Transgender Liberals need to stand up for trans rights, before it’s too late
A decade after my Guardian series A Transgender Journey, our rights look more fragile than ever
Ten years ago, I began writing a series for the Guardian called A Transgender Journey, documenting my gender reassignment process. At the time, some trans people felt it was backward-looking to use this autobiographical framing; they believed we had passed the point when we had to write memoirs to counter hostile coverage, especially as this seemed to encourage journalists to focus on our personal stories instead of our political concerns. I agreed, but I wrote it nonetheless. It eventually ran for 30 instalments and formed the basis of my book, Trans: A Memoir.
Growing up under Section 28, before mass adoption of the internet, I found nothing in schools or public libraries that could help me understand my gender identity, with disastrous effects on my mental health. But by 2010, there were so many blogs and forums talking about trans healthcare and wellbeing, and trans politics and culture, that a young person looking for answers, let alone a sympathetic outsider, might not know where to begin. I thought my Guardian series could provide an accessible place to start.
There was little point, I felt, arguing with people who questioned the validity of our identities – which reduced any discussion of our lives to the question of our existence. Instead, I hoped to persuade people – including cultural gatekeepers – that it was fairer, and more interesting, to let us describe our own lives. I thought that if I compromised and convinced an editor by using my transition as a hook, my series could introduce a large, diverse readership to the realities of living in a transphobic society – which I hoped might be a means to shift the conversation toward the challenges we faced in securing adequate healthcare, safe housing, and protection from abuse and assault.
Around this time, many other trans writers and organisations had the same idea – focusing on visibility and recognition in the media. By 2010, trans people had the right to hormones and surgery via the NHS, along with protection from being sacked from work, and the right to legally change gender, enshrined in the Gender Recognition Act of 2004. But there was still a belief that the negative stereotypes dominant in the media did us considerable damage – not only legitimising attacks on our rights, but also social exclusion, street harassment and worse. In 2012, Lord Justice Leveson agreed, concluding that “there is a marked tendency in a section of the press to fail to treat members of the transgender and intersex communities with sufficient dignity and respect”.
The very fact of these issues being raised at the Leveson inquiry contributed to a sense that things were slowly improving in the early 2010s, as a wave of trans and non-binary people had their voices heard in mainstream newspapers and magazines, TV shows and films like never before, in both the UK and US. This led to Time’s famous Transgender Tipping Point cover story of 2014, featuring Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox.
This “tipping point” – declared in the wake of the US supreme court’s decision to legalise gay marriage – was meant to suggest the trans rights movement could no longer be suppressed. But it turned out that the advancing wave of cultural liberalism was far from unstoppable. In the US, the forces and attitudes that would propel Donald Trump to the White House were coalescing, visible in the Gamergate controversy and on 4chan, as well as on Fox News and in the Tea Party movement. In the UK, the tabloid press were relentlessly portraying trans people as violent criminals stealing from the taxpayer – peaking in 2017 with a false story about Ian Huntley transitioning in prison.
A backlash against trans rights and increasing visibility began to grow online, on Twitter and internet forums. The radicalisation that took place in these spaces soon prompted a dramatic increase in sober broadsheet pieces “debating” whether trans identities were real, depicting trans people as unreasonably angry, and dismissing anyone protesting the imbalance in these debates as an opponent of free speech. But the endless restaging of the same argument about trans identity suggested that the point of these interventions was not to have a debate. A debate contains the possibility of resolution on both sides; this felt more like a campaign to push us out of the public discourse by making it as unfavourable to us as possible, while claiming that it was trans people who would not let the matter rest.
This unending argument over the rights of trans people, which had been simmering in liberal and feminist spaces for nearly a decade, became front-page news in 2018, when Theresa May’s government proposed the Gender Recognition Act might be reformed to allow trans people to define their own identities more easily. At a time when the Trump administration was, in the words of the New York Times, planning to define transgender people out of existence, such a step would have simply brought England into line with Argentina, Ireland and Portugal, among others. But it became a rallying point for a minority of feminists strongly opposed to trans rights, and occasioned hundreds of stories about the same old “debate”, narrowly framed as a zero-sum conflict between women and trans rights. In the Guardian, a leader referred to “both extremes of this argument” (for and against self-definition) making for “a toxic debate” – a framing usually associated with anti-trans groups opposed to “gender ideology” that had formed after 2010.
One reason why I had chosen to write A Transgender Journey for the Guardian was that the paper, like other liberal outlets, had typically started conversations about trans issues with dismissive pieces by prominent “gender-critical” feminists, to which openly trans writers would then be invited to respond. (When Germaine Greer called trans women “a ghastly parody” in a 2009 comment piece about the South African athlete Caster Semenya, the “other side” was presented one day later by the trans writer CL Minou.)
The absence of trans voices from liberal spaces has meant there has been little serious opposition in the UK to our domestic contribution to a global campaign against LGBTQ rights. This campaign includes Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary – allies of the Tories – unilaterally revoking gender recognition, placing the nation’s trans community in great danger. But it is part of a wider attack on the LGBTQ+ community, following those in Poland, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, the US, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere. Earlier this year, leaked proposals from Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, suggested that the government would not just ignore public opinion on the Gender Recognition Act reforms, but might attempt a more thoroughgoing bar on trans people accessing single-sex spaces, potentially making anyone the legal arbiters of our identities.
The GRA reforms have now been shelved; the only likely effect of the part about exclusion from single-sex spaces would be to make Britain’s trans community feel more insecure and embattled, given how difficult it would be to enforce. But if it does make it into a bill – which has still not been ruled out – it would likely make it through the Commons, given the Conservative majority. If so, it would be the first ever piece of legislation to actively revoke our rights, and would come after a sustained media campaign against us, during which the Labour leadership has often been reluctant to take a side. With the party’s increasingly marginalised left being the most vocal about the need to protect trans rights, it has been reminiscent of the path to Section 28.
And in a time of rising far-right reaction in the UK and worldwide, it might not stop there. Such an assault on non-conformity will have ramifications not just for trans people, but ultimately anyone who fails to meet gender norms, or whose bodily autonomy lies in the hands of the state. Such regressive legislation now seems less likely, given that the government tempered its refusal of self-identification with confirmation that it will create three new gender identity clinics and simplify the existing gender recognition process. But the Tories’ leaked proposals should still serve as a clarifying moment, showing what can happen when liberals and centrists refuse to stand against, or even join in with, a rightwing moral panic, and serve as a warning to change course before it’s too late.