Trans rights: let’s build bridges, not walls

Division icon created by the author

The issue of trans rights is being used by the right as a wedge to divide the left. And, as the resignations of Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley as Green Party co-leaders show, the left has fallen headlong into this trap.

This is an article I really didn’t want to write, prompted by the decision of Sian Berry, a woman I admire, not to stand again as co-leader of the Green Party. Berry’s decision follows disagreement between herself and other senior Greens on the issue of trans rights.

Until now, I’ve deliberately avoided comment on this issue, because it has become such a poisonous and divisive topic on the left. It’s become almost impossible to say anything at all about it without immediately attracting furious attacks from one or other side of the divide.

This article is likely to attract such attacks from both sides, because it will fail to conform with the deeply entrenched position of either. Otherwise reasonable people have dug themselves in to the extent that any disagreement, or even any attempt to broker understanding, is seen not just as regrettable or wrong-headed but as an act of the foulest treachery.

You are either one of ‘us’ (a good, principled person who has the ‘correct’ understanding of rights) or one of ‘them’ (a malign or insane person, someone with no understanding of rights who is setting out to destroy those of women or of trans people). Depending on one’s position, you will be abused either as an enabler of rapists and paedophiles or as a ‘TERF’ (‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’) or an inciter of hatred towards trans people.

The territory between these entrenched positions is so raked by machine-gun abuse and wreathed in rhetorical poison gas that it seems almost impossible for anything like a calm conversation to be carried on within it. And the result is to deter any attempt to reconcile or bridge these polarised positions.

Meanwhile, politicians and commentators on the right are sitting back with large bowls of popcorn as elements of the left tear each other apart. From their point of view, there has been nothing quite so gratifying since Labour’s antisemitism implosion.

And the worst of it is that there are good and principled people on both sides of this divide, people who have previously worked together towards common goals as colleagues and friends.

This situation has not arisen by accident. Trans rights were identified several years ago by right-wing thinktanks and lobby groups in the US as a wedge issue that could open up a promising front in the ‘culture wars’ and help to peel off voters from the Democrats (who have generally supported such rights). Even better, it could also be exploited to widen a fault-line on the left. With that in mind, groups such as the Heritage Foundation began to push the idea of trans rights as encroaching on the rights of women.

The issue came to the fore at the 2016 US election, after Hillary Clinton praised President Obama for taking action on trans rights and said she was committed to ending discrimination against the transgender community.

Then and later, a flashpoint was the question of whether trans people should be able to use toilets of the gender with which they identify. Donald Trump, who had initially attempted not to alienate the LGBTQ community by saying that this should be a matter for the individuals concerned, began to understand the wedge potential of this issue. Later in his campaign, he declared that states that banned trans-friendly toilets were “doing the right thing”.

This went down well with Trump’s base, and in February 2017 his incoming administration directed the US Departments of Justice and Education to revoke the Obama administration’s guidance on school obligations to transgender students. In April of that year, Trump announced in a series of tweets that he was reinstating a ban on transgender people serving in the military.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation and others were working assiduously to use the issue to exploit division on the left. Extraordinarily, this far-right lobby group, which for many years had sought to undermine feminism and its achievements, was able to find elements of the feminist left that were willing to be co-opted into this project.

In early 2019, for instance, the Heritage Foundation convened a panel discussion under the banner “The Inequality of the Equality Act: Concerns from the Left,” focusing on upcoming legislation tabled by Democrats that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

One panel member, from a group calling itself the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), described the increasing visibility and acceptance of trans people as “a social contagion”; another called the trans rights movement “the new eating disorder”. As the Heritage Foundation had no doubt hoped, this provoked outrage from many on the left.

Another powerful far-right lobby group, the American Enterprise Foundation, has also been heavily promoting the idea that the trans rights movement is a dangerous cult. The foundation, which had close ties to the Trump administration, has gifted large sums of money to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liz Truss.

The role of the Heritage Foundation is especially noteworthy because of its close relationship with right-wing lobby groups in the UK (several of which it has funded) and with senior Conservative politicians. International Trade Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss, for instance, has been a frequent guest of the foundation and in 2019 heaped praise on it as an organisation that “gave so much impetus to the Reagan administration in the 1980s… and is now very much at the forefront of Republican thinking”.

Truss is now at the forefront of this culture war in the UK after declaring in May, during a discussion on gender, that “women have vaginas”, thereby implying that people who lacked these could not be thought of as women. Her remarks were immediately trumpeted by newspapers such as the Daily Mail and have been echoed by other senior Conservatives.

Truss went on to disband the government’s LGBT+ panel, telling MPs that there was a “difference of opinion” on the issue of the Gender Recognition Act, after members of the panel had supported self-identification of gender – the position espoused by veteran LGBTQ campaign group Stonewall, as well as by the Labour Party and the Greens.

Quite a large number of left-leaning feminists were impressed by Truss’s position, declaring their support for it on Twitter.

I don’t want to suggest that such feminists are simply being manipulated by the right. They are entitled to their views on gender recognition, and for these views to be heard and taken seriously. The large majority of them are not coming from a position of hostility to trans people, but have differing views on some aspects of how trans rights should be asserted in relation to the rights of those who feel, equally passionately, that some groups of women should be able to define their own safe spaces according to their own understanding of what a woman is.

Nor do I wish to suggest that trans-rights activists are all saintly individuals. I have seen quite a lot of the abuse directed against people whose views differ from theirs, and it is extremely ugly – including, in a few cases, death threats. Some of the abuse coming from the other direction has been equally vile.

But by allowing this issue to become so utterly toxic, we have played into the hands of people who have no love for either trans rights or the rights for which the feminist movement fought for so long.

At the root of this, of course, are issues of identity. People on both sides of this divide feel that an essential part of their identity is under threat from the other side. And it is an unfortunate feature of identity politics that, when one’s identity feels threatened, one tends to go aggressively onto the attack against the perceived source of that threat. Often, this will include caricaturing the position of one’s ‘enemy’ to the point of travesty.

This is why this issue is capable of wreaking such havoc on parties of the left, and why it is now set to be the next big front in the culture wars that have proved so productive for the US and UK right.

Dominic Cummings is known to have run focus groups for Number 10 that identified trans rights as a wedge issue, and Boris Johnson’s far-right “libertarian” allies at Spiked, who are past masters at the art of polarisation, have also been busy making sure that it becomes just that.

There is only one way to avoid this delivering exactly the results that the culture warriors of the right are hoping for, and that is for people on both sides to take a deep breath, remember that what unites us is far bigger than what divides us, and to start treating each other not as enemies to be trodden into the dirt, but as colleagues whose views merit, if not agreement, than at least respect and some attempt at understanding.

Let’s leave the hatred and abuse where they belong, on the right. We need to build bridges, not walls.