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How can trade unions show solidarity with the trans community in the face of the far right attacks?

This is a transcript of a speech given by Chay Brown, TransActual’s Director of Operations, at the 2023 TUC LGBT+ Conference. Please note that this is what Chay planned to say, and would have said had he not got side tracked!

This is a transcript of a speech given by Chay Brown, TransActual’s Director of Operations, at the 2023 TUC LGBT+ Conference. Please note that this is what Chay planned to say, and would have said had he not got side tracked! We have corrected one factual inaccuracy in relation to the gender of a person referred to in the speech. Chay apologises for any upset that might have been caused by that original inaccuracy.

I have been really encouraged to hear so many people talking about the role of the far right in anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ activism. There are trans activists that have been talking about this for years. So before I start, I want to just give credit to Trans Safety Network. A grass roots organisation who have been working to highlight the links between the far right and the anti-trans lobby for years. Particular credit to Jess, who bravely reported from the violent far-right demo outside The Honour Oak Pub last week.

So, when I was thinking about this question, it was quite hard to know where to start. But an obvious place to start is to encourage all trade unions to be active in the TUC Trade Unions for Trans Rights Alliance. And then from there?

Remember that discussions about the attacks on trans people should not be limited to discussions between LGBTQI+ members. These attacks are everyone’s business and impact all of us. Trade unions can help members understand this and mobilise them to take action.

At the National Conservative Conference, which provided a platform for transphobia (including from at least one member of the Government), also provided a platform for other anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, racism and anti-semitism. This was attended by Government ministers, and the Prime Minister made a statement to indicate that he supported their attendance at this conference.

These MPs are the same ones that repeat transphobic rhetoric, spread misinformation and are contributing to the creation of the political and social environment that we find ourselves in now. The social environment that has empowered far right groups targeting Drag Queen Story Time. These attacks and this rhetoric have come alongside articles with headlines like “Jewish billionaires who are bankrolling Drag Queen Story Hour for your children”.

A recent report found that Drag Queen Story Time was targeted by the far right 57 times in the space of a single year. This is the same far right that target migrants, people of colour, Jewish people and Muslim people. And in fact, anyone who disagrees with them.

It’s not just Tory MPs. The Labour MP that initiated the transphobic abuse of a TUC member of staff is yet to be reprimanded. The Trade Union movement needs to hold the Labour Party to account too.

Trade unions need to help members see through the media narratives. It’s well documented that the mainstream British media is transphobic. Classic example: I was meant to go on Good Morning Britain a few months back. They wanted me on to talk about waiting times for transition related care and the reasons so many people are crowdfunding for private care. The day before the interview they told me that I’d be in the studio with a doctor who is known for his anti-trans activism. To provide balance. I don’t think they’d have done that if I was going on talking about waiting times for hip replacement.

The media frames trans people in a similar way to the way they frame Black men and Muslim men, refugees, and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community – as a threat to others, and especially to children and cis women. The far right take this and frame it as a direct ‘threat’ to the future of the nation, fuelling their Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

These media narratives have fed into far-right discourses and have been fed by the far-right rhetoric and activity. The far-right use transphobic media coverage to radicalise and mobilise their supporters. Social media fuels that spread with algorithms driving people further and further down the rabbit hole. Education staff are increasingly reporting young people parroting the views of Andrew Tate and echoing far right narrative. Do your members want their children being fed a diet of far right rhetoric?

The media keep running these stories, in part, because they’re still getting clicks, they’re still getting advertisers and they’re still selling papers. Think of all the Trade Union members in the UK. Imagine if every union member stopped reading papers that repeated transphobic rhetoric. Imagine if our unionised workplaces stopped advertising in those papers. The Trade Union movement could play a huge role in giving the media a loud and clear message – your transphobia is not welcome here.

Unions can encourage all of their members need to step up as allies and speak out against transphobia when they see it. Whether it’s press transphobia, whether it’s within their trade union, in your workplace, or in their community. UNISON have been doing some great work here, rolling out a programme of Trans Allies Training across their regions. It would be great to see every trade union following suit. And I’m not just saying that before I’m a UNISON member.

