Political conferences are amazing places – for a few days you’re mixing with like minded people from all over the country, getting to talk to MPs, peers and ministers in briefing, workshop and Q&A sessions, socialising at “fringe” events, and occasionally getting to have a word in the ear of someone who can effect real change in the UK.
Of course, they’re also a bit of a nightmare for security services, especially when they’re being held by a party of government. There have been attacks on them in the past – perhaps most notably the 1984 Brighton Bombing where the Provisional IRA tried to take out the then government.
In the conferences I’ve attended, there have often been airport-style x-ray machines and metal detectors on the way in, and while people grumble about the queues, this is generally accepted as probably necessary (although obviously it wouldn’t have protected against Brighton-style attack). For a long time, the two larger parties in the UK, Labour and the Conservatives, have had “vetting”, where anyone wanting to attend has to first submit to a background check by the police (who, presumably, bring in other agencies).
Liberal Democrats haven’t traditionally had this – we take the view that all party members should be allowed to attend our conference, which unlike the other two big parties, is sovereign in policy making – votes at conference set our party policy. Ordinary members get the choice to speak in conference debates and influence the votes that set our party policy. Most memorable for me was the debate in 2010 which made our commitment to marriage equality and gender recognition reform policy.
Now we’re in government, Federal Conference Committee, the party body responsible for organising conference, has come under pressure to bring in vetting for our autumn conference. This has caused quite a lot of upset in a party that prides itself on a strong pro-civil liberties stance, but I’m not writing about that aspect (although I have participated in that debate too) right now; I’m writing about the effect it has on people who have changed their identity. In particular, I’m writing about the effect it has on trans people.
Last week, myself and Zoe (who are executive members of the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats) had a chat with the chair of the FCC about the issues facing trans people and background checks. As a result, both of us and the chair of the LGBT+ Lib Dems were invited today to a meeting of the FCC in London, just over the road from the Houses of Westminster in LD HQ, to talk about the issues trans people face when dealing with background checks by the authorities and answer questions. I spent about ten minutes speaking from notes, which I’ll include here:
Basic problem – lots of trans people are “stealth”. Consequences of previous identity being revealed to their social group are potentially devastating.
Even those of us who are “out and proud” like to keep some control for things like security checkpoints, etc.. It’s a personal safety thing, as well as dignity. In casual public encounters, people can be extremely tactless,
leading to public humiliation. Quite apart from being outed, association with former identity can be extremely traumatic. I suffer PTSD symptoms around it, and I know I’m not alone – the thought of applying to last year’s autumn conference actually gave me acute physical stress symptoms.
Police forces have a track record of institutional incompetence with regard to our identities. What is a simple administrative error to them (leaking old name) can be devastating to us. People can and do suffer violence as a result, have to leave the communities they’re in, etc.
Police track record on this is dreadful. Even when they get LGBT liaison officers involved, they generally don’t get it because most LGBT liaison officers concentrate almost entirely on the issues around sexuality, not gender identity. The mishandling of the public toilets at Pride 2008 in London which led to a trans woman being sexually assaulted was caused, in part, by an LGBT liaison officer getting things disastrously wrong.
Bottom line – convincing trans people that the police can be trusted is an impossible task because we know they can’t.
We are being asked to trade a hypothetical danger of physical harm to someone else against a very immediate danger of physical harm towards ourselves, and it’s not fair to ask people to do that.
Anything that involves a possibility of outing will result in some simply staying away. Setting up a “special channel” for people to apply wont help – the CRB have such a special channel and I know from direct personal experience that it leaks – it’s done so with me.
Some trans people are not in a position to obtain consistent personal documentation, often because of institutional or personal transphobia.
Lib Dems attract trans people because we’re a group which is systematically abused by society, government and other institutions. The world is essentially a hostile environment and so civil liberties and equality issues are very important to us.
Obviously I fleshed these out a bit, and went into details of how the Met Police LGBT Liaison officer got things so very wrong at Pride London 2008, how the Criminal Records Bureau accidentally revealed my old name when I was applying to do healthcare voluntary work a few years ago (and then wrote to the organisation asking them not to open the letter and send it back – somewhat akin to asking someone not to think of an elephant), and talked about how I’ve had friends who have had to move when “outed”.
Zoe added some details too, and afterwards we answered a few questions. Having made our case, we left them to it.
An hour or so after we left, one FCC member tweeted, “FCC very keen to find way of #ldconf being able to go ahead without accreditation, so registration opening will be delayed pending solution”
And another said, “Thanks for coming this evening. What you both said was very moving and shocking – such discrimination and abuse is unacceptable.”
I guess that means what we said has been taken very seriously, and it’s a case of waiting to see what happens now.