Trans people in the UK are being crushed by relentless attacks from extremists. Where are our allies?
Freddy McConnell is a journalist, dad and trans man. He lost a series of legal challenges in the UK to be recorded as the “father” or “parent” on his child’s birth certificate, and is now taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
If you have the slightest interest in LGBT+ equality, you’ll know that attempts to further the rights of transgender people – primarily by simplifying gender recognition – have been rejected by this government. Since this became clear, things have gone rather quiet and you would be forgiven for thinking progress on trans equality had stalled. Maybe trans people are taking a breather? Heaven knows we need it.
Exhausted as we may be, however, we all need to sit up and realise that “stalled” is inaccurate. Nothing about this period of time is neutral. On the contrary, anti-trans groups have ramped up their curiously well-funded* efforts. The difference now is that they’re doing it quietly and subtly, ie in the backrooms and corridors of power. They have the ears of ministers and peers and, in some cases, they are those people.
Moreover, having swept Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform off the table, they are now shifting into an attack position. In other words, trans equality has not gone from progress to standing still. Under this parliament, and the watch of our current so-called equality ministers, the UK has lurched from progress to a measurable loss of rights for trans people, both young and old.
If our allies in government and media do not become more vigilant and proactive as a matter of emergency, trans people – friends, colleagues, classmates, siblings, children and parents – will be legislated out of public existence without the majority even noticing.
British anti-trans extremists are gaining momentum
A slew of recent, low-key wins by anti-trans activists should be ringing alarm bells across the UK that anti-trans extremists are not only winning, but gaining momentum. They have set the tone (fear/concern) and the framework (trans rights vs women’s rights) and are dominating the legislative and policy agenda, in the face of minimal or zero resistance.
First, why is there no resistance? Why are anti-trans groups having a field day attacking trans people on the political left, right and centre?
Newsflash: trans people have no power. We rarely even have a platform and when we do, it’s usually a specialist or marginal one. In one sense, it really is that simple: no one hears from us, so no one gets us, so no one cares, besides those who care the absolute most about erasing us. Outnumbered, outgunned and emotionally traumatised by years of trial by media, we can hardly muster the energy to observe our own dehumanisation and erasure, let alone fight it.
Second, allies who do hold power have in recent years lost any and all incentive to speak out. Who would risk so much as being seen to argue “against” women’s rights? Who has time to debunk such widespread and complex misinformation passed off as “women’s concern”, especially when women genuinely do have so much to be concerned about? What is the prize, besides the feeble gratitude of a pariah minority?
The chilling effect anti-trans rhetoric has had on allies has been devastating; a ruthless attack on the freedom to express basic human compassion and empathy.
Trans people are facing death by a thousand cuts
The strategy itself appears to look like this: target laws and policies that accidentally or potentially protect trans people, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. In other words, death by a thousand cuts. The goal is to adjust our political and legal systems such that they operate as if a) trans people do not exist, b) trans people are not to be taken seriously, c) trans people are a threat, or d) all of the above.
This dogged work is not headline grabbing stuff, but then groups like Woman’s Place UK, LGB Alliance and Transgender Trend have had their fill of that. After months or even years of uncritical news coverage, they might have realised fawning journalists can only get them so far. If a campaign’s goal is, in effect, the eradication of a protected class of people, the work itself cannot be all OBEs and Newsnight specials. The architects of anti-gay and anti-abortion campaigns in the US, who UK groups may or may not communicate with online*, could tell them that.
Anti-trans campaigners have been so successful in shaping public conversation that when someone like me secures a politician’s attention for five minutes, it is a surreal experience. It feels as if they are surprised to find that we are, in fact, real people and they seem to forget basic rules of decency when interacting with us. I have experienced this first hand but first, some necessary context.
