ANDREW PIERCE: The 5ft heroine standing up to a campaign of hatred by the militant trans lobby
As the first Muslim to serve on a parliamentary frontbench, Baroness Falkner of Margravine is no stranger to the rough and tumble of party politics.
But nothing prepared the lifelong Lib Dem, who was born and brought up in Pakistan, for the outpouring of racist and misogynistic abuse when she had the temerity to enter the highly charged arena of trans rights.
Falkner, 68, the head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), argued last month that the Equality Act should be updated to ensure the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ was taken to mean ‘biological sex’.
In a 19-page letter to Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, Falkner also recommended that the Act be amended to introduce explicit legal protections for biological women in same-sex spaces, such as changing rooms and hospital wards, and to exclude trans women from female sports.
The reaction from the well-funded trans lobby was co-ordinated and savage, with the flood of vitriol on social media particularly offensive.
As the first Muslim to serve on a parliamentary frontbench, Baroness Falkner of Margravine (pictured) is no stranger to the rough and tumble of party politics
In a 19-page letter to Kemi Badenoch (pictured), the equalities minister, Falkner also recommended that the Act be amended to introduce explicit legal protections for biological women in same-sex spaces, such as changing rooms and hospital wards, and to exclude trans women from female sports
Falkner, whose German-born husband Robert is an academic at the London School of Economics (LSE), was accused of being a ‘Nazi’ who was dehumanising trans people.
She was also branded ‘transphobic’, ‘scum’, a ‘bigot’ and a ‘fascist’ but it was the term Nazi that really stung.
‘My family is German, my name is German,’ she said. ‘You get all this stuff about how transphobic you are, how you’re scum. It’s been difficult — I’m not going to try to sugarcoat it.’
While her intervention over the Equality Act took things to a new level, Falkner is no stranger to trans hate.
The baroness was the focus of intense abuse earlier this year when she urged Nicola Sturgeon’s devolved Scottish government to pause plans to simplify the law enabling children as young as 16 to change their gender without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
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Predictably, Stonewall – the pressure group which successfully campaigned for same sex equality but has haemorrhaged support in government circles since becoming a strident champion of the trans community – led the charge.
‘We are deeply troubled by the approach that the EHRC is taking to trans people’s human rights,’ it said. ‘Their approach appears to focus on pleasing a noisy minority of anti-trans activists, rather than promoting human rights for all LGBTQ+ people.’
While Falkner’s principled stance on trans issues has been welcomed by the likes of Harry Potter author J K Rowling and other women’s rights campaigners, it has alienated some of her Lib Dem colleagues.
One Conservative peer told me: ‘Kishwer Falkner is an incredibly brave woman. She is physically tiny, barely five foot, but she’s robust, clear-headed, and – above all – brave.
The abuse she’s suffered is shocking. Much of it is racist and deeply personal. She’s had little backing from the Labour sisterhood or most of her Lib Dem colleagues in the Lords.
Yet now she’s the one being accused of being a bully. How ironic. I’ve not heard a whisper about this kind of behaviour and the House of Lords is rife with political gossip.’
Born Kishwer Khan, Falkner – despite her Muslim background – was educated at the privately-run Convent Of Jesus And Mary in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The youngest of five children, growing up in Pakistan, she would scour the family copy of current affairs weekly The Economist for news that would help her compete in the regular Sunday lunchtime quizzes devised by her parents. As her father was a senior figure in military intelligence and her mother a TV producer, these were formidable events.
‘Growing up, work was the only way out of poverty but work wasn’t always available and there were high levels of unemployment, poverty and destitution,’ she once recalled.
‘I would read The Economist on the [British] welfare state, covering benefit payments and I would be astonished that a country could have a safety net for its people, where even if you didn’t work, you would be helped.
‘Mummy,’ I would say, ‘you can get money, people give you money as a right, even if you can’t work’. For me, this was a… wonderful thing which had fairness at its heart. For me, coming into public service, as I have done, was almost predetermined from such an early age as that.’
After school she left home at 18 for a job in Saudi Arabia. And it was there that the woman who is now a member of the National Secular Society had a very personal experience of the intolerance of that country’s fundamentalist regime.
Falkner still burns with anger when she recalls the time in her early twenties when she was detained at customs and strip-searched after being found in possession of a book called Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler.
The novel, which amounted to a powerful diatribe against communism was, unbeknown to her, banned by the Saudi government.
Jobs in France and the US followed before she moved to the UK in the late 1970s and took degrees at the LSE and the University of Kent in international relations and European studies.
After joining the Liberal Democrats in the mid-1980s, Falkner spent most of the 1990s working at the party HQ, including a two-year stint as director of policy. Falkner was made a peer by the then Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy in 2004 and promoted to the frontbench in the Lords a year later.
When she took up the equalities post in December 2020 she moved to the independent crossbenches.
At the time, there was limited debate about trans rights but, in the intervening period, it has become all-pervading.
There are days, Falkner admits, when she just wants to ‘pull the duvet over my head’ but adds: ‘Escape is not the answer.’
On the Tory benches, they are preparing to rally behind Falkner as the bullying allegations swirl around her.
‘The equalities world is lucky to have her,’ says one supportive MP. ‘She knew the trans mob would come after her. But she will stick to her guns. She has to. And we will stick by her.’
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