Labor’s conflicting policies on trans and women’s rights need to be addressed | Susanna Rustin

For Ruth Serwotka, the lowest point came on February 13, 2020. She was making coffee when Lisa Nandy, then a Labor leadership candidate, was asked on the radio about Woman’s Place UK, the grassroots campaign organization which Serwotka helped found three years ago. earlier. “She refused to say that we are not a hate group. I then left the Labor Party. Until then, I was determined to stay, but I was no longer ready to be bullied and slandered.

Woman’s Place UK advocates for women’s gender-based rights, including single-sex services, and is partly responsible for turning support for these rights into a social movement. Activists like Serwotka believe that since women’s oppression has always been gender-based, women’s rights must be understood as gender-based too – and I agree with them. This view places feminists like us, also known as gender critics, in conflict with trans rights activists and their allies, who believe that gender identity and not sex determines whether they are a man or woman.

From a legal point of view, it is correct to say that the protected feature of sex reassignment covers people who are considering the transition as well as those who have undergone surgery or other treatment. This means that the group of transgender people protected from discrimination in existing UK law is not limited to those who have changed their legal sex. But the gender activist movement (which is not limited to trans people) wants to go further, with a legislative reform widely known as “self-id” already introduced in some countries, which allows a person to change gender. legal without a diagnosis of gender dysphoria (because the feeling of discomfort caused by a feeling of mismatch between biological sex and gender identity is known).

The 2016 recommendation by a parliamentary committee that the UK government should reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to this end led to the creation of Woman’s Place UK. But it is important to recognize that the issue is broader than a single law. Gender-based rights activists have also begun to organize in response to the changing reality on the ground, including for women’s service providers, which has been created by a cultural shift towards more people. identifying as trans, incorporating non-binary and genderqueer people as well as those seeking to transition medically.

Concretely, what Woman’s Place UK and other groups were looking for was greater clarity around the provisions of the Equality Act known as single-sex exceptions. These indicate when it is legitimate and proportionate to exclude people with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment (trans people) from single-sex settings such as sports and shelters. The Equality and Human Rights Commission issued new guidance to this effect on Monday, two years after the UK government announced it would not reform the GRA. In other words, gender rights campaigners got part of what they wanted (the situation is different in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon plans to introduce a self-identification law).

But the bitterness about the treatment that Labor reserves for them remains. Shortly before the radio interview that led to Serwotka quitting Labour, Nandy, Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler all voiced their support for a campaign calling Woman’s Place UK ‘transphobic’ and called for the expulsion of his party supporters. Given that neither Rayner nor Nandy has given up on this view, it is debatable whether the Labor front views gender rights activism as legitimate or hateful activity.

The political difficulties over these complex issues are not confined to Labour. The government is also struggling to reconcile the claims of trans activism with those of gender-based rights advocates. Sports authorities too. Rows in recent days over transgender cyclist Emily Bridges’ participation in women’s events and ministers’ decision not to go ahead with a proposed ban on trans conversion practices due to concerns by the growing number of young people with gender dysphoria, show the range of policy implications.

But Labor’s unease has been particularly acute in recent weeks, as politician after politician has been asked to define the word ‘woman’ and answer questions such as ‘Can a woman have a penis?’ In a legal sense, the answer is yes, since the Gender Recognition Act allowed someone to change their sex on their birth certificate without undergoing surgery. But high-profile figures have expressed concern about being ridiculous in the eyes of voters with endless responses, and their unease is easily exploited by both opponents and headline-seeking reporters. Over the weekend, a campaign called Respect My Sex was launched, which aims to make it an issue in local elections.

What effect this will have is unclear. Lisa Townsend, a conservative police officer and crime commissioner, said recently that any politician who claims not to have been asked about this issue by voters is “lying”. Many on the left remain dismissive, insisting there are other bigger concerns, including soaring heating bills and cuts in benefits. But passions run high on issues of identity – and can easily be stirred up. Rosalind Shorrocks, an academic who studies gender and electoral politics, says transgender and gender-based rights are not currently high on voters’ agendas. “But in an election, if parties took different positions and incorporated them into their campaigns, that could become important.”

Polling data, like everything else in this debate, is disputed. Generally speaking, the public shows strong and encouraging support for the principle that people should be able to identify with and live as they see fit. But in 2020, a majority opposed making it easier for people to change their legal gender and the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports.

If and when Labor returns to government, some of the political issues may have been resolved. Last week, Women’s Aid issued a statement in support of single-sex spaces, while stressing the need for services for trans people. New guidelines from the Equality and Human Rights Commission clarify the position of single-sex service providers, including the need to consider the needs of transgender people and balance them with the needs of others. The outcome of several lawsuits brought by gender-sensitive feminists who believe they have been victims of harassment or discrimination will provide important precedents for employers and others.

Many people, including me, believe there is room for compromise. Ironically enough, given the current level of acrimony, Labor policy is currently based on a compromise that was struck before the 2019 general election. Then support for single-sex exceptions in the Equality Act was added to the party’s existing policy to reform the gender recognition law.

But Labour’s treatment of women’s groups has, in my view, created a serious problem. For all the frequent complaints that the issue is “toxic” and Keir Starmer’s pleas for a “respectful” discussion, the fact is that there is no equivalent of the critical gender side at the the Labor Campaign for Trans Rights’ call for women to be kicked out of the party or the repeated attacks on Labor MP Rosie Duffield. There are no shadow cabinet members mocking LGBTQ+ activists like “dinosaurs,” as David Lammy said of gender rights activists. And no leading LGBTQ+ service provider is banned from joining Labour, like feminist domestic violence campaigner Karen Ingala Smith was in 2020.

Serwotka may have left Labour, but a group called Labor Women’s Declaration advocates for gender-based rights within the party and is also engaged in cross-party efforts. Currently, between 20 and 40 Labor MPs are known to be sympathetic. I hope they can persuade Labor to change their position on women’s gender rights. Not just because I agree with them. But because I don’t think it would be at all surprising if voters turned on politicians who riddled the differences between male and female bodies – and derided the plea for biologically female people as a relic of prehistory.