SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 218 May 2018

Taking trans rights forward

In 2016, the Tories promised to review the Gender Recognition Act – part of an attempt to shake off their ‘nasty party’ reputation. They have failed to deliver but trans people cannot wait in the fight against oppression. SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE reports.

Trans people face oppression and discrimination within capitalist society. The Trans Mental Health study in 2012 found that 81% of respondents feared and avoided certain social or public situations, such as gyms, public toilets and shops. Thirty-eight percent had experienced sexual harassment and 37% physical threats or intimidation for being transgender. A 2017 Stonewall/YouGov survey found that 41% of trans people had experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the previous six months.

A 2016 article in Psychology Today says that, while approximately 6.7% of the general US population suffers from depression and 18% grapple with an anxiety disorder, nearly half of trans people experience these issues. In the US, over 41% of trans men and women are estimated to have attempted suicide. In 2017 there were at least three suicides of trans women held in all-male prisons in Britain.

Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis reports that transgender people experience sexual violence at a disproportionate rate and may find support more difficult to access. Stonewall reports that, between 2008 and 2014, 1,612 trans people were murdered across 62 countries. Black and minority ethnic trans people face even greater oppression. Donald Trump has targeted trans people specifically for attack, including banning them from serving in the military by tweet. Campaigners correctly link anti-trans violence and anti-transgender laws – like the bathroom bills in the US which aim to police who may use gender-specific public facilities.

It is largely as a result of the courageous struggle by trans people that the oppression they face is becoming more widely understood. While there is still work to do, there have been important changes in attitudes and some legal changes too. The latest British Social Attitudes survey found that "the vast majority of people (82%) describe themselves as ‘not prejudiced at all’ to transgender people". It is also from trans people’s campaigning that the need to update the legal rights of trans people, outlined in the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004, originates – although legal changes are only part of the battle.

Cynical Tories

The Tories are still the ‘nasty party’ they were when Theresa May coined the phrase in 2002, only more so. They represent the capitalist system which is intrinsically nasty – unequal and therefore discriminative. And now, because of the austerity measures driven by capitalism’s need to drive down living standards for the 99%, they are more hated than ever. They hope that making legal changes – while carrying on with cuts – can help them win support. Policies on gay marriage, measuring the gender pay gap and trans rights, while representing some legal improvements, do not address the inequality and discrimination that women and LGBT people face in capitalist society.

In reality, the Tories attack LGBT workers and young people unrelentingly. Tory austerity has sharpened the inequality all oppressed groups face. Even research commissioned by the Government Equalities Office in 2016 found that LGBT specialist services are at "significant risk" as a result of Tory cuts, while 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women.

Following the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto in the snap general election, the Tories are even weaker and more unstable. They are especially hated by young people. George Freeman, chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum, told the Financial Times (3 October 2017) that the Tories "now face a major task in reconnecting both Conservatism and our belief in free markets to an entire generation under 45 – a generation who have been hit by a perfect storm of post-crash economics, tuition fees, debt, house unaffordability and an out-of-control private rented market".

A 2015 poll found that 49% of British 18-24 year-olds define themselves as something other than 100% heterosexual, more than double the figure for society as a whole. The Tories’ temporary commitment to updating the GRA in line with the expectations of especially young people was seen by them as a largely financial cost-free attempt to appeal to youth and cut across the isolation of their party.

So, as we approach the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, a clearly anti-gay law that was part of the Tories’ homophobic propaganda campaigning, the Tories attempted to present themselves as defenders of trans rights. In July 2016 the now sacked minister for women and equalities, Justine Greening, ‘unveiled’ a plan to review the GRA and to make it easier for people to legally change their gender. The Women and Equalities Committee published a report in 2016 calling for medical evidence to no longer be needed to self-define. Self-declaration has been introduced in the Netherlands, Argentina, Denmark, Malta, Colombia, Ireland and Portugal.

