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Labour Must Be a Party that Fights for Trans Rights

The Labour leadership's refusal to get 'drawn in' to the debate over the Gender Recognition Act isn't good enough – it's time for the party to stand up for trans rights against the right-wing media backlash.

Four months into lockdown, an impending economic crisis and Black Lives Matter movements rising up against racism on his doorstep, Boris Johnson has announced his decision to attack the rights of one of the most marginalised groups in society.

Making up less than 1% of the population, trans people – already disproportionately impacted by the global pandemic – received the news that the Prime Minister plans to enforce ‘single-sex spaces’, prevent young trans people accessing the lifeline of transitional healthcare and will scrap plans to make the process of transitioning less intrusive and inaccessible.

It’s no secret that the Convervative Party has not been a forthcoming ally to the LGBTQ+ community, however many rainbow graphics they share this month. The party of Section 28 which demonised LGBT people as immoral, who elected a leader who refers to “tank-topped bum boys” and once compared same sex marriage to allowing marriage “between three men and a dog” is now the party poised to attack the few legal rights designed to protect trans people. 

To do so, they are utilising the very same tropes peddled in the 1980s by Thatcher’s government against gay people. The trans community is being painted as a threat to women and children by a right-wing media campaign designed to stoke fear and stir up hatred.

But despite the Tories making clear their intention to scale back trans rights and capitulate to the transphobic lobby, trans people and Labour members were met with three months of silence from the Leader of the Opposition. 

On June 15th, The Times ran an article reporting that the Labour leadership was “deliberately avoiding being drawn into a culture war” over the question of trans rights. For many in the party, this amounted to a painful betrayal – but particularly for those who have no choice but to be ‘drawn’ into this by nature of their very existence.

After considerable pushback, Keir Starmer clarified last week that he would scrutinise the government’s plans when they are published. “Labour is absolutely committed to trans people and supports updating the Gender Recognition Act,” his office said.

But further comments promising to work with “all sides of the debate” were met with consternation among LGBT campaigners in the party. “We wouldn’t work with racists on BAME rights,” said Emily Brothers, the first openly trans parliamentary candidate for Labour, “so why work with the anti-trans lobby?”

As we approach the end of Pride month, it’s worth remembering the history. It was 35 years ago this month that miners led the Pride parade, returning the solidarity shown to their strike by Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM).

That march was the forging of an alliance between the LGBT community and the trade unionist and labour movement, united in solidarity against persecution by police and the state. But with each passing day of silence, the relationship between LGBT+ members and the Labour Party becomes more strained.  

Keir Starmer’s silence, and his triangulation in recent days, undermines Labour’s reputation as the party that challenges oppression. It marks a turning point for the Labour movement after the years of 2015-2020, whe we could reliably expect the leadership to take up causes of injustice. 

Increasingly, it seems it falls to the membership to organise and prevent the Labour Party becoming an institution that pursues neutrality in the conflict between oppressors and the oppressed. 

The fight for trans people is one that should see socialists at the forefront. Underfunded domestic violence services and refuges, NHS cuts, the housing crisis, universal credit and insecure low-paid work are all issues that disproportionately impact the trans community.

We must combine this work with the fight for reform of the Gender Recognition Act, to ensure that trans rights are enshrined in law – and for public services, including healthcare, to be extended to the trans community free at the point of access.

If we are not unequivocal in standing against transphobia, Labour faces the threat of being abandoned by LGBT+ members and their allies. At a time of rising right-wing bigotry, we will be breaking that 35-year chain of solidarity forged by the miners in 1985.

It is time for the Left, too, to reject those who still hold transphobic views, and make clear that class politics are entirely compatible with trans rights – just as trans rights are compatible and essential to women’s rights.

Judging Keir Starmer on his record to date, members should expect an uphill struggle over the coming years. It will be up to us to champion the tenets of socialism – justice and equality for all – which are fundamental to our Labour movement when the leadership fails in this task.

In the East of England, we’re doing our bit. LGBT+ members have publicly called on Keir Starmer and Marsha De Cordova to end the silence on trans rights through an open letter signed by over 1,000 members.

Tomorrow, the Eastern region will host a Pride panel on LGBT+ rights, where panelists will make the case for the party to stand with the trans community. Join us, and let’s ensure trans rights are very much on Labour’s agenda.