Britain faces a critical shortage of workers, leading to fuel supply constraints, a run on petrol stations and unstacked shelves in supermarkets due to lack of staff or undelivered foodstuffs. Despite this immediate crisis affecting millions of people, “gotcha” questions on trans rights have become a feature of this year’s political party conference season, say trans advocates.
On “Today,” last month, the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs radio program, presenter Justin Webb asked Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey if there should “not be spaces where biological males cannot go,” in reference to trans women.
More than a week later, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr if it was transphobic to say only women had a cervix. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked the same question about cervixes this week by right-leaning broadcaster GB News.
Both Davey and Starmer said respectful debates were needed on the matters. Johnson avoided answering the question directly, saying “biology is very important but we’ve got a system now in our country for many, many years where people can change gender … and what I absolutely passionately believe … is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.”
The questions may appear to be grounded in science, but are in fact troublesome. People identify as transgender when their gender identity doesn’t align with what has culturally been associated with the one they were assigned at birth. This is an anathema to Britain’s gender-critical feminists, who argue sex is immutable, and some use descriptors, such as “biological male,” which is considered a slur by trans activists, to describe trans women over their concerns about trans women in women-only spaces.
Misgendering trans people is not only harmful to their mental health, but suggesting gender does not exist and that they are the sum total of the sex they were assigned at birth scrubs the existence of trans and non-binary people, say advocates. Also, modern medicine views sex as a spectrum with many variables. Instersex people, for example, have natural variations in reproductive anatomy, chromosome patterns or other traits that may not align with typical definitions of female or male
But none of these facts were conveyed in those short interviews, and instead complex questions and answers around trans rights have been boiled down to soundbites. “The media shamefully advances this transphobic frontier, with both the right-wing press and ostensibly leftist outlets” working to demonize trans people, Lisa Tilley, a political economist based at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told CNN.
“Politicians are often either unprepared to reject the terms of this debate or they are actively advancing a transphobic political project themselves. Whatever the intentions of this harmful and exclusionary political project, the effects are to make the UK one of the most transphobic countries in the world,” she opined.
When it comes to trans rights “polling shows that the public isn’t necessarily as hostile as the media, but the media [continues] to lead the conversation,” Shon Faye, trans advocate and author of “The Transgender Issue,” told CNN. According to her analysis, in 2020 the Times and the Sunday Times published “over 300 articles, almost one a day, and they were all negative.” CNN has reached out to both newspapers for comment.
In recent months, as in other parts of the world, a set of terms have been weaponized against the trans community in Britain. Similar to dog-whistle racism, where coded pejorative phrases, such as “inner city” or the term “woke,” are used as synonyms for Black and Brown people, constructions such as “woke mobs,” “trans lobby,” and “gender ideology” are uncritically used by columnists in print and reporters on live air as the British press parrots talking points by influential anti-trans grassroots campaigners, say trans advocates.
In an essay for the Times decrying “wokeism” last November, Sky News presenter Trevor Phillips said: “The greatest tragedy in all of this is that the gurus of wokedom have persuaded thousands of idealistic young people who rightly want to change the world into supporting what is actually a deeply reactionary movement. The trans activists can only realize their aim of being able to enter spaces reserved for women by erasing the female sex.”
The British media has created an environment where “male violence is also displaced from the real culprits onto vulnerable transgender people, who are demonized collectively as abusers, rather than more accurately represented as victims and survivors of abuse,” Tilley said.
As the debate rages on, trans people, like many minority groups, remain economically and socially disenfranchised in the UK. Excluding fraud, trans people are twice as likely to be a victim of crime in England and Wales in the year ending March 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics. They also face years-long waits to receive gender-affirming care at NHS gender identity clinics and are more likely to report healthcare discrimination, domestic violence and homelessness.
Trans-critical rhetoric has real-world impact for Britain’s trans and queer communities especially at a time when UK’s government has leaned into the culture wars debate in a bid to appeal to its traditional Conservative Party base and new working-class voters in northern England.
Since Johnson came to power, his Women and Equalities ministry has stalled on a number of initiatives for the country’s LGBTQ community. In September 2020, Liz Truss, the Minister of Women and Equalities, said plans to make it easier for trans people to change their gender via a simplified self-declaratory system would be scrapped.
This March, three members of the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel resigned. In his resignation letter, Scottish trans equalities campaigner James Morton said the government did not “have any desire to build a country in which trans people are among those free to live their lives.”
The final straw was the government’s “war on woke,” which disparaged the trans community, as well as the stalled ban on conversion therapy – following objections to it by religious organizations, gender-critical feminists and anti-trans groups, Morton told CNN. Similar to some US Republican Party lawmakers’ critiques of critical race theory, “war on woke” has turned into a catchall to describe what Conservatives don’t like: be it the perceived excesses of the left, conversations around racial equality, or social justice initiatives like trans rights.
In a statement to CNN, an Equalities ministry spokesperson said: “we have repeatedly confirmed we will be banning the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy, and will be launching a consultation on our proposals shortly.” The spokesperson added that the government has made it “simpler for applicants” to change their gender – which includes cutting the application fee down to £5 ($6), and working on moving the process online.
Conservative lawmaker Crispin Blunt, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT+ Rights, last year called for Truss’s Women and Equalities brief be passed to someone else, saying she lacked “the time or necessary empathy to continue in this role.”
