By a Norwich LGBTQ+ activist
CW: references to transphobic policy and rhetoric, neo-nazi ideology, far-right violence
Last August, The Norwich Radical published coverage of a drag queen storytime event at the Millennium Library. The event was targeted by far-right organisations, and defended by a much larger group of LGBTQ+ Norwich residents and allies. Since then, far-right protestors in smaller numbers have attempted to disrupt more LGBTQ+ community events in the city. Meanwhile, the government has continued to ramp up anti-trans rhetoric and policy, aided and abetted by the bile of the mainstream press and the complicity of so-called ‘gender critical’ figures in academia and popular culture. This is more than a ‘minority concern’. It is a large-scale civil rights struggle against an establishment more fascistic by the day.
On 4th February 2023, trans rights groups held a gathering and demonstration in Chapelfield Gardens to protest the government’s unprecedented use of Section 35 of the Scotland Act to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. The demonstration was interrupted part way by around eight people, including Norfolk teen Barkley Walsh, a known member of far-right extremist group Patriotic Alternative, and ‘independent journalist’ Citizen Syd, another teenager who is known for filming pro-LGBTQ+ and refugee rights activists in order to doxx them for harassment by far-right users online. Barkley and some of his companions initiated a violent exchange with some of the protestors, which was later misrepresented in footage posted online by Syd and others. Apart from Syd’s parents, the group was entirely made up of teenagers.
On 19th February, as hundreds gathered to pay their respects at a vigil for murdered teenager Brianna Ghey, organisers were concerned that similar disruptions might take place. However, the presence of trade union stewards who volunteered to help observe the event appeared to dissuade far-right intervention. On 4th March, five people including Syd and two other teenagers attempted to disrupt a book signing by cartoonist Sophie Labelle at the Phoenix Centre in Mile Cross. One of the five managed to gain access to the venue, but there was no physical violence.
Patriotic Alternative was founded in 2019 by former leading member of the BNP Mark Collett and other individuals with links to openly neo-Nazi organisations, including the terror group National Action. Membership of National Action was made illegal in 2016, but members of the PA and related groups still use Nazi iconography. Their ideology is one of white supremacy, anti-feminism and cultural homogeneity. Following involvement in anti-vaccine and anti-masking conspiracies during the height of the pandemic, for the past year PA activity has centred around stirring up hate towards LGBTQ+ people and migrants.
While it is certainly a concern for LGBTQ+ communities that far-right groups are actively looking to disrupt our events, there are many, many more of us than them. Membership of the PA is estimated to be around a few hundred at most, and while they may sometimes feel emboldened enough to throw a few punches, most of the damage they are doing is derailing the lives of their impressionable recruits with manipulation and misinformation. The much greater concern is the conditions that have allowed this kind of hatred to even be seen as acceptable in this country – conditions created by the rhetoric of the government, the right-wing media and the ‘gender-critical’ lobby.
Following the Johnson administration’s adoption of so-called ‘culture war’ narratives emerging from the US and elsewhere, last year’s Tory leadership election turned into something of a bigotry-measuring contest. Candidates one-upped each other with anti-trans policy proposals in an attempt to appeal to perceived sympathy for transphobic views amongst the party membership. Since then, those attitudes have started to bear out in government action, most notably in the veto of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) bill. Scotland minister Alister Jack declared a historic first use of Section 35 of the Scotland Act to block a bill voted through Scottish parliament, supposedly to protect the sanctity of UK-wide equality legislation. Given that the government’s own best estimates suggest that the bill would affect only a few hundred people per year, it is hard to see this as anything other than an ideological attack on trans and gender non-conforming people.
Meanwhile, the supposedly independent Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been advising the government on how best to implement anti-trans discrimination. Just like the BBC, Ofcom, and other theoretically independent bodies, the EHRC is now run by allies of the government. Under the leadership of Truss-appointed Baroness Falkner, it is not only failing to protect the rights of trans people, but has become a tool for active violations of those rights. Following revelations about EHRC connections to anti-trans lobby groups and interventions against trans rights in high-profile court cases last year, a raft of LGBTQ+ rights organisations withdrew recognition of the body. In the past few weeks, following the EHRC’s chilling response to government requests for advice on modifying the Equality Act to allow for discrimination based on a poorly-defined notion of ‘biological sex’, a number of officials have resigned from the Commission. Its reputation as an effective defender of human rights is in shambles – but that won’t stop the government from continuing to use it as a mouthpiece to justify discriminative policy.
Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ+ activists and communities have been fighting back against these attacks on human rights every step of the way. But that’s where the press come in. As well as parroting the spurious claims of Tory ministers and other talking heads from the further-right, the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph have been engaged in an extensive project of demonising trans rights activists whenever we raise objections to government transphobia.
I won’t dignify their atrocious headlines with repetition here. Suffice to say that there is a common theme: presenting trans rights activists as dangerously disruptive and our motives as actively sinister. As a certain BBC presenter controversially observed recently, the government and the mainstream media are engaged in a narrative project that looks uncomfortably familiar to those with a little knowledge of political history:
- Step one: fabricate enemies out of minorities with little power – migrants, certain religious groups, and now trans people and LGBTQ+ activists.
- Step two: continually question and misrepresent these people’s way of life, gradually dehumanising them.
- Step three: when good people stand up against this dehumanisation, frame their resistance as dangerous and destabilising to the fabric of society.
There’s no two ways about it: this is fascist narrative in action. HOPE Not Hate, a leading organisation documenting and resisting far-right extremism in the UK, noted in their State of Hate 2023 report that “there is increasing symmetry in the narratives and actions between the traditional far right and the more mainstream right.” Mainstream ministers and media moguls may stop short of calling for violence against the groups that they are representing as enemies, but their policies and the extremists they tacitly encourage are creating conditions of fear and destitution all the same.
Resisting these narratives of dehumanisation, this policy project that is creating conditions for widespread repression, can feel impossible. But it also feels like second nature. Who wouldn’t resist those who wield power to oppress the vulnerable? Who wouldn’t stand with the people they love when the irresponsibility of the state incites violence against them? I will stand with my trans friends and comrades, in joy and in anger, every step of the way. Many are with me. Cis or trans, queer or straight, activist or ally, we need your voice. Stand with us.
To stand with trans people in Norwich and Norfolk, support Norwich Trans Pride, which will run for the second year on June 17th, and follow Kett’s Rebellion for updates on local LGBTQ+ activism and community events.
Featured image credit: Ann Nicholls
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