Why Labour Should Be Bolder on Trans Rights

by Luke Dukinfield

23 October 2018

Delphine Dallison

The LGBTQI+ -specific section of the 2017 Labour party manifesto contained some heartening and significant promises. But around transgender rights, the stakes have become higher than ever. The recent moral panic around the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reforms has entrenched vicious currents of anti-trans bigotry across the media and society.

Labour pledges like strengthening the Equality Act and accelerating the provision of novel HIV medication through the NHS demonstrate a clear political will to imagine beyond simple expedient fixes to the GRA. Moreover, the strong record of the current Labour leadership in vocally supporting LGBTQI+ rights due to its links with the social movement base remains an affirming backdrop.

But given the rampant social violence, destitution and healthcare discrimination so many trans people face, these political efforts must go further. The frontier of trans rights must be reckoned with in the tradition of fundamental civil rights struggles; the scale of political will consistent with that historical exigency. Of course, the Labour party alone cannot orchestrate the mass movements necessary in enacting this kind of widespread change – nor would we wish for electoral structures to conduct this necessarily bottom-up fight. With that said, in the context of transformative programmes and radical policy pledges – the backbone of Labour’s resurgence as a political force – more should be demanded and agitated for.

Internally, some tendencies in the Labour party have militated against trans rights to obstruct this progress.  Though the size of their political base should not be overestimated, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) continue to exert significant political pressure and influence both within and outside left spheres. This is due to their activity aligning with the virulently transphobic trends of a reactionary cultural hegemony, propped up by the Guardian as much as the Christian Right. Their instigation of the ‘debate’ over trans women’s inclusion in All-Women shortlists – and the traction they gained – is just one example of the influence and long-standing historical precedent of TERF politics. Indeed, an old-guard sympathetic to these tendencies still occupies the upper ranks of many union structures – seen in a letter published in the Morning Star, signed by many such union officials and railing against the “violence of trans activists”. This speaks to how chauvinistic and opportunistic traditions often bolster and are upheld by the Labour aristocracy.

Despite this, the Trades Union Congress voting to support gender self-declaration, and Momentum branches affirming a commitment to trans rights through constructive discussion, gestures towards the possibility of redressing such prejudice at a rank-and-file level. This assertion of support must, however, be politically mobilized, and pressure brought to bear both internally on the leadership and more concretely on the government through protest, with demands for trans liberation actively integrated into ongoing campaigns (from those intervening to reshape Labour policy as much as those to defend the NHS).  The recent Momentum video countering anti-trans myths, tropes and prejudice was an inspiring initiation with the kind of cultural work and collective political education that the Labour party and its base at every level must be proactively engaged in.  Discussions of trans liberation at The World Transformed embody another positive progression.

This is not to elide the very real political conflicts that must be fought – TERFs often obscure their campaign against trans rights under falsehoods of advocating for women’s safety, misinformation about existing legal protections, and the smokescreen of abstract “debate” where our humanity is incessantly deemed as in question. We must therefore recognize that there are tendencies deliberately acting in bad faith that seek to force us onto the back foot and with whom reason alone cannot win out. Such tendencies – which range from TERFs to Blue Labour social conservativism to Blairite timidity, drawing their energy more from the right than the left – pit marginalized groups against one another and scapegoat trans people, politically demobilizing and dismaying us.

However, it is more subtle currents that account for the majority of transphobia in the Labour party. This is where political education can have real effects, contesting attitudes of trans rights as a side-show, fad or distraction as much as engaging in forward-looking campaigns elucidating and combatting structural oppression.  It’s through such efforts that we might escape the quagmire of firefighting into which we have been forced, despondently warding off the backlash of smears in the press and defensively orienting our political activity around securing GRA reforms.  Alongside a reaffirmed communal commitment to trans liberation from all our comrades, we need to reassert that the legacy and horizons of our liberation have always extended beyond mere recognition or representation.

Indeed, this is particularly pressing within the tensions of our current political landscape. LGBTQI+ campaigns have historically adopted an anti-statist orientation, and with the ongoing state-sanctioned abuse of trans people – whether in the criminalization of sex work in which we are disproportionately engaged or the dehumanization of and violence against trans prisoners – this will likely continue to be the guiding force of any trans liberation struggle.  The resurgence of institutional politics, then, inevitably provokes questions of the contingencies, limits and exclusions of social democratic settlements, and the underside of repression and discipline which has historically underpinned such compromises. The gatekeeping, persecution, and invasive practices of healthcare services under the rubric of paternalistically managing trans patients exposes such fault lines.

With Labour in closer proximity to power, extra-parliamentary doubts of Blairite hangovers recuperating progress are thus not without grounds – small, grassroots groups such as Action for Trans Health have been unilaterally driving this progress for so long. Unfortunate capitulations around migration recently remind us which groups remain at the thin end of the wedge of compacts with the state and capital, and we must resist any craven trade-off in justice for the oppressed to shore up short-term electoral gains.

Corbynism is a profound break with decaying social democratic traditions, its will inherited from the power, creativity and versatility of social movements. That will must now translate into a robust programme in all spheres of social issues. This means bearing forward bold pledges around patient-participatory and comprehensively resourced healthcare provision, trans-specific housing protections in the Equality Act, broad-ranging workers’ rights (including the decriminalization of sex work), drastic checks on the power of police and carceral models, and substantial investment in trans social services, etc.

In many ways, it is these ostensibly marginal issues that will truly test the will of the Corbyn project and whether it can transcend the impasse of accommodationist Labourist traditions that still haunt the party. Trans liberation is in absolute complement to socialist ideas of resource and power redistribution – and it is our communities that desperately need such transformation the most.  This, then, is a historic task to which we all must rise.

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