When Social Justice Activism Becomes an Act of Self-Destruction

An overly strident campaign by Britain’s Labour party to protect transgender people is alienating potential allies across the country.

Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy speaking at a campaign event for Labour Leader and Deputy Leader on February 16, 2020 in London, England.
Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy speaking at a campaign event for Labour Leader and Deputy Leader on February 16, 2020 in London, England. Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Last week, all four candidates to replace Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the U.K. Labour Party after his crushing defeat this past December lined up at an event held by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel and identified themselves as Zionists. They all, quite reasonably, qualified the word, explaining that they meant Israel had a right to exist, but they used it and applied it to themselves. It was a gesture that would have been unthinkable a year ago, when complaints about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party were routinely dismissed by party leadership as right-wing or Israeli smears.

Only the crushing electoral defeat in December changed the calculations of party elites. The candidates for party leadership have now been forced to acknowledge that perceptions of people outside the Labour Party must matter if ever it is to be elected again. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine the Labour Party’s most devoted supporters feel similarly chastened. In the focus groups conducted earlier this year, only 6 percent of those who voted for Corbyn in the last leadership election thought that anti-Semitism was a real problem that he should have dealt with; 90 percent thought it was all or mostly inflated by the media.

And so, with the boil of anti-Semitism lanced, the party has been busy preparing its next performance of gratuitous self-flagellation. Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, a pressure group with the backing of 11 members of Parliament, among them the three female candidates for leader, demanded the expulsion from the party of anyone expressing “bigoted, transphobic views” including members of two named organizations, which were described as “hate groups.” With this, the smoldering hostilities within the party and the British left more generally burst into the open.

The organizations marked down for expulsion were the Woman’s Place UK and the LGB Alliance, both of them organizations with socialist and feminist roots that see the present fight for transgender people’s rights as an assault on women’s rights to gender-specific legal protections. Lachlan Stuart, a gay man who coordinated Labour’s manifesto at the last election, recently explained that perspective when he wrote, “most of the people who pop up on social media or on your TV screens claiming to speak for and promote the interests and well-being of trans people are … not really being driven by a motivation to improve the quality of life for trans people. Rather, they [seek] … to erode or erase the political rights of female people or, as we used to say, women.”

Stuart, and those who agree with him, are denounced as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or “TERFs.” And if hardly anyone has heard of Lachlan Stuart, almost everyone has heard of J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author who was widely criticized on Twitter for posting, after a recent court case involving a think tank contractor fired for posting tweets critical of trans rights, “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill.”

After voicing support for the fired contractor, Rowling was labeled a TERF by critics. With the leadership candidates’ support of Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, it would appear that Rowling and those who agree with her may no longer belong in the contemporary Labour Party.

The question of a distinction between sex and gender is at the heart of the present dispute. Since 2005 it has been legally possible to have a change of gender recognized in Britain. There are hoops to jump through first: There is a waiting period, and the claimant must demonstrate that they have, or have had, gender dysphoria. The demand of LGBT rights groups, such as Stonewall, is that this be replaced by a process of self-identification: that anyone who declares that they are a member of a different gender should be treated as such in all contexts by the law. This is already the case in Ireland and several U.S. states.

To some extent, self-identification is already expected and demanded by British law. People who change gender legally must have “lived as their preferred gender” for two years before acquiring a certificate, and what is that legally acknowledged interim if not a period of self-identification? But advocates against formally applying the policy argue that normalizing the process brings in the possibility of endless legal conflicts, including over the status of existing legal protections for women.

The Guardian wrote in an editorial on the subject in October 2018, “While campaigners for trans rights are entitled to push for laws that they believe advance equality, feminists are entitled to question whether such changes could adversely affect other women. Neither group is a homogeneous bloc and there are more than two points of view. UK law acknowledges circumstances where there is a conflict of interests between trans women and other women. The Equality Act allows for single-sex services to exclude trans people where this is ‘a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim’, such as in rape support services. While some trans activists have argued for these exemptions to be abolished, some feminists believe they should be strengthened.”