Unions can help their members see the bigger picture and help them to understand that this anti-trans rhetoric is not only about trans people. These anti-trans activists are mobilising around trans rights as a way in to attacking other rights and protections. So, unions can help members to understand that transphobic rhetoric is being used as a vehicle to attack bodily autonomy, Gillick Competence, and the autonomy of disabled people. Amongst other things.

It’s no coincidence that the lawyer in the case against the Gender Identity Development Service has also been involved in a number of anti-abortion cases. We’ve recently heard about the case of a man taking a legal case in an attempt to prevent his adult daughter from accessing transition related surgery. His argument is that she can’t consent because she’s autistic. I’d say that the ableism is thinly veiled, but it’s not even veiled.

The money funding the anti-trans movement (and we’re talking billions of pounds here) is coming from the far right and from Christian religious extremists. If we look to the states for the moment, which is where a lot of this money is coming from, Alliance Defending Freedom has been central to efforts in the US to limit women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. For example, they were behind the legal case that eventually resulted in the roll back of Roe v Wade.

It would be great to see trade unions speak out against all of this, but also about how this rhetoric is used by the UK’s politicians. Someone asked me the other day if I knew when the DfE’s draft guidance on trans pupils in school is coming out. My response: The next time there’s news the Government want to bury. I wasn’t joking. So the unions should speak out against transphobic rhetoric from MPs, but also highlight whatever it is they were trying to bury that week. Don’t let their distraction tactics work.

There’s a general election coming. In February 2023, the Conservative Party’s Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson told us what a lot of us had been known for some time – the Conservative Party are leaning into the so called culture wars as an election campaigning strategy. Don’t let them. Call it out. And the Conservative Party are not the only party harbouring and perpetuating transphobic rhetoric. Unless a political party is calling out transphobia for what it is, they’re enabling it. Trade unions and trade union members need to hold all politicians to account on this. Help them to understand that trans people are human beings and this weaponizing of our lives cannot be allowed to continue.

So let’s think some more about what trade unions can do. Listen. Don’t let your trade union be a safe haven for transphobia. Listen to trans people when they tell you what transphobia is. Address it every time.

Don’t do what one trade union did when a member complained about transphobia – they told the member that they hadn’t been punched in the face or called a tranny, so therefore the person targeting them with transphobic harassment couldn’t possibly be transphobic. And by the way, one of that member’s witnesses in his disciplinary hearing then went out to leak confidential statements from the proceedings to the right wing press.

Listen to what your trans members want and be led by them. For goodness’ sake – if they’ve said they don’t want it, then accept it. A good way to hear from your trans members is to create spaces for trans people. And this could be for work organising for trans liberation, but also we need spaces for joy and healing too. Because gosh aren’t we hurting.

When you’re kicked and kicked and kicked over again, the bruises start to take their toll. This transphobic environment in which we live is taking a huge toll on trans people. On our mental health and our physical health. So be there for your trans colleagues, fellow activists and for your friends and family. Organise in your workplace to ensure that trans colleagues are treated with understanding by your employer.

On a personal level, check in with your trans colleagues, friends and family members. But be mindful of how you’re checking in. Sending a newspaper article about the latest transphobic incident is not helpful. Letting people know you’re there to listen can go a long way.

And regardless of whether you knowingly have a trans colleague or not, be a visible in your allyship. We’re not talking performative allyship here. If echo transphobic rhetoric one week and plan on turning up at Trans Pride the next, don’t bother. Live and breathe your allyship.

Live and breathe your allyship and show trans people that the majority of people support us. It’s great to hear there will be a huge trade union block at Trans Pride London. I hear that the NEU’s trans and non-binary network, caveat I am also an NEU member – what can I say I love a union – , have mobilised a huge number of members to unite and march behind the NEU Trans and Non-binary Educators Network banner. A big trade union presence sends an important message to trans people, it shows that trade unions are here for us.

So. Show up. Speak up. And for goodness’ sake, listen to trans people and find a way to get our voices heard.