Good Law Project founder on what we can learn from LGB Alliance, Keira Bell and the hostile anti-trans media

Good Law Project: Jolyon Maugham on the legal fight for trans rights

There was a big legal win for trans kids a few weeks ago, but you would be forgiven for having missed it – unlike the gleeful media circus when trans rights are stripped away, the triumphs scarcely register.

December’s cruel High Court ruling in the Keira Bell v Tavistock case effectively banned puberty blockers for trans under 16s in England and Wales, unless they got permission from the court. But on 26 March, that ruling was effectively reversed.

The Good Law Project, which crowdfunded the case, said in a statement that the new ruling was “hugely significant”, because it “means that children with [parental] support will no longer be barred from accessing puberty blockers by the Bell decision”.

“It is not unreasonable to describe this morning’s decision as in large part reversing the practical effects of Bell,” said the not-for-profit campaigning organisation.

But while the Bell v Tavistock case was widely covered by the British media, with a packed press gallery at the court, BBC journalists live-tweeting the hearing, national TV cameras waiting outside, the case’s claimant, Keira Bell, trending on Twitter for days after the hearing, and a week of national media coverage after December’s ruling, there was tumbleweed when the legal challenge to it succeeded at the end of March.

The Times, which sent a senior journalist to cover the two-day hearing in October and then published multiple anti-trans columns, features and news reports about the outcome, did not report on the March ruling at all. Neither did the Guardian, though it published news reports on the hearing and two editorials about the December judgement.

If you are trans or an ally, this won’t come as a surprise to you. Negative and inaccurate media coverage in Britain about trans people – who, let us not forget, make up around one per cent of the population – has been the norm forever, and has become increasingly relentless and deceptive in the last five years.

One trans ally who recently learned this the hard way is Jolyon Maugham, barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

His first taste of how hostile the British media is to trans people came when the Good Law Project gave the exclusive story of their first trans rights legal case – against long waiting times at NHS gender clinics for trans teenagers – to the BBC.

“I was encouraged to believe that the BBC was capable of reporting the story in a responsible way,” Jolyon says. “What then happened was a complete s**t show.”

The BBC quoted anti-trans pressure group the LGB Alliance in the story, portraying it, as much of the media does, as an LGBT+ rights group with “reasonable concerns” about trans kids.

Jolyon laughs when asked if he can be quoted calling the LGB Alliance a “transphobic hate group”, replying: “I strongly encourage you to quote me calling the LGB Alliance a transphobic hate group.”

LGB Alliance denies it is a transphobic hate group, despite being labelled as such by many in the LGBT+ community, including Pride in London, gay SNP MP John Nicolson, the LGBT+ Lib Dems, gay Scottish actor David Paisley and the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights. More than 35,000 people also signed a petition urging the Charity Commission to reject the LGB Alliance’s application to be registered as a charity on the grounds that it is a hate group.

The BBC article was a drop in the ocean of biased reporting that has led to the public broadcaster being branded “institutionally transphobic” by senior MPs and LGBT+ activists, but an unwelcome reality check for Jolyon.

“I thought we would get a fair hearing,” Jolyon recalls. “And we didn’t.”

Jolyon now thinks that media coverage is only useful if it’s accurate: “There’s no point having another story that attacks the trans community.” As a result, the Good Law Project will not “under any circumstances” talk to the BBC again about any trans story, nor the Times, whose reporting on trans people he calls “beyond the pale”.

But he does want trans and non-binary people to know that “there are people with power who are out batting for you”.

Describing his own journey to becoming aware of the stigma and marginalisation that trans people in the UK face, reflections that he sometimes tweets about, Jolyon discloses that there is a trans person in his life who has taught him to be “more humble” and “educated me about what’s at stake”.

“I have learned to be more reflective about things that I thought I knew about,” he says, “and I think that’s been really good for me in all sorts of arenas.”

Jolyon also admits that at first he thought the Bell case was “legally hopeless” and had no chance of succeeding – a view that was shared by other experts watching the case progress.

It was only when the court refused to let LGBT+ charities Mermaids and Stonewall give evidence in the case in summer 2020 – but allowed anti-trans pressure group Transgender Trend to join – that Jolyon began to worry.

“The trans community was completely excluded from that hearing,” he says. “It all felt very, very odd to me, and I became very uncomfortable with it. Legally I knew the case was hopeless, but I was really, really worried.”

The Good Law Project set up a legal defence fund for trans people on 22 November, which later set up a trans-led advisory board to oversee the spending and cases to be fought. It has since raised more than £150,000, although Jolyon is at pains to point out that this is not much money in legal terms and that, though he doesn’t know the exact figures, a lot of it has now been spent.

Some of the money has gone on funding an intervention in the NHS’s appeal against the Bell v Tavistock ruling. Some went on the parental consent to puberty blockers win in March. Some has been spent on the trans teen’s legal challenge over gender clinic waiting times.

As well as these three cases, the Good Law Project is also looking into NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups that refuse to provide gamete storage to people transitioning – something Jolyon calls a “profound wrong”.

Jolyon says it’s obvious to him that the NHS should provide trans people with gamete storage, because then rather than asking a 16-year-old to decide whether or not they want to start a family later in life, they can “cross that bridge later” instead.

Outside of trans healthcare, Jolyon says the Good Law Project, which is better known for its work opposing a no-deal Brexit, is also “looking at how we might support the trans community more generally, around the law” – for example, giving trans people a place to turn when they need legal advice.

“I’m not sure that we have enough money to do all of that work,” he admits, but sounds optimistic when he adds: “We’re going to invest some time thinking about what ongoing relationship we might have with the trans community.”

Jolyon has been criticised for joining the fight for trans rights, particularly by anti-trans campaigners who call him a misogynist, but says he has thick skin.

“This is how change happens,” he says. “It happens through pain. I want to do this work and I derive enormous satisfaction from knowing that I’m helping to make a difference.”