Keir Starmer recently waded into the toxic battleground of the trans rights debate, with the hand-wringing ask that we all just get along.
In comments that have attracted substantially less ire than his criticism of Black Lives Matter, but still constitute the Labour leader talking over oppressed groups on issues he evidently doesn’t really understand, Starmer stated that: “I’m convinced there’s a way forward here if everybody is prepared to stop chucking bricks at each other”.
With this phrasing, Starmer is pandering to a loud reactionary cause and thus fueling the very culture war he claims he wants to diffuse.
In choosing not to recognise the inherent contradiction between the material interests of trans people and the demands of ‘gender critical’ feminists (also known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or Terfs), while at the same time failing to provide any opposition to the Tories’ backtracking on proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act – which would have allowed trans people to at last have full autonomy over their gender identity – Starmer has made his allegiance clear.
Characterising trans people defending themselves against a vicious campaign of demonisation as “chucking bricks” is certainly a reach. This is political gaslighting framed as sensible politics and demonstrates a failure on the Labour leader’s part to stand up for people who need Labour most.
Any kind of compromise or liberal mediation in the conversation would be a defeat for Terfs, as within their ideology all trans women pose an inherent threat to cis women by virtue of ‘being born male’. There is no compromising with these people, because the itch of anti-trans activism will never be truly scratched until trans women, legally speaking, cease to exist. Entertaining these regressive ideas is dangerous.
Trans pride in London, 2019
The proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act were not some Orwellian attack on the idea of sex – as many on the more conspiratorial side of the argument would have you believe – but merely an attempt to ease the process of transitioning.
Getting a new passport and birth certificate is expensive and arduous, an added cost to the already costly trans existence.
Many trans people are forced to self-medicate, due to a wait time of two years or more for treatment on the NHS. This means they can’t get the letter from their doctor which currently makes up part of the paperwork required to legally change gender.
Not having any legal documentation affirming your gender presentation essentially exposes your trans identity in a society riddled with transphobia. And with trans hate crime rising to a record high last year, this poses a real and serious threat to trans people’s lives.
Working-class and unemployed trans people bear the brunt of failings in the current system, and these groups make up a large portion of the trans community. Trans people are unemployed at twice the rate of their cis counterparts, 24% of homeless youth are LGBT+, and there’s a huge intersection between sex work and trans women.
With no proof of income, even something as arbitrary as finding a room to rent can be a minefield. All this can sometimes make the mainstream discussion around trans rights in the UK media feel almost trivial: it’s difficult to worry about the complexities of gender when you are struggling to keep a roof over your head or get enough to eat.
Instead of exploring the wider context of trans oppression and considering the lived experience of trans-people, pundits obsess over the philosophical question of: “What makes someone a woman or a man?” and whether or not it is transphobic to deny that “trans👏 women👏 are 👏women👏”.
In rooting ourselves to this discourse we limit any chance of improving the material conditions of trans people and cis women alike. It’s now common to see trans rights being framed as the biggest threat to women’s rights and terfs as the biggest threat to trans lives. This cultural warfare acts as a smokescreen, as focus turns away from the very real threats posed to working-class cis women and working-class trans people.
Instead of the rabid underfunding of domestic abuse shelters, and the skeletal infrastructure of trans healthcare, the two groups are pitted against each other in an almost gladiatorial media spectacle. Instead of pushing a legitimate discussion about prison conditions and prison abolition, we are talking about trans women going into women’s prisons.
It would be naive to claim that the ruling class is trying to push a single agenda in the trans-debate. Factions of the bourgeoisie have stakes on both sides of the argument, but what unites these factions is that none of them really care about trans lives.
In the same way the neoliberal British media harvest clicks and (occasionally still) sell magazines and newspapers by manufacturing hundreds of think pieces on trans women and their plan to destroy women’s rights, corporations benefit from ‘woke’ marketing campaigns celebrating trans bodies. This cruel political football and capitalist virtue signalling pulls us away from actual material struggle. Both transphobia and misogyny are primarily, although not exclusively, class issues, but rarely talked about as such.
The unwelcome phenomena of terfism is a perfect indictment of liberal identity politics and its persistent failure to improve material conditions for people who need it. The idea of universality amongst trans people is deeply reductive. The experience of a trans sex worker struggling to acquire hormones and a place to live and that of multimillionaire celebrity Caitlyn Jenner, who can afford a myriad of surgeries overnight, are so disparate that grouping them together as having shared experience, or even as members of the same community, feels ridiculous.
Labour should be leading the conversation here, yet so far Starmer – in true centrist fashion – has paid lip service to trans people through performative tweets but shown no desire for real action. The conversation around feminism and trans liberation in the UK needs to move from an essentialist liberal one to a radical, class-conscious, socialist one.
Some of the ‘luxuries’ Jenner can buy should be available through the NHS, as a basic right to trans people. We also need secure housing, employment, and an education system that acknowledges trans people’s existence. This is how trans issues should be platformed in the mainstream media: not as a debate on the right to exist, but as a discussion about the basic necessities needed to survive.
Aimee Armstrong is a materialist feminist, socialist and writer based in London.