Up until June this year, Katherine Foy had no plans to get into politics.
“I have hobbies and interests and ambitions and other things that are far more personally fulfilling and far less stressful,” she says, with a small laugh.
But earlier this year, a series of events resulted in Katherine – a business analyst who has been a Labour member, on and off, for the past 13 years – putting herself forward as a candidate for Labour’s national executive committee (NEC). When she won a place on the ballot, she was the first openly trans woman to do so without the backing of any of Labour’s powerful internal factions.
And if she wins a seat on the NEC, Labour’s influential ruling council, next month, she’ll become the most powerful trans person in British politics – something that she readily admits “is a low bar right now”.
This lack of political representation continues behind the scenes of British politics, where few trans or non-binary people are employed or visible, let alone in positions of actual power. Katherine wasn’t planning on trying to change this; she was stealth in her local Labour party, saying she wanted to “blend in” and “crack on with life quite quietly”.
But as the row over Gender Recognition Act reform became increasingly toxic and Labour dragged its heels over addressing transphobia within the party, she became increasingly conflicted. And this came during a period when she had more time, because coronavirus meant both that she wasn’t commuting to work and that more Labour events were accessible from her home in Birmingham, without needing to travel to London.
“I am a deeply loyal person, but I’ve obviously got two loyalties: one to the party which I’ve been a member of for a long time now, and one to my community – and as part of that to myself,” she says. “If I was ever at a point where I felt that the party was actively harmful to trans people to my community, I couldn’t stick around. And this year has definitely been tough.”
Katherine Foy considered quitting Labour over the leadership’s equivocating on trans rights – just as many other trans and non-binary Labour members have done.
“How do we as trans members trust the party to have a good stance on policy that affects us, or on transphobia?” she thought. “When you have MPs who are more open to transphobic perspectives and talking points than they are to us?”
Describing Keir Starmer’s habit of remaining silent when his MPs are accused of transphobia as helping to “normalise hate”, Katherine is clear that the party is currently failing Labour members. But in the end, she decided to stay – and to run for the NEC, in the hopes that being an openly trans woman on the ballot would bring “hope to offset the despair of trans members in Labour”.
“It’s about being a voice in the room where decisions are made,” Katherine says. “And it’s also – and I could be wrong here – that many at the top of Labour, their intentions are in the right place when it comes to trans issues. But at some level, they don’t really ‘get’ our community. It’s not something that comes up in their social circle. And it’s a human failing that when they don’t see us, they don’t understand prejudice against us in the same way.”
When Tory equalities chief Liz Truss announced in September that she wouldn’t be reforming the Gender Recognition Act, Tory MP Crispin Blunt called for her to lose the minister for women and equalities brief as she didn’t have “the empathy for the role“. Blunt later told PoliticsHome: “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.”
But, surprisingly, Labour’s response to the GRA reforms being ditched was “really good and really strong”, Katherine Foy says. Marsha de Cordova took Liz Truss to task in the House of Commons and really seemed to understand the issue.
“It was brilliant and that was bittersweet,” she says, “because where was that in June?”
This is one of the things she hopes to work on, if she wins a place on the Labour NEC. “There’s a real sort of anger and hurt about that silence earlier in the year,” she says, adding that Labour can’t call itself “the party of equality, the only party that actually represents you if you’re LGBT+” unless it actually stands up for the community.
Despite her cynicism, Katherine – who is wary of tokenism, and realistic about her chances of actually winning an NEC seat – thinks this could change and that by being trans and “in the room” she could help.
The first small sign that change is possible came in June, when Katherine nominated herself for the NEC ballot and came out to every constituency Labour party secretary in the country – as well as to her own local Labour party, who didn’t know she was trans.
“It was probably one of the largest mass outings that anybody who isn’t a celebrity is going to willingly put themselves through,” she recalls. “But the reaction from my CLP has been really surprising and warm.”
“Well,” she adds, “surprising is the wrong word. But it’s always something – when you’re coming out to someone – where you feel like you’ve deceived them in the past. But they were warm and positive and really encouraging about me standing.”
“There are trans people in Labour who do outreach and activism,” Katherine Foy says. “I think if I was elected to the NEC, it would definitely help.”
The Labour NEC results will be announced on 13 November.