As tensions over trans rights reach fever pitch, India Willoughby speaks to our Writer at Large

INDIA Willoughby is sitting at her kitchen table in Newcastle wearing the Versace top she bought as a treat after appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. It’s a reminder of very different times. Just a few years ago, nobody gave much thought to trans people. Today, trans women like Willoughby are at the centre of a national firestorm.

Not long ago, Willoughby – Britain’s most prominent trans campaigner – was the UK’s first trans newsreader, and appearing on Loose Women.

Now, she says, there’s an effective “trans ban” in the media. “We’re only brought on if it’s ‘trans on trial’,” she says.

This week, the debate around trans rights reached fever pitch. Following the standoff between the Scottish and UK governments over Holyrood legislation allowing trans people to self-identify – or choose their sex without medical involvement – pictures emerged of SNP politicians at a rally where one protester’s placard read “Decapitate Terfs”.

“Terf” means “trans exclusionary radical feminist”: feminists opposed to self-ID. The expression was originally coined by a feminist but is now deemed insulting.

New figures also showed that reports of hate crime against trans people in Scotland have tripled. Reports of hate crime against transgender people are now the fastest rising in Scotland.

A trans woman was also convicted of raping two women in attacks which occurred before she began changing gender. Isla Bryson decided to transition while awaiting trial. Although initially remanded to Cornton Vale women’s prison, and segregated from inmates, Bryson has now been sent to a male prison.

The SNP government says its gender bill doesn’t affect how prisons deal with trans offenders. Nicola Sturgeon says there is “no automatic right for a trans woman … to go to a women’s prison”.

The controversies have thrown petrol on a debate that has seen threats and abuse on both sides. Willoughby, like JK Rowling (the pair have clashed on Twitter), has received death threats for speaking out.

“I’ve had plenty of death threats. People have said if they see me and I’m using a woman’s toilet that they’ll drag me out and beat me up. I’ve had people threaten to shoot me. This is very real. Trans people live in fear.”

Women in the “gender critical” movement – feminists who oppose self-ID – speak of their fear of predatory men using self-ID to get into women’s spaces. Trans rights campaigners say trans women have used women’s bathrooms for decades, and Holyrood’s new legislation doesn’t change laws around accessing toilets – it only changes laws around obtaining gender recognition certificates by removing the need to consult doctors.

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WILLOUGHBY says police warned her to stop posting her location on social media after someone sent “intense transphobic abuse” that turned into violent, physical threats. “There was a chance that if they knew where I was they’d turn up and do something,” she says. “It’s scary times. The hate towards trans people is increasingly ratcheting up, especially from the UK Government and media. Every day is more intense.

“I think somebody is going to die before this comes to a head.

“Somebody will get killed. That’s where the rhetoric is going. Words kill, we know that. People are using their words and platforms to make people angry. If anyone is killed it will be a trans person. If that becomes Britain’s sobering moment then that’s tragic for this country, awful.”

Willoughby says trans people feel politically isolated, apart from Scotland’s SNP/Green government. “When it comes to the bigots, the scary thing is that for trans people nobody is coming to our rescue apart from Nicola Sturgeon.”

Although the Holyrood vote was backed by all parties, except Conservatives, Keir Starmer is seen by the trans community as cooling on support. Willoughby calls him “Brutus”.

The trans community simply believes Conservatives are using them to stoke “culture wars”, says Willoughby, adding:. “For Conservatives, it’s a great way of distracting from what else is going on.”

“The underlying narrative,” she adds, “is that trans people are frauds, out to trick you. That idea is really dangerous. The one dilemma all trans people face is telling prospective partners that you’re trans. It’s a minefield. It can be very dangerous. So creating this mood music that we’re frauds green-lights to some that we deserve a beating.”

The Conservative government’s position has changed dramatically in recent years.

Theresa May supported self-identification as Prime Minister. In 2017, Willoughby met May. “I went to Number 10 and had a chat with her. She was all for self-ID. It was ready to go.”

But something was changing in 2017, Willoughby believes. She noticed attitudes to trans people hardening when she appeared on Women’s Hour. “I expected a chat about being the first trans Loose Woman but as soon as I got there it was clear that this was me in the dock. Not long afterwards, this movement of just horrible people started to coalesce.”

Willoughby says 2017 marked the start of a backlash against rights for sexual minorities, ethnic minorities and women globally. She says: “Donald Trump played a massive part.” Trump moved against trans people serving in the military and aligned with America’s Christian Right. He implicitly “gave permission” for hatred, Willoughby says. One British gender critical campaigner appeared to suggest armed men in women’s bathrooms.

