On the 18th of June, half way through Pride Month, the new government guidance for schools with transgender students was leaked. The guidance forces schools to out trans or questioning students to their parents or guardians, regardless of whether the student themselves ask teachers not to reveal it. Students may have good reasons for not wanting their teachers to do so. This new guidance comes alongside the fact that despite overwhelming public support, the government has yet to ban conversion therapy. After years of delays to the bill, activists are now warning of the government inserting ‘loopholes and carve-outs’ into the text of the legislation.
The new guidelines will ban schools from using different pronouns for their students, and ban children from wearing gender-affirming uniform without parental consent. Trans and questioning children are also to be effectively banned from competing in school sport. Headteachers are able to make essentially any restriction of a child’s choices if they feel it is necessary to protect students’ wellbeing. Of course, the purpose of these powers is not to protect the wellbeing of trans students, rather to protect the wellbeing of cisgender majority of students, supposedly against the risks posed by trans students
I can’t begin to comprehend how much anguish I would have avoided had I had a support structure at school to help me come to terms with my identity, and support me once I had. I know many other trans people will feel the same. These support structures – however slim and flimsy – are finally emerging. They are finally arriving to help trans kids have a better start at life.
It is clear to anyone without an anti-trans agenda that the new guidance is an act of malice. It places vulnerable trans children at risk of physical and mental abuse from unsupportive family and guardians. At its core, the guidance will mean that for many trans children school will become yet another unsafe place. Not only is the bill a moral catastrophe, it is an enormous safeguarding failure.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. After all, it was only a few hours earlier that a video of Rishi Sunak mocking trans women was leaked. This is a government and a prime minister which hates LGBT+ people.
Indeed, as soon as the new guidance was released, it was compared to Section 28, the cruel law passed by the Thatcher government which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. The new guidance harms trans kids in many of the same ways Section 28 harmed gay kids: through stigmatisation and a stifling of school attempts to promote inclusivity and prevent bullying. But the guidance is also harmful in ways that Section 28 was not. Teachers were not allowed to teach about homosexuality under Section 28, but they also weren’t legally required to out gay kids to their parents, as the new guidance requires for trans kids.
In addition, as always happens with anti-trans panic, the new guidance would impact cisgender children. Girls who want to wear trousers might find that right taken away by a school wary of getting on the wrong side of the law. The annual stories of boys rebelling against school uniform policy during heatwaves by wearing skirts to school may have a darker edge to them in future. As much as so-called ‘Gender Criticals’ may welcome this new guidance, all it will serve to do is put trans and questioning children at risk, and enforce strict gender conformity on cisgender children.
In some ways, Section 28 went further, because it affected all aspects of local government. It forced many LGBT+ organisations to close doors. However, with this government, this may only be a temporary difference. Schools could be the testing ground for a wider anti-trans policy push from the government; such an agenda would not be coming out of the blue.
How the Labour Party responds to this will be a good signal for how they will govern. Keir Starmer has tried in vain to sit on the fence on trans rights for some time. Starmer’s recent indulgence of the the media-confected ‘children identifying as cats’ moral panic demonstrates how unserious Labour is on this issue at present. The new guidance has come under criticism even from transphobes; in their view, it doesn’t go far enough. Labour will have to engage with the reality of the anti-trans movement, it is not one that can be indulged, or satisfied, if even the policies of a Tory government with a PM who privately mocks trans people is not enough, what will be?
Labour is remembered – perhaps too fondly, given rhetoric at the time – as opposing Section 28 and eventually revoking the law. The party opposing this new guidance unfortunately seems unlikely. Labour MPs such as Ben Bradshaw have come out swinging, but any such strong opposition from the leadership has been thus far lacking.
Labour’s prevarication is helping to drag out this moral panic, and while transphobes are all-or-nothing, most of the public is trans-supportive or apathetic. Most ordinary people simply don’t pay attention to the trans “debate”. So why try courting the bigots for whom no legislation will ever be cruel enough?
The new guidance ought to be a wake-up call for Labour. The bigots who push for these new laws will not be satisfied by half-measures. They will not be satisfied by partial misery. Their movement is one which includes groups who, in their own words, call for the elimination of “transgenderism” from society. The anti-trans movement will not take anything other than total victory, and manage to sink to new lows every day in pursuit of their aims.
Labour can’t rest on its pro-LGBT+ laurels. It must oppose this new guidance, and push back on the harmful rhetoric surrounding it. If not for the common decency of doing what’s right, then for the political expediency of being able to fight the next election with the public – and the many activists who have left the party over transphobia – onside. Labour must stand against the new Section 28, and must stand for every trans and questioning child out there who can’t yet stand up for themselves.