Trans Rights at the WEP Conference

I spent the weekend at the Women’s Equality Party conference. There was lots of good feminist discussion and I made lots of lovely new friends. We debated a lot of policy issues, most notably adopting a motion calling for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, and specifically asking for an option to remain in the EU. If I get time I will do a separate post about other policies, but the discussion I know that most people will be interested in is the one that took place around trans rights.

Before I start I would like to note that WEP is one of the best places in which to have such a discussion, because issues of gender are central to so much of what WE do. Also WE are the only party dedicated to Equality. On the other hand, WE are also one of the most difficult places to discuss trans rights, because so many of our members became feminist activists because of their experience of male violence. Those experiences cannot be ignored.

That said, here’s what went down as I understand it.

Prior to Conference, some well meaning cis members submitted a motion on the Gender Recognition Act. It was very simple, calling for an end to medicalisation, recognition for non-binary genders, and an end to the Spousal Veto.

Once the motions were published, Sophie Walker was deluged with emails complaining about the motion. While many were from the usual suspects, many were from ordinary members who were concerned about what WE were up to.

Sophie has been on a bit of a journey herself over the past year. That has included getting booed at an anti-trans meeting, and discovering the lovely people at TELI. So she could see that many of the concerns were based not in bigotry, but in confusion. She wanted to reach out to those members and try to bring some clarity to the discussion.

In the meantime, another member had proposed an amendment to the motion. To the untrained eye it looked fairly inocuous, but I could see that if we passed that amendment we would immediately lose the confidence of the trans community and its allies. Indeed, had the amendment been adopted as policy it would have been impossible for me to remain a member of the party.

So we had a situation where Sophie didn’t want a vote on the main motion, and I didn’t want a vote on the amendment. Both of us could see that a lot of members would probably end up voting without fully understanding the issues. Sophie came up with the idea that World Science Fiction Society members will recognise as a version of Committee of the Whole. Instead of debating the motion, we would simply have a discussion around the issue, with no vote. Unfortunately Sophie chose to call this a “Special Debate”, which lead some trans people to assume that she was calling for a debate on whether trans women are women. In fact she was doing just the opposite: saving us from voting on an amendment that would have been taken as decision on whether trans women are women.

Sophie and I chatted by phone before conference, and I offered to speak in support of having Special Debates in case anyone on the pro-trans side wanted to try to force a vote. Inevitably someone did, though she wasn’t part of the group that brought the original motion. Thankfully the Special Motion was passed, so when we got to discussing the GRA there would be no vote.

But I am getting ahead of myself. That didn’t happen until Sunday morning. On Saturday a lot went on. In particular the folks from TELI gave a great talk on the Gender Recognition Act consultation. Claire McCann was amazing: very clear and very authoritative. There was little opportunity for discussion, though it did throw up one very interesting point that deserves its own blog post.

Meanwhile the anti-trans lobby was busy having meetings and distributing leaflets. There appeared to be around 15 or 20 of them, which is relatively small in a conference with over 700 attendees. There were apparently several different leaflets — someone clearly put a lot of money into trying to influence WEP policy on trans people — so I didn’t see them all, but the one I was given was, in my opinion, very misleading. However, the anti- side did refrain from using the obnoxious penis stickers, and although some leaflets were apparently stuck in toilets there were no razor blades.

The leaflets did make the event feel very unwelcoming to trans people, but I think this was more of an issue for our supporters than myself and the other two trans women at the venue. We all agreed that we had seen far worse.

Thankfully we were able to forget our differences for the evening and enjoy the wonderful comedy night that Sandi Toksvig had put together for us.

On Sunday morning, then, we got to actual policy debate. In supporting Sophie’s call for a Special Debate I made the following points:

  • I wanted all trans members full involved in any discussion, not just those who could afford to go to conference;
  • I felt that the amendment was too coded for us to vote on safely;
  • I was concerned that most members had obtained too much of their knowledge of trans issues from dishonest newspaper articles; and
  • I wanted us to have a proper, feminist discussion of the issue, not an adversarial debate that could only have winners and losers.

