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‘Workers, renters and queers, it’s time to build a mass movement’

Accusing the Tory government of violence, LGBTIQ+ protesters gathered to defend Scottish gender reforms

Lou Ferreira 2022.jpg
Lou Ferreira
19 January 2023, 5.28pm

Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s time to build a mass movement, joining workers’ and tenants’ rights with our movements for queer and trans liberation, said activist Alice Martin, addressing a crowd of trans people and allies outside Downing Street on Wednesday 18 January.

Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered to march through central London in protest against Westminster’s decision to block Scottish gender reforms.

“With the NHS in the worst crisis of its history, and with working people finding their voice for the first time in generations, we see the same old playbook: sow division and inspire fear,” Martin said, explaining that the government cannot be relied on to bring about the changes the UK needs.

She continued: “Brothers, sisters, siblings, it’s time to join your trade union, your tenants’ union and build power independently.”

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The emergency rally had been announced by London Trans Pride the day before, after the Conservative Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, made an unprecedented Section 35 order under the Scotland Act 1998 to block Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill from becoming law.

The bill, which passed its final reading in the Scottish Parliament on 22 December with an overwhelming majority of 86 to 39 votes, includes long-awaited reforms to ensure the process for obtaining a gender recognition certificate is simpler and less invasive. It removes the need for a medical diagnosis, reduces mandatory waiting periods and lowers the applicant age limit from 18 to 16.

London Trans Pride called for the demo to protest the “overreach and abuse of power” by the Tory government, and “show solidarity for Scotland’s independence and autonomy as it leads the fight for gender reform”.

The Scottish ruling was “a huge moment” for the UK’s trans community, organisers said. Westminster’s decision to block the reforms has “created an all-out double-barrelled attack on trans people” and Scotland’s democracy, and prove “there are few lengths – even legal ones – our own government will not stoop to, to disavow and disrespect trans lives”.

A political decision

Westminster has claimed the bill would impact the use of single-sex spaces under the Equality Act 2010, citing concerns for the safety of cisgender women and arguing that cisgender men might make “fraudulent applications” to obtain a gender recognition certificate “with malicious intent”.

But LGBTIQ+ organisations, legal experts and politicians from all political parties have been clear that the Scottish reforms will not impact equalities legislation. A gender recognition certificate allows trans people to update their birth certificates and other official documents, such as marriage or civil partnership certificates. It is not a requirement to access single-sex spaces, or to qualify for protections under the Equality Act.

“Whose ‘legitimate’ concerns are these?” Martin asked the crowd. “The majority of the British or Scottish public who welcome GRA reform? I think not.”

She went on to condemn the “radicalised right-wing” and “commentators like the LGB Alliance” who “spread lies and misinformation on the daily”, as well as the mainstream press and politicians who treat these lies “like gospel” despite evidence and advice to the contrary by the UN, “countless academics” and the majority of UK women’s services and crisis centres.

In 2017, following a review of international best practices, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended that processses to obtain gender recognition should not entail “abusive requirements, such as medical certification”, but should be simple, cost-free and based on self-determination. The rapporteur also said these processes should be accessible to minors, and include non-binary identities. More than 30 countries already allow gender recognition by self-determination, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland and most of the US.

“No trans person has ever needed a Gender Recognition Certificate to be able to access the services that they need, and that will remain the case with this legislation,” the LGBT+ Consortium said in a statement: “To misunderstand what this new legislation would achieve is egregious and simply a mechanism for political point scoring.”

“Every LGBT+ person, every ally, wants every trans person to be able to live their life in safety as their true self. Just as we want every woman to be safe and free from abuse and discrimination. We do not believe that these two things are in conflict, or ever have been.”

After the announcement, queer people and allies took to social media to ask: “When was the last time you had to show a birth certificate to enter a bathroom, a changing room or a single-sex space?”

“Trans people have never needed gender recognition to be protected by the Equality Act,” TransActual explained: “All this intervention will achieve is a large and unnecessary cost to the taxpayer.”

‘It’s bigotry’

Labour MP Nadia Whittome, who was also at the demo, said the government’s decision to block the Bill was “absolutely appalling”. “It’s not legal concerns that are behind this order; it’s bigotry,” she told protesters. “The trans community is not collateral damage.”

Whittome attended the protest alongside MPs from LGBTQ+ Labour, including Kate Osborne. “As a member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, I have heard from several witnesses including academics, legal experts, LGBTQ+ and transgender organisations, women’s rights groups, [and] health organisations,” Obsorne said in a statement.“It was clear from this evidence that the [Gender Recognition Act] needs reforming.”

Westminster’s decision to block these reforms was “not made in order to protect women”, she continued. “If the Tories really cared about women, they would tackle the gender health gap, deal with the poor conviction rates for people who have committed violence against women and tackle the gender pay gap. Instead millions of women are living in poverty.”

In a press conference held before the announcement on 16 January, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon clarified that the bill would not affect the Equality Act, and “was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Scottish Parliament after very lengthy and very intense scrutiny by Scottish MSPs of all parties represented in the Parliament.”

Any move to block the Bill would be “a political decision… using trans people, already one of the most vulnerable, stigmatised groups in our society, as a political weapon,” Sturgeon continued: This would be “unconsciounable and indefensible and really quite disgraceful”.

‘We won’t back down’

Addressing the crowd, Martin also condemned the Labour Party, which, she said, “continue to obfuscate and avoid showing even a morsel of courage, to even whisper in support for our rights”.

She added: “It brings me so much shame that we once again have to protest against the politicisation, weaponisation and demonisation of trans bodies. Once again, we are left to fight for bodily autonomy, alone and without support… We will not back down.”

We can win workers’ rights, gender recognition for non-binary people and critical reforms of NHS gender care, Martin said. “By coming together as trans and queer people, as human beings and as workers, we will win the day.”

Following speeches by LGBTQ+ advocates and MPs, protesters began to march, travelling south along Whitehall toward the Big Ben before crossing Westminster Bridge. For over an hour, and covering several kilometres, they waved banners and shouted for “trans liberation”, looping behind Waterloo Station and along Stamford Street, before crossing the river once more by Blackfriars.

“How much longer will we have to do this?” one protester asked. “The Tory government is so violent, it’s hard to keep this up. But I come to these demos and, once I’m here, I look around and all I can think is how beautiful we are. I see us showing up to fight for each other again and again, and I know we’ll be out here as long as it takes.”

Another protester told openDemocracy, “I’ll remember tonight for a very long time, because I needed it… the sound of our chants booming in the underpass” south of Westminster Bridge. “All of us chanting and showing that ‘This is what democracy looks like’.”

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