Activist Bahar Mustafa gives her personal take on the recent events surrounding Munroe Bergdorf's appointment as a LGBT advisor to the Labour Party, and the left's response.
I would like to share some thoughts on the recent Munroe Bergdorf's appointment as one of several LGBT advisor to the Labour Party, and the abysmal attacks on her from both the Left and the Right. I do so from both a political and personal standpoint: as a communist, anti-fascist, and feminist organiser I am invested in tactical support for the Labour Party in order to bring the mass base further to the left and our ability to make collective demands as part of wider class struggle. I’m invested in a Labour Party that is free of misogyny, racism, transphobia, and so on, and one that represents a diverse working class. I am also someone who, as a student activist in 2015, came under sustained media and online attacks from April - November when I was embroiled in a “race row” while acting as welfare and diversity officer for Goldsmiths Students’ Union. I had organised a political organising space for BAME women and non-binary people during our occupation that had caught the attention of a ‘yellow journalist’ and student. This meeting I had planned, not unlike women and black caucuses that have been a proud tradition of the the trade union movement for decades, went viral with media outlets from The Evening Standard and the Daily Mail (to name a few) accusing me of racism towards white people and sexism towards men. As long as I remained a full time sabbatical officer I was under the scrutiny of right wing media who trawled through my social media accounts, misrepresented alleged tweets, and harassed my family in order to find anything to discredit me as a ‘loony lefty’, a troublemaker, an anti-white campaigner, and so on. An outspoken feminist with a Muslim name is like gold dust to the right wing press, and what hurt the most was the way certain sections of the Left joined in with the witch-hunt.
Like many other minority women since, Munroe Bergdorf is now facing a similar public attack, and again, certain sections of the Left are happy to collude with the right wing press. First and foremost, let us consider a common criticism coming from those in the Left about the appointment itself. According to some, Dawn Butler was irresponsible for appointing Bergdorf on the grounds that Bergdorf has become a “controversial figure” and will therefore lose votes for the Labour Party. However, under the current socio-political climate it seems implausible that a black trans woman, who has been outspoken about race and racism, wasn't going to rustle a lot of feathers and attract the attention of the media for being appointed to an officer position in the Labour Party. Particularly a position such as LGBT advisor where she would be expected to guide policy based on equality and diversity campaigns for the queer community. In a climate where “equality” and “diversity” are largely interpreted as apolitical and ahistorical categories, a woman of colour who speaks out about white supremacy is instantly accused of racism, as if racism is not socially and materialy constructed.
A black trans woman was always going to be a controversial choice whether or not she'd been lambasted in the press for 'inflammatory' tweets. Just look at the recent vitriolic attacks on 20 year old trans activist Lily Madigan; Madigan was recently elected women’s officer for the Labour Party in her constituency. She was 19 when she first got involved due to an ongoing dispute in her school where she was deterred from presenting as a young woman, forced to wear the male school uniform, and experienced daily transphobia. Simply standing and being elected for women’s officer position sparked a vicious debate within the Labour Party as to whether or not a trans woman could stand for women’s officer. Moreover, the recent infighting in the Party over the gender recognition act has forced to the surface the acute ignorant anti-trans sentiments harboured by some vocal members of the party. And if this is the level of abuse trans people within a party notionally committed to greater equality and democracy are expected to experience, then outside is whole other more horrifying story. We just need to look at suicide stats in the UK to get a sense as to how structurally marginalised trans people are, with recent studies by Stonewall that reveal nearly half of trans pupils attempting to take their own lives.
Now let's revisit the tweets in question. The initial tweet that led to her dismissal from Dove allegedly accuses all white people of racism. There is nothing novel about that position today. Bergdorf’s elaboration of the tweet, that all white people are responsible for racism, is at worst a misguided understanding of how structural racism operates, is anti-materialist, and reduces complex social, class, and race relations to individual actions, rather than structurally protracted antagonisms. This notwithstanding, I think it’s crucial to remember that before her sacking from Dove, Bergdorf very publicly criticised Dove for their racist advert that showed a black woman turning white after using the product! As for the most recent tweet referencing the Suffragettes in the UK that received yet another bashing from certain sections of the Left, here she was factually incorrect. Bergdorf had confused the Suffragette’s here and their struggle to win the votes for women with those of their American counterparts, where it was indeed true that in the USA the Suffragette movement marginalised black women and that up until 1960s there were still some states where black women were unable to vote. Bergdorf does in fact correct herself in later tweets.
Now that Bergdorf has been thrust into the media’s spotlight, she has indeed gained notoriety and is a controversial figure. Speaking from personal experience, this means her current choices are very limited: either Bergdorf will need to change her name and identity if she wants a chance of ever being hired by future employers, or accept that her public profile and recent press attention means that public and political avenues are probably the only ones open to her. The Labour Party gave a black trans woman an opportunity to influence and change public opinion on such difficult questions of social equality including race, rather than pandering to the British public's inability to confront our difficult history with racism and colonialism. Whether you agree with her statement or not, if you are a class agitator committed to fighting all systematic oppression, I can't conceive how you could shrug off her public shaming, or even go as far as to think it was deserved. Ultimately, whether or not we agree with her statements it should not be justification for the vilification she's received. At the end of the day, Bergdorf is on our side! Since the press have trawled through all her social media to trudge up tweet after tweet, Bergdorf has received a torrent of transphobic, misogynist, and racist abuse: and people are still shocked when black and brown women often feel compelled to make such hyperbolic statements about the manifestations of racism and sexism we face daily.
After experiencing ‘endless attacks’ from the right wing press, and a storm of vile online abuse, Bergdoft quite her position on the LGBT advisory panel.
This comes at a time where the battle within the party over trans rights continues to rage. As Labour allows all self defining women to partake in all women shortlists, a number of anti-trans activists within the party threaten to resign in protest. The fact that there has been near silence from many on the left of the party and the left of the movement in this country on the disgusting attacks she was subjected to, shows who ‘the left’ think are worth acting in solidarity with, and who don’t. People who, against the odds, have been arguing for a revivified politics under Corbyn’s leadership, turn and cower at the idea of intervening to push a progressive politics of gender and sexuality. In this, we see another example of the thinking “The movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing." It is times like this that all who believe in socialism and liberation should be standing up to fight the reactionaries who seek to make already abused and marginalised people suffer more.
To dig up old tweets as further evidence that Bergdorf wasn’t appropriate for the position is nothing short of the same old dirty tactics from the right. It is another example of the cowardice of a certain section of the left who are more concerned with pandering to a what they perceive as the socially conservative base of the Labour, who are believed cling on notions of nationality and patriotism as cultural markers of the British working class.
If you want a Labour Party with teeth who fights for the interest of your class you'd better include the interests of women, migrants, BAME people, sex workers, etc: these struggles are class struggles and we are just as integral to the struggle as our white, male counterparts.
Solidarity with Monroe Bergdorf, and solidarity with all trans people at this time of ruthless attack.
By Bahar Mustafa