W hile we endure life under this chaotic and cynical government, we can at least rely on liberal and progressive journalists to scrutinise and challenge it. But one line of attack in the Tories’ culture war not only gets a free pass, it is actively aided and abetted by a vocal minority on the left. I refer to the government’s assault on the freedoms and safety of its transgender citizens.
Some loud lefties, under the guise of “gender-critical feminism”, are in lockstep with a government that they would otherwise denounce. The successors to what was known as “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” now agree with Tory ministers that trans people should not have equal rights and, in fact, have too many already.
No amount of generic #PrideMonth tweets or platitudes about respecting trans people (while in the next breath denying trans women’s identities) can hide this from the unbiased observer.
This peculiarly British anti-trans moral panic is a rehash of the anti-gay moral panic of the 1980s. Where before we had “reasonable concerns” about gay and lesbian people in changing rooms and schools, now we have the same stigmatising “debates” over where trans people should be allowed. And it is being bolstered by political and institutional forces. After the government reneged on Gender Recognition Act reform and abandoned work on its LGBT action plan, there is now a witch-hunt against the UK’s foremost LGBT+ charity, Stonewall.
The latest “controversy” was catalysed by one of Stonewall’s 14 co-founders, the former Conservative MP Matthew Parris, who opined that the charity should not fight for trans equality. Perhaps he felt the same way back in the 80s, when trans people were already part of the struggle for sex and gender liberation. Did he tell them to wait their turn while he secured the right to marry? Surely, they have waited long enough.
Many of his fellow Stonewall co-founders, such as Ian McKellen, Lisa Power, Michael Cashman and others without public platforms stand staunchly by Stonewall and their trans siblings – and, despite loud voices misguidedly pitting women against trans people, a large majority of Brits maintain positive views of trans people.
But it’s convenient for the anti-trans corners of society to ignore the awkwardness and cynicism of their alliances in order to pursue their agenda against the charity, one of the few in Britain standing by trans people.
The main “charge” against Stonewall is conveniently vague, but can be traced to a report commissioned by the University of Essex that looked at the cancellation of a seminar at which an academic who is seen as “gender critical” was due to speak, as well as another cancelled event. Although not directly related to the event in question, the report touched on Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, which exists to advise employers on how to operate inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. It claimed that Stonewall Diversity Champions policies do not “accurately state the law”.
This led to an article in the Times claiming that the government was “pushing for all government departments to withdraw from Stonewall’s employment scheme” while others took it to be something of a smoking gun, supposedly revealing that Stonewall wants to get rid of single-sex spaces.
But it really all comes down to a misinterpretation of Stonewall’s trans inclusion guidance. Stonewall’s advice is based on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) guidance, which was itself recently reaffirmed by the high court. In order to provide clear advice on trans inclusion, Stonewall uses commonly understood language in place of statutory language. For example, instead of using the word “transsexual”, the guidance says “trans person” and instead of “gender reassignment”, it uses “gender identity”.
But according to the critics, “gender identity” is a more capacious term than the legally sanctioned “gender reassignment”; in other words, they argue the charity is sneakily trying to expand legal protections for trans people. In reality, the more accessible language that Stonewall uses is in line with the Equality Act 2010. Last week, in an interview on Radio 4, the EHRC chair again reminded us that “people who are transitioning, who are proposing to transition or have transitioned are protected from discrimination on the grounds of ‘gender reassignment’”.
Those who seek to limit or roll back legal protections for trans people, however, want equality law and guidance to only apply to those “transsexuals” they grudgingly approve of, ie trans people who have had certain surgeries and hold a gender recognition certificate. As one columnist wrote, it is essentially a “semantic gripe that has been blown out of all proportion”.
The reality is that while many newspapers are helping the government concoct a disingenuous moral panic, Stonewall is fighting for the dignity and safety of all LGBTQ+ people in line with current law. This has never been more necessary. If the media was not obsessed with misrepresenting us in pursuit of navel-gazing debate, it would spend more time reporting on underfunded gender identity clinics and catastrophic NHS waiting lists. It would be reporting on the NHS’s lapsed contract with the only surgical team in the UK providing trans male genital reconstruction and the lack of timely communication about this to patients.
Instead of denigrating my trans sisters in the name of straw-man arguments about “male violence”, journalists at our national papers might pay more interest in trans lives; they could have reported on the recent death of Sophie Gwen Williams. Williams, a musician and artist from Northern Ireland, co-founded We Exist, an emergency healthcare fund for trans and gender-nonconforming people across the UK. She was said to be in despair about being on an NHS waiting list for several years. As those close to her put it in a memorial note: “Losing Sophie is a personal tragedy, but it’s also a public disgrace.”
It’s charities such as Stonewall that recognise this. Meanwhile, our legal protections, healthcare and essential humanity are attacked by purportedly progressively minded people. In the media, our lives are nothing more than fodder for distasteful thought experiments.
We never thought we could rely on this government for fair treatment. But it is dismaying to realise we cannot count on the press either.
Freddy McConnell is a freelance journalist