In recent years, the Mumsnet Q&A has become a staple of British politics. Senior politicians such as David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon have all run the gauntlet of answering questions from the parenting website’s users at some point or another. Interviews typically range from light-hearted personal questions – “what is your favourite biscuit” being a favourite which Gordon Brown was criticised for jammily dodging – to more serious inquiries into policy issues. As Lib Dem leadership candidate Ed Davey found out recently, Mumsnetters have set their sights on one issue in particular – trans rights.
Mumsnet has acquired a negative reputation among trans people and their allies for the sheer volume of transphobia which has sprung up on the website recently, especially in its “Feminism” section. When Davey took to the forum on the 18th of June as part of his leadership campaign, around one in three of the questions put to him concerned trans rights and the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act.
Addressing those questions en masse, Davey stated that he supported gender self-identification, adding: “I believe in the freedom of the individual to be who they want to be – and not to be told who they are by society. When society dictates to individuals, unhappiness and discrimination are not far behind. So for me, a trans woman is a woman, and a trans man is a man. For me, that’s not a policy position, it’s their reality and I respect it.” Much of Mumsnet, predictably, was outraged by his statement, with one user declaring, “You’ve just proven that you care naught for women’s concerns. Your party will not get my vote.”
But Davey’s stance should not have come as a surprise. If that user had expected the Liberal Democrats’ views on trans issues to align with those popular on Mumsnet, they were clearly unfamiliar with the party’s recent record. Last year, the party’s president Baroness Brinton penned an article for their website entitled ‘Trans rights are human rights’ (great minds think alike) in which she said, “as Liberal Democrats we believe [trans] rights are key to our values and we will do everything possible to spread those values to improve our society, and the world we live in, whoever you are.” Similarly, in March this year Caron Lindsay, the editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, wrote, “For Transgender Day of Visibility – Scottish Lib Dems stand up for trans people’s rights.”
Nor are Mumsnetters’ views shared by Davey’s rival for the leadership, Jo Swinson. The East Dunbartonshire MP was kind enough to get in touch via email, to tell me more about her own personal views on trans rights:
“As leader, I would support self-identification – it was in our 2017 manifesto and it’s the right thing to do. What seemed like a relatively radical piece of legislation in 2004 (the Gender Recognition Act) is now sadly out of date and posing many problems for trans people. The medicalisation of identification and transitioning is unjustifiable and I believe it breaches our human rights obligations. We’ve seen in other jurisdictions how self-declaration works without issue – for instance in Ireland where it has been in place since 2015. I’m also fully supportive of gender-neutral documentation including passports, and stood on a manifesto in 2017 that said a Lib Dem government would introduce these. I believe a lack of recognition of those who classify themselves as non-binary, intersex, or genderfluid is a problem that could be easily solved if only the government had the will.”
When asked whether she would stand up for trans rights in a coalition negotiation, Swinson said, “I’m sorry to be a politician about it but I’m being really clear that I do not believe the Liberal Democrats should go into coalition with either the Labour or Conservative party as they are right now – so there simply wouldn’t be the chance to have these discussions. What I can say is that Liberal Democrats pushed hard in government to bring forward same-sex marriage. I myself brought in shared parental leave and introduced a new initiative to tackle homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying in schools. Equalities issues are a key priority for the Liberal Democrats and under my leadership we would push for them at every opportunity – whether in government or not.”
Why does she think that the Liberal Democrats have had much less of an issue with transphobia compared to the other major parties? “One of the things I love most about Lib Dem members is that for all our policy disagreements, we agree on why we’re Lib Dems in the first place. That means believing that we should ‘seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’.”
She continued, “It’s a Constitution for the Liberal Democrats but what it’s always meant for us is that we support people who feel they are minorities elsewhere – people who want to be welcomed and celebrated for who they are rather than what society thinks of them. In short – we’re a very welcoming bunch!”
The issue of LGBT education in schools has been in the news a lot recently, particularly with the parents’ protests in Birmingham. Swinson makes it clear that she fully supports compulsory sex and relationships education in schools: “I think it’s entirely appropriate that younger children are taught relationships aspects from primary school on – not just tolerance for but welcoming of LGBTQ+ people. Education is there to help our children negotiate the world and understand the communities they’re a part of. We owe it to them to provide them with the best information we can to live their lives happily, safely, and without discrimination. I respect everyone’s right to their own religious beliefs, but for me, this cannot extend to our education system treating some people’s lives and identities as if they are somehow less worthy of respect or love.”
What would she say to those who believe there is a conflict between trans rights and women’s rights? “Any leader of the Liberal Democrats should be prepared to make clear, repeatedly and unambiguously, that trans rights are human rights. I’m a feminist and I’m still insulted that I’m told again and again by the national media that I can’t believe both in women’s rights and that trans women are women and should be protected by them too. The level of debate has, quite frankly, become harmful and disturbing and shows no sign of stopping.”
She adds that the current debate over trans rights has a historical antecedent: “Just think back to Section 28 and the appalling public debate about whether you could ‘promote homosexuality’ and how we needed to protect our children from its harmful effects. We need to stop seeing people who are different to us as a threat and start recognising their inherent rights to live as the people they are.”