HeraldScotland: Willoughby said she noticed attitudes towards trans people hardening when she appeared on BBC'S Woman's Hour and received judgement when she expected a chat about her role on Loose WomenWilloughby said she noticed attitudes towards trans people hardening when she appeared on BBC'S Woman's Hour and received judgement when she expected a chat about her role on Loose Women (Image: ITV)

WILLOUGHBY believes the backlash was highly co-ordinated and sophisticated. She pointed to a well-documented meeting in America in October 2017 when the Family Research Council – labelled an “anti-LGBT hate group” – held its annual Values Voter Summit. Trump spoke, along with his far-right adviser Steve Bannon. One presentation discussed the LGBT community and “divide and conquer” tactics.

Speaker Meg Kilgannon said: “For all its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimise them.” She went on: “Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer.” For many people, Kilgannon claimed, “gender identity on its own is just a bridge too far. If we separate the T from the alphabet soup we’ll have more success.”

Willoughby claims the far right and Christian fundamentalists play an active part in some sections of Britain’s anti-trans lobby. “Dark money flows from America,” she claims. “The far right doesn’t care who’s the enemy. It could be Mexicans, black people, Jewish people. Right now, we’re it.”

She believes if trans rights are eroded, then gay and lesbian rights will be next, and eventually women’s rights. America’s “extremist” Christian lobby has already eroded women’s abortion rights, she adds. Trans people are “the gateway, the same people coming for us will eventually come for gays, lesbians and women”.

“This is the toughest time in history to be trans,” Willoughby adds. She says rhetoric has hardened lately with trans people routinely called “groomers”, an attack line, Willoughby feels, imported from American QAnon extremists. “It’s the same appalling stuff that was said about gay men back in the day – that we’re all paedophiles and perverts. It’s pushing people right to the edge. It exists to make us toxic.”

Willoughby puts the backlash down to the fact that “society had changed. All those big battles, like gay rights, equal marriage, they’d all been won”. She adds: “But the homophobes and bigots still existed. They felt they had to shut up and couldn’t be public about their bigotry any more as society would say, ‘cut that out, it’s not on’. So when the trans issue came along and we raised our heads above the parapet, they zoned in on us, and the British government and media basically said, ‘yeah, that’s OK’.”

Campaigners have audited Britain’s media, Willoughby claims, and there are around 1,000 anti-trans stories monthly. “We’re 0.5 per cent of the population. Even though there are two sides to this debate, only one side gets heard. Even people who support us, including celebrities I know who call themselves LGBT allies, stay quiet as they don’t want to get involved. They see what happens if you open your mouth – you get swarmed on social media.”

Media space is given, however, Willoughby says, to any gay or lesbian person opposing trans rights, even though “one million LGBT people were on the street for London Pride supporting trans rights. The number of anti-trans gay and lesbian people would fill a bus shelter”.

Willoughby says gender critical campaigners aren’t subjected to the same scrutiny as trans campaigners.

She notes one gender critical campaigner talked of “reducing … the number of people who transition” as they’re “a huge problem to a sane world”.

The discussion around medical procedures for trans people is riddled with misinformation, Willoughby claims. “Newspapers would have you believe children are being rushed in for fast-track sex-change operations. The truth is ... waiting lists just to be seen are four years long – that’s just to chat with a gender counsellor, before you even join a surgery list.”

Surgery involves “strict vetting processes”, she says, adding: “No surgeon wants to do something patients regret, and you as a trans person want to be absolutely sure too. It’s spelled out at every juncture how radical and intense this is. There’s no way someone can go blindly into this, see a doctor, then suddenly wake up thinking ‘my God, I’ve had a sex change – how did that happen?’. But that’s the narrative pumped out. Everything is regulated.” About 1% of trans people detransition, she adds.

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EIGHTEEN other countries have passed similar laws on gender self-identification as Scotland, Willoughby points out, including Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Iceland, New Zealand, Malta, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland.

“They’ve combined populations of more than 350 million people and there’s no example of any predators going to their solicitor’s office to update their birth certificate in order to attack women. There’s been no wave of non-trans people pretending to be trans. It’s the plot of a bad B movie.”

The trans community, Willoughby says, repeatedly states that if men want to attack women they don’t need gender certificates to do so. Nor, the community believes, should every trans person be made to feel criminal because trans offenders exist. The gay community was once treated like that, Willoughby notes – with all gay men smeared if one gay man offended. “Nobody who’s straight has to defend straight people if a straight person offends,” she said.

There are cases of men offending and then transitioning – as with the current Scottish case – and there are certainly trans sex offenders, Willoughby adds. “These people are trans people, they’re bad trans people. Bad people exist everywhere. There are bad Scottish people, English people, bad vicars, bad school teachers, bad gay people, bad straight people. Whatever the demographic, there are rotten apples.”

When it comes to women’s safety, Willoughby says: “The biggest problem is men, but I’m not going to say all men are dangerous.” On the Bryson case, she says no convicted rapist should ever serve time in women’s prisons. Rules should prevent sex offenders being sent to women’s prisons, she claims. Some years ago, after one “non-trans” sex offender in England claimed to be transitioning while in prison, and “took advantage of the confusion around self-ID to get a transfer to the women’s estate, the rules on trans prisoners getting transfers completely changed.

