How the Conservative Leadership Contest is Fuelling British Transphobia

Almost as soon as the Conservative Leadership contest was announced there was concern from the trans community.

Content Warning: discussion of transphobia, especially transmisogyny

Almost as soon as the Conservative Leadership contest was announced there was concern from the trans community, including myself, over the way transgender rights would be discussed in the campaign given the prominence of transphobia in UK politics over the last few years.

Unfortunately, these fears were almost immediately proven correct with Penny Mordaunt launching her campaign with a Twitter thread titled “Do I Know What a Woman Is?” She outlined her view that “Some people born male and who have been through the gender recognition process are also legally female. That DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me.” This is particularly concerning because Morduant has previously been supportive of transgender people. At the Dispatch Box in March 2021 she stated that “trans men are men and trans women are women.”

Similarly, Kemi Badenoch went out of her way to gender the toilets at her campaign launch, adding “male” and “female” signs to single stall bathrooms at the venue. Although neither have made it through to the final two, the fact that both began their campaigns with transphobia shows that it is a position they thought would win them votes and has set a tone of transphobia for the entire leadership contest. 

So what of the finalists, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak? 

In the Channel 4 debate Truss told viewers she had changed the process of getting a Gender Recognition Certificate to make it “simpler and kinder” but without introducing self-identification. On paper this sounds great until you understand that self-identification, meaning signing a statutory declaration (still a legal document) you intend to live as your gender permanently, is the “simpler and kinder” option. 

This is because it gives people control over being able to change the gender on their birth certificate, meaning you can get married as the gender you are and be registered as that gender on your death certificate. In comparison, the current system where an anonymous panel decide if you are worthy of a Gender Recognition Certificate is not simple or kind. It involves sending deeply personal medical documents to a panel you will never meet. This panel then has the power to decide whether you are allowed to change the gender on your birth certificate or not. Truss’ view that this is a better process than self-identification shows that she has not listened to organsiations representing trans people such as Stonewall.

In a speech last weekend, Rishi Sunak promised to review the Equality Act to prioritise biological sex and ban trans women from women’s services and sports. The result of this will drive transgender people out of existence altogether by restricting access to public spaces and events for trans people. For example, if you are unable to use the bathroom of your gender it is incredibly difficult to go out in public for more than a few hours at a time. 

This is the ultimate goal of transphobes who have now been given legitimacy by a candidate only one step away from the UK’s highest public office.  Both Truss and Sunak’s attitudes towards trans people – and trans women in particular- reflects a wider shift towards transphobia in the British media. 

This is most prominent in the moral panic around transgender women in sport that has horrifically led to trans women being banned from competing in elite swimming events and the Rugby Football Union, the governing body of English Rugby, voted to ban trans women from competing just last week. These rulings come despite evidence that trans women do not have an advantage over cis women in sport, especially once their testosterone levels are comparable to those of cis women. 

The transphobic coverage of this moral panic, and trans issues more broadly, has had a clear impact on the British public’s view of trans people with 61% of people thinking that trans women should not be able to compete in women’s sports compared to 48% in 2018. Even more terrifying is the fact that 40% of people do not believe trans women are women, and only 38% agree, compared to 43% agreeing in 2018. This YouGov poll was also carried out prior to the current Conservative Party leadership contest. There is no doubt the transphobic rhetoric used throughout the contest, especially Morduant’s insistence on the difference between being “biologically” and “legally” female, will further fuel the anti-trans agenda in the UK. 

It is clear that fanning the flames of the moral panic around trans people by Conservative leadership candidates was intended to win them votes from MPs and members. 

This reflects a terrifying shift within UK politics towards transphobic rhetoric being the norm and fueling an increasingly transphobic national attitutde that means the country is no longer a safe place for trans people, especially trans women. This is something that will have ramifications beyond this contest, with both Truss and Sunak having incredibly poor track records on trans rights, and I am sure will play a large role in the next general election.

Words by Cerys Gardner


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