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A demonstrator’s jacket displaying the gender neutral symbol during a Black Trans Lives Matter protest at Parliament Square, London, 4 July 2020 | PA Images


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After a bitter internal Tory row over the government’s long-awaited response to the Gender Recognition Act, Crispin Blunt has vowed to carry on what he sees as a vital battle for trans rights. Georgina Bailey speaks to him

“The current position cannot stand.”

This was the stark warning Crispin Blunt sent Conservative colleagues following a showdown with minister for women and equalities Liz Truss over the Gender Recognition Act in the Commons last week. 

The clash escalated to the point where it was widely reported Blunt had called for Truss to be “sacked” from the equalities part of her brief; though he later issued a somewhat unconvincing clarification: he said he wanted this part of her job (she is also international trade secretary) to be “given to someone else,” as he felt she did “not have the time or necessary empathy to continue”.

Now, the MP for Reigate has pledged: “I and many many others will not let go until the rights trans people are owed in any society that has respect for universal human rights are delivered.”

“We will press for the results of consultation to be honoured… This old parliamentary dog is not letting go of this bone!” Blunt told a WhatsApp group of sympathetic MPs. 

The row began after it was announced that Truss had dropped plans to de-medicalise the process of individuals legally changing gender identity, including removing the need for a medical report, evidence of having lived in their acquired gender for a period of time, and a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. 

It was the latest stage in a fierce debate that has raged ever since it was announced – by then women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt in 2018 – that the government would consult on updating the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. 

The consultation received over 108,000 responses, of which 7,000 were from trans people, and it quickly became part of the so-called ‘culture war’ on social media, with celebrities like J.K. Rowling becoming part of a storm where women’s rights and the rights of transgender people were pitted against each other. 

This discourse, Blunt says, is a key part of the problem: “They’re not clashing rights, they’re overlapping rights,” he says, before adding: “Trans rights are human rights. Every society should aspire to have universal human rights”. 

Blunt’s view is backed up by nine of the 2019 Conservative intake, who called on the Government last month to “[follow] through on our promises” to the trans community. 

The promises Truss is being held to are not of her making – or even, Blunt claims, her ideology. He alleges that she came into the role “with a particular view”, heavily influenced by women’s groups who do not want to make it easier for trans people to change their gender identity. Representatives for Truss did not respond to a request for comment.

Mordaunt was seen as sympathetic to the claim that the 16-year-old legislation on trans people needed to be changed so that it was easier for them to legally change their gender without a diagnosis, while Truss has said that their main concerns are access to health care and the streamlining of bureaucracy around getting a gender recognition certificate. 

These are both things that the government has committed to addressing, but critics such as Stonewall say the changes “don’t go anywhere near far enough toward… [making] it easier for all trans people to go about their daily life.”. However, those against the concept of self-identification, who had argued a change would undermine women’s rights, welcomed the statement.

Unless you’re trans or you have a trans person in your family, you’re very unlikely to be familiar with the implications of this

With no legislation forthcoming and Truss showing no signs of moving, some trans activists are disheartened. But Blunt and others on the backbenches are not yet ready to give up their fight, which he sees as being over a fundamental conservative tenet – freedom to live how you choose. 

“Don’t expect to get elected if you’re going to try and tell everybody  how to behave in all circumstances. Because people aren’t going to let you,” he warns.

Blunt says the issue of trans rights is one that takes considerable time and work to understand fully. 

“Unless you’re trans or you have a trans person in your family, you’re very unlikely to be familiar with the implications of this. And that was my position until frankly, until the summer,” he explains. 

While the consultation was ongoing, debates about whether “self-identification” poses a risk to cis-women, access to single-sex spaces and the rights and protections afforded of transgender children swirled online during the 21-month waiting period, often turning angry on all sides. 

Blunt says he is dismayed at the talk of “balancing” trans rights with women’s’ rights. He points to the fact that 84% of transgender people in the UK have contemplated suicide, and 50% have attempted it. “That is an indicator the rest of society needs to up our game and understanding [in] how to support these people.”

When it comes to “overlapping rights”, the issues of self-identification and access to single-sex spaces are particular causes for concern amongst some campaigners.

Currently, the Equality Act 2010 states that a trader or service provider must not discriminate against someone on the grounds of whether they’re a woman, a man, or a transgender person (with some exceptions). 

Transgender people cannot be excluded from single sex services provided to people of their acquired gender – regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate – unless there’s a good enough reason. Current examples of exemptions include domestic violence refuges set up for women, and some contact sports. 

