On both sides of the Atlantic, last week marked a step backwards in trans rights. The Trump administration has moved to allow healthcare providers the choice to deny certain medical procedures to transgender people. Meanwhile, in the UK, a series of provisions allowing transgender people to more easily legally change their gender have been dropped in favour of additional rhetoric defending ‘safe spaces’ for ciswomen.
In the US, this represents a continuing attempt by the administration to use trans rights as the latest battlefield in a culture war. From healthcare to the military, Trump is intervening against trans people in industries and institutions that conservatives are already likely to have strong feelings about. It represents, in my view, an attempt to help bring supporters of the military and private health insurance into Trump’s base of more cultural conservatives.
In the UK, meanwhile, this is a much earlier foray into this particular culture war. So far in Johnson’s administration, traditional social issues such as gender equality and LGBT rights have played second fiddle to immigration and Brexit. As these issues become less powerful for the Conservatives – they have declared Brexit complete and Labour have backed off the issue almost entirely, heavily reducing its political potency – they are clearly searching for new issues that can be used to unite the electorate following the 2019 General Election.
Whilst the political motivation for these two moves might be similar – a populist play for working class voters in left-behind regions – the context is very different. In the Trump administration, we see a clearly anti-LGBT party. The Republicans have an important base in the religious right. Whilst Trump himself has never displayed much in religious fervour, his Vice-President and his first pick for the Supreme Court are overtly anti-LGBT.
Trump seems to try to balance the traditional economically liberal voters for the Republican party with white non-college educated voters in rural states through effective use of ‘wedge’ social issues. Though the Republican party has traditionally been pro-trade, Trump was able to attract voters in 2016 through a populist anti-China message by uniting these new voters and the traditional base through immigration, abortion, and other social issues. As LGBT rights have become more normalised in the US, with an enormous turnaround in support for gay marriage, for example, the American right has turned its attention to trans rights instead.
In the UK, meanwhile, previous Conservative Prime Ministers such as David Cameron were fairly progressive on social issues. Same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales in 2013, following a similar transformation of public opinion, under a Conservative Prime Minister (albeit mostly with Labour and Lib-Dem votes). The Coalition government in particular emphasised a liberal conservatism, veering from the ‘nasty party’ label the Conservatives had suffered under for decades.
However, with Brexit fading in salience, this removal of transgender rights seems more like the Conservative Party testing the waters. This government has effectively used law and order as a compelling issue for its electoral success and is now seeking to expand to other social issues. It is, however, a politically dangerous game. Most Britons acknowledge transgender discrimination, and many support expansion of transgender or non-gender binary rights. Even fairly basic moves are often viewed as ‘too far,’ however, almost twice as many respondents in a YouGov survey opposed allowing people to list a third option on their passport for people who don’t identify as fully male or female.
It seems the Conservatives are seeking to establish, therefore, whether attacks on trans rights can further their political goals. In their ideal situation, transgender rights will be associated with other liberal ideas such as non-traditional family structures, and high levels of immigration. The Conservatives would then be able to position themselves as the ‘defenders of British values.’ Furthermore, since Conservative voters in 2019 skewed older than the general population, they are more likely to be sceptical of transgender rights and other socially progressive movements. Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, has spoken about ‘protecting female-only spaces’ also suggesting that the Conservatives will seek to position trans rights as anti-ciswomen.
For those in favour of trans rights, it’s important to be aware of this. If trans rights become a plank in a broader culture war, trans people will suffer. Regardless of the eventual outcome, anti-trans hate crimes will doubtlessly go up, and polarise views. As a result, we must avoid framing the debate as a trade-off between the rights of trans and ciswomen. The left must seek to reframe it as one of freedom versus autocracy and humanise the victims of our present laws. The non-transphobic right, meanwhile, must seek to find common ground with the left, and the left must work with them. Labour and Conservative politicians must work cross-party on this issue to ensure that LGBT rights don’t once again fall into the realm of party politics.
Culture wars rely on false trade-offs: immigration with jobs, gay marriage with straight marriage, or, in this case, the rights of trans and cis-people. By preventing the installation of this narrative, a culture war on trans rights can yet be avoided in the UK and disarmed in the US.
Image: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash