LONDON — It must look odd to an outsider.
The race to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, after its traumatic defeat in December’s general election, has largely been conducted in the spirit of bury-the-hatchet pragmatism, to the point of tedium. The three candidates have promised, however sincerely, to maintain the general thrust of the party’s policy platform; divisions have mostly been a matter of tone, style and subtle implication. Rancor and controversy have been restrained among the candidates as well as the 500,000-strong membership. Except in one area: trans rights.
A contentious row began last month, when the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights announced itself with 12 pledges, which ranged from recognizing trans people’s oppression — at risk of hate crime and denied equal access to public services, health care, housing and employment — to supporting the expulsion of members who express transphobic views. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate closest to Mr. Corbyn’s politics, and Lisa Nandy, the one farthest away, supported the campaign. The outcry was immediate: People started the hashtag #expelme on Twitter. Hecklers disrupted leadership hustings. And Tony Blair, a former leader and prime minister, warned of “the cul-de-sac of identity politics.”
To many, the sight of a center-left party failing to support trans rights without equivocation must be baffling — not least to American Democrats, whose party, divided in many ways, is firmly united in its support for trans and nonbinary people. But really, it’s no surprise. Transphobia, constantly amplified by the country’s mainstream media, is a respectable bigotry in Britain, shared by parts of the left as well as the right.
There are two main types of British transphobia. One, employed most frequently but not exclusively by right-wing men, rejects outright the idea that gender might not be determined only by biological traits identifiable at birth. This viewpoint can often be found in publications aligned with the Conservative Party, such as The Spectator, The Times and The Telegraph, all of which are looking for a new “culture war” to pursue now that the long, exhausting battle over Brexit has finally been resolved in favor of Leavers.
That is has done so owes much to the longevity of a generation of journalists who established themselves when the argument was orthodox. Many still hold influential roles as columnists or editors and have used their positions to keep the argument in the mainstream, while favoring a younger generation of writers who share their antipathy to trans people.
Younger trans and nonbinary people and their feminist allies have tried to shift the discussion onto the challenges we face in a transphobic society — with some success, especially in the early 2010s, when Trans Media Watch submitted a report to the Leveson inquiry into abuses of power by the British press. But that provoked an avalanche of commentary insisting that any discussion be returned to the intractable “debate” about whether trans and nonbinary identities (and especially those of trans women) were valid. Trans “activists” — anyone who questioned the terms of this “debate” — were characterized as an abusive mob and accused of silencing their critics, despite the fact that these critics could be heard advancing the same views in all major newspapers, every day, throughout the decade.
This counteroffensive reached its height in autumn 2018, as the Conservative government held consultations on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which had been passed in 2004. In response to demands for the bill to allow self-determination of trans and nonbinary identities, The Guardian — which as the country’s only center-left broadsheet newspaper plays an outsize role in political debate — published an editorial that attempted to find a center ground. But to do so, it took its framing and talking points from organizations implacably opposed to trans rights, as the writer Jules Gleeson noted. Many British trans writers, including me, have since declined to contribute to The Guardian, repeating a pattern played out in the New Statesman several years earlier.
The reforms to the Gender Recognition Act were shelved, topping off a dispiriting few years: The Leveson inquiry changed nothing, and none of the recommendations in a 2016 parliamentary report on transgender equality were brought in. Effectively excluded from mainstream liberal-left discourse and despairing of the possibilities for change under any Conservative government, trans and nonbinary people turned back to Labour as the only political institution potentially able to change both the conversation and legislation. That seemed especially possible after the narrow electoral defeat in 2017 offered hope that the party could soon take power on a platform of social democratic reform — led by someone who offered vocal, unwavering support for trans rights.
But John McDonnell, Mr. Corbyn’s long-term ally, was far more equivocal. And Labour’s 2019 manifesto, mostly more radical than two years earlier, included just a few lines on trans issues and hedged its bets about single-sex spaces and gender recognition. Such division and ambivalence isn’t confined to an older, outgoing generation: Laura Pidcock, regarded as a potential successor to Mr. Corbyn until she lost her seat in December, recently caused consternation by calling for “the space to talk about sex and gender, without fear of being ‘no platformed.’”
The intervention did not go without challenge: Many of Labour’s younger, more left-leaning members rejected the suggestion that trans rights were up for debate. So does much of the left. But the party — and the center-left coalition it contains — is far from united. Keir Starmer, the overwhelming favorite to win the leadership race who has based his campaign around “unity” above all else, tellingly attempted to bridge the divide: He offered rhetorical support for trans and nonbinary people while declining to sign on to the pledges.
But in the face of Britain’s unreformed and unrepentantly hostile media, and the virulent transphobia it endlessly churns out, calls for unity won’t be enough. Mr. Starmer — and the Labour Party — will have to decide whose support is worth keeping, and pick a side.
Juliet Jacques is the author of “Trans: A Memoir.”
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