When it came to the actual Special Debate it turned out that huge numbers of people wanted to speak. All sorts of views were expressed. Some, inevitably, were very anti-trans. Others were wonderfully supportive. Chris Paouros has posted her introductory speech on her Facebook feed, but that may not be public so I’m not linking to it at this point. Stella Duffy has posted the speech she wrote here. As she notes, she didn’t get to give all of it.

I’d also like to thank the following:

  • Toni for giving her personal perspective as someone in the process of applying for a GRC;
  • Tabitha for talking about her work ending violence again women and girls, and how this was not impacted by being trans inclusive; and
  • Madeline for pointing out that women in prison are in far more danger from male staff than from trans women.

There were other pro-trans speeches as well, but I can’t remember all of them, or the names of the people who made them. Bea from Exeter wanted to make a speech explaining that the UK has obligations under international human rights law that the GRA changes are, in part, required to address. But she was helping chair the session so was unable to speak.

The opposition were mostly respectful, sometimes confused, and on a couple of occasions flat out wrong. The only thing that really got me angry was when a speaker appeared to accuse a well-known athlete who was assigned female at birth, and identifies as female, of being a male cheat. Sadly I was so angry that I didn’t manage to raise a point of order in time.

Sophie’s speech was not what I was hoping for, but I understand where she is coming from. Too many members have attempted to engage with the issue on social media, said something unfortunate, and been dismissed as a transphobe. Sophie doesn’t like this happening, but there are reasons why it does.

These days my PoC friends on Twitter spend a lot of time complaining about about being expected to do the intellectual and emotional labour of explaining their oppression to white people. The same sort of fatigue affects trans people. We get very tired of people saying, “couldn’t you just be happy as a gay man?” We are fed up of explaining that our being trans is not the fault of our parents, and that no amount of more or less strict parenting would have made a difference. It is exhausting, and people tend to snap.

I’m in a somewhat different position. I’m a professional. I get paid for explaining trans people to a sometimes clueless audience. I give my labour to WEP for free because I believe in the party, but I have experience of dealing with this stuff. Other trans people may have less skill and/or resiliance.

This is probably the point at which I should talk about some of the confusion around the issue, and why it is so dangerous.

One of the points that people kept making is that there are biological differences between trans women your average cis woman. On the face of it, that is entirely true, and one speaker emphasised the importance of recognising those differences so that trans people can get the correct medical treatment. The problem is that as soon as you conceed that point it gets spun into being radically anti-trans. The existence of some biological differences is taken as proof that trans women are not, and never can be, women. The spin then goes on to claim that this means trans women should be excluded from all women’s spaces, that gender reassignment should be removed from the Equality Act, and that the Gender Recognition Act should be repealed.

That’s the situation for trans women. For trans men and non-binary people it is in many ways worse. Non-binary people get told biology proves that they cannot exist, while trans men are told that they must identify and present as women in order to access vital gynaecological treatments.

Most people citing “biological differences” in the debate had no intention of taking things so far, but because others use the “biological differences” argument as an excuse to completely deny trans rights, any trans person seeing that phrase is liable to jump to conclusions.

And this is why we should not have the discussion on social media, or in a short, adversarial debate.

So where do we go from here? WEP has promised that it will consult the membership, and that trans members will be fully involved in the process. I’m looking forward to that happening. I’m happy to give my time and expertise to help make it work.

But I think we need to address the PR issue as well. Trans people are still afraid of WEP. That’s partly because so much of the harrassment they suffer comes from people who identify as “feminists”, partly because of unfortunate public statements by party members, and partly because of stirring by members of other political parties. Anti-trans people are doubtless concerned about the party too, but that’s not something I can address as those people won’t be open to an approach from me. What I can do is address the trans side.

So if you are a trans person and a feminist, and have the time and energy to get involved, please reach out to WEP. We need more voices than just mine. You don’t have the join the party. Indeed, you can become a Supporter while still a member of another party. WE are different like that. If you are nervous about approaching people you don’t know, come to me, and I will find a supportive person that you can talk to first.

As for WEP branches, please reach out to your local trans community. Let us know that you care. Many branches already have trans members who can help. I have contacts around the country. And if there’s really no one local then someone like myself, Carol Steel (who is a member) or Christine Burns (who isn’t, yet) would be happy to come and talk to you.

I’m going to close comments on this because what went on on social media last night made it clear how many trans haters there are out there. Most of you know how to get in touch with me should you need to.