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Opinion: ‘As London celebrated Pride, Labour still squabbled over trans rights’

Pride in London's defiant return after three years stands in stark contrast to Labour's continued equivocations on trans equality under Keir Starmer, writes Liam Barrett.

By Will Stroude

Words: Liam Barrett: Images: Mike Kear (left) and Wiki Commons

Amid the overwhelming sense of solidarity at Pride in London this weekend, a message from “renowned homosexual” Julian Clary is a moment that stood out. Addressing viewers of Joe Lycett’s Big Pride Party on Channel 4 on Sunday night (3 July), Clary paid tribute to “our trans brothers and sisters” who face abhorrent persecution on their quest for further visibility. Clary certainly speaks for most of us as we witness a vehicle being rammed through the LGBTQ+ acronym while the government plays political football. But it’s even more of a shame that the Labour Party avoids this issue and continues to bury its head in the sand.

Following recent reports that Starmer’s Labour is still in crisis mode when it comes to gender identity, it begs the question who in power really takes trans equality seriously? The Labour leadership has been mired in the battle over sex-based rights and gender since Starmer took office over two years ago. The Labour MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, has been a vocal critic of trans liberation and liked a tweet describing trans identity as “mostly heterosexuals cosplaying”. However, calls for the leadership to officially censure her left seemingly unheard. 

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A post shared by Pride in London (@prideinlondon)

Starmer takes two steps forward when he vows to fight trans persecution through the means of the law, but then slides backwards when grappling with loaded questions over whether women can have male genitalia. His whole frontbench scramble to define their stance on trans rights, but it was all the more disappointing to see out gay shadow health secretary Wes Streeting fall into the ‘war on woke’ trap left out by the hard-right Tories. In a recent interview he repeated the trope that “men have penises, women have vaginas”. This was a searing dismissal of his trans comrades, particularly when the LGBTQ+ community face an increase in hate crimes and abuse. Furthermore, the brilliant Guardian columnist Zoe Williams took umbrage at the party’s overall fence-sitting by stating that trans “suffering and exclusion doesn’t feature in the discourse at all”. 

The LGBTQ+ community has not overlooked Starmer’s refusal to sign a pledge put forward by the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights during the 2020 leadership race. Nor have we forgotten that it was his own party who to sought to override amendments at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that declared Britain is doing very little to combat rising hate crimes on its turf. Starmer seemingly fails to realise that LGBTQ+ voters have consistently backed Labour in recent elections, therefore his somewhat indifference to our cause is insulting. 

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A post shared by Keir Starmer (@keirstarmer)

His position marks a point of divergence from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader was steadfast in his support for trans Britons when he urged then-prime minister Theresa May to allow individuals to self-identify. Corbyn is a loyal friend to the LGBTQ+ movement and his voting record proves so. Prior to the Equality Act being implemented, Corbyn rebelled against Labour’s position in 1998 and was the sole party MP to vote for a Liberal Democrat amendment that hoped to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality. Starmer should seriously take notes from Corbyn when it comes to indisputable allyship towards certain groups.

The party’s job to criticise government reform and offer an alternative while in opposition was thrown into doubt when they remained silent on a recent policy manoeuvre. The government announced plans to mandate single-sex toilets in all new public buildings, causing a furore among trans campaigners. The Fair Play for Women campaign group hailed the reform because in their view women are “disadvantaged” in toilets where there’s a mix or urinals and cubicles. Most gender-neutral toilets I’ve come across have only cubicles, but meagre excuses by certain groups enables the denigration and exclusion of trans folk to continue

As over a million people attended London Pride over the weekend, marking a milestone in progression of LGBTQ+ rights, trans recognition is still under siege. The argument over sex-based rights has weaponised trans liberation as something to be afraid of. The Labour leadership seems unaware that the party has long stood in solidarity with queer rights, and therefore faces a grave reckoning if it continues to equivocate on trans equality. Clary summed up perfectly the dangers faced by trans people, but it’s time Labour treated the trans community with the respect and support it deserves.

Liam Barrett is a freelance politics and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter @LiamMBarett.