A panel of professionals looks at their background now, and if they’ve had a medical transition. If they’re a sex offender and there’s any hint of pulling a fast one, they don’t go through. But if a prisoner is clearly trans, then providing they’re deemed not a risk, they belong in the women’s estate.”

Most women support trans rights, Willoughby claims. This month a statement was issued by Scottish women’s groups supporting trans rights and opposing the UK Government blocking the Holyrood law.

The statement said the legislation “will significantly improve the experiences of trans people … while having no impact on women’s services … the Equality Act, or single sex spaces … The legislation makes no changes to whether and when trans women can access women’s spaces. If it is legitimate and proportionate, trans women can already be excluded from single-sex spaces irrespective of whether they have a Gender Recognition Certificate.”

THE statement was signed by Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, the Scottish Women’s Convention, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, Zero Tolerance, the Young Women’s Movement, Glasgow Women’s Library, and also Amnesty, One Parent Families Scotland and the STUC.

It said that “trusted and highly experienced experts on equality and providers of women’s services … have been drowned out in this debate and denigrated for standing against misinformation … Trans people across Scotland have endured years of being dangerously misrepresented … We are deeply concerned about the impact of misinformation around what this Bill actually does, and the perception that it creates that women’s rights and the rights of trans people are in conflict. They are not.”

Detailed polling by YouGov in 2022 showed half of Britons see prejudice against trans people as a major or significant problem.

Women are more likely than men to support trans rights: 63% of women said people should be able to identify as another gender socially; on legally changing gender, women remain in favour by 44% to 32% opposed; 34% of women say trans women using women’s bathrooms presents “a genuine risk of harm” compared to 38% who don’t; and 38% of women say trans rights don’t threaten women’s rights, while 33% say they do.

Self-ID, says Willoughby, is “simply about making the lives of trans people less humiliating and cruel”. She says: “If you’re gay, you don’t have to go to the doctor to prove you’re gay, you just say ‘I’m gay’. It’s purely about updating your birth certificate and changing M to F for female, so you can get married as the person you really are and die as the person you really are.”

No trans person wants to “erase” the word “woman” either, Willoughby says. “It’s hysteria – like stories in the 1980s about banning ‘baa, baa black sheep’ because it was racist, or the EU banning bent bananas. It’s garbage.”

Willoughby recently appeared on Pointless Celebrities. Her very presence sparked outrage, she says. For most trans people in the media or entertainment, “everything has just stopped professionally”.

Sturgeon is now a hero to trans people, she says. “We’d literally no friends politically. It’s a really hard sell what she’s done, because we’re such a small minority. It’s remarkable for anyone to even give us 10 minutes of their time. But the best countries look out for the most vulnerable.

“To me, Scotland has shown itself head and shoulders above England in terms of being progressive. England is hurtling back to the 1950s. The nightmare scenario would be the UK Government beating the Scottish Government in court. Things would just get much worse. If Scotland ever becomes independent, I promise – I’m moving north.”

HeraldScotland: Willoughby says of Nicola Sturgeon: 'It's a really hard sell what she's done ... it's remarkable for anyone to even give us 10 minutes of their time'Willoughby says of Nicola Sturgeon: 'It's a really hard sell what she's done ... it's remarkable for anyone to even give us 10 minutes of their time' (Image: Newsquest)

ONE trans woman, Willoughby explains, was granted residency in New Zealand, as it was deemed “unduly harsh”, according to an immigration tribunal, to send her back to Britain where she had suffered years of “persecution”. Trans people are “fleeing hostile states like Texas in America” today, she adds.

Willoughby says the rhetoric on both sides needs to calm down before someone gets hurt. She denounced any trans campaigner carrying placards like ‘Decapitate terfs’. “They shouldn’t be there. They’re helping nobody, certainly not trans people.” Willoughby has, and does use the word ‘terf’, though, defending the use of the term as it was originally coined by ‘radical feminists’. She would refrain from using it to any woman who said she found it offensive.

All media attention focuses on rage and threats from the trans community, without looking at the rage and threats they experience, Willoughby says. “There are parts of the anti-trans lobby which seek the elimination of trans people – I use the word elimination deliberately. When you’re constantly attacked, when your very identity is questioned continually, anyone reaches breaking point and lashes out verbally.”

“We’re at the end of our tether. There are people debating our right to exist in the media yet not one trans person is there to stand up for us. You wouldn’t have a panel debating the rights of black people and not have any black person there. But with us it’s the norm. Our only outlet is Twitter and it becomes incendiary as it’s the only opportunity we have to tell the world how we feel.”

Willoughby says she would genuinely like to meet JK Rowling in the interests of compromise. “But there can’t be compromise on whether we’ve the right to be accepted. The world has just become nastier. I blame the British media, the Rupert Murdochs. Their business model is just clickbait and rage. It’s made us all suspicious of each other, drawn us inward instead of looking outward.”