The government is not proposing to change any rules on access to single-sex spaces, something Blunt welcomes. In fact, he was more concerned that the rights trans people had on single-sex spaces would be eroded.

However, there is also a fear that the proposals for self-identification would make women’s refuges, prisons and women’s only spaces unsafe.

Blunt has spent time talking to colleagues who hold those anxieties, and says he understands where they come from. 

“Unless you get quite deeply into this and think this through and have both the empathy and the time to get yourself into that place of understanding it’s quite easy to think that there are real problems here about men pretending to be women in order to assault women. That men will seek to take improper advantage of rights afforded to people to take a particular gender identity for improper reasons,” he explains.

“There’s a fear that has been stoked amongst women about the implications of this. And it is certainly true that far, far too many women have been victims of male violence.”  

Has there been any threat from those people who so self identify? Has anything actually happened?

Blunt’s answer on the source of the concerns is unlikely to endear him to women’s rights groups: he dismisses these fears as the product of primarily US-based religious zealots, who have “alighted on the trans issue” and tried to split LGB issues away from transgender issues to “manipulate” activists. 

He claims that they are using some women’s rights groups as a front to help enact their belief that “God has ordained what your sex is, and you are not entitled to change your gender identity, and that gender and sex are precisely the same thing.” 

He also says there is a misunderstanding of the term “self-identification”. Blunt supports the government assertion that the process requires formality, but rejects that it requires the current level of medical examination and diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

“That’s the most objectionable bit. Then it’s simply a question of what the appropriate formality is around the self-identification… the formality can simply be the same way as one might go and take an oath”, he says. Indeed, the British Medical Association also recently passed a motion calling on the Government to “allow transgender and nonbinary individuals to gain legal recognition of their gender by witnessed, sworn statement”.

But in practical terms, how does he believe fears around self-identification can be assuaged? 

“On evidence. If people are required to undergo a formal self-identification process, where they have done elsewhere in the world where that then led to those people who have self-identified in a different gender to one into the biological sex they were born into. Has there been any threat from those people who so self identify? Has anything actually happened?”

He points to Argentina, the first country to allow self-identification eight years ago, where the only issue he is aware of is where someone fraudulently changed their gender to access their pension earlier. 

“Of course there are threats, there is a threat to women from men. And women will have experienced that intimidation and violence… The threat is not coming from trans women. Of all groups of people from whom women might feel a threat, trans women are probably the least likely source,” Blunt says. 

When discussing how this can practically be tackled, he calls the conduct of the online debate “shocking”. “The opponents of giving trans people the support of universal human rights will often see it as a clash of competing rights between women and trans people.”

“You’ve had strident women’s rights campaigners… who have provoked trans people to respond often in an angry and confrontational way, and that is unsurprising because this is a central assault on their identity,” Blunt says.

So does Blunt, the Conservative MP for Reigate since 1997 who was nearly deselected after coming out as gay in 2010, believe the government is transphobic? 

“I think most people haven’t got a clue in this area. Basically, we do not understand trans issues. They are complex. And I think the truth is that Liz [Truss] arrived in the equalities brief with a particular view strongly influenced by the part of the women’s lobby that’s decided to identify trans [issues] as a problem for them,” Blunt says.

The Conservative Party I joined had the torch of freedom as its logo. Personal liberty, and liberty at every level, was what I thought was in the army to defend

In an attempt to better understand differing views in his party, Blunt met with three Conservative colleagues who were closer to Truss’ alleged viewpoint than his on the issue to try and discern the best way forward. In these discussions, he recognised the anxieties around “shortcuts” being taken when supporting transgender children and the pressure some felt was being applied on particularly tomboyish girls to change their gender identity. 

He attempted to put together solutions to these in a paper he presented to the government – which was condemned by some activists as a “backroom deal” 

His proposals included better regulated, centrally mandated relationship and sex education (RSE) in school, removed from the influence of activist groups on both sides and local parents to put the responsibility on government rather than teachers – although he does believe that parents should be able to remove their children from classes if they wish.   

He is also supportive of proper funding for gender services so that experienced doctors don’t feel pressured to take unseemly shortcuts when advising children and their families.

To his Conservative colleagues, he says that this is a fundamental issue of personal freedom, and warns that the party will face electoral challenges if it is seen to be taking its lead from social conservatives, saying “it is not “defensible” in a “modern society”. 

