Transphobia in British Politics

With the ongoing Conservative leadership election to replace Boris Johnson, the concept of culture war has often come up. Most recently, Rishi Sunak has turned to these “culture war issues” by bemoaning “anti-British propaganda in schools” and declaring that “we can’t even use words like ‘man’, ‘woman’ or ‘mother’ without offending someone”. Talking about supposed “anti-British propaganda” in schools is a thinly veiled reference to criticisms of the British empire. Clearly, the Tory Right-wing wants to erase the history of racism, patriarchy and slavery that are indelibly connected to the British Empire. This erasure of history is like attempts by Christian evangelical white supremacists in the US to erase the history of genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery through bemoaning critical race theory (without any understanding of what critical race theory actually means). However, for this post, I want to focus on Sunak’s second point, which is blatant transphobia designed to appeal to misogynistic and transphobic Tory members. Indeed, Sunak has pledged to amend the 2010 Equality Act to declare that “sex means biological sex”.

As the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall in the UK has reported, violence against trans people is increasing with 41% of trans people experiencing a hate crime in the last 12 months. Thus, this hateful rhetoric by Sunak denying trans people the right to exist directly translates into violence against trans people as trans people increasingly become dehumanized. As Shon Faye points out in her book, The Transgender Issue: an Argument for Justice, Boris Johnson has made overtly homophobic remarks about LGBTQ+ education and equal marriage and has never retracted them. Politicians, especially on the Right, feel emboldened to be overtly homophobic and transphobic. The legalization of gay marriage, in the US, for instance, gives this false narrative of liberal societies progressing ever forwards. The reality instead is that the US and UK both remain deeply homophobic and transphobic — as we can see with Liz Truss’s commitment to providing single sex bathrooms in schools. As Shon Faye argues, these kinds of proposals are part of a longstanding construction of LGBT+ people and now particularly trans people as sexual predators and sexual deviants. Politicians like Liz Truss see trans people as people who do not exist and who are only pretending to experience gender dysphoria. These politicians, thus, construct trans people as these pretenders who just want to sexually abuse women in women’s toilets. This dehumanization of trans people serves to reinforce their marginalization and emboldens transphobes to be increasingly violent against trans people.

Transphobia is particularly strong within the Tory party, but transphobia also exists within the Labour party. As Shon Faye writes in her book, in 2018, a Labour activist named Jennifer James raised tens of thousands of pounds for a call to ban trans women from being included in all women’s shortlists, although she was eventually banned from the party. With current Labour leader Keir Starmer being very dismissive of the recent racism and sexism in the Forde Report, it is unsurprising that Labour cares little about addressing transphobia. The Forde report revealed how staffers hostile to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made racist and sexist remarks toward Dianne Abbott and other MPs of colour, and Keir Starmer has not issued any kind of apology. This indifference to racism is not surprising within Starmer’s Labour when they have consistently showed how they are anti-working class and anti-labour by refusing to support striking railway workers during strikes this summer. In this sense, then, Labour has become little more than Tory-lite under Starmer with little intention of supporting the working class or working against racism and transphobia.

As Shon Faye argues in her book, justice for trans people will not come about through the current system, particularly when both Labour and the Tories are committed to supporting the status quo. An anti-capitalist and radical politics is needed to challenge the pervasive transphobia within British society. A liberal drive to include trans people in the armed forces will not address the fact that most trans people are working class and that 25% of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

The discrimination faced by trans people is also firmly related within patriarchy because patriarchy enforces these rigid gender roles that Liz Truss is alluding to with her comments about single sex bathrooms. Gender is a social construct and is fluid, but transphobes deny this reality and, in so doing, deny the right of trans people to exist at all. Those who uphold the patriarchy are terrified of trans people because trans people are living proof that gender roles are fluid. Thus, politicians like Rishi Sunak or Boris Johnson seek to deny the reality of trans people’s existence and dehumanize them to uphold the patriarchy. The struggle against patriarchy and capitalism, then, is also a struggle for justice for trans people and for people of colour, for indigenous peoples, for disabled people and for all people who are marginalized under the current system.

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Andrew Barnett

Andrew Barnett

MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.