As the battle rages on within the UK Labour Party over whether Trans Women should be excluded from all women shortlisting; Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (NI Labour Executive Member & LGBTQ+ Officer) looks at the Transmisogyny within Europe’s largest left of centre party and the issues facing Trans People inside the Party.
The Labour Party is, arguably, the political home of the vast majority of the UK’s LGBT+ community. Precisely due to this reason, it was especially intriguing to observe the rise of a wave of transphobia, or to be more precise, transmisogyny, in Labour Party circles during the second half of 2017. The motivation for this came from the British government’s expression of interest in reforming the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The Act, in its current state, pathologises trans identities, subjecting trans people to rigorous and often intrusive psychiatric evaluations. This process is also heavily cis-normative, with very little understanding of gender pluralities.
The strongest opposition to proposed reforms to the GRA came, surprisingly, from within Labour Party circles. The critics notably included trans-exclusionary feminists, who are often associated with the term ‘radical’ (TERFs). Based on their essentialist understanding of womanhood as strictly limited to cis womanhood, they routinely dehumanise trans existences, especially those of trans women. This discourse disregards the reality that gender is essentially a spectrum, and is highly reliant on the cis-male/cis-female gender binary. It is also a discourse that categorically excludes gender identities among Indigenous communities across the world and in non-Western cultures, which do not always conform to the gender binary.
Transphobia in the Labour Party
TERF activity in Labour Party circles was primarily intended at shutting down the political representation of trans women. Despite shortfalls in Labour’s policies on trans equality provisioning, the Party has been accommodating trans women in electioneering. At the 2017 general election, for example, Dr Heather Peto, an Oxbridge academic and Trans Officer at LGBT Labour, was the candidate for Rutland and Melton. More recently, Dr Peto was also selected to the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme. TERFs maintain that trans women should not be included in all-women shortlists.
Over the last few weeks, the Labour Party hierarchy has been expressing its position on transphobia through a number of decisions. In late January 2018, Labour suspended a vocal TERF advocate. In addition, Lily Madigan, a 20-year-old party member who was elected Women’s Officer of her Constituency Labour Party, has been given wide publicity as someone intending to be the first trans woman to be elected to Westminster, also being endorsed in her political activity by Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Dawn Butler MP, a close confidante of Corbyn and Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, has also backed the inclusion of trans women in all-women shortlists.
In late January 2018, Corbyn himself publicly voiced his support to trans women. When asked in the BBC’s Andrew Marr show whether trans women were women, his response was an unequivocal ‘yes’. This does not come as a surprise, as Corbyn has a long history of supporting trans and wider LGBTQIA+ rights. This affirmation came the backdrop of a successful fundraiser to bar self-identifying trans women from standing in all-women shortlists. Labour subsequently suspended Jennifer James, who started the transmisogynist fundraiser.
“The best outcome from the ongoing mediatisation and controversy would be a concerted effort within Party circles to move beyond a mere rhetoric of equality, cis-normativity and tokenising, moving towards facilitating meaningful representation.”
Support for trans women has also come from Conservative Party circles, with cabinet minister David Lidington MP also supporting trans women’s right to gender self-determination. In this backdrop, and given Labour’s long-standing advocacy of LGBT+ rights, the denial of gender self-determination rights to trans people [in the context of this campaign, especially to trans women], represents a policy that is not politically viable. Yet, TERF activists continue to pursue their campaigns in Labour Party circles, highlighting their essentialist understanding of womanhood based exclusively on the gender binary and cis womanhood.
Problems Beneath the Equality Discourse?
Despite support from the highest levels in the party hierarchy, the treatment of trans people in the Labour Party has many problematic dimensions. Many trans women, including this writer, are prevented from standing for office [including as office bearers of CLPs] if they do not have a Gender Recognition Certificate [GRC]. Under the existing rules, obtaining a GRC is a time-consuming process that takes many years, and the majority of trans party members are far from likely to have a GRC. Despite robust campaigns launched by the Trans Officer at LGBT Labour and other trans rights advocates in Party circles, the official party position on issues of this nature is often muddled, and not clearly expressed. Concerning the political representation of trans people, there is a tendency to mediatise and sensationalise trans people and trans issues. Media campaigns revolve around specific individuals, but there is very little inclination to facilitate political and electoral representation. Precedents have shown that at elections, trans candidates are often placed in constituencies where the Labour Party is far from strong. Despite the trans-positive rhetoric, Labour continues to be heavily cis-normative, and this adversely affects the position and political opportunities of trans Party members.
This situation is complemented by continuing hate and smear campaigns specifically targeting politically active trans women in the Party.
The best outcome from the ongoing mediatisation and controversy would be a concerted effort within Party circles to move beyond a mere rhetoric of equality, cis-normativity and tokenising, moving towards facilitating meaningful representation.