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This government is failing trans people: Labour must take a stronger stand

Aisling Gallagher explains why Liz Truss’ recent rhetoric on proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act signals a worrying shift

5 to 6 minute read

Transgender Pride Flag

Under current legislation, it is extremely complicated for a trans person to get a Gender Recognition Certificate conferring legal recognition of the gender they identify as. Applicants have to pay to undergo a demeaning, costly process to ‘prove’ their gender to a panel of clinicians they have never met. The panel has the power to approve or deny an application, with no recourse for appeal. It is needlessly complex and bureaucratic, and does not legally recognise non-binary identities.

Two years ago, the government indicated it was open to making the process of gender recognition easier, with the potential to legally recognise the gender of non-binary people. But Liz Truss’ recent speech at the Women and Equalities Select Committee – the first concrete indication of the government’s plans to reform the outdated Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – has threatened hopes of progress through GRA reform.

One of the most alarming parts of Truss’ speech was her emphasis on ‘making sure that the under 18s are protected from decisions… that are irreversible in the future’ as a principle of reform.

Opponents of gender-affirming healthcare for young people (interventions designed to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity) often point to the tiny numbers of trans people who detransition in adulthood: even though only around 1-2 per cent of those who transition through medical pathways eventually detransition, they are still cited as evidence of kids being rushed into decisions they ultimately regret later in life.

This echoes statements made about lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in the 1980s – that we were vulnerable, impressionable and did not understand ourselves and our sexualities.

The crisis behind the myths

The galling truth is that the UK has just a single dedicated provider of gender-affirming healthcare for trans teens, with waiting lists of over two years. Despite clinical studies showing that withholding gender affirming treatment exacerbates poor mental health, young trans people are rarely able to access blockers before the onset of puberty.

The narrative of children being swayed towards ‘dangerous’ medical interventions continues to be pushed by transphobes on the left and the right – but puberty blockers aren’t an ‘experimental treatment’, and they do not cause irreversible changes.

Puberty blockers have been prescribed since the 1990s to some adolescents who are experiencing severe and persistent gender dysphoria, in cases where it is aggravated by the onset of puberty. During Covid-19, no new prescriptions are being made because gender-affirming healthcare is not recognised as the essential healthcare it is.

Most people in need of transition-related healthcare have to wait years for appointments at Gender Identity Clinics, with those who can afford it seeking private healthcare and huge numbers who can’t self-medicating. GPs often don’t know enough about trans-related healthcare to provide it, and almost 50 per cent of the trans community have attempted suicide. These are terrifying statistics – especially since we know that access to gender-affirming healthcare at a young age can save lives.

The opposition

I came out as non-binary last year – earlier than planned, because the crushing weight of transphobia within the Labour Party was having a detrimental impact on my mental health. I felt the need to explain why I wasn’t performing to the high standards I set myself as an elected councillor, to my colleagues and the local party.

I’m protected from the worst transphobic violence that is a daily reality for many because I pass as cisgender, but constant debate about the validity of your existence – and the rights of your friends to walk down the street without fear of harassment – gets to you.

This renewed onslaught on trans rights in the UK takes place within a worrying international context. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has used the coronavirus pandemic to push through legislation making it impossible to change your gender. In the USA, the Trump administration is finalising regulations to exclude trans and non-binary people from federal civil rights protections by limiting the definition of sex to the one assigned at birth.

Covid-19 offered up a prime opportunity for right-wing governments to strip minorities of hard-won rights while the world is distracted. We cannot let the Tories usher through discriminatory proposals while the country is preoccupied by the pandemic.

The Labour Campaign for Trans Rights was set up to counter a growing anti-trans movement within our own party. We want the party to be a safe place for trans people, and for Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) across the UK to understand why we must fight for trans rights. Thousands signed up to our founding pledges, and during the leadership campaign all candidates expressed support for the trans community.

Yet transphobia persists, an acceptable bigotry on the left and the right. After Truss’ speech, Dawn Butler tweeted the Equalities Minister asking if she had considered the mental health impact that her words had upon much of the trans community. She received an onslaught of vitriol that is usual for any public figure who stands up for trans rights. Some Labour MPs are speaking up in defence of trans people – but too many aren’t.

A way forward

It’s not enough, however, to leave this work to trans people and elected MPs alone, and still consider yourself an ally – there are concrete actions you can take to support us at a critical juncture for trans rights. Contact your MP and other representatives to let them know you’re concerned and ask them to speak out publicly supporting trans rights.

If you’re a Labour Party member and your ward or CLP has passed motions supporting trans rights, talk about it on social media. Bring a motion to your union branch, or organise an education session on trans rights. If you’re a trans member of the party, get involved with the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights and organise with us to defend and extend our rights.

You can’t mandate trans kids out of existence. Trans children and young people have always been here and will always be here, no matter what the government does. Withholding gender affirming treatment for young trans people is not a neutral act. Now, more than ever, we need an opposition that is unafraid to make that case – loudly and unconditionally.

There is a battle for the very soul of the Labour Party that tests our commitments to fighting for the rights of the most marginalised in society. The fight for trans rights is my generation’s Section 28: whose side are you on?

Aisling Gallagher is a Labour Councillor in Lewisham and activist with the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights

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