Labour must understand gender and sexual orientation to stop the TERF takeover

What makes a person a woman? Is it their biology or the way they act? Is it their experiences or the way they dress? Is it their ability to have a child or how they feel about their gender?

The answer is more complicated than any one of these questions, even asking all of them would not produce a comprehensive answer. Gender is a nebulous and extremely relative construct, affected by personal experience and the society it exists in. Some people believe they have a definitive answer as to what makes a woman but this answer is reductive, offensive and discriminatory. It has also made its way into the Labour Party. Because having antisemitic members wasn’t enough, we now have terfs too.

For those unsure of what this means, the term terf stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist, essentially a transphobic person parading as a feminist. This has been seen in the Labour associated organisations of Women’s Place UK and the LGB Alliance where these socialist feminist groups see trans rights as an assault on women’s rights to gendered legal protections. For example, a coordinator of the last election manifesto, Lachlan Stuart, claimed that people who want trans rights do not actually want to improve the rights of trans people, they actually want to erase the political rights of females.

The Guardian has also weighed in on this by reporting that the Equality Act allows for the exclusion of trans people as a ‘means of meeting a legitimate aim’, such as sexual assault support services. So a trans person could be legally refused support even though half of transgender people have been sexually assaulted.

Some Labour MPs have also expressed transphobic views, such as Rosie Duffield who equated womanhood with having a cervix and called transgender campaigners in her own party ‘petulant youngsters’. I dislike even qualifying this nonsense with a rebuttal, but I would like to point out that any biological female who has had a hysterectomy is lacking a cervix and that some who were born intersex may well have a cervix and a penis. That’s right, biology also doesn’t follow a ridiculously rigid idea of sexuality either.

I could continue, but listing every incident of Labour’s transphobia and every terf in the Labour Party is not productive. Instead let us consider this from the perspective of trans women.

Imagine that you live your whole life feeling that you’re a woman, knowing you’re a woman, you battle with the expectations and norms your sex has placed on you. Perhaps you finally find the courage to come out to your family, your friends and your romantic partners, every time you do so you face rejection and abuse. You alter your appearance so your body finally feels like your own. After all the struggles and fear you bravely step out into the world and say you’re a woman and the response is “sorry, you can’t officially be a woman because then we’d have to use the same bathroom”.

So has Labour leadership stepped forward to defend the group who are actually having their rights oppressed? Has the party for social equality, the party for all people crushed the bigoted views of its own members? Some Labour MPs have actually defended their colleague’s views and Keir Starmer seems to be staying out of this.

It's not necessary to point out Labour’s track record in addressing its own party’s bigotry. But it is important to consider that this could further damage Labour’s support basis, not just by alienating trans and non-binary individuals but also the rest of LGBTQIA people and straight, cis allies who stand in support of them. It could seriously hurt Labour to become the party where everyone has rights, but some people have more rights than others.

A point missing from this debate is that non-binary people exist. Hello there! I’m non-binary and so are a lot of other people. This is not just an issue of how trans women and men are treated, but how people who do not identify with a gender are treated. NBs are also impacted by terfs’ reductive notion of gender and their refusal to give rights to people whose gender doesn’t match their genitals. Apparently, many people do not have the capacity to conceive the world outside of binaries, including our political system. Perhaps this is a greater flaw with our system in general. Perhaps we have become so fixed in seeing things as black and white that we have become out of touch with the world around us, which is in fact many shades of grey. 

The world is not as simple as many would like to think it is and acknowledging that is the first step to improving our ability to accept one another and improve the lives of everybody.

Ellen Wright

7 Sept 2020

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Labour must understand gender and sexual orientation to stop the TERF takeover

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