Gender-neutral language and the Maternity Bill
A recent example of a stealth attack by anti-trans campaigners was the attempt by the unelected House of Lords to amend the language of the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act. On the face of it, it seems inconsequential. The bill only applies to UK government ministers and now refers to those benefiting from it as “mother or expectant mother”. The common-sense vibe of all this makes it a quintessential battleground for moral-panic crusading.
To understand the true animus of the amendment, go to the source. Making her proposal, Baroness Noakes said: “This House regrets that the bill is drafted in a way which does not respect the fact that only women can be pregnant.” Again, although this will sound reasonable to many, there is growing awareness that it is not true.
Trans men and non-binary people, who may or may not have a Gender Recognition Certificate (non-binary people will certainly not, as they are not legally recognised in the UK), sometimes give birth. These people are not women yet they sometimes need legal protections that have historically been strictly gender-specific. If anyone remains in doubt about the anti-trans nature of the amendment, rest assured that Baroness Noakes’ proposal was followed by over three hours of misinformed debate about trans people, involving not a single openly trans person.
So, trans people were trying to sneak through language to suit them, you say? Well, no, not at all. The original wording of the bill had nothing to do with us; it included us by accident. The original wording was gender-neutral because that has been the way legislation has been written since 2007. Changing it to specify women is a step backwards, both broadly speaking and for trans recognition and equality.
The only meaningful effect of gender-specific language in this bill is the exclusion and erasure of trans people. The term “pregnant people” includes everyone, regardless of faux outrage over gender-neutral language. Amid all this, there’s a worrying and regressive tendency to forget that women are, first and foremost, people.
The original amendment proposed changing “pregnant person” to “pregnant women”, however, this is where I became involuntarily personally implicated. The eventual, successful amendment saw “pregnant person” become “mother or expectant mother”.
This is because when I went to court to try to be registered as my child’s “father” or “parent” on his birth certificate, rather than accept that our laws need updating to better reflect modern society, the courts doubled down on trans discrimination that ruled that “mother” is now a gender-neutral term, encompassing women, trans men and non-binary people. Now, despite this ruling having a very narrow legal application, ie birth certificates, the government has expanded it to new legislation, ie the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill.
How “mother” can be gender-neutral and also “respect the fact that only women can be pregnant” I am yet to receive clarity on, but I digress…
So we see why this minor change to one narrow bill needed our full attention. Changing the default language here has set an anti-trans precedent for the wording of all future legislation. Anti-trans campaigners saw it as an opportunity and went after it, backed by literally hundreds of letter writers. They no doubt saw it as an easy win to add to their grim tally.
Meanwhile, roughly 10 people, including me, were alerted last-minute and made a panicked and reactionary defence in the form of our own letters. LGBT+ organisations and allies had either not understood the significance of the amendment or not thought it likely to succeed. They underestimated anti-trans animus and the naivety of politicians being targeted by it.
It was in writing to peers, pleading my very personal case, that I had that surreal experience. During the debate, it was Lord Pannick QC who referred to my case: “The Lord Chief Justice said that, as a matter of common law and under the legislation governing the registration of births, the person who gave birth to a child is the mother… In light of that judgment, I do not think that there are any legal difficulties in referring to mothers or women in the bill… doing that would be showing no disrespect to trans men.”
Emailing Lord Pannick directly, realising he must have overlooked my initial plea, I tried to disabuse him of this flawed logic: “With respect, your interpretation of parenting law as it relates to trans men is wrong. It is, by definition, disrespectful to refer to us as ‘women’ or ‘mothers’. Trans men who have children are parents and fathers. If it was acceptable to us to be called ‘mothers’ why would I have brought my court case at all? If gendered language did not matter to trans people or to government, why would we have the GRA in the first place?”
Lord Pannick replied to me: “I (respectfully) disagree, though I recognise the complexity and sensitivity of the issues.”
This left me at a bit of a loss. There is no scale for objectively measuring how disrespected I and other trans parents feel by our lack of legal recognition but if there was, we’d be off the charts. Nevertheless, I tried: “I said it is not respectful to call trans men ‘mothers’. I did not say parliament could not use the term. The term is only appropriate insofar as the law was written in an era before trans people were widely acknowledged and by legislators who, almost to a person, have never before met a trans person.”
