Current Affairs

Analysis: Who’s courting the trans vote?

Jane Fae April 16, 2010
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While politicians have been hastily courting the gay vote at this election, they overlook the trans community at their peril.

From initial low estimates, a report prepared for the Home Office last year suggests that the trans community in the UK could number 300,000 – of which around 59,000 include people who live, or want to live, permanently in the opposite sex they were born with.

The total number who are affected by this issue is even higher once one takes into account friends, relatives and partners.

When it comes to winning the transgender vote in the election, it’s a two-horse race between Lib Dems and Labour – with the Tories completely out of sight.

If you like Tory policy on defence or the economy, by all means cast a vote for them: but if you’re looking for a reason why a trans voter would do so, my opinion is that you have a long time waiting.

I asked the three major parties about their views on trans issues. The Lib Dems fielded equality spokeswoman Lynne Featherstone, while for Labour, equality minister Maria Eagle spoke to me.

The Tories referred me to an answer previously given, which was George Osbourne’s response to Peter Tatchell last week.

In the dialogue, Mr Osbourne first expressed surprise that gender dysphoria is currently treated as a mental illness and then gave a vague commitment to ending the postcode lottery on gender reassignment.

Subsequent exchanges with their press office suggest that the Tories see trans issues as mostly medical and disregard the societal problems trans people face.

Both my interviewees expressed a degree of disgust at Tory backbench barracking that took place during debate on the Equality Bill.

Ms Featherstone claimed to have heard Tories referring to trans people as “filthy perverts”.

First up, I wondered about how the parties defined transgender. There has been some criticism of the Equality Bill, which tends to limit legal recognition of trans people to the end of the re-assignment process. Full marks to both spokeswomen, who were well aware of this issue and expressed the view that transgender is about identity – and self-identity at that.

Ms Featherstone complained that civil servants – and the Attorney General – had tended to push protections to make gender reassignment the “protected characteristic” when the debate should be about identity. Ms Eagle accepted that.

Her counter-argument was that the Labour government had done more in ten years for the trans community than any previous government through the Equality Bill and the Gender Recognition Act – and that this was just the start of the process.

On the plus side, she thought the civil service were finally beginning to understand the issues a bit better.

So what were the key issues affecting trans men and women? Lynne Featherstone cited the way that official thinking is still “all or nothing”, with support provided for those who have transitioned – and very little before then. She also criticised the official view that emphasised the binary over those who, for various reasons, preferred to “stop part way”.

Both felt that the trans community have a hard time, coming in for more discrimination than other minorities. Ms Eagle commented that the “learning disabled and trans individuals tend to suffer more overt prejudice from the rest of society than other groups at present”.

Both, in slightly different ways, put this down to the fact that the trans community were less well organised, less coherent in their demands than other minority groups.

Lastly, I asked about whether the current approach to inequality – focusing on specific group needs – was the best solution, or part of the problem. Here some difference opened up, with Ms Eagle arguing that government needed to target legal support and protection to those most in need of it – and Ms Featherstone being more concerned with advocating rights for all.

That last issue is a debate that will no doubt continue.

At the end, I was left with an impression of two parties out of three interested, engaged and trying to help. Historically, the Lib Dems have had a better press on trans issues, with several MPs making waves on the issue – and MEP Baroness Ludford pressing the EU on the human right to gender self-identity.

Labour have come in for criticism on the fine detail of the Equality Bill and the fact that the rights they have granted have been limited – and at odds with how the trans community might have drafted them. Insofar as Ms Eagle represents a party line, they are aware of that – and consciously working to expand trans rights, while balancing them against the demands from other more hostile pressure groups with which they are dealing.

In short: Labour have delivered less than the trans community might like – but far more than most governments would. The Lib Dems are more in tune with the radical end of the trans spectrum – and as such, valuable campaigning allies for the future. As for the Tories – the less said, at present, the better.

Jane Fae’s blog can be found at

More: General Election 2010

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