Siân Berry on transphobia in the Green Party: ‘We have a problem to solve’
Exclusive: Days after quitting as co-leader, Berry talks to openDemocracy about the rifts in her party and the need to be ‘actively anti-transphobic’
“I’ve been really stuck for the past month,” Siân Berry told me from her flat in Tufnell Park, north London.
In May, the Green Party co-leader campaigned to be mayor of London on the promise of making the city the most trans-inclusive on earth. But this month, she was unable to stop someone who has called for the restriction of trans rights being appointed as a spokesperson for her own party.
And so, on Wednesday, she announced she would be standing down as co-leader.
“I’m really, really sad to be doing this,” she told openDemocracy. “It makes me really sad that we’ve reached a point where I’ve got this issue of conscience.
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“I’ve always spent all of my leadership speaking about the principle of intersectional solidarity, making sure that we all stand up for each other, and so it’s just really important to me that trans rights are stood up for.”
And, she says, to have someone appointed who is part of “organised campaigning within the Green Party to reduce our commitment to trans rights, I don’t think is compatible with what I promised to Londoners, and with the party’s policies in general, and the party's values.
“In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t honestly stand by my opinion and beliefs, and stand behind a decision to promote people who are part of that campaigning.
“My conscience cannot agree that we shouldn’t be putting forward a united front on this really, really important issue of our time.”
‘A moral test’
For Berry, standing up against the ongoing moral panic about trans rights is “a moral test for how we behave towards all minorities, how we stand up for this particularly demonised minority. It seems really obvious to me what side of that to stand on.”
Those campaigning against trans rights are, she says, “picking on and singling out a very small minority group who are vulnerable and demonisable and doing that in a way that is so unfair to my mind.
“It’s just so important that we stand up for everyone who’s being demonised and picked on at the moment. And trans people are getting the absolute worst of it, and it’s so toxic.”
“You’ve seen some of the reaction online to my statement,” she says, referring to her resignation announcement on Wednesday, in which she spoke of her commitment to trans rights. “I know that trans people are getting that every day. It’s awful to see, and it’s not the way the world should be going.”
Trans-exclusionary politics isn’t unique to the Greens, and has flared up in all of the UK’s progressive parties in recent years, a phenomenon that Berry says she finds “baffling”.
As recently as 2016, she says, her work in the London Assembly on trans and nonbinary issues was a “tidying-up exercise”, ensuring things like “more trans-inclusive language on the Tube”.
“The arc of progress was clear, we just had to go a few more steps along the way.” But since then, she says, “everything has changed”, adding: “There’s a huge attack that goes on every step of the way.”
Giving the example of toilets, she says “trans women have been using women’s loos forever. There have always been trans women.”
Berry says this sudden backlash, particularly among progressive parties, “genuinely confuses me”.
“In Hungary, you’re looking at the rolling back of abortion rights alongside the persecution of trans people. Those things go together. And yet we have people campaigning to change the policies of Left parties.”
“We have to fight it,” she adds.
Green Party can’t always be positive
But while this issue has also affected Labour and the Scottish National Party, Berry does highlight what she sees as a particular problem with Green Party culture when it comes into contact with such attitudes.
“The instinct of the Green Party is often to simply be positive as much as possible,” she says. And while, often, that’s a good thing, “when things are wrong, we have to be against them […] And that involves being negative,” she says.
“We have no problem being negative against road-building. We have no problem being negative against racism. And so we should be the same with people who are campaigning to roll back rights, and to demonise and stereotype. And trying to turn society against trans people. It just seems so obvious to me.”
For Berry, it’s not just about not being transphobic. Actively “being anti-transphobic is important to me. We actively have to reject this.”
A personal commitment
Berry grew up in Cheltenham and attended the local grammar school, where both her parents worked as teachers, before graduating from Oxford University with a degree in metallurgy and materials science. She joined the Green Party in her late twenties, becoming one of two ‘principal speakers’ in 2007, the equivalent post to what’s now called ‘leader’. She was the party’s candidate for London mayor in 2008, 2016 and 2021, being elected to the London Assembly in 2016 and as co-leader of the party, with Jonathan Bartley, in 2018.
Earlier this month, Bartley announced he was standing down as co-leader, triggering a by-election. Berry is now set to follow suit. Speaking to openDemocracy, Bartley says he shares Berry’s concerns about attacks on trans rights, while deputy leader Amelia Womack said she welcomed Berry’s “principled stand on an important issue” and said “we need to tackle transphobia head on”.
As a member of the London Assembly, Berry’s work often focuses on housing, where she has encountered directly the consequences of the vilification of trans people. “Trans young people have more problems with homelessness because of things like family breakdown,” she says.
And, as co-leader, she also feels a strong obligation to the “tremendous number of really fantastic trans and nonbinary members” of the party, who she says are feeling increasingly alienated.
“There have been a couple of conferences where there have been motions put to roll back our policies on trans rights,” Berry explained. “During [and] after those conferences, you’ve found that those people have been genuinely upset. And you get into dialogue with those people. And you get a real impression of how badly it affects people who are trans or nonbinary to find themselves in a Green Party meeting where genuinely non-inclusive things are said about gender, that are obviously offensive.”