“People should be free to live their lives as they wish. And if someone takes a decision in their life in a particular way, it is not going to have an impact on the rest of society. The requirement should be to understand and indeed celebrate the diversity that these decisions then bring to our society, and not frown at the lack of conformity to a set of rules that have come from generations past,” Blunt explains.

“The Conservative Party I joined had the torch of freedom as its logo. Personal liberty, and liberty at every level, was what I thought was in the army to defend.”

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‘We asked Trump to stop playing YMCA’ – Village People singer Victor Willis

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The Village People classic, YMCA, is regularly played at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies – with the US president often seen dancing to it.

But the disco group’s lead singer, Victor Willis, told BBC World News America that he does not endorse Mr Trump – and has even asked him to stop playing their music.

Read more:

How Trump and Biden’s playlists pump up the fans

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Operation Fox Hunt: China sent fugitive’s elderly father to America to coerce him into going home, US claims

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The case is believed to be part of the ruling Communist Party’s Operation Fox Hunt, an international anti-corruption campaign targeting Chinese fugitives — often former officials or rich individuals suspected of economic crimes.

The US Department of Justice said Wednesday the charges included “conspiring to act in the US as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China.” Five people have been arrested, while three are believed to be at large in China.

In 2016, the group — which includes an American-licensed private investigator — is alleged to have embarked on an illegal campaign targeting a former Chinese government official, who has lived in the US since 2010. They are accused of recording and harassing his daughter, taping a threatening note to his front door and flying his elderly father from China — allegedly against his will — in 2017 to pressure his son to return to China.

The note on the target’s New Jersey home said in Chinese: “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!”

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, US Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers said the arrests sent a message that the US “will not tolerate this type of flagrant conduct on our shores.”

“Without coordination with our government, China’s repatriation squads enter the United States, surveil and locate the alleged fugitives, and deploy intimidation and other tactics to force them back into China where they would face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that Chinese law enforcement agencies “conduct foreign cooperation in strict accordance with international law, fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty.”

“The United States ignores the basic facts and uses ulterior motives to smear China’s work in pursuit of escaped and stolen goods. China firmly opposes this. We urge the US to immediately correct its mistakes,” he said.

Operation Fox Hunt

The Chinese government launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014 to target wealthy citizens who were accused of corruption and had fled the country with large amounts of money.

Beijing authorities said at least 150 corrupt officials had fled to the US, and provided American counterparts with a list of “priority cases.”

Demers said such operations — regardless of whether the targets were guilty or not — were “a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms.”

“Rather than work with US authorities for assistance with recognized criminal cases as responsible nations do, China resorts to extralegal means and unauthorized, often covert, law enforcement activity,” he said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a news conference Wednesday that in a different Operation Fox Hunt case, the Chinese government had sent an “emissary” to the target’s US-based family warning that the person should “return to China promptly or commit suicide.”

Wray said that when Operation Fox Hunt targets refuse to return to China, family members in their home country “have even been arrested for leverage.”

“These are not the actions we would expect from a responsible nation state. Instead they’re more like something we would expect from an organized criminal syndicate,” Wray said.

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Van Drew’s defection to GOP haunts him in tight race

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Van Drew, like many of his Republican colleagues, now finds himself having to answer for an unpopular president, whose shaky handling of the coronavirus and inflammatory rhetoric has damaged the GOP’s standing nationwide, especially in the suburbs.

Van Drew currently trails in the polls to a well-funded Democratic challenger in Amy Kennedy, a former public school teacher who married into the Kennedy political dynasty. Kennedy is leading Van Drew by five points among registered voters, according to a Monmouth University poll from earlier this month, though it’s within the survey’s margin of error. POLITICO’s election forecasters rate the race as a “toss up.”

Democrats have tried to use Van Drew’s party change and sudden embrace of Trump as a cudgel, branding him as “switcheroo Van Drew” and accusing him of betraying his constituents for his own self interests. In one ad, Democrats even ribbed Van Drew for his taste for flashy suits in a bid to portray him as superficial and inauthentic.

“It felt like he was willing to do or say anything to keep his job,” said Kennedy, who decided to run for office after hearing Van Drew promise his unwavering loyalty to Trump. “There are a lot of people in the district who really respect someone who can be independent-minded, but that’s not what that felt like to them.”

In an interview, Van Drew defended his decision to abandon the Democratic Party, which caught his colleagues off guard and stunned Washington. Van Drew, a dentist who served in the state Legislature for over a decade, noted he was always a conservative-leaning Democrat. But Van Drew argued that the party abandoned its “big tent” principles and was no longer a good fit for him.

