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Ignoring societal ills, UK Conservatives target trans people

Part of a trans exhibit at the British Queer Museum. (Matty Ennis/YJI)

York, UK – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak caused outrage in February after making a transphobic jibe in parliament in front of Esther Ghey, the mother of murdered transgender teenager Brianna Ghey.

While the decision to make these comments in this company was – of course – appalling and reprehensible, it certainly was not indicative of an isolated incident.

It shouldn’t be that it is only when a prime minister spews transphobia beside the mother of a murdered trans girl that we condemn the hateful transphobic rhetoric that has been consistently employed by the Conservative government for years.

The idea of a ‘culture war’ in the UK, specifically the hysteria surrounding trans people, exploded around the start of the 2020s.

This is not an autogenous cultural frenzy, but rather a divisive and destructive discourse deliberately fueled by the Tory government. 

In October 2023, amid a debilitating cost of living crisis, which left many unable to heat their homes during the winter, Tory leaders decided to use the Conservative Party Conference as an opportunity to discuss trans issues. 

Health Secretary Steve Barclay announced plans for trans people to be banned from male- and female-only wards in hospitals for the safety of biological women, despite there being no evidence to suggest this was an issue.

Subsequent freedom of information requests to more than 100 hospitals, known as National Health Service Trusts, have found zero complaints about trans women in hospitals, according to TransLucent, a charity that advocates on issues of gender and LGBTQ+ rights.

The only people in danger here are visibly feminine trans women, who may now be at risk of violence when forced into male wards. 

As the National Health Service collapses, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine – which analyzes health service data – reported an estimated 250 people a week dying unnecessarily due to soaring wait times, policy was directed at fixing a nonexistent problem under the guise of protecting biological women.

Meanwhile, the average waiting time for gynaecologists has tripled over the last decade, according to data provided by the National Health Service.

This isn’t about protecting women but shamelessly exploiting trans people as a distraction from real issues.

Part of an exhibit in the British Queer Museum. (Matty Ennis/YJI)

At the same conference, Sunak argued that the country was being “bullied” into believing that “people can be any sex they want to be” in a speech supporting parents’ ability to exempt their children from learning about gay relationships.

This is intentionally fallacious and misleading. No credible trans activist is arguing that you can be any sex.

In fact, the very act of declaring oneself transgender is an open acknowledgement of immutable biological sex. To declare yourself trans is to admit to not being born into the body of the opposing sex but still identifying with its associated gender identity. 

The distinction between socially constructed gender and biological realities of sex should not be difficult for a prime minister to understand. But, of course, he understands perfectly.

(Marit Nair/YJI)

Conservative discussion of trans people has never been about intellect. It’s about stoking as much vitriol as possible as a scapegoat for their own incompetence. 

Last month, the government released draft guidance to bar teachers from teaching “the concept of gender identity.”

When questioned on this, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan stated in a May interview with the BBC that uncontested biological sex must be the basis of sex education, describing how school children are being taught about “72 genders.” 

The fictitious “72 genders” idea is a popular myth used as a dog-whistle for the right-wing to decry the dangers of ‘gender ideology’ despite essentially no evidence supporting the claim. 

This comes at the same time as Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch announced a new law for all future buildings to provide both male and female toilets – which many businesses are too small to house – to clamp down on the ‘issue’ of gender-neutral toilets.

Again, amid a storm of genuine hardship for UK citizens, the government purports problems that do not exist to fuel fear and hatred towards a marginalized group.

Tory members of Parliament have provided a barrage of vulgar transphobic comments in recent years. 

From Conservative Member of Parliament Lee Anderson’s claim to TalkTV that he “shan’t be following him into the toilet” when discussing Member of Parliament Eddie Izzard, a trans woman, to Conservative Rachel Maclean sharing a post on X describing her general election rival as a “man in a wig.”

And let’s not forget the Conservative parties incessant questioning Labour Party leaders on the query, “What is a woman?”

This particular question is not a genuine one asked in good faith. It’s only because the trans debate has been so politicized that it’s even an issue.

In reality, everyone implicitly knows what a woman is. But if we need a definition, this can be provided:  “A woman is someone who identifies with the gender derived from the female sex. Most have female reproductive organs, but a small number of people who live as women don’t.”

Perhaps this is a more expansive explanation than previous biologically-essentialist understandings, yet human knowledge should progress and expand. 

But this is not the answer right-wing politicians crave. They desperately want a response which calls trans women men. 

It’s a deliberate rejection of nuance and compassion for the sake of dehumanization. 

Sunak is at the forefront of generating this hate. Yet while he wouldn’t apologize to the Ghey family, when discussing Brianna’s case, he used her correct name and pronouns.

While it’s undoubtedly positive that Sunak didn’t misgender Brianna, under his own definition, he still believed her to be a man. It therefore reflects a terrifying cognitive dissonance when – upon coming into contact with the individual – Sunak can’t bring himself to treat that person in the same way he treats the group they belong to. 

This characterizes Tories’ interactions with trans issues not as reflecting decisions made by those who know and love trans people, but rather by those who dehumanize an entire group of people because they don’t have to look at the individuals in the eyes and see them as human.

It’s telling that Sunak told reporters in February that he was “completely shocked by Brianna’s case” – despite transphobic sentiments, the very sentiments he has helped fuel – being found to constitute towards the killer’s motive.

This political scapegoating is happening in tandem with a rise of transphobia within the right wing press. 

An in-depth study by Pink News showed that in January 2019, the Daily Mail produced 32, mainly neutral, articles on transgender people, yet by January 2023 this had risen to a shocking 115, 100 of which were negative.

There is an obsession within publications and channels like GB News, (which is hosted by a number of Conservative MP’s) with invasive and dehumanizing debates about trans women surrounding their genitalia or their presence in women’s bathrooms.

This coverage both neglects to report and actively contributes towards real problems faced by trans people, including the 186% rise of police-recorded transphobic hate crimes in the last five years, according to the UK charity Stonewall.

Conservatives are directly involved with both perpetuating and exploiting this obsession, weaponizing transphobia to manufacture a culture war that distracts from their failures.

As more than half a million people in the UK live in absolute poverty, the National Health Service crumbles and sewage floods our rivers, the Tories desperately want to convince the public that a marginalized group making up just 1% of the population are their biggest threat. 

In 1988, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Tory government passed Section 28, a law prohibiting the teaching of same-sex relationships by councils or schools. This was capitalized upon in the following elections when the government released posters claiming Labour wanted to ‘teach your kids to be gay.’

When an ostracized community desperately needed education, their government fueled stigmatization and censorship. 

In 2024, as transphobic sentiment heightens in the British public and press, gender affirming care services remain under threat and hate crime statistics rise, the Tories stoke a ‘culture war’ which directly provokes hostility towards the trans community. 

History repeats itself and the lives of LGBTQ+ people are once again being sacrificed for cheap distraction propaganda. 

How is the public expected to believe there is any shred of honor and decency in politics when our government deliberately engages in a vicious campaign of misinformation intended to incite violence against an already vulnerable group of people?  

Matty Ennis is a Reporter and Senior Illustrator with Youth Journalism International from England. He wrote this commentary and contributed photos.

Marit Nair is a Reporter and Senior Illustrator with Youth Journalism International from Australia. She made the illustration.

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