Mere weeks into his time as PM, the Telegraph published an article which hinted at Rishi Sunak’s latest transphobic attack line. It was buried in amongst reporting on the proposition that the Sunak administration should suggest restrictions on the information that schoolchildren can be taught about gender identity. This is, in itself, a worrying echo of Section 28 and all the damage that it did to the LGBTQI+ community. However, the article ended with a much broader scope, stating that Sunak:
intends to look to review the Equality Act to make it clear that sex means biological sex rather than gender.
This would mean that biological males cannot compete in women’s sport and other single-sex facilities such as changing rooms and women’s refuges will be protected.
It would also mean clarifying that self-identification for transgender people does not have legal force, meaning transgender women have no legal right to access women-only facilities.
If this is true, the ramifications would be disastrous for the UK trans community.
The Equality Act
Currently, the Equality Act (EA) prohibits discrimination against the twin characteristics of sex and gender reassignment. ‘Gender reassignment’ is a necessarily broad category that encompasses all transgender people. It applies regardless of whether an individual’s transition is social or medical. It also applies regardless of whether they hold a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) or not. The EA also prevents the exclusion of trans people from single-sex spaces, with a few exceptions.
Sunak is no stranger to the use of transphobia for political gain. However, gutting trans protections from the EA would be steps beyond any of the posturing up until this point. The Good Law Project’s Jo Maugham confirmed that the potential move was theoretically possible within the law:
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Legally, there is nothing to stop the Tories from changing the Equality Act. They have a majority in Parliament and our (abject) so-called ‘constitution’ says that Sunak, if he can carry Parliament, can remove the rights of whichever friendless minority he decides to target.
Right now, two things need to be borne in mind. First, the Telegraph’s story was based on an unnamed “Downing Street source”. While Sunak has stated before that he would like to go after the EA, his government has made no official announcement yet.
Second, an alteration to the EA of this magnitude would be something of a legislative feat. Pink News CEO Benjamin Cohen offered the following opinion:
My gut is that Sunak won’t try to remove trans protections because there isn’t a majority in the Commons for this. He couldn’t even count on the support of a majority from his own MPs including former PM Theresa May, some current cabinet members + other ‘big beasts’
I wouldn’t trust the human decency of the Tory Party as far as I could throw it. However, removing trans protections from the EA would be a long and difficult process. The government is under fire for its disastrous handling of the economy and the cost of living crisis. So, monstering trans people for no real gain may simply be too much effort for the embattled PM.
Starmer – no ally
Meanwhile, on the other side of the commons benches, Keir Starmer is never one to allow a political enemy to make a mistake unaccompanied. The Labour leader gave an interview to Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts on Friday 28 October in which he questioned the competence of teenagers to make decisions about their own gender identity.
Whilst Mumsnet is ostensibly a forum for parents to seek support on raising their children, it has become something of a hotbed of transphobic rhetoric and organising. This being the case, it was inevitable that the conversation would turn to trans children.
Responding to a question on “child safeguarding in the context of gender identity services”, Starmer answered:
Children shouldn’t be making these very important decisions without consent to their parents, I say that as a matter of principle as a parent.
We all know what it’s like with teenage children. I feel very strongly about this. This argument [that] children [can] make decisions without the parents is one I just don’t agree with at all.
This statement is one that should set alarm bells ringing. Starmer appears to be questioning the concept of Gillick competence. This was the 1985 legal ruling that allows minors to make decisions regarding their own medical care. Gillick competence means that:
Children under the age of 16 can consent to their own treatment if they’re believed to have enough intelligence, competence and understanding to fully appreciate what’s involved in their treatment.
If Starmer believes that children can’t properly consent to medical treatment, that’s deeply worrying. If, on the other hand, he believes that a cis child is capable of making decisions regarding their healthcare but a trans child is not, this is very clear discrimination.
The belief that transness is a unique thing to which the norms of personal and bodily autonomy should not apply is discrimination. This autonomy should apply whether or not a child happens to have supportive parents who would ‘allow’ them to transition, socially or medically. Frankly, I am amazed that this needs to be said.
A rock and a hard place
So, Sunak is reported to be eyeing the EA, and thus the foundations of trans legal protections. Starmer seems content to question the rights of trans adolescents to make their own choices. Clearly, the watchword of the current incarnation of Labour is ‘Conservative lite’. Currently, both leaders of major parties in the UK are scoring cheap political points at the expense of trans people.
The Tories’ transphobic posturing, particularly during the leadership debates, is well known. Meanwhile, Labour refuses to root our transphobia from its own MPs – despite its clear commitments to the contrary. Hell, even the Greens are currently at war with themselves over whether it’s OK to discriminate against trans people.
I ask you, where on earth is a trans person in the UK meant to turn? The government despises us more openly every day, and the opposition is only marginally less awful. The trans community is currently a convenient distraction from the massive failings of Brexit, the cost of living crisis, and the latest recession. That’s all. But we are real people, with real lives which politicians are threatening out of sheer, unfounded cruelty.
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