Since the beginning of Labour’s leadership race, trans rights has rapidly risen up the political agenda. Both Jess Phillips and Clive Lewis – each supposedly from opposing wings of the party – were questioned for their past transphobic statements, whilst the remaining candidates have all been questioned by the media on their position towards trans liberation.
Despite what it seems, this is not a sign of the trans liberation movement’s strength but of its weakness. Not only that the question must even be asked of candidates as to whether they support a severely marginalised and oppressed group, but that the media is so desperate to attack them for their support and to portray such a minor issue in most people’s lives as deeply “controversial”. It’s a clear demonstration that there is an endemic tide of hatred towards trans people in Britain’s highest organs of power and influence.
Whilst this situation may sound dire, there is a route to trans liberation. It is to build trans power, in direct and active opposition to the power of transphobes. To strengthen throughout our society the collective, organised force of trans people and allies in order to win the struggle for our rights, dignity, safety, and happiness – and to do so with a united LGBT community, and a labour movement standing in solidarity.
In Britain today, the intensity of this struggle is greater than ever. Although we have won some of the visibility many sought, the reaction has been a counter-campaign of bigotry, built on organised transphobia and led by some of the most powerful in our society. Their case to the public, which is regurgitated daily by broadsheets and broadcasters, is simple: trans people are not deserving of rights, and every right we enjoy endangers society at large. This is because, they believe, trans people are essentially unnatural and abnormal, and therefore both dangerous and lesser. It is no surprise that in the last five years, hate crime against trans people has tripled in England and Wales. We often imagine that the perpetrators of these crimes are ignorant street hooligans; in reality, the educated journalists of Britain are more to blame.
Our newfound visibility is also not the only force responsible. Austerity, too, created material circumstances and a new political culture which created the space for transphobia to flourish. As cuts to the NHS and social services deepened, the resources which trans people need to transition and survive came to be seen as an unaffordable luxury. The sense that being trans is a personal choice to be gained at the taxpayer’s expense rather than a social reality that should be supported by our social structures was perhaps the first lie that the media sold to the public, and which first incubated the notion that trans people are to be despised.
This narrative is no different to the long war against “benefit scroungers” or the disabled; under the narrative of being “all in this together” to “cut the deficit”, anyone perceived as not “pulling their weight” became a drain and a social weakness. In this atomised and socially bankrupt terrain, the new, organised transphobia began to emerge.
The New Transphobia
The methods and ideology underpinning the new transphobia contains some important variations, although many of its advocates have proven themselves willing to build alliances with each other across typical political divides. The rightist, Conservative form of transphobia is the most easily explicable as simple social conservatism, still often levelled at LGBT people in general, taking aim at a new, more vulnerable target through the traditional right-wing press. Their interest is the same as ever: to keep the oppressed down and maintain their power. On the left, it takes the more complex form of a particular biological reductionism falsely interpreted through Marxist materialism – although it is what Marx himself would have called a “vulgar materialism” which fails to account for the material social order, and reduces human beings to chemical processes.
However, Britain’s most prominent form of transphobia is the intellectualised and respectable brand pushed by centrist liberals. This transphobia is incubated throughout publications like the New Statesman or The Guardian and portrays its position as being one of “reasonable discussion”. Trans questions are framed as more of an intellectual oddity than of issues relating to actual people – and moreover, as an intellectual question which they would rather not resolve in favour of any radical break from the poverty of mainstream liberalism.
But whatever ideological coating they choose, what unites them is more than what divides them, and that is a fundamental hatred of trans people. It is this which motivates them above all else. Their mutual willingness to work together in poisoning the well of British culture against trans people; and to share their methods and resources amongst each other to do so, makes this fact blatantly obvious.
Our politicians have proven themselves deeply susceptible to this campaign of transphobia, or in fact directly complicit and active with it. In the Scottish National Party, the anti-Brexit court warrior Joanna Cherry has applied just as much legal skill towards restricting transgender rights. Although Jo Swinson took a pro-trans position in the general election, the Liberal Democrats have shown little compunction when welcoming transphobic bigots like the ex-Tory Phillip Lee into their ranks.
