Tuesday, 13 October 2020

We need to talk about where the trans self-id debate is taking Labour

Last Tuesday, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner stated her view that Rosie Duffield – yes, the Rosie Duffield who has been a champion of women’s rights and bravely declared her own domestic abuse story to Parliament – should “reflect” on the fact that she had “liked” a tweet which described transgender people as “cross-dressers”.

Although Rayner attempted to paint the debate as “toxic”, with “both sides” needing to calm down, this was a somewhat disingenuous deflection; there is no doubt about which “side” she herself has chosen and her criticism of Duffield was clear enough. She was felt to be “upsetting” people.

It is also well documented that, during the leadership campaign earlier this year, Rayner – along with Lisa Nandy and Corbynite challenger Rebecca Long-Bailey – enthusiastically endorsed the idea of self-id for trans folk.

Let’s take a step back for a minute: Duffield did not tweet anything herself. She “liked” a tweet by Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who lost their job for speaking out about her opposition to self-id, which used a term, “cross-dresser”, which – as Forstater herself points out – is frequently used by some trans people themselves. For the record, J K Rowling writes poignantly about Forstater’s case, as well as her own story of domestic abuse, here.

Ah, but she had previous, you say. Duffield tweeted that “only women have a cervix”, which is seen as “exclusionary”. She was then clearly pressured into making an apology. Seriously? Is this what the Labour Party has become, that someone is forced to apologise for stating a biological fact?

That is apparently all you need to do, in the modern Labour Party, to be found guilty of thoughtcrime and asked to “reflect” on how you have “upset” people. Indeed, I myself have probably already invited abuse and social media pile-ons already, via the last few, pretty anodyne paragraphs, and probably added insult to injury by mentioning the now-unmentionable-in-polite-Party-circles Rowling.

But let’s talk about her anyway. A couple of months later, she penned this blog piece:

Yep, sounds like a real bigot, there. No doubt at all.

But that’s where we are: for her trouble in revealing her innermost secrets and using them to talk about the likely negative impact of self-id on decades of hard-fought women’s rights, she was the subject of an international social media and press pile-on, numerous death threats and, of course, heavy criticisism by a large number of celebrities, artists and politicians. Finally, the widespread, attempted “cancelling” of Rowling has been supposedly sealed by the – as Nick Cohen points out here, laughable – notion that her latest novel is “transphobic”.

How on earth did we get here?

This is not the Monday Club. This is the Labour Party, a party with a long history of standing up for the rights of minorities (we will park for now the anti-Semitism issue). This issue is different, though. This is not the new “gay rights” that many of its adherents think.

But pronouns have now become weapons. The very language that we use has itself become explosive.

More importantly, it has often had to modify to accommodate the demands of a small but vocal group of trans activists (not, it is important to note, all trans people). As George Orwell could have told you, those who control the language control the terms of the debate.

And debate is something there is surprisingly little of within Labour about this particular elephant in the room; largely because many Labour people – women in particular – are now refraining from talking about it for fear of online pile-ons, threats, or worse.

Yes, the subject is complicated and the debate charged. But Labour’s position on it is also in danger of becoming an unquestioning, groupthink exercise, an emperor’s-new-clothes world where to even debate the rights and wrongs is to be labelled a transphobe. This kind of mentality helps no-one, and in the end that includes trans people, too.

“Trans rights are human rights”, fine. We can all sign up to that. Indeed, who can argue with it? No-one in the Labour party wants to take away human rights from people.

But the reality is this: it’s an entirely meaningless slogan, unless you define what “trans rights” actually means.

Here’s a suggestion: we should stop talking about the trans rights debate in the Labour Party, because frankly that debate has already come down conclusively on the side of trans people. While there may yet be bigotry about trans people (and gay people, and women) left in this party, it is clearly in the minority. In this party, we’re not historically in the habit of coming down on people for being different, for how they dress or who they sleep with, and that’s a good thing.

No, we should be talking about the self-id debate, because that it is really what this comes down to.

This is fundamentally not a debate about what restrictions we put on people’s behaviour as was gay rights in the 1980s. It is simply, and no less charged for this, a debate about the labels we use.

We can debate all you like about what should be the criterion which allows a man to be re-labelled as a woman, or vice versa. The quite reasonable objection is whether anyone should be able to decide that themselves, unilaterally.

Why? Because any legal categorisation which depends on people self-identifying as being in that category is open to abuse, and therefore unworkable in practice. A person’s sex is no exception. There needs therefore to be a verifiable legal check before accepting a person has definitively changed their sex. The debate where there is indeed room for a lot of thinking and nuance, needs to be about what that check should be, not about whether or not it is necessary.

If you don’t think it is open to abuse, listen to this from Maajid Nawaaz on the white woman who “self-id’d” as black. Think about the sexual attack by a transgender woman on a 10 year-old in Morrisons’ toilets, and how women need safe spaces away from both men, and anyone who identifies as a woman but perhaps does not meet that legal check; the very real impact on women’s sport of people with essentially male bodies competing.

It is also undeniable that a minority of radical trans activists, inside and outside Labour, are acting in bad faith and operating with online bullying and insults, particularly shouting down women and other trans people who disagree with them. There is also frequently a clear misogynist undertone to such attacks. We should hesitate to associate ourselves with this minority.

If there is to be any real progress on trans rights, this minority needs to be called out and confronted. The reality is that such activists are potentially setting back the cause of trans rights decades, not to mention potentially triggering a backlash against the hard-won rights of gay, lesbian and bi people, by association. LGBT Labour is really not helping at the moment, by accepting with little challenge such arguments, as is not Stonewall. Both put at risk the extraordinary gains made for LGBT in the last thirty or so years, precisely by playing this new challenge so poorly.

Bottom line: this is not the new Section 28. It is much, much more complicated. It does not help when people like Rayner use this comparison lightly, as she did this week.

And if the logical points don’t convince, a practical one: this now-minority debate is going to increase in volume over the coming months and years. If Labour comes down on the wrong side of it, it has the real potential to deter large swathes of the public, particularly women, from voting Labour.

In short, about half the electorate will very likely soon have a problem with Labour, should it become a national issue, which it sooner or later will. Recent polls clearly back this up. And that is notwithstanding the effect of the issue on the party itself, where anger from feminists and others from all wings of the party about self-id is clearly on the rise.

We take this risk at our considerable peril: the patience of the Great British Public with a party which has already spent a decade self-indulgently examining its own navel is not, after all, infinite.

Finally, think of the debate about men allowing them to declare themselves as women, with legal validity, as what it is: a political border dispute.

And you will never get agreement by talking to people on only one side of the border. Those on the other will see the incursion into their territory for what it is – an unlicensed land grab. Both sides have to agree new rules, and the party is engaging only with one.

Angela Rayner and a number of other prominent figures in the party have, and surely with the best of intentions, called this wrong.

But at some point, Keir Starmer as leader will have to steer the party towards common sense, because this issue will, otherwise, one day seriously damage Labour. There will be a big public debate at some point and it will be settled, believe you me, with Labour conclusively on the wrong side of history.

And if you think this is overblown, remember how a few lone voices wrote about Labour’s tolerance of extremism, and creeping anti-Semitism, almost a decade before it finally reached its peak in the party.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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