Yet despite pledging his fealty to Trump in an Oval Office sit-down, Van Drew now says he is not beholden to any leader — including the president. And Van Drew maintains that voters respect independent-minded politicians, especially in his south Jersey district just outside of Philadelphia, which went for Trump in 2016 but backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“You vote for the person,” said Van Drew, who won his seat by eight points in 2018. “It’s not your job to vote for me, if you were in my district, because I’m a Republican. It’s your job to think about the two candidates and which candidate would do a better job for the district.”

“I didn’t betray anybody,” he added. “When people call me up and they need help, whatever party they are, I help them.”

The match-up between Van Drew and Kennedy — which has become one of the most hotly-contested races in the country — has drawn national attention, with outside resources pouring in. Democrats are not only eager to win back a seat they thought they had already seized in 2018, but also seek revenge for Van Drew’s high-profile defection.

Kennedy, who has notched endorsements from Obama and Joe Biden, has outraised and outspent Van Drew. Kennedy has spent $1.2 million on the airwaves, compared to Van Drew’s $367,000, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. But Van Drew had roughly $600,000 more in the bank than Kennedy as of mid-October, according to the latest FEC reports.

Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to reward Van Drew for joining their ranks while also preventing the GOP from slipping further into the House minority. Since joining the party, Van Drew got a rally from Trump, desirable committee assignments from GOP leaders and a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

Notably, Van Drew’s campaign message has focused on calls for bipartisanship and putting country over party. He talks more about American exceptionalism on the campaign trail than he does about Trump, though Van Drew confirmed he plans to vote for the president, despite endorsing home-state colleague Sen. Cory. Booker (D-N.J.) in the Democratic presidential primary.

Van Drew has also tried to label his opponent as a liberal Democrat who supports sanctuary cities, open borders and defunding the police.

“I believe the future of the country depends upon not just my election — of course, I’m not an egomaniac — but on the direction that we take,” Van Drew said. “And the direction that my opponent would want to take is significantly different than the direction I would want to take.”

Switching parties has yielded mixed results in the past, so it was always going to be an electoral gamble for Van Drew, strategists say. He risks infuriating the Democrats who backed him in 2018, while there’s no guarantee Republican voters will trust him. And independents might be turned off by his tight embrace of Trump.

Nearly half of registered voters said they were bothered by Van Drew now running for Congress as a Republican, according to the Monmouth University poll.

Crossing the aisle may have looked like a safer bet for Van Drew during the height of impeachment, when there was widespread concern that swing-district Democrats could suffer at the polls because of the party’s efforts to oust the president.

Had he remained in the Democratic Party and maintained his opposition to impeachment, Van Drew would have likely faced a primary challenge from the left. Before he became a Republican, polling commissioned by Van Drew’s campaign showed just 24 percent of Democratic primary voters believed the congressman deserved to be reelected.

But the political landscape has changed vastly since then. Trump’s approval ratings have slumped both nationally and in Van Drew’s district. The sagging economy is further clouding the outlook for Republicans up and down the ballot. The Monmouth University poll has Joe Biden with a narrow, three-point lead over Trump in a “high turnout” election in the district.

“The president’s popularity has gone down. That hurts someone who pledged undying allegiance to Trump,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican operative and former adviser to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Meanwhile, many frontline Democrats are actually well-positioned heading into November, defying expectations and fueling hopes that their party could actually pad their majority even further. And the election has largely been dominated by the coronavirus — not impeachment.

“No one cares about impeachment anymore. It seems like 10 years ago, not 10 months ago.” DuHaime added.

On the coronavirus, Van Drew has echoed Trump’s rhetoric. He railed against health restrictions dampening the economy, highlighted how Trump overcame the virus, criticized D.C. residents for wearing masks even alone in their cars and called on Washington to “go big” on a stimulus package.

“You know what makes people upset where I am in my district? The people that went out of business, the people that lost everything they own, the people that can’t even keep their homes, the people who work for the casinos,” he said.

Van Drew also said he has worked tirelessly on constituent services during the pandemic, which could help boost him in the race. And GOP strategists say Van Drew will likely once again attract some crossover voters — but it may not be enough.

“He has always won because people transcended party to vote for him. But is that enough in a year where Trump is so dominant on the ballot and affecting how everyone views everything?” DuHaime asked. “Now, just so many people this year are voting party-line to send a message to Trump.”

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