Predictably, the Tories have proved unreliable defenders of trans rights. The GRA review has been firmly kicked into the long grass with no timetable available from the government. It also reflects the civil war in the party. Tory MP, cabinet member and right-wing Brexiter, David Davis, called on remainer Greening (before she was sacked) to axe the plan to avoid giving rights to people who are "effectively cross-dressers". The struggle for the right to self-define and fight trans oppression now needs to look to new allies – those with the record of fighting for the rights of, and uniting, all oppressed groups – the socialist and labour movement.

The Socialist Party supports the right of individuals to define their gender and we oppose all forms of compulsion regarding gender, sexuality, dress, etc. Violence and discrimination against trans people is unacceptable. The labour and socialist movement can play an important part in fighting alongside trans people to not only challenge discrimination, including in the workplace, but to end it. This is because the working class is the force in society that has the potential to end capitalist rule and the inequality and oppression innate to it.

Dangerous cuts in services

However, the ‘debate’ around the GRA has focused on who can access gender-segregated spaces and services. Unfortunately, some in the trade unions have said that the right of trans people to self-identify could have ‘an impact on society’s ability to plan and even out inequality’. Right-wing politicians and commentators promote the false idea that trans women are a threat to women and women’s services.

Anti-Corbyn Labour MP Caroline Flint said: "We need to think through how to support those from the trans community but not in such a way that compromises women’s and girls’ rights". But their rights are under constant attack – by pro-capitalist politicians like Flint who backed Owen Smith’s Labour leadership challenge and has attacked Corbyn with false claims of sexism against the left.

Meanwhile, Labour councils are passing on Tory austerity, including to women’s and domestic violence services. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, local authorities across England have cut spending on domestic violence refuges by nearly a quarter since 2010. This means that more than 1,000 women and children fleeing domestic violence were turned away from shelters over six months. Since 2010, one in six refuges has closed and a third face closure as the Tory government removes refuges from the welfare system.

Some councils have housed services for domestic violence victims in the same location as those for perpetrators. If this was not so potentially dangerous it could be seen as ironic given that the argument against the GRA changes is that it would allow violent men access to women’s services. In Ireland, where self-definition was legalised and made very accessible in 2015, there have been no incidents of violent men using it to enter women’s spaces. However, domestic violence staff report incidences of violent men posing as social workers and police – and that cuts undermine their ability to keep service users safe.

Flint is a Doncaster MP but she did not oppose the Labour-led council’s cuts to Doncaster Women’s Aid. There, Socialist Party members have been part of the Women’s Lives Matter campaign fighting the cuts to funding and demanding that the Labour council sets a no-cuts needs-based budget that could allow it to provide the services needed by women, LGB and trans people.

Building unity

The ‘debate’ on the GRA has been framed as a question of irreconcilable, competing rights. Under capitalism, with the wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the richest few, we are told that there are insufficient resources to meet all our needs. This is justified with claims that some groups are ‘undeserving’ – ‘skivers v scrounger’, young v old, etc. A united struggle is needed to defeat these attempts to divide us, one that recognises and fights the different oppressions sections of the working class face and for a greater share for the working class in general. It is on the basis of democratic socialist planning and the working class participating in the organisation and management of society that we can reconcile the different needs. In the hands of those who work within the limits of capitalism it will be about which group’s needs can be met and who should suffer.

In Scotland a joint statement from a coalition of women’s organisations said: "We do not regard trans equality and women’s equality to contradict or be in competition with each other. We listen carefully to each other’s ideas and concerns and collaboratively create solutions, including the maintenance of women only spaces and services. Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid in Scotland provide trans inclusive services on the basis of self-identification".

While this is a good starting point, with a welcome inclusive approach, to achieve what these organisations correctly aspire to requires the full participation and leadership of the labour movement. That is, in fighting cuts which limit resources and in providing the means to ‘create a solution’ to addressing different needs. This can only be done by linking women’s and trans people’s needs to the programme to fight to improve the living conditions of working people as a whole and to the struggle for socialism.