Even the suggestion that there might be conflicts between feminism and trans rights is anathema to most trans rights activists. To quote one furious letter sent to Guardian editors in response to the editorial: “Please understand that you have made clear that the Guardian’s official position is that anti-trans ‘feminists’—meaning people who oppose trans rights [italics in the original]—have a legitimate and worthwhile perspective. ‘Feminists’ who campaign against equal rights for trans women are not feminists, they are bigots.”

The question is not entirely theoretical. At a campaign event last week, Lisa Nandy, the leading outsider candidate for the Labour leadership, responded to a question about whether trans women convicted of crimes should be held in women’s or men’s prisons—a particular focus of those labeled TERFs—by saying, “I believe fundamentally in the right to self ID. … I think trans women are women and trans men are men.”

Stonewall and other transgender rights groups reject the argument that holding transgender women in women’s prisons involves any conflict of rights. Heather Peto, the co-chair of LGBT+ Labour—whom Lachlan Stuart targeted in his recent post—wrote on Facebook, “Communities only turn on minorities when the quasi-fascists persuade them that one group’s rights come at the expense of another. Trans rights do not take away from women’s rights, this false narrative comes from misinformation and vilification in the Tory press and on social media by anti-trans campaigners.”

This in some ways mirrors the party’s response to the accusations of anti-Semitism that plagued the Labour Party ahead of last year’s election. But how does the public perceive it?

Although the conflicts over trans rights have not yet reached the mainstream, the polling that has been done suggests that there is widespread support for trans rights in principle but that this support is also shallow, and there appears to be some preference falsification on the issue. The authoritative 2019 British Social Attitudes survey found that only 15 percent of the population described themselves as even slightly prejudiced against trans people, and 83 percent claimed not to be prejudiced at all. But the report compared these results to a 2017 survey that found just over 40 percent of the population felt that suitably qualified transgender people “definitely should” be employed as police officers or primary school teachers. (Employment discrimination along those lines would in fact be illegal under the Equality Act, which all factions in Labour support.)

The difference between those who oppose discrimination in principle and the much smaller number who would always oppose it in practice suggests that there is a great deal that Labour could do to defend the trans rights that are already established in law and supported by a broad feminist coalition, including those presently denounced as TERFs, rather than focusing on fighting within the party. There is not a great deal of agitation against trans people taking a prominent place in society, but there is some, and the party could be taking a stand against it. I personally know two trans women ordained into the Church of England, and the—frequently loathsome—protests against their acceptance did not come from feminists but from conservative campaigners for traditional gender roles. Some of those who reject the assertion that trans women are women say they would at least accept that they have the right to be treated as if they were women under almost all circumstances. If the party is serious about gaining power, perhaps it should be trying to maximize the support for its policies by accepting those who hold this set of beliefs.

If this issue becomes politically salient—which at present, outside the Labour leadership campaign, it isn’t—I suspect trans people will suffer real harm. Both sides believe they are defending vulnerable and persecuted minorities. The rhetoric escalates accordingly. The comedy writer Graham Linehan, with 600,000 Twitter followers, has been one of the most prominent TERF allies. He recently compared doctors who give young transgender people medical treatment as part of the transition process to Nazi experimentalists. This and similar rhetorical flights have the potential to damage trans people generally. Outrage or righteous fury, once whipped up, is hard to confine within its intended limits.

Keir Starmer, the favorite to be the next Labour leader, said that “trans rights are human rights,” but “there are difficult questions about how we resolve this, but treating it as a political football, with camps taking lumps out of each other, just does everybody a disservice. … We do need to dial this down.” He refused to sign the demand that the party reject Woman’s Place UK, LGB Alliance, and other trans-exclusionist groups. This is only common sense: The conflicts that the activists in these groups identify between cisgender women’s and transgender people’s rights are much better dealt with on an informal, case-by-case basis. The more principles are invoked in this fight, on both sides, the nastier and more absolutist it will get.

Nevertheless, Starmer endorsed a similar program, but without the specific demand for expelling members of named organizations. So all the candidates have now gotten themselves with greater or lesser enthusiasm into a bidding war for a prize that will be electoral cyanide if voters feel they themselves are being targeted as hate-filled bigots.

The Labour Party is still some years—and probably another crushing election defeat—before its candidates do a complete turnaround and stand in a line to declare they are all TERFs, just as they declared themselves all Zionists last week. But if things keep on the way they are, that moment is most likely coming.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout

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