “It is something that shouldn’t be said, it’s not right,” leaving many viewers perplexed by what was wrong with the statement.

Emily Thornberry later gave a more assured response on the question, saying that her cousin is a (trans) man who has a cervix. But the damage was already done. Labour was failing to set the terms of the discussion.

Next minister to stumble was Rachel Reeves. Speaking to Channel 4 News, she tried to stay on message by assuring people that Labour wouldn’t change the Equality Act. In doing so however she misled viewers as to what the Act says about the rights of trans people to access domestic violence shelters, and was seemingly unaware that a number of refuges had gone to a lot of trouble to admit trans women in a sensitive way.

In contrast to this, the LGBT+ motion passed by conference on Tuesday declared that “no one should be barred or limited from accessing support services for being trans or nonbinary”. The problem with this is, the Equality Act does permit exclusions from single sex shelters in some limited circumstances. The safeguard is there to protect women from any genuine abusers. Campaigning for its removal would open Labour to the accusation that it’s putting trans people above the interests of women.

It’s good that senior Shadow Ministers are making inclusive noises, and that Anneliese Dodds is clearly fully behind the party line. Their unpreparedness though when confronted with moderately tough interview questions doesn’t inspire confidence. David Lammy gave voice to their frustration on Wednesday when he hit back at Nick Robinson: “Nick you are deliberately asking me about an issue which you know does not come up on the doorstep… You, the BBC, are choosing to land on this subject which most British people aren’t talking about in a fuel crisis, and spend minutes on this because it keeps Labour talking about identity issues and not about the substantive policies Keir will set out.”

It’s also frustrating, not just from Labour’s point of view, but from the point of view of the trans community. These media conversations, in which trans people are never present, provide more confusion than light, and seldom dwell on the bigger issues affecting us.

Of far more pressing concern than reform of the GRA is the crisis in trans healthcare. Waiting times for an initial appointment at a Gender Identity Clinic have worsened during the pandemic and in some parts of the country are as long as five years. The NHS stopped prescribing puberty blockers for trans kids following the High Court decision in Bell v Tavistock, and even though that ruling has now been thrown out by the Court of Appeal, the NHS has yet to set a date for resuming treatment. Labour MPs can help by amplifying the voices of those demanding that something be done, and by backing this Good Law Project campaign.

Labour’s first duty is to get its own house in order. So having delivered the soundbites, can the Party deliver some action by dealing with its transphobia problem ?

Official sources are definitely saying that Labour is committed to bringing in a code of conduct for transphobia. But the NEC hasn’t been engaging with trans groups, and hasn’t announced any plans for consultation, which is why so many trans members lack confidence in the process.

A code of conduct for transphobia would likely include examples of unacceptable behaviours. Existing employment policies and the Equality Act itself provide clues as to what this might include: sustained harassment of trans people; abuse based on someone’s protected characteristics (eg deliberate misgendering or deadnaming); and (one would hope) promoting websites or organisations that actively encourage misgendering or deadnaming.

The NEC will certainly have been made aware of the Forstater appeal judgment, and I don’t believe that any attempt will be made to prohibit “protected beliefs”. So we could arrive at a situation where expressing a belief that trans women are men wouldn’t be a breach of any guidance, although the Party leadership would be within their rights to say that such views are alien to the values of the Party. Members could however be disciplined over any abusive behaviours.

The road ahead is full of pitfalls. Effective communication from the leadership is absolutely key. They must consult with and win the confidence of LGBT and trans groups for the new guidance, and show that they’re willing to enforce it. At the same time they should explain to the Party why this is necessary, who it’s aimed at, and why it shouldn’t be seen as a tool for silencing women. Messaging needs to be positive, focused on inclusivity, creating a welcoming culture, and supporting one another. In the words of Angela Rayner, “Women’s rights are not in conflict with trans rights. Our fight is your fight, your struggle is my struggle.”

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