The Government’s War on Trans People

The Tories' decision to exclude trans people from a conversion therapy ban is a cynical attempt to divide the LGBT+ community and fan the flames of media frenzy – once again, it will be marginalised communities that suffer the fallout.

Demonstrators hold placards during the No Ban Without Trans protest opposite Downing Street on 10 April 2022 in London, England. LGBTQ+ collectives and supporters are taking to the streets to protest against the government's decision not to ban trans conversion therapies. (Hollie Adams / Getty Images)

This weekend saw the biggest trans rights rally ever in the UK. Chants demanding rights for trans people and condemning the government’s shameful U-turn on conversion therapy echoed throughout Whitehall on Sunday, called by a crowd more than 3,000 strong.

It was fitting the rally was held outside Number 10, because this is the epicentre of a growing list of broken promises. In that very building, a promise was made forty-five long months ago by Theresa May with the launch of her LGBT+ Action Plan. The Plan received much fanfare at the time, despite the fact that the majority of its commitments came with little or no cash to help fight the social and economic inequalities that result in young LGBT+ people being at higher risk of homelessness, or the chronic underfunding of sexual health services after years of Tory cuts.

Instead, May chose to use legislative levers to advance legal protections for LGBT+ people, with two flagship policies: first, the reform of the Gender Recognition Act, and second, a full ban on conversion therapy for LGBT+ people. The majority of the LGBT+ community got squarely behind these goals.

But both of these promises have now been scrapped. Liz Truss has binned the LGBT+ Action Plan, and even the government’s LGBT Advisory Board has been disbanded, with ministers accused of ‘creating a hostile environment’ for LGBT+ people. The 2004 Gender Recognition Act, of which no less than two parliamentary inquiries have called for urgent reform, remains in place, and the ban on conversion therapy, which both May and Boris Johnson have described as ‘abhorrent’, will only be partially taken forward.

In the same week that Boris Johnson praised the UK’s first openly trans MP, Jamie Wallis, at the Dispatch Box, a member of his government leaked to the press that he wanted to scrap the conversion therapy ban entirely. It then took just four hours for Johnson’s new position to crumble, and he accepted that a ban would be enacted—but only for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

England is now set to become the only part of the world with a conversion therapy ban that deliberately excludes trans people. That’s despite the major UK medical bodies, including the BMA, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, denouncing Johnson’s position by calling for a ban that includes trans people. Trade unions also came out swinging behind a ban that protects all LGBT+ people, and the Scottish and Welsh governments have made clear their intention to keep trans people included in a future ban.

A joint memorandum of understanding has been in place since 2017, signed by a range of medical bodies including NHS England and NHS Scotland, making clear that conversion therapy for both gender identity and sexual orientation is ‘unethical, potentially harmful and is not supported by evidence’. The UN has described it as ‘an egregious violation of rights to bodily autonomy, health, and free expression of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity’.

Nonetheless, the government has concluded that a ban that protects trans people would be too complex, and risks so-called ‘unintended consequences’. That’s despite ministers having nearly four years to understand the issues and learn from the fourteen other countries that have some form of a national ban in place, including Germany, which has a specific provision in its law to ban conversion therapy for minors, passed in 2020.

It’s even been suggested that a ban is simply not needed, because conversion therapy practices for trans people aren’t happening, and existing legislation on torture prevents it. That simply isn’t true. The government’s own research shows that trans people have been exposed to these practices, and at higher rates than rates lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Galop, a charity which supports LGBT+ affected by domestic violence, recently found that eleven percent of trans people had been exposed to conversion practices by their own families. That’s on top of facing a higher risk of being rejected from one’s own family, bullied at school, and made homeless.

The government doesn’t deem this group, and particularly young trans people, worthy of protection, and is willing to go against both international condemnation and opposition from its own NHS to prove it. Johnson is even willing to go against the views of his own voters: a YouGov poll published this week showed nearly six in ten (fifty-eight percent) of those who currently intend to vote Conservative back a ban including protection for trans people, which is almost the level of support for a ban for practices targeting sexuality (sixty-three percent). The population as a whole backs a comprehensive ban in even greater numbers.

As we see the biggest fall in living standards in generations, with wages stagnating, benefits plunging to their lowest value in half a century, and a Chancellor forced to refer himself to an ethical inquiry, this government has chosen to stoke the flames of its culture war and attempt to divide the LGBT+ community. But the community is fighting back.

The government’s flagship global LGBT+ rights conference, Safe to Be Me, has been cancelled after 100 LGBT+ groups came together in an act of solidarity to abandon their support for the event. Conducted while deserting the rights of trans people, the conference—intended to spotlight the UK’s record on LGBT+ rights—would have been a smokescreen, and responsibility for its failure rests squarely with the government and its pile of broken promises. Over 100,000 people have also signed a petition urging the government to rethink its position, which will trigger a debate in Westminster, and over 30,000 people have written to their MP.

This year marks fifty years since the first Pride march took place in the UK. It’s a point in which we should celebrate the progress made, but instead it comes at a time when the relationship between the government and LGBT+ people is at one of its lowest points in recent years, and a media war against trans people is leading experts to warn of a mental health crisis within the community.

During times of attack by governments or the media, though, LGBT+ people will come together and support one another. From the fight against HIV to the dark days of Section 28, history shows that outrage builds and movements are born that will not be silenced. When LGBT+ people stand strong with our allies, governments can be forced to see their mistakes, and change can happen. We’ve done it before, and we will do it again—this time to make make sure the repellent practice of conversion therapy is banned for everyone.