At the end of what has been a pretty traumatic week for transgender people came the news that most of us had been expecting but still hoping not to hear. This was the announcement that the Government will not be proceeding with plans to amend the Gender Recognition Act to permit self-declaration (as has been permitted in the Republic of Ireland since 2015) despite this having been the policy of previous Conservative administrations (it was originally put forward by the then Equalities Minister Maria Miller, and despite the results of a consultation being largely in favour. The Government has come up with the odd justification that the result was skewed by lots of pro trans gender groups submitting favourable responses. By the same logic one might argue that the result of the 2019 General Election was skewed by lots of people voting Conservative but logic and consistency is not something populists go in for.
For populist is what the Conservative Party now is. It wasn’t always this way. Just fifteen years ago David Cameron became party leader and set out to remodel the party as fiscally conservative and pro-business but socially liberal. The intake of Conservative MPs at the elections of 2005 and 2010 included a number of LGBT people who went on to hold ministerial office, such as Justine Greening, Margot James and Nick Boles. That was before Brexit swung the party in a populist direction and pragmatic, centrist Tories were purged.
With populism come culture wars. And this is what we now have. An internal Conservative Party paper leaked before the General Election suggested using attacks on trans rights as a means of gaining support with socially conservative working class voters, so no one should be surprised by what is happening now. There have been press reports about the Government legislating to protect single sex spaces and this raises the prospect of US style bathroom bans being brought in. Some transwomen I know are desperately worried.
I just want to consider what a bathroom ban could mean in practice. It has been suggested that it could apply to “male bodied” transwomen. Female bodied transmen don’t get a look in, they have been airbrushed out yet again although their presence raises issues that neither the Government nor the noisy and unrepresentative trans-exclusionary radical feminists seem to have considered. But let us stay with transwomen for the moment. What does it actually mean for a transwoman to be male bodied? It can’t just be about surgery because a transwoman who has been taking hormones for an extended period will have a number of characteristics that males do not, notably breasts (plumbed in in exactly the same way as cis female breasts), but also softer skin and hair. After a while the male genitalia even cease to work in the way they used to. And at what point does a transwoman taking hormones cease to be male bodied? How big would her breasts have to be? What testosterone level would she need to be under? These are not debating points if legal definitions of male bodied are to be made.
In practice it is impossible to produce a coherent and consistent definition of male bodied in respect of transwomen. So the fall back will be, I am sure, genitalia, which is effectively saying that women are nothing more or less than vaginas on legs, (a slightly odd position for feminists to be taking). And how could such a ban be policed except by requiring all users of the ladies bathroom (the vast majority of whom of course are cisgendered women) to submit to intrusive questioning or worse. In the US states that have bathroom bans cisgendered woman have been among the victims, humiliated and thrown out for not looking “feminine” enough. The alleged protection of women becomes a means of policing their bodies. It usually does and it is, at first sight, astonishing that women who call them feminists can make common cause with religious conservatives and populist politicians, common cause with people who seek to attack women’s demands for bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. But then few things that radical feminists do surprise me anymore.
And what about the transmen happily using the Gents? Are they to be forced to use the ladies? They will not be put in danger by this is the way that transwomen being forced to use the gents will, but will women be necessarily happy to share a bathroom with someone with male characteristics, a deep voice, possibly a beard, their body bulked up by years of taking testosterone?
However this policy shift is framed, it should be clear that trans rights are the thin end of the wedge. If existing gains for transpeople can be reversed so easily by populist governments, (and Hungary is the most egregious example, the stripping of trans rights the work of a man who also thinks that Hungarian women should be having more babies) , so can gains for women and gains for the rest of the LGBT+ community. I well remember Margaret Thatcher’s chilling speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1987 when she told delegates that there was “no inalienable right to be gay.” Section 28 became law the following year. If we don’t want to go back to those dark days we need to fight now, all of us together. Fight for your trans brothers and sisters, as they have fought for you.