Keir Starmer pictured at a Labour leadership contest hustings in Bristol.PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

They say a culture war is raging, with the media evoking familiar motifs of polarisation and division, but all this seems to mean is that the right spearhead attacks on marginalised groups while the left takes up a position of quiet complicity. Conservative ministers have decided to aggressively strip back LGBTQ+ rights – human rights. And, instead of standing unequivocally against this, a Labour Party that’s pivoted to the right appears to have abandoned the queer community in the middle of Pride month. This pattern is a disturbing, yet all too familiar, one.

To illustrate this, let’s travel back to the late 1980s. Neil Kinnock is Labour leader. Today, the abolition of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – a clause which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities and schools – is often cited as one of New Labour’s proudest achievements in government. But Labour’s centrists tended to be less vocal about where they stood while it was being passed.

Though several backbenchers, including Tony Benn and the now-Pembroke Master Chris Smith, spoke in Parliament vociferously against the introduction of Section 28, and the party membership voted overwhelmingly in favour of gay liberation policies three separate times, the Labour leadership itself refused to oppose the clause.

“As Keir Starmer dithers, many fear we might be about to see Labour’s history of retreating from open defence of LGBTQ+ rights repeating itself.”

In fact, they seemed to want to sweep the issue of fundamental rights under the rug: in a letter to an MP sent in 1987, Kinnock’s press secretary – and later Blair’s health secretary – Patricia Hewitt wrote: “The ‘Loony Labour Left’ is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst pensioners.”

While years of heroic campaigning has shifted the sphere of debate to the point where explicit homophobia from politicians is less acceptable, the levels of violent and legislative transphobia in modern Britain are shameful. But even in this climate, Liz Truss is planning to scrap reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act that would have allowed easier self-determination. As Keir Starmer dithers, many fear we might be about to see Labour’s history of retreating from open defence of LGBTQ+ rights repeating itself.

The rhetorical and legal discrimination that Boris Johnson’s government are using against trans people is horrendous and immensely dangerous. To receive a Gender Recognition Certificate requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria – still legally a mental illness – from two separate doctors or psychologists and proof that you’ve “lived in the acquired gender throughout [a] period of two years,” to be submitted to a Gender Recognition Panel, a legal tribunal made up of doctors, psychologists and lawyers. There is no provision for non-binary people. The Equalities Minister’s response to this dehumanising legal process is to double down on the discrimination.

The government’s own consultation showed that the vast majority of the public support the very reforms that they’ve decided to scrap. Public opinion should never determine basic rights, but it does prove that the ambiguous yet incessant justification of ‘electability’ cannot be invoked to justify Labour opposing rights on this occasion. So what has Labour’s new man – the same Keir Starmer who wrote while campaigning for leader that “we need to reform the GRA to include self-identification and legal recognition of non-binary gender identities”– said about it?

“Coupled with a recent report that he’s planning on ‘standing back’ from defending trans rights, the familiar dogwhistles are all there.”

The answer is: very little. On the 27th June Starmer tweeted a video in which he claims to be “proud to be an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and to lead a Labour Party which has consistently advanced the cause of civil rights”. Pretty rhetoric, sure. But he said absolutely nothing about the scrapped GRA reform, evidently the most urgent threat facing trans and non-binary people today.

On 29th June, he was asked to address the topic on the Today programme, and said that “there’s a way forward here if everybody is prepared to stop chucking bricks at each other.” While it’s welcome to hear Starmer say later that the trans community need more protection, that he framed this through a comment on the nature of the debate – a kind of both-sides rhetoric that equates trans activists with bigots – demonstrates a reluctance to set himself explicitly on the side of trans rights.

A spokesperson for Starmer recently told PinkNews: “we want to work with all sides of the debate […] This is a nuanced debate, which has to be considered carefully.” Coupled with a recent report that he’s planning on “standing back” from defending trans rights, the familiar dogwhistles are all there. “Nuanced debate” is exactly the frame that right-wing commentators and newspapers have been using to make transphobia respectable, to turn bigotry into an “opinion”.

Starmer’s spokesperson stated that the leadership are waiting until the details of Johnson’s changes to the GRA are officially published to speak up. It is telling that the current Liberal Democrat and Green leaders didn’t think that the lack of legal details was a reason not to personally assert the basic truth that trans rights are human rights.

We’re only a few months into Starmer’s leadership, and he still has time to prove himself a good leader, not one who runs from defending the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community — some of the most vulnerable people in modern Britain. But so far, the signals don’t look good. He’s right that trans rights shouldn’t be made into political football, but if he leaves the pitch he risks letting the Conservatives steamroll ahead with transphobic policy. And if he wants to see how abandoning the community to win votes will go, well, he can always ask Neil Kinnock.


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Legislative advances in LGBTQ+ rights in this country’s history have come from social movements eventually being endorsed and brought into parliament by progressive politicians: Leo Abse and Roy Jenkins decriminalised homosexuality under Wilson; Blair’s government legalised adoption for same-sex couples; the Equal Marriage Act was drafted by Lynne Featherstone and most of the votes to pass it came from Labour MPs.

The Conservatives will never be the friends of the LGBTQ+ community. If Starmer’s Labour doesn’t stand up for trans and non-binary people, then they are without representation at the highest level of politics and his party is without integrity. Speak up, Sir Keir. History is watching.