Would she crack down on a Lib Dem representative who voiced transphobic opinions, as the SNP have so far conspicuously failed to do with some of their own MPs and MSPs? “First of all, we need to be clear that the Liberal Democrats are a democratic party – it’s perfectly possible to be a Lib Dem and to disagree on particular policies and debate them vigorously at our conferences. But this does not extend to undermining the basic human rights of fellow citizens. Our elected representatives ran on a Lib Dem manifesto which explicitly talked about reforming the GRA and introducing an X gender on official documentation – as Liberal Democrats they have a moral, ethical, and electoral obligation to stand up for these rights.”
And finally, Swinson offered up a pitch to trans voters to encourage them to put their cross next to her party at the next election. “The Liberal Democrats already have a large, vibrant, and active trans and non-binary community – and what’s more, they don’t have to spend their time fighting internal battles to get themselves and their policy priorities recognised. We are a party that celebrates individuality and campaigns for the liberty and equality for everybody to be treated equally regardless of their sex, sexuality, or gender identity – we have a record of it in parliament and a record of it in government.”
“If LGBTQ+ rights are a core part of what you want in a party, those policies are a key part of our manifesto – and if they’re not, we are also campaigning to stop Brexit, to tackle the climate emergency, to look to the future and make the most of the tech revolution, and to refocus our government and our economy on things that really matter to the people rather than big business.”
Now we know the Lib Dems’ opinions on trans people, but what are trans people’s opinions on the Lib Dems? I sent out a form via my personal Twitter and Facebook accounts, asking trans voters to give their verdict on the party, to get an idea of whether this positive stance would be likely to sway at least a few.
16 of the 25 respondents had voted for Labour at the last general election, four for the Greens and four were not old enough to vote – only one had opted for Tim Farron’s party. All but two of our sample were under 30 (bear in mind that this is not an opinion poll, and therefore is not intended to be representative of the trans community as a whole).
Meanwhile, 11 described themselves as men or transmasculine, five as women or transfeminine and 16 as non-binary (which overlapped significantly with the other two groups). In terms of sexuality, seven referred to themselves as gay or lesbian (including two lesbians), 10 as bisexual or pansexual, one as asexual, five as something else or a combination of options and two did not say.
The first question they were asked regarded their views on the Lib Dems in general. Five expressed a generally positive stance, 12 negative and eight neutral. Given the left-wing slant of the respondents, the negative responses unsurprisingly tended to relate to the party’s involvement in the Tory-led coalition, with responses such as “Sort of just discounted them after the coalition as wishy washy and hypocritical”, “[they] have not acted well when in power previously” and “I saw [the coalition] as a gross transgression of the values on which I voted” being typical.
One respondent brought up the controversy around Tim Farron’s stance on trans rights, saying, “socially conservative, considering Tim Farron didn’t even believe in gay rights, I don’t trust the Lib Dems on trans rights.” Others were more explicit, with one saying “I would cut my own arm off before voting Lib Dem ever again”, going on to specify what exactly the Lib Dems could eat, whilst a few others were similarly hostile.
Next, the respondents were asked what they thought the Lib Dems’ stance on trans rights would be. The theme here was that most of them were unaware, and those who guessed often assumed it would be neutral or only slightly positive: “Slight improvement on the status quo – GRA reformation (without NB recognition) etc”, “I think it’s likely to at the very least be the same as it currently is, though I don’t think it would be much more than that”, “a basic ‘we support LGBT rights’ without much actual intent behind the phrase”, “Probably better than others but still not great?”
Luke summed up the challenge the next Lib Dem leader will face to better publicise their party’s support of trans people: “I’ve never seen trans people within the Lib Dems or seen posts, statements, etc. supporting anything about trans rights in particular. Just the vague LGBTQ-inclusive stuff.”
Others, however, were significantly more positive, including 27-year-old writer Josh, who stated that “Their stance on LGBTI rights (and including issues adjacent to trans rights like sex work decriminalisation) is probably the best of any party”. Possibly the most interesting view was that held by trans activist and student Emrys: “I think it’s ostensibly as good as/better than Labour’s, but worse in that trans rights are material (particularly financial) not merely legislative, and the Lib Dems are in no way committed to meaningful economic justice/socialism”.
However, after being informed of Davey and Swinson’s views on trans rights, many of the respondents became more positively inclined: “It makes me want to read into their policies”, “It definitely makes [my view] a lot more positive”, “It makes me feel a little more positive regarding these two candidates”, “I’m definitely going to be researching more now”. Overall, roughly half of those questioned said that knowing this made them more well-disposed towards the Lib Dems and/or more likely to vote for them, while the others said that it made no difference. This suggests that if the next leader puts more effort into making their liberalism on this issue known, the party could well pick up some support from trans voters and their allies.
If current polling is anything to go by (yes, who knows, etc), the Liberal Democrats are likely to become a significant force in parliament should an election be held any time soon. With this in mind, trans people should take heart from the fact that both the party and its two potential leaders are strongly committed to advancing our rights.
We should also be grateful for Jo Swinson’s decision not to accept Mumsnet’s invitation – a spokesperson for her campaign said, “Obviously, they do great work in promoting parents’ rights and interests. However, the way in which discussions are managed on the forums can sometimes allow commentary or reaction that is not helpful in discussing issues like this.” Unfortunately, this means the trans community will have to wait for an answer to the most pressing question of all – the spokesperson declined to reveal the identity of Jo’s favourite biscuit.