An apparent prerequisite of Conservative leadership candidacy is to offer an opinion on the ‘trans question’. Since Boris Johnson’s resignation, Penny Mourdant has boasted about challenging ‘trans orthodoxy’, while Nadhim Zahawi echoed the language of Section 28 in his desire to protect children ‘from damaging and inappropriate nonsense being forced on them by radical activists’. In her role as Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss has steadfastly refused to include trans people in the ban on conversion therapy.
These hostile attitudes towards trans people and gender non-conformity are frequently disguised under the rubric of defending women’s ‘sex-based rights’. Frontrunner Rishi Sunak has criticised recent trends of ‘erasing women,’ deploying the narrative of ‘Gender Critical’ voices to suggest there is an inherent conflict between ‘women’s rights’ and those of trans people.
The reality is that a decade of Conservative government has entirely failed to defend the rights of working-class women, both cis and trans. The recent £20 weekly reduction in Universal Credit payments disproportionately harmed women, presenting many of them with the ‘difficult choice between staying with an abusive partner or being unable to provide for themselves and their children’, according to the CEO of the domestic abuse charity Refuge. It’s estimated that thousands of domestic violence survivors have been denied help as a result of cuts to legal aid.
Meanwhile, more than a fifth of women in work are paid less than the real living wage—leaving them particularly vulnerable to the current spiralling inflation—and women are among those more likely to express anxiety about food insecurity. It’s little surprise, then, that polling consistently shows lower support for the Conservatives among women compared with their male counterparts.
In stoking hatred toward trans people, the Conservative Party is positioning itself against a putative ‘liberal establishment’ which denies the apparent realities of biological sex, with Suella Braverman railing against the ‘woke rubbish’ of those who do not describe ‘a man and a woman in terms of biology.’ Considering the narrative spun, you’d be forgiven for thinking that trans people dominated our media, sporting institutions, and educational establishments. The truth is that trans people continue to face extreme social marginalisation, particularly at work, with a 2018 survey indicating one in three UK employers would be unwilling to hire a transgender individual.
In reality, the Tories’ latest iteration of ‘authoritarian populism’ is simply an attempt to pin the blame on trans people for the failures of successive Conservative administrations, which have overseen skyrocketing inequality and the largest fall in living standards on record. Whether it is trade unionists, migrants, or trans people, the Conservatives are desperate to locate an ‘enemy within’ who is really at fault for how bad things currently are.
Most revealing were the comments of leadership contender Kemi Badenoch, who, after relabelling gender neutral toilets at her launch, claimed that we ‘cannot maintain a cohesive nation-state with the zero-sum identity politics we see today.’ Badenoch directly links debates around gender identity to the decline of the nation—the idea that trans people represent a moral degeneration that forms an existential threat to the UK’s security and integrity. Even the idea of trans people ‘erasing’ women contains echoes of the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ now common on the extreme right, reinforcing the connection between ‘gender theory’ and public decline.
The necessity of this relentless demonisation is clear when one considers the ideological emptiness of the economic policy offered by our prospective prime ministers. All the candidates have made lavish promises to cut taxes (including Rishi Sunak, at some future point once inflation is brought down), appealing to millionaire donors, media barons, and a devotedly Thatcherite membership. Little consideration has been given to how genuine economic investment could make an actual levelling-up agenda—not just the empty rhetoric touted in recent years—popular in the Red Wall seats that need it. Instead, a renewed focus on cultural issues is viewed as fertile ground on which to maintain a crumbling coalition and combat the widespread disempowerment and poverty that will be felt under what is really likely to be ushered in by any of those currently standing: a revamped austerity agenda.
Last week, tens of thousands of people took to London’s streets for Trans Pride. Our demands are simple: the right to bodily autonomy, a properly funded NHS to end the catastrophically long waiting lists to access gender-affirming care, dignity and security at work, and safe, affordable housing for those fleeing their domestic situations. These were the same demands that I stood on when elected as Haringey’s first trans councillor this year, because I believe the fight for trans liberation can only be realised through the fight for socialism.
In 1987, it was former Haringey Council leader and socialist MP Bernie Grant who became the first member of Parliament to voice opposition to Section 28, while Tony Benn was an outspoken defender of LGBT rights in the House of Commons. It remains the responsibility of all socialists to stand firmly alongside our trans siblings in the face of growing hostility from an increasingly desperate right-wing establishment.