Speaking to CNN, he explained her other brief (which she held before a cabinet reshuffle in September) as “the most important trade minister in the history of the United Kingdom” meant she did not have bandwidth to see the gay conversion ban through.
When it comes to trans issues, “the Prime Minister quite rightly wants the temperature to be taken down on this debate, have a sensible, evidence-based conversation,” Blunt told CNN.
These sentiments were on display at a LGBT Conservatives event at the Conservative Party conference, where Johnson’s wife, Carrie, shared a stage with pro-trans voices in the party. There she said her husband was committed to protecting LGBTQ rights, and the government “is banning” conversion therapy.
While “there are perfectly reasonably concerns of what the implication of trans women might be for women’s rights, a lot of that anxiety is based on wildly exaggerated theoretical positions rather than practical ones,” Blunt told CNN. “While [trans people] have to cope with the practical reality that it is bloody tough being trans.”
Turn the dial
Despite those supportive words, the trans-critical dial in the media is up at full blast. It began in 2017 over former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to reform the process it takes for trans people to change their legal gender – in line with some other European countries. “A group of anti-trans campaigners came forward, saying they were concerned such reforms would lead to cis-men entering women’s spaces,” Jane Fae, chair of Trans Media Watch, told CNN of hypothetical concerns that have yet to materialize in countries that have these rights in place.
The debate around reforming the law led to a surge of intolerant media coverage. “In the four years since I cannot think of a single aspect of trans life – from sport to ability to live in public, to access to medical treatment – that has not come under scrutiny and attack from these people,” she said.
A 2019 study by linguist Paul Baker, a professor at Lancaster University, found the British press wrote more than 6,000 articles about trans people between 2018-19, many of them written “in order to be critical of trans people” and painted “trans people as unreasonable and aggressive,” the report wrote.
The disproportionality of the trans-critical articles for a community estimated to amount to under 1% of the British population indicates an overreaction. Despite there never having been a “trans member of Parliament (MP),” and close to zero trans editors or staff writers at [British] newspapers an idea has stuck that there is an influential trans “lobby behind the scene … and that is very much characteristic of a moral panic,” author Faye said.
It’s a landscape that has not gone unnoticed abroad. At the end of September, the Council of Europe’s Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination likened the UK’s record on LGBTQ rights to Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland – countries with appalling track records on minority issues. The report pointed out that in England and Wales “trans rights organisations have faced vitriolic media campaigns, in which trans women especially are vilified and misrepresented.”
Better political leadership is needed to counter the media narrative that trans people, particularly trans women, are taking resources away from cisgender women, Faye said. A leader who is willing to tackle the more complex parts of the trans debate, such as the issues surrounding access to gender-based violence services, by promising better resourcing and funds to counter the Conservative Party’s austerity cuts on women’s refuges, she added.
War of words
The pitched battle between trans advocates and gender-critical feminists is taking place in an environment where language is changing to accommodate diverse identities, and one with which politicians and British journalists appear to struggle to keep up.
The furor over whether women have a cervix related to an internal party dispute over a Labour lawmaker, Rosie Duffield, who incorrectly stated that only women had a lower uterus. She made her comment in response to a tweet by CNN – which relayed guidance by American Cancer Society that called on “individuals with a cervix” to begin cervical screening.
Not every woman has a cervix. As many as 5% of reproductive-age women worldwide were born with an underdeveloped or non-existent uterus and vagina, according to Penn Medicine, and trans men can also have a cervix. Despite this evidence, which appears to be acknowledged by Britain’s public health service, UK’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid asserted as a “total denial of scientific fact” a comment by Labour leader Starmer that it was “not right” to say only women have a cervix.
Problems can arise when supportive cisgender people, or corporate entities, make poor linguistic and aesthetic choices when attempting to use inclusive language for non-binary, transgender and intersex people, Faye said. This happened at the end of September, when British medical journal The Lancet featured the words “bodies with vaginas” on the cover of its latest issue. The journal later apologized for conveying “the impression that we have dehumanized and marginalized women,” after the wording was widely criticized.
These constructions are instead blamed by trans-critical commentators on trans people and the culture war, when perhaps there should be a better discussion about language choices, Faye said. “Is it dehumanizing? Does it express the point? Does it include everyone? Is there a more tidy way to phrase it?”
Like clockwork, The Lancet’s choice of words turned into another media talking point on trans people’s rights.
During the Labour conference in the southern English coastal city of Brighton last week, BBC’s Nick Robinson pushed Labour lawmaker David Lammy on his position on trans rights. Robinson asserted that an internal party analysis found that Labour lost working-class voters in northern England because the voters “feel they have little in common with the young quinoa-eating graduate city-dwelling socially liberal Remainers and Labour voters who they believe do not put Britain first and judge people like them harshly and unfairly for their views.”
“And I put it to you that those people believe that women are people who have vaginas not people who are described as ‘bodies with vaginas.’ And that the Labour Party needs to be clear about this,” Robinson said on “Today.”
“Nick, you could be asking me about climate change. You could be asking me about mental health. You could be asking me about education. You could be asking me about health. You deliberately are asking me about an issue that you know does not come up on the doorstep,” Lammy replied.
“[You] are choosing to land on this subject that most British people are not talking about in a fuel crisis,” Lammy added. “And spend minutes on this, because it keeps Labour talking about identity issues and not about the substantive policies.”