We should all be worried by what Liz Truss is doing to our equalities watchdog

Liz Truss, the UK's minister for women and equalities.

Britain’s equality and human rights watchdog has never had an openly trans member – and its current direction of travel is troubling.

This week, Liz Truss, the Tory minister for women and equalities, appointed the barrister Akua Reindorf to the board of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an ostensibly independent body that “promotes and upholds” equality law across England, Scotland and Wales.

Reindorf is (only) known within the trans community for being highly critical of Stonewall, suggesting that the charity’s support for trans inclusion is not supported by equalities law. Her analysis, which related to a row over the “de-platforming” of two anti-trans speakers at the University of Essex and came during Pride month, sparked yet another round of right-wing media and political attacks on Stonewall – which became a vessel to demean, mock and question trans lives.

Reindorf’s is the second EHRC appointment in just over a year to have sparked concerns among trans and non-binary people about the direction of travel it indicates for the equalities watchdog’s stance on trans issues.

The first came when Baroness Kishwer Falkner landed the top job at the EHRC in November 2020. In her first interview after becoming chair of the commission, Falkner said the EHRC was determined to protect “freedom of belief”, including “gender critical” beliefs, and that it is “entirely reasonable” to question trans people’s gender identity.

Unfortunately, her anti-trans rhetoric has only ramped up since – of the Kathleen Stock row, Falkner said that she “wouldn’t describe” Stock’s views as “transphobic” (Stock denies that she is transphobic), and worryingly added that the Equality Act is “balancing sometimes conflicting, sometimes competing rights” when it comes to trans rights and single-sex spaces.

‘Gender critical’ beliefs

Under Kishwer Falkner’s reign, the EHRC intervened in a high-profile (thanks to JK Rowling) employment tribunal over whether “gender critical” views are a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

The tribunal ruled that they are, along with other legally protected beliefs including ethical veganism, the belief in the “higher purpose” of the BBC, and the belief in the ability of spiritual mediums to contact the dead.

But in seriousness, “gender critical” is simply the new moniker for those who are anti-trans: we used to call them TERFs, for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, but they prefer “gender critical” now. Sadly they are not critical of gender, only trans people. Their belief is that “sex is immutable” – in other words, they argue that trans people do not exist as it is not possible to transition.

Many “gender critical” views are transphobic, according to a comprehensive and widely used definition of transphobia by trans group TransActual: often, they reject trans identities, refuse to acknowledge that being trans is real and valid, misrepresent trans people, systematically exclude trans people from discussions about issues directly affecting us (more on this later), and attempt to roll back trans rights – like campaigning to ban trans women from women’s spaces and claiming there is a “conflict” between trans rights and feminism.

And the EHRC, the UK’s equalities watchdog charged with upholding human rights, thinks it should be legal for people with “gender critical” beliefs to be able to misgender trans people.

Reindorf and Stonewall

Akua Reindorf specialises in employment and discrimination law and is the author of the Reindorf Report, which was commissioned by the University of Essex earlier this year to review its policy regarding speakers on campus after two women accused of transphobia were uninvited from speaking.

The report was highly critical of LGBT+ charity Stonewall’s guidance on trans inclusion, alleging that Stonewall failed to pick up on the university’s “incorrect summary of the law” – because its “Supporting Trans and Non-binary Staff policy” used layman terms like “trans status” and “gender identity” rather than “gender reassignment”, which is the language used to describe the protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

The Trans Legal Project, which analyses developments in British law as they affect trans rights, said that Reindorf’s report contained “multiple major errors” and “misunderstandings of the law”. The University of Essex later apologised to its trans staff and students for the “very negative impact” the report had on them, and the vice-chancellor reiterated the university’s commitment to working with Stonewall.

The report, and the fact the university felt the need to commission it at all, indicates how deeply anti-trans views have rooted themselves in the Establishment. No surprise, then, that its author was rewarded with a £400-a-day, minister-appointed role.

The absence of trans people in all this

What is the common factor in Liz Truss’s appointments of Akua Reindorf and Kishwer Falkner to the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

Despite them all being engaged in the ongoing “culture war” over trans and non-binary lives, none of them – not a single one – is trans.

The EHRC has never had an openly trans or non-binary commissioner, board member or chief; neither has the UK ever had an openly trans or non-binary MP; and the employment tribunal that gave legal protection to “gender critical” views had neither an openly trans judge, openly trans lawyers arguing the case, nor any submissions from any openly trans intervenors (of which the EHRC was one).

Reindorf was not the first of Truss’s EHRC appointments to raise LGBT+ eyebrows; her choice of Falkner had already led some to question whether Truss – widely seen as being quietly anti-trans herself – is deliberately creating an equalities watchdog that will ignore inequalities relating to the treatment of trans and non-binary people.

Just as Donald Trump’s stacking of the US Supreme Court with Republicans has long-lasting and devastating implications for civil rights – efforts are already underway in the US to unpick reproductive rights, which are underpinned by Roe v Wade – Truss’s appointments to the EHRC are likely to outlast her occupation of the equalities role.

This means that trans and non-binary people, already lacking in legal protection, are likely to be in for a rough ride.