Transgender debate: Labour must work to find common-sense, compassionate solutions, not shy away from the issue – Ayesha Hazarika

Conservative MP Jamie Wallis issued a statement saying 'I'm trans. Or to be more accurate, I want to be be' (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)Conservative MP Jamie Wallis issued a statement saying 'I'm trans. Or to be more accurate, I want to be be' (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Conservative MP Jamie Wallis issued a statement saying 'I'm trans. Or to be more accurate, I want to be be' (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
When I found myself typing the words “Labour” and “penis”, I realised this was the week when the trans debate went full Brass Eye.

Penises! Everywhere! I yearn for the Chris Morris sketch with giant prosthetics, lots of pointing, and the presenter shouting “you sicken me” at the poor hapless politician.

In this case, it was Keir Starmer who was confronted by LBC’s Nick Ferrari, who posed the question: “A woman can have a penis?” Starmer looked flummoxed and replied “I’m not… I don’t think we can conduct this debate with… I don’t think that discussing this issue in this way helps anyone in the long run.”

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The clip, which went viral, was labelled “Starmer refuses to say if a woman can have a penis”. There then followed an excruciating week for any Labour frontbencher who went on the airwaves.

Not for them questions on Ukraine, rising Covid cases or the cost-of-living crisis. Nope. It was all about the penis. It's the cervix I feel sorry for. There she was, finally getting some long overdue attention, then the penis comes along and hogs the limelight. Typical.

It’s deeply frustrating for the majority of us who aren’t completely obsessed with toxic culture wars, but Labour bigwigs are furious. A senior adviser expressed their disbelief that this was running hot as an issue.

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I get their annoyance, especially as I used to be a political adviser, but they can’t be surprised. They also cannot think being cross with the media will make it shrivel up and go away.

The way Labour is dealing with the trans debate reminds me of how Labour dealt with immigration as an issue (spoiler, not well). Immigration began rising up the agenda, fuelled by extremists like Nigel Farage and an often-hysterical media.

A powerful narrative was crafted that immigrants were devious, crafty, cheating, dangerous and were taking over this country. I often wondered if I should deport myself. Or at least one parent.

In this rabid anti-immigration climate, Labour just didn’t know what to say and was too scared to get involved in the debate.

Labour must not make the same mistake in the debate on trans rights, gender identity and biological sex as it did on immigration. The public and the press can smell fear. And they will push this question.

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I hate the question by the way, and I think just like with immigration, there is a common-sense, compassionate, and evidence-based solution. But you have to have the guts (or should I say balls?) to make it.

And getting to that position requires some deep thinking and the ability to have calm and respectful discussions. That’s not happening in the Labour party. Many older members, especially women, are frightened to talk about their concerns or ask questions as many have been labelled transphobic.

Some have been reported to the party’s disciplinary team. Rosie Duffield has become the poster girl for the strains within the Labour party and could cause serious damage if she defects or is deselected.

Other members feel they aren’t been listened to properly either and that the Labour party has always fought for the rights of marginalised people.

Labour can’t run away from this debate. Without a position, this will grow as a political attack line along with the other culture war issues, especially now the Tories have once again beaten Labour to an equality first with Jamie Wallis coming out as transgender in a powerful and moving statement.

Just like with immigration, everyone who raised it as an issue wasn’t a racist, and every woman who raises the importance of single sex spaces isn’t a transphobe.

But we must understand and accept that society evolves and that means giving marginalised groups more rights. Labour needs to get its act together and fast.

Nature abhors a vacuum and dark voices and views are already dominating this space, taking the debate to extremes on both sides. The longer Labour leaves it, the more difficult it will be. And the media – including myself – does need to reflect. Immigrants and those on benefits were demonised. Do we really want to do this all over again with trans people?

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And every presenter who gleefully reduces this to the penis needs to look in the mirror as they may find they have one growing out their own forehead.

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