recent EHRC leaks show how pervasive transphobia really is
transphobia is often treated like an opinion: “this man thinks that”, “that woman said this”. this is reflected in responses to individual people or organisations’ transphobic practices. but focusing on individual cases prevents us from seeing the concrete, systematic ways that transphobia affects our lives. movements for trans rights and liberation can’t succeed until we address the cultural roots of transphobia.
recent events have shown the equality and human rights commission (ehrc) is actively preventing the progress of uk trans rights. a series of leaks have revealed the ehrc consulting with trans hate groups, shelving long-awaited guidance for schools on supporting trans kids, and trying to restrict undocumented trans people’s access to single-sex spaces. its own recent public statements include discouraging gra reform in scotland and defending conversion therapies. this from an organisation whose mission statement is to “stand up for freedom, compassion and justice in our changing times.” overall, it’s not a good look for them.
thankfully, the response from lgbtqia+ organisations has been unambiguously combative. alongside a petition to the government signed by nearly 15,000 people, stonewall has submitted a request for the un to review the ehrc’s status as the national human rights institution for britain. together, these form a campaign to argue the ehrc is ‘no longer fit for purpose.’
this argument hinges on the claim that the ehrc hasn’t maintained independence in its human rights work. this independence was undeniably breached when liz truss and other government officials interfered with its schools guidance. it was certainly compromised when the trans hate group lgb alliance were invited to consult on policy. but other than this, the ehrc doesn’t seem to be the ‘tool of government’ that some campaigners say.
in fact, ehrc policy around trans rights seems to emerge organically from within. leaked emails suggest its support of maya forstater’s right to “gender critical beliefs” was motivated by an internal interest in ‘free speech issues’ around ‘the trans debate.’ similarly, ehrc staff have said its guidance on single-sex spaces was initiated by the director herself. even its private invitation to the lgb alliance expresses the desire to ‘get a balanced picture’ around trans rights, a desire we have to assume is genuine.
so it seems that, rather than being a ‘mouthpiece of the uk government,’ the ehrc is quite independently supporting transphobia. both the commission and government are quite sincerely and authentically invested in withholding the rights of trans people. if there seems to be an issue of interference, it’s exactly because of how closely their politics align on trans issues.
it’s the same politics that motivates left wing papers like the guardian to publicly defend the ehrc. it recently prompted the labour party’s attempt to deny the reality of british transphobia on the international stage. baronness faulkner, head of the ehrc, is herself an active and committed member of the liberal democrats. across the political spectrum, there’s a consensus on trans issues. the council of europe recently condemned the ‘extensive and often virulent attacks’ that this consensus enables. so if the ehrc has become a mouthpiece for anything, it’s the politics of transphobia that pervades british culture.
the pervasive nature of transphobia means that no one can truly be independent of it. it flows in and out of us, and around us, a thick gloopy thing through which we all move with different levels of ease. arguing the ehrc is failing in its duty of independence implies that somewhere in here there’s a neutral position, an objective viewpoint. but we are no more objective of transphobia than fish are of water. it shapes how we understand and relate to each other, informs our actions and gives them meaning, and holds us as we transition through stages of our life.
british trans activism has a strong history of institutional struggle, fighting in and against political establishments for the few rights we have today. while this approach has achieved crucial victories, it hasn’t yet transformed the cultural base of transphobia. this base is resurging, fighting to reclaim the institutions it almost lost. our response can’t be to simply appeal to these institutions for more reasonable, open-minded treatment.
ideologically, we need a richer understanding of transphobia as a political system. right now we are stuck describing it as the (immoral) perspective of individual governments, organisations, or people. in this way we mistake the trees for the forest. we must connect the dots to see how transphobia shapes our reality.
a general account of transphobia would unite the experiences of all under the trans umbrella. it would help solidarity with those outside trans identity who nonetheless share our experiences. to achieve this, it should draw on a wide range of political theory, including queer, feminist, critical race, crip, and class theory. in particular, it must reflect on the colonial history of the gender binary, and the ways that transness currently participates in colonial projects of erasure.
similar theoretical work on white supremacy and patriarchy has fuelled huge growth in movements for racial and sexual justice. ultimately, we need a mass movement to fight for trans liberation. one that doesn’t limit itself to challenging individual institutions’ behaviour but draws on direct action, media campaigns, public demonstration, and other strategies. a movement connected with sex workers, migrants, the homeless, and all others who share in our struggle. a movement that doesn’t settle for rights within a system that is transphobic at its base, but one that fights for liberation from this system, and for the construction of new, more equitable ones.
the uk government wants to replace the human rights act with a new bill of rights. many human rights organisations are concerned it will weaken the safety of marginalised people. the government’s consultation on its plans is open until the 19th april. you can read a guide on it here, and submit your response to the consultation here.