In the Labour Party, transphobic motions have been repeatedly passed at CLPs without response from the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), just as transphobes are able to remain members against our own equalities policy. Jess Phillips has also signalled support for transphobic hate groups such as Woman’s Place UK, a group who John McDonnell was willing to meet with “in confidence”, and Laura Pidcock has alarmed many by her repeated use of transphobic dog-whistles and talking points in various articles and public appearances.
However, it is ultimately the Tories that have been most ready to reap the rewards of hatred. The promised reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) are now indefinitely stalled, denying trans people valuable legal recognition for the foreseeable future. Transphobes such as Nadine Dorries – now the Under-Secretary-of-State for Mental Health – are welcome on government front benches, despite the high levels of mental illness that trans people suffer as a result of transphobia. In Boris Johnson’s inner circle, there are men like the arch-reactionary journalist Andrew Gilligan, who was previously ruled against by the Press Standards Organisation for lying about our legal right to use public bathrooms.
But these trends don’t end at dangerous shifts in government policy and personnel. The seeds sewn by the press and organised transphobes have provided fertile ground for a culture war over trans rights. Before the election, inside sources revealed to The Times that the government was planning to take advantage of this situation in order to target “socially conservative working class voters” to divide Labour’s base and split the opposition. Now emboldened by a Brexit-driven majority – but without a key issue to campaign on as the withdrawal date passes – it would be no surprise if the Tories chose to stoke this fire with all their strength. From the halls of Westminster to the streets we walk, an all-out assault on the rights, dignity and safety of transgender people is now more likely than ever before.
The Roadmap to Liberation
Yet we are not powerless to stop them. To meet this organised transphobia we must do what oppressed people have done throughout history and become organised ourselves. Trans people and allies must come together in our communities and fight back.
This is no easy task; trans people face material challenges – sometimes life-threatening ones – that consume our lives. Homelessness, unemployment, poverty, lack of access to vital services like healthcare, and the ensuing mental illness resulting from these struggles, frustrates the prospect of mass political action among trans people. But this, too, is not extraordinary. Oppression is designed to deny resistance, yet oppressed people have fought and won throughout generations. It is also the nature of oppression that it targets those whose collective struggle might threaten the benefactors of injustice. What we most require is the confidence to realise that we too are a part of this history of struggle.
In any roadmap to trans liberation, we will require structures and organisations that we can utilise to empower us and carry the fight beyond individuals and even through generations. In Britain, it is most often the Labour Party which has taken this role. Rooted in the organised working class, Labour has the social depth and organisational scale to both build alliances amongst oppressed people and challenge the powerful. There is today no other Party in Britain that can facilitate the creation of organised trans power in our communities, whilst advancing us as part of a collective movement with the ultimate objective of winning power. That it is the best option in Britain’s political landscape is not, however, to say its commitment to liberation is unimpeachable; far from it.
All too often, rather than standing in its best traditions of human freedom and social good, the Labour Party has sought to manage away marginalised groups when inconvenient, and we have seen that same tendency towards trans people. Though MPs like Dawn Butler have taken a brave stand, transphobes have been able to organise freely throughout the party, in contravention of our own equalities policy, which already demonstrates a lack of commitment or concern in the party structures. Transphobes have taken advantage of this to apply pressure throughout those same structures, trading on the lies that are soaked into Britain’s politics in order to manufacture confusion.
Little effort has been made to counter these advances of transphobia in CLPs and in Parliament, with only a commitment to reforming the GRA – as the Tories once promised – binding party policy to our cause. Even this timid aim was called into question in the otherwise hopeful and inspiring 2019 manifesto, where it was directly accompanied by a commitment to preserve “single-sex spaces” as well as questionable language on the “cultural shift required”. Whilst the preservation of “single-sex spaces” would be meaningless legally, as single-sex spaces already include trans people with the Gender Recognition Certificates that GRA reform would make more accessible, the addition was nonetheless celebrated by transphobes.
The contesting of this pledge between various interpretations followed, as the party and its representatives provided multiple, incompatible readings which fluctuated between transphobic and trans-inclusive versions. Whilst the true meaning intended by those who signed off on the wording may be impossible to know, it is emblematic of the equivocal and contingent regard, or disregard, that party structures hold towards trans rights. Such a situation suggests that the party’s highest bodies may be vulnerable to the growing influence of transphobia, even if it is a transphobia disguised by the alt-right tactics of utilising unclear language and plausible deniability to advance their cause.
