Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has hit out at the Conservatives’ record on transgender rights, claiming that they are “trailing behind” and not responding to public opinion.
Mr Farron, writing for the Huffington Post earlier this week, insisted that he hoped evidence of shifting attitudes towards transgender rights would “pave the way for change” from a government that, to date, has been non-specific in its commitment to trans equality.
He wrote: “We still seem to have a Conservative party which trails public opinion rather than stands fast on principle. In Coalition we pulled them along with us … In 2011, thanks to the work of Lynne Featherstone, we published a Transgender Action Plan – we hope that this isn’t simply just put away in a box marked ‘Coalition work’, it will need to be revisited, updated and improved.”
The Lib Dem leader was also eager to highlight his own party’s record on transgender action, and pointed to the recent party conference at which party members approved the introduction of the Transgender and Intersex Charter. This called for the phased removal of gender markers in documentation unless it is absolutely necessary, proposed making it easier to allow individuals to change their legal gender at will, included plans to ensure transgender and intersex people receive equal and fair treatment on the NHS and proposed the establishment of an independent inquiry into the systematic abuse of transgender people in the Health Service.
The Liberal Democrats are “leading the way”, Mr Farron claims, and appeared genuinely proud of his party’s own policy of changing documentation to exclude gender references wherever possible.
He explains: “Something as small as not having to choose whether to tick the male or female box on applications can make a huge difference. In the last Parliament we desperately tried to get the Tories to agree to introducing gender neutral passports. This is not as radical an idea as it might seem – other countries like Australia have already introduced it and it is accepted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. It is frankly ridiculous that even on something this small the Tories have refused to act.
“Unfortunately though, it is not just small problems trans and intersex people face. They are all too often marginalised, ignored and discriminated against. Gender identity clinics are chronically underfunded and trans women have been repeatedly put in all male prisons, which has had fatal consequences.”
Mr Farron is also determined that transgender people should be treated fairly when accessing health services. “This summer, the state funded watchdog, Healthwatch, warned that people preparing for gender reassignment surgery were being treated as second class citizens with disgraceful waiting times and delays. I’m glad that NHS England has responded – increasing funding and communicating what they’re doing better. I hope that this response can be mirrored across Government but this will need us to keep holding those in power to account and pushing for change.”
While aware of the difficulties transgender people experience, and of the government’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for making progress on a number of fronts, the Lib Dem leader is optimistic. “I believe the barriers are coming down and I and my party will be doing our bit to help them on their way but ultimately this is a group effort and will require more awareness raising initiatives like this to drive the change”, he wrote. However, he also stressed that, while the UK “should be a world leader on this issue…that will require work both in Parliament and outside it.”
Those commenting on Mr Farron’s article seemed eager to confirm just how much work is still to do, especially in relation to education. The most popular comment read “Why should a bunch of freaks have special rights?”, while another claimed Mr Farron was “pushing for wierdos [to] have special treatment.” Another asked: “What on earth are ‘transgender rights?’ Don’t they have all the rights of normal people even though, according to nature, they are not normal?” Other, more reasonable voices, agreed with his logic but felt that a national party leader should have more pressing priorities – perhaps not appreciating that it’s possible to address the “bigger” issues as well as the lesser ones simultaneously, or that human rights in themselves constitute a significant issue in anyone’s estimation.
A Scottish trans activist, Johanna-Alice Cooke, was somewhat skeptical about what the Liberal Democrats could do in practice to make transgender equality a reality. She told KaleidoScot: “It is hard to see exactly what eight MPs can do for trans-equality. The sad truth is that Westminster doesn’t do trans, unless there is a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg forcing them to correct a particular gross inequality – which will then be done in the most complex and hard to access manner as typified by the Gender Recognition Certificate.
“There’s more to unpick in LibDem policy though. A phased removal of gender on documents means thousands of transpeople waiting even longer for the inequality the LibDems have admitted exists to be corrected.
“If we want Scottish trans-equality, the quickest and most likely route to get it is by lobbying Holyrood. The LibDems might be waving trans around right now but in Westminster its just a side show that they cannot possibly hope to get the Tory majority to take seriously enough to legislate.”
Mr Farron was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in July this year, and has been eager to present himself as a champion of LGBTI rights – particularly transgender and intersex rights. However, his rather mixed voting record on same-sex marriage attracted some criticism.
The Liberal Democrats’ policy on transgender and intersex health can be found here.