LGBT+ organisations must counter transphobic attacks with action and strategy
It is surreal because here we have lawmakers who, never mind caring to defend our rights, struggle to even recognise that trans people are disrespected, not just by single legal decisions, but by how the state as a whole treats us. Where are we even meant to begin? Is this a matter of law or of basic human decency?
The struggle for trans liberation is not on pause. Progress has not stalled. We are being attacked from every conceivable angle, the more obscure the better, and the task of defending against this cannot be managed by us alone. At the very least, it has to start with the threat itself being taken seriously. Then, LGBT+ organisations at home and abroad, in unison with our allies in government and media, must strategically counter it with action and strategy, not reaction and regret.
We took an avoidable and underestimated loss on the maternity bill. Bell v Tavistock – the landmark case concerning puberty blockers and trans kids – was a case our allies thought we would win. I’ll admit that I and many others were naive about my court case back when we discussed it first in 2016. This pattern of naivety and misguided optimism about trans acceptance among our allies and supporters must not continue. Trans people can not afford it when we are paying for it with our livelihoods, our health and sometimes our lives. We have to be honest with each other about the hate hunting us down.
Yet, again, it happened last week. The anti-trans pressure group Fair Play For Women succeeded in pushing for a judicial review of census guidance, which has up until now benignly neglected trans people. The law that enables us to live freely and equally is a mess and so many of us do not have “legal” gender recognition. I put legal in quotes because many of us, just like many cis people, do not know that passports and driving licenses are technically not legal documents. They allow us to live in relative peace and safety but when push comes to shove from the anti-trans crusade, they do not protect us.
The census guidance previously listed birth certificates, GRCs, “passports and such” as valid proof of sex for the question “what is your sex?” Trans people, myself included, have been answering this question according to our lived experience for decades. The statistical significance, I imagine, is non-existent. This year, in a sign of progress, there were optional questions added about sexuality and gender identity. So now, one can state one’s sex and whether one is trans or not. Surely, this solves any misguided fears over trans people “skewing” census results, as trans people would, for the first time, emerge as a measurable category.
But no, that is not enough for the anti-trans brigade. They aren’t really worried about the erasure of women, but rather about “self-ID through the back door”. Never mind that most trans people have and do live in line with how they identify at all times and, for instance, when interacting with the services that the census is meant to inform. Seeing another opportunity to undermine trans lives, Fair Play For Women, and their financial backers, jumped on it. Yet again, there was no defence and no awareness. I saw a couple of people who should know better tweeting about how FPFW had no chance of succeeding and so we didn’t need to worry about it.
The trans community apparently stands alone
Last week, I heard a trans man on BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme for the first time.
James Morton was the second person to resign from the government’s lame duck LGBT Advisory Panel. I have huge respect for James so I hope he won’t mind me saying, he sounded broken. And I knew why. I feel his sorrow in my bones. All trans people in the UK do, whether we are 14, 34 or 84.
He sounded like someone who knows what his community is up against and that it effectively stands alone.
In response to his and two other people’s resignations, the government said it “is committed to building a country in which everyone, no matter their sexuality, race or religion, is free to live their lives as they choose”. No mention of trans people or gender identity. Again, it is subtle and deliberately so. The intended audience, trans people and trans people alone, get the message loud and clear: we don’t care, we want you gone.
I have nothing to say to the anti-trans extremists. They are largely beyond reason and compassion. This is not even for the indifferent masses in the middle; I would not expect them to have the time or context to understand this mess. I’m addressing this piece to our allies and fellow members of LGBT+ communities:
Where are you?
What are you doing to help?
Have you even realised what is happening?
*I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting some important questions our esteemed British media outlets may wish to direct their ample resources into investigating.
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