T is for Trans Movement: an ongoing struggle for a tiny, vulnerable minority

The twentieth letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade. 

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We come to the end of this decade with a positive, albeit imperfect, outlook for many in the UK’s LGBTQ+ community. As a country we have made progress, both legally and culturally, to embrace and protect those who love and make love differently to the majority. 

Same-sex couples all across the United Kingdom will have the right to marry by Valentine’s Day of 2020 when equal marriage legislation next month comes into force in Northern Ireland, the last part of the UK to legalise it. The lifetime ban on gay and bi men donating blood has been lifted. The thousands of gay and bi men who were once criminalised for their sexuality have received a posthumous pardon. Education about LGBTQ+ relationships is to become compulsory in schools in England, and we have more queer people out and happy in public life, a trend that is mirrored in our personal lives, despite setbacks and the enduring issue of LGBTQ+ hate crime. 

For those of diverse sexualities in the UK, the future looks mostly bright. 

Sadly, however, the outlook for anyone who transgresses in terms of their gender identity is far from certain.

Trans people, whose gender is different to the gender assigned to them at birth, are a tiny, isolated and vulnerable minority in the UK, estimated to make up between 0.3 per cent and 0.8 per cent of the population.

Many trans people have never dared disclose to anyone that they are trans, while those who do pay a heavy price for being different. From schools to workplaces, at home or on the streets, trans people face threats, hate crimes and profound isolation. A majority of young trans people have experienced threats and intimidation, and 72 per cent of them have self-harmed. Nearly half of all trans people have been physically assaulted, and, in the ultimate sign of rejection by their families and by wider society, one in four have been made homeless.

Many who personally know a trans person also know what it is to lose a trans person. Half of the trans people in Britain have attempted suicide, and many have succeeded, including my friend Sophy. 

As the sun sets on the 2010s and a bitter and often inaccurate debate about trans rights is conducted over and above the heads of trans people, there are few guarantees that they will find greater love and acceptance in this decade than the last. 

Public discourse around trans acceptance in the UK has been boiled down to a heated debate about one aspect of proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act of 2004, which saw trans people able to have their gender recognised by law. There are plenty of uncontroversial proposed changes to the Act, such as ending the spousal veto, a clause that allows a spouse to veto their partner’s legal gender recognition. The controversy is restricted to an often ill-informed and bitter debate about allowing trans people to self-declare, making the GRA less invasive and bureaucratic. 

Crucially, trans acceptance and trans rights go far beyond this contested area of GRA reform, and the issue, while sincere and well-intentioned from some critics, has become a lightning rod for prejudice and fear-mongering about this poorly understood group in a manner similar to the moral panic around homosexuality in the Eighties. 

We go into the 2020s with GRA reforms still under dispute and hate crimes against trans people on the rise. As the debate continues, those who are trans, and those who know or have lost a trans person, will hope that one can be resolved successfully without further stoking the other. 

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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