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TERF War: the Labour Party must support trans justice

03 Aug 2018

As a candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), I have received a torrent of emails from members asking about my position on the “sex-based” rights of women. These questions come at a time when the Party is becoming ever more consumed in fraught and at times violent debate over the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), a landmark piece of legislation that serves as a pathway for trans people to have their identity legally recognised.

The GRA was welcomed in 2004 despite its many flaws. In 2017 the Conservative government announced that it would review and reform the Act, unleashing a fight transcending partisan Labour Party politics and principally concerned with the power to define womanhood.  

“The Gender Recognition Act currently requires a series of intrusive medical assessments in order to “prove” gender identity”

The fundamental problem with the GRA is how it perpetuates a damaging “mental illness” approach to transgender rights. It currently requires a series of intrusive medical assessments and bureaucratic interviews with psychiatrists in order to “prove” gender identity, and for trans people to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. This works to pathologise gender variance; presenting people with a range of gender identities as unwell.

Other stipulations in the Act include the rule that trans people must live for two years as their “acquired gender” and obtain “evidence” of their gender identity. This means that people who can afford to legally change their name, who are employed, or a homeowner are in a better position to collate evidence. Considering that 25% of trans people have experienced homelessness and that studies show that a staggeringly high level of trans people face unemployment, these evidential documents may not be accessible to many people in the community. Collected evidence is put before a gender recognition panel comprised of medical professionals who have never met the applicant, but who nonetheless have the right to deny legal recognition if these predetermined and rigid measures are not met.

“Pathways to legal recognition urgently need to be tailored to match the needs of transgender individuals”

From the very onset, it was clear that the current GRA took only the slightest step forward in legal recognition and enabling access to necessary health services for transgender people. Pathways to legal recognition urgently need to be tailored to match the personal needs of transgender individuals. Furthermore, stigmatising gender dysphoria as a mental illness is dangerously out of step with significant medical advances.

So why is the debate heating up now? If the sex-based rights of women are allegedly under threat because of reform to GRA, why weren’t they under threat when it was passed as legislation in 2004? This conversation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it wasn’t simply initiated by plans to reform the GRA.

Instead, it is possible that we can trace increased levels of overt transphobia back to the increased and much-needed visibility of transgender people in mainstream discourse. As writer and artist Shon Faye suggests in a piece for the Guardian in May 2018, “Since 2013, it has felt like trans visibility has increased at breakneck speed”. From Caitlyn Jenner to Munroe Bergdorf, trans people have broken the political sound barrier with demands for long-overdue cultural recognition and equality. However, as Faye continued: “when trans people are elevated to visibility, not everyone’s reaction is to be kind”.

“Granting others greater legislative protection does not erode your own”

It is therefore disingenuous to narrow conversations within the Labour Party to simply being rooted in All-Women Shortlists, GRA reform or women’s officer positions. Instead, resistance to equality is being driven by discriminatory Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) orthodoxy, one that has always set itself in opposition to transgender rights.

I can’t accept this “Trojan Horse” narrative created by TERFs who want to make mainstream the unevidenced suggestion that increased rights for transgender people will lead to the infiltration and ultimate destruction of feminism as a movement. Granting others greater legislative protection does not erode your own. We have to move away from conspiracy theories that exploit the emotional discomfort of women, namely fears of sexual assault.

Within a party that prides itself in being home to radical emancipatory politics and with a rich history of organising against economic and social prejudice, it has been disappointing to see some lobby for regression. It can never be either/or without us all losing.