Unfortunately, while trade union members have participated in the debate around the GRA and access to services, socialist and labour movement ideas and traditions have not been to the fore, so far. The debate has been dominated by ideas of identity politics and bourgeois feminism, neither of which challenges capitalism nor sees the working class as an agent of resistance and change. The main proponents of these ideas have their careers in the ‘identity industry’ as their starting point. They therefore reject the need to build and be accountable to the united and democratic movement necessary.

The failure by the right-wing trade union leaders to lead a united movement is a factor in the rise of identity politics. In 2011, when the unions organised mass demos and strikes against austerity, and there was confidence that the Con-Dem government could be brought down, groups such as Queers Against the Cuts were drawn towards the workers’ movement and its methods and ideas. The betrayal of that movement by right-wing union leaders has contributed to a certain fracturing of the fight against austerity and a search for alternative routes to the struggle for liberation from oppression.

Separate organisations can be a bridge to greater workers’ unity. However, that is dependent on the leadership, make-up and programme of those organisations. A socialist programme of demands and action that makes it clear that, fundamentally, the interests of a specially oppressed group are not separate from those of other sections of the working class is necessary. But any attempts to rigidly and permanently separate the working class along the lines of nationality, gender, sexuality or ethnicity must be opposed.

That does not exclude the need for separate meetings or organisations to discuss the issues of those who face specific oppressions. In fact, organising with people who face the same oppression can be the first stage of political activity for many. It is necessary for the wider labour movement to stand against all oppression and prejudice, to win these sections of the working class and youth to its banner – and to show it will fight.

Overcoming prejudice

Struggle can have an impact on consciousness. In the 1984-85 miners’ strike some prejudices were overcome by the solidarity miners received from women, LGBT people and black workers in the cities – themselves inspired by the sense that here was a movement that could challenge the Tory government which oppressed them too. And mass movements and strikes can act to challenge the dominant ideas of the dominant class.

In Ireland, the vote for gay marriage in 2015 was informed by the scandals in the Catholic Church and the hostility to the pro-austerity capitalist elite – but also the confidence that came through the mass movement that defeated water charges. Experience has a major impact on the ideas and prejudices we absorb through living in capitalist society. But it will take the replacement of capitalism, which moulds all our thinking including how we see our gender, with a socialist society to begin to allow people to develop free of those constraints.

In the GRA debate proponents of bourgeois feminism, like BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour’s Jenni Murray, have argued that trans women are not ‘real women’. Such utterly wrong attempts at exclusion have been fought in the struggle for women’s rights in the past – attempts to bar lesbians from women’s campaigns, for instance. Women are not merely oppressed because they have or can have children. Fundamentally, women are oppressed because of the historic origins of class society, private property and the family. LGBT oppression has the same origins.

All women suffer oppression under capitalism. So do all LGBT people. Male dominance and the Tory promotion of heterosexual marriage as the ‘correct’ form of family – expressed today, for example, in the financial and benefit penalties on unmarried couples, including gay civil partnerships – both in origin and in their current form, are innately linked to the structures and inequalities of class society.

The family plays a dual role in capitalist society. Most people see it as representing relationships between parents and children, siblings, etc. Pre-modern communistic societies accepted that children were the responsibility of society as a whole – as well as the parents. Today’s ‘traditional’ family is used by the ruling class as an institution for social control, social stability and to carry out the unpaid role of bringing up the next generation and caring for the elderly and ill. It is intolerant therefore of those who don’t conform. At the same time, the changes in attitudes to LGBT people and the fall in the number of marriages are some of the reflections of the loosening hold of the norm of the ‘traditional’ family.

The struggles for LGBT and women’s liberation are at root part of the class struggle, in which the campaigns against their own specific oppressions dovetail with those of the working class in general for a transformation of society to end all inequality and oppression. Building a mass united socialist struggle requires a programme that can win to its banner trans people, women and all oppressed sections by showing that their interests are best met by joining a working class-led movement and the fight for a socialist world without oppression or inequality.

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