LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As British politicians wrestle with Brexit, Britain’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community - like others around the world - is grappling with a potential split of its own.
Can the coalition of allies, which traces its roots back to the early days of gay liberation in the 1960s, survive in its current form?
Caught in the crossfire between trans activists and feminists over the nature of what it is to be a woman, calls for a break-up of the longstanding LGBT+ alliance back to its constituent elements are starting to emerge.
At the heart of the increasingly toxic debate is whether trans rights are compatible with those of other women, particularly in terms of access to single-sex spaces, such as rape crisis centers or women’s refuges.
On one side, trans campaigners say that transgender women are women and deserve equal access. On the other, some feminists and lesbians disagree, making the distinction between natal and trans women.
The result has been a progressively poisonous row that threatens to tear the LGBT+ community apart.
Last year, a group called Get the L Out staged a protest against what they saw as “lesbian erasure” – or lesbians being written out of history – at the beginning of London’s annual Pride march.
“The only way to fight lesbian erasure within ‘LGBT+’ groups is to... create an autonomous and strong lesbian community and build alliances with all feminists willing to fight against male domination,” a spokeswoman said in an email.
Yet, while the debate has raged with particular ferocity in Britain, other countries have also seen tempers flare.
In New Zealand, a lesbian group said on Wednesday that it had been banned from Wellington Pride on Saturday for “not being inclusive enough” of trans people.
On Twitter, Charlie Montague, spokeswoman for the Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa, said the group would now organize “a lesbian-only event of our own.”
Wellington Pride has not replied to a request for comment.
And in the United States, lesbian activist Julia Beck was last year voted off the Baltimore city LGBTQ commission after clashes with fellow commissioners over trans issues.
At an event organized by campaign group LBQWomen in the Victorian Gothic splendor of one of the British parliament’s grand state rooms, Baroness Barker, LGBT spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrat party in the House of Lords, is adamant.
The community must remain together, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It matters, because we (LGBT+ people) are all outsiders and (on our own) we can be picked off by the forces that are against us,” Barker said.
However, she added a caveat.
“I stand alongside my gay brothers, as I always have done, but there comes a time when lesbians and bisexual women have to be able to come to the fore,” she said, referring to one of the aims of the LBQWomen event.
But for many, the trans debate is at the heart of the matter.
The tension partly stems from ignorance on the part of the LGB community about the issues faced by trans people, said Michelle Ross, founder of cliniQ, which provides sexual health services to the trans community and others.
“There’s a lack of awareness and there always has been in the LGB community,” she said. “Things have changed for the better... but there is some kickback around not seeing trans people as part of the LGBTQI community.”
In recent months, the debate has spilled out of social media and onto the letters pages of Britain’s national newspapers, drawing in characters as disparate as Star Trek actor George Takei and former British cabinet minister Lord Mandelson.
In October, a group of high-powered campaigners took aim at Britain’s leading LGBT+ charity, Stonewall, which they saw as stifling debate over the issue.
Last month, chief executive Ruth Hunt said she would step down in August after a tenure marked by debates that she said have “not always been a comfortable conversation” as transgender rights took greater prominence.
“We will only make progress if we stand together,” said Paul Twocock, Stonewall’s executive director of campaigns and strategy.
“We are a diverse community made up of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, who come from different faiths, who live in different neighborhoods and do different jobs.
“But we are united in our desire to create a world where we can be free to be ourselves.”
The debate has polarized society at large, and pitted former allies within the LGBT+ movement against one another, said singer and actor Mzz Kimberley.
“Unfortunately some parts of the LGBT+ community are not coming together,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There are many different communities under the LGBT+ umbrella, but you also have (the) radical feminist community who are very against the trans community. You even have parts of the gay community who are against the trans community.
“It’s quite sad as we fought so hard to establish where we are at the moment and there are many who are starting to fight with each other.”
On Thursday, more than 70 prominent gay men, including YouTube star Riyadh Khalaf and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, backed an open letter from Britain’s equalities tsar Anthony Watson to rally together and support the trans community.
“One of the things I find flabbergasting is that we wouldn’t enjoy the rights we have today without trans activists,” Watson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, citing the involvement of campaigners at the start of gay liberation in the late 1960s.
“For gay men to sit silent on the sidelines and say it is not our battle is tremendously arrogant.
“And guess what?” Watson added. “(The bigots) are coming for our rights next.”
Sport has become the latest frontline.
Tennis star Martina Navratilova and British Olympic medalist swimmer Sharron Davies both spoke out recently in support of more research into what they saw as competitive advantages for trans women.
Others have countered that the testosterone-blocking effects of hormone therapy undergone during transition would negate any advantage.
For many, the debate is reminiscent of how gay men and lesbians were portrayed by the media in the 1970s and ‘80s when headlines warned of a “gay plague” at the advent of HIV/AIDS and similar concerns were raised about bathrooms and changing rooms.
“Rights can easily slip backwards,” said Watson.
But the question many are now asking is what next for the LGBT+ community? Calls for a break-up may remain on the fringes, but concerns for its future are growing.
For the Lib Dems’ Barker, the current tensions are signs that the 50-year-old gay and trans community needs to address concerns from both sides.
“We should start to create spaces in which – safely – the LGBT+ community can have arguments and differences,” she said. “And we need to do it so we’re not giving ground to those who are doing us down.
“We’re a community that is 50 years old and we are maturing. We should be big enough to do this.”