Towards a Trans Future
However, we can still reverse this and change the course of our future in this country. By building trans power in our community and our party, we can go on the offensive for trans liberation. It is an effort that, whilst working closely with our allies, must and can only be achieved through the leadership and action of trans people. No longer can we hope that our allies will achieve freedom for us, nor that history will naturally bend the arc of justice in our direction before too many more have lost their lives to transphobia.
Our first objective must be to overcome the barriers which hold so many trans people from taking political action. Already, many trans people are radicalised by their circumstances, and have not only a desire but a material need to change them. Mobilising and organising this radicalism into effective resistance is crucial, and will require education, skills, structures and support. Whilst building our own organisation, we must also seek to make use of those which already exist for these purposes. In our material need, trans people are natural recruits to the labour movement, which should be central to defending our precarious position in the workplace. Although bringing these institutions into our community will not be easy in the face of organised transphobes, it will be an important step to both defeat those transphobes and strengthen our community in British society.
With at least four years of a transphobic government to come, we also have an obligation to support and uplift our community through material support in the present. We must help our trans siblings find safe homes and defend our right to live in them, with organisations that can support us when we are threatened with poverty and unemployment. We must work to help provide the legal advice needed to gain a Gender Recognition Certificate, which extends our otherwise limited personal rights, or support volunteer clinics which provide the temporary guidance needed for medical transition. We need organisations that can facilitate mutual support; whether it’s through gender-affirming clothing swaps, donations of food and survival funds, or even just the simple trading of information about where is safe; and where is not. In the process we can also achieve the crucial task of tightening communal bonds and building a sense of ourselves as part of a collective that must rise together.
But going on the offensive means not only alleviating immediate struggles but using those experiences to advance towards a different future. We must aim beyond just the current threat to our rights, towards the end of our material suffering and a future in which we are afforded the dignity, freedom and enjoyment that is the genuine right of all humanity. We must fight for a healthcare system that fully supports trans people, towards an education system that respects us, and towards an economic and social order in which we are genuinely valued and treat as equals. Mass political education will also be crucial to spread the intellectual tools to understand and fight our oppression; free night schools and accessible literature about what transphobia is and how to fight it could transform our political capabilities entirely.
The labour movement already contains a wealth of professionals working on policy and campaigns, but recent shifts towards community organising and political education might increase what is possible for trans people by an order of magnitude. Not only could the labour movement facilitate this work, but it could connect trans people with the broader fight within communities facing similar struggles. If the Labour Party firmly committed itself to standing with trans people and to directly rebutting transphobic narratives and lies infecting the country and its political structures, it might rapidly make Britain a safer place for trans people to live.
For this to happen, we will need to organise to remove transphobes and transphobia throughout the party. The NEC must be pressured to act against transphobic individuals and incidents, just as it does in other cases of discrimination. Support for organisations like Woman’s Place, which hate us for being trans, can no longer be considered consistent with the values of socialism and liberation. We should strive not only to change the bureaucracy, but to have trans members and allies in every CLP winning the fight for trans rights, and ready to combat lies like the notion that women’s rights and trans rights are in opposition, or that there is any alignment between transphobia and socialism.
We should work to develop education for the rank-and-file which spreads awareness and affinity towards our movement, and which could make our party a place that is inclusive and supportive, rather than dangerous, for trans people. Policies and actions that could change the lives of trans people must be advanced through our party all the way up to conference, just as policies like the Green New Deal have been. Trans people in the Labour Party must step up to understand the importance of this task and lead this fight ourselves.
This programme may seem extensive. But these are the steps required to avoid a coming catastrophe for trans people. If we can achieve them, it is a realistic and possible road to the historic goal of trans liberation in Britain. A society where trans people can be genuinely free, safe and happy remains something unrealised in the modern era. Through building trans power, embedded in our communities and in a labour movement seeking liberation and justice for all, we could at last end the long night trans people have lived under for generations. We call on all trans people and their allies to unite around this ambition, for there is no other way to live other than as the genuine human beings we have always known we are. As the revolutionary Marxist and trans pioneer Leslie Feinberg once wrote, “Try imagining a world worth living in, and then ask yourself if that isn’t worth fighting for.”