The fury provoked – rightly – by Julie Burchill’s extraordinary rant against trans women, published in the online Observer on 13 January, has led to an apology from the paper, although not from the writer, and the taking down of the offending article. If there was an upside to this sorry tale it was to highlight the continuing prejudice faced by trans people in this country despite progressive changes in the law.
Many of the respondents to Burchill’s article drew attention to the fact that, according to police statistics, the tiny trans community is proportionately more likely to be victims of hate crime than any other group in society. Trans trade unionists report facing such a continuous stream of abuse that it has become a routine accompaniment to appearing in public.
This is shameful, and one reason why many trans people opted to join with lesbian, bisexual and gay people to form our current LGBT alliance was because of our common experience of facing harassment and abuse simply because of who we are. The TUC and many trade unions all have a common structure for “LGBT” members.
The British Social Attitudes surveys show a welcome improvement in public acceptance of lesbian, gay and bisexual people as neighbours and fellow-workers. With the present debate on same sex marriage – especially if the government delivers – we can only expect this improvement to be maintained. But even here, for LGB people, the surveys show around a third of the population remains hostile. That is an awful lot of people – though given the much greater positivity among younger generations, it is a proportion that can only improve.
Trans people are not yet benefiting from these changes in attitude. Their legal rights were incorporated on an equal footing for the very first time in the Equality Act 2010; but only the enactment of the proposed equal marriage legislation will end the continued misery imposed by the current requirement for a trans person to divorce an existing partner before they can register their relationship.
It is hardly consolation that the situation is even worse in other parts of the world, where the murder rate for trans people continues to be appalling. Even progressive Sweden has only just announced repeal of a law requiring trans people to be sterilised before gender reassignment.
This context is why it was so important that so many organisations and individuals protested at Burchill’s onslaught. Not only did she ignore trans men in her rant, she also denied the right of trans women to be accepted as women at all.
The TUC strives to unite all those who are being hit by the coalition government’s austerity. We are simultaneously seeking to challenge the ignorance and prejudice that remains in the British population and that makes it easier for the government to divide us. Attacking trans people is not just to encourage hate against an already persecuted group, it is to weaken us all.