IN February I wrote a column advocating for trans rights. As a barrister, I’m fairly used to death threats, so I didn’t take the ensuing deluge of abuse particularly seriously. Until, that is, I was advised that I should no longer post my location or members of my family on social media.

Colleagues warned that my career might suffer if I continued to advocate for trans people. Ironically, much of the abuse was encouraged by people who claim to support “free speech”.

My experience was nothing compared to what trans people experience every day. Across the West, trans advocacy is being silenced. Russia and Hungary ban almost all pro-LGBT speech.

Romania is following suit. Twelve US states have passed or are considering laws stopping children from even learning about trans people. In the UK, the situation is more insidious.

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There is not (yet) any “don’t say trans” statute. British law, however, leaves space for those with power to silence marginalised communities (like trans people) through intimidation and bullying.

Hate crime against trans people is at record levels south of the Border. They are at least twice as likely to be the victims of violent crime. Up to 73% have experienced harassment and violence for being trans. Some trans children are bullied so badly that they are afraid to go to school.

Trans people are being driven out of public life. In February, Mrs Justice McCloud, the UK’s only trans judge, resigned.

The relentless politicisation of trans lives left her feeling she was “forced to be political” every time she chose “where to pee”.

When India Willoughby, the first UK’s first trans newsreader, was misgendered by JK Rowling (multiple times) she received an avalanche of abuse. Willoughby recounted to me how a national newspaper invited her to write about her experience. However, the paper received so many threats from “gender critical” (“GC”) activists, that it was forced to pull the piece over fears for the safety of its staff.

Much anti-trans rhetoric insinuates that trans people are somehow inherently dangerous (often based on questionable research). But trans people are statistically less likely to commit serious offences than cis people. They make up around 0.5% of the population but just 0.2% of prisoners.

Indeed, while 0.7% of MPs were, in the last parliament, found to have committed a sexual offence, only around 0.03% of the trans population have been similarly convicted.

It's difficult to ignore the correlation between the rise in anti-trans violence and exclusion and the rise of the GC movement.

The Daily Mail alone went from publishing six (negative) articles about trans people per month in 2013, to 115 by 2023.

From 2012 to 2022 (a decade in which the GC movement became substantially more vocal) hate crimes against trans people increased 1300%.

Correlation is not the same as causation. But peer-reviewed research suggests a connection between widespread anti-trans rhetoric and anti-trans violence. GC activists and politicians have, at the very least, serious questions to answer.

Part of the problem is that British law doesn’t protect trans people effectively. The Equality Act protects both trans people and the belief that it is impossible to change sex. In practice, that means that individuals who engage in public attacks (“fierce public criticism”) against trans people may be shielded from certain consequences of their actions.

Protected beliefs have included social media posts apparently (to this writer) involving comparing trans people with paedophiles, suggesting Stonewall hired someone who ran workshops about how to coerce women into sex, and seemingly expressing approval of an activist involved in online attacks which forced a rape-crisis centre into lockdown.

This isn’t the fault of judges. The Equality Act only applies in limited circumstances. Many of the public attacks protected under the Act could, if permitted in the workplace, be unlawful under the Act.

The existing law does not, however, leave adequate space to consider the potential connection between vehement anti-trans activism (outside the specific realms regulated by the Equality Act) and anti-trans violence and the broader silencing of trans people.

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People with GC views also receive horrendous levels of hate online. I have colleagues who are scared to post clips of themselves arguing for GC positions because of the hate they will receive. While GC activists don’t suffer the same level of physical danger or silencing as trans people, they are nonetheless entitled to better protection than the Equality Act provides.

Public debate, however, is not a level playing field. As trans journalist Owl Fisher wrote: “[Trans people] are just people, like you, wanting to live our lives without persecution. We just want to be able to be ourselves.”

GC activists, by contrast, campaign to have their preferences imposed on, or even eliminate trans people. Liz Truss, supported by prominent GC activists, recently proposed a bill which would have set the UK on a path to joining Hungary and Bulgaria in attempting to legislate trans people out of existence. Just as in debates between antisemites and Jews, the global majority and racists, Muslims and Islamophobes, trans people are forced to debate their right to exist.

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The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021, which takes effect on 1 April, may offer a solution to the current gap in the law. It creates a new offence of “stirring up hatred”, by acting in a manner which is unreasonably “threatening or abusive”, towards certain marginalised groups (similar to the “protected categories” in the Equality Act). While it wouldn’t necessarily catch the specific examples mentioned above, it is the first attempt to seriously address the real impacts of public attacks on trans and other minoritised people.

Democracies must accommodate the broadest range of views possible. We should be inherently wary of laws which criminalise speech. But the 2021 Act is likely to enhance, rather than limit freedoms.

It (rightly) requires the courts to pay special attention to preserving free speech. At the same time, it recognises that powerful people can abuse their speech to silence others. The Act thus strikes an important balance between competing rights. True freedom cannot be achieved by giving carte blanche to the powerful. Marginalised communities are as entitled to have their freedoms protected as their persecutors.

Sam Fowles is a barrister, columnists and the author of Overruled: Confronting Our Vanishing Democracy in Eight Cases. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.