“People have the ability,” she says, “to put forward different positions, which some people might find objectionable. But if you’re putting forward ideas that really might have such an impact on somebody, you have a duty to do that carefully and not wilfully cause offence.”
Some comments made during the recent online conferences, she said, fell short of that mark. “People get in touch with us as leaders and tell us what impact that’s had.”
What’s this all about?
Berry doesn’t name names. But for those of us who have been kicking around the party for a while, it’s no secret who she’s talking about.
The controversy began with the party’s former deputy leader, Shahrar Ali, the most prominent member of a faction organising within the Greens to push the party away from its current stance of supporting an expansion of trans rights.
In July last year, Ali ran for leader, explicitly pitching himself to members on that platform. A statement he published at the time, entitled ‘What is a woman?’, defined a woman as “an adult human female [...] genetically typified by two XX chromosomes”, and said that women’s rights should be protected “on the basis of the protected characteristic of biological sex” – an explicit challenge to the fact that trans women are women.
The statement added that “gender reassignment is also a protected characteristic and we will fight for the rights of trans people according to their assigned gender, too”. Some criticised this qualification because of a perceived implication that trans people’s rights depend on their recognition by the state, which can be hard to secure, rather than their own identity.
At a party conference this spring, he proposed a motion arguing that the trans healthcare company GenderGP should be prohibited from working in the UK, a move that, according to a motion censuring Ali presented to the Young Greens this weekend, would “create an additional barrier to trans people who need to access services that provide gender affirming therapy”.
As well as facing accusations of transphobia, Ali has been criticised for what many in the party see as homophobia. In January this year, he posted on Twitter, criticising a tweet from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) profiling a medic wearing badges saying he used male pronouns and was gay.
The CQC, Ali tweeted, “would be advised to follow up with clarification they are not advocating for clinicians & care workers to advertise their sexuality in patient settings”.
In a separate tweet, he continued: “Advertising sexuality to patients – as per badges – in [a] clinical or care environment is unprofessional and inappropriate.”
Among a hail of responses from LGBT and Green activists came one from Rosie Sexton, a clinician and Green councillor in Solihull. “Making LGBTIQA+ people feel they need to hide these important aspects of their lives at work is queerphobic,” she said.
Speaking to openDemocracy, another prominent member of the Green Party described the statement as “an attempt to push LGBT people back into the closet”.
Shahrar Ali denies holding homophobic or transphobic beliefs.
Process, process, process
Berry is scrupulously careful not to name colleagues, but there’s an obvious tension behind the scenes. After all, if Ali was already a controversial figure in the party, how was he promoted to the role of party spokesperson for policing and domestic safety against the will of the party’s leadership?
The answer is that it’s not the leader who decides these positions, but the party’s executive committee. And the person who seems to have taken a lead is the external communications coordinator, former Green MEP Molly Scott Cato.
openDemocracy understands it was Scott Cato who offered Ali the spokesperson role, despite objections from the leaders’ office. When asked if she was aware of the allegations against Ali before she offered him the position, she told openDemocracy she was busy with important family matters this week and not commenting.
One prominent party member said Scott Cato seemed to have been blind to Ali’s faults because of their friendship.
Scott Cato herself has spoken in favour of expanding trans rights.
Berry’s resignation has been controversial among party members, she says. “Some might think that the job of the Green Party leadership is to only prevent the boat from being rocked, to shield the party from bad publicity.”
However, she says that a publication on a very different matter helped sway her. As a London Assembly member, she read the recent report into the Metropolitan Police’s cover-up of events surrounding the murder of Daniel Morgan. One conclusion of the inquiry was summarised by Berry as “institutional defensiveness is a form of institutional corruption”.
If Berry was going to accept that argument about the Met police, she had to accept it is true about her party too.
“It’s important that we acknowledge that we have a problem to solve,” she says. “It is there, and we have to decide how we’re going to deal with it. It’s a question of our time, and it would be wrong for me to join in with just covering this up.”
For Berry, there’s an important lesson in all of this for Green members. “Leaders have one vote on the executive. There are many other people on the executive who have exactly the same amount of power as the leaders.
“So it’s really important, I think, that members pay as much attention to the executive as they do the leadership.”
In the coming round of elections, she says, it won’t just be the job of leader or co-leader that’s up for grabs, but numerous seats on the party’s executive.
And, she argues, it’s vital that members ask some key questions of candidates.
“Do we still support solidarity? Are we a party that’s going to be actively anti-transphobic, or merely not transphobic, because those are two different things.
“It is also the leaders’ duty to lead. It’s our job to try to win these arguments, to be the advocate for making decisions you can stand by.”
Failing to ensure the party’s ‘front bench’ has a clear and united position on the issue is, therefore, Berry says “me failing at my job. And so this is me holding myself to account for that.”
Berry will continue to be a Green member of the London Assembly. “I’m in politics to change things,” she says. And she has no plans to stop doing that.
Adam Ramsay is a member of the Green Party and has collaborated with Siân Berry in various ways over the years.
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