When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood up during PMQs last week and made a snide remark about trans women, the world was watching. Which is to say, the press has extensively covered the story, and those with an awareness of the harsh reality of life for trans people looked on in disbelief. The comment came as part of a sparring match with Labour leader Keir Starmer. Sunak listed what he perceived to be Labour’s U-turns, one of which, he said – to cheers and sneers from his bench – was on ‘defining a woman’. He added a jibe for good measure: ‘Although in fairness that was only 99% of a U-turn’ – likely referring to Starmer’s past comment, ‘99.9% of women do not have penises’.
On the day the comment was made, Esther Ghey, the mother of Brianna Ghey, the British transgender teenager who was murdered in February 2023, was due to attend the Commons in the public gallery. Even Keir Starmer – whose own track record on trans rights has been condemned by the LGBTQ+ community – could see Sunak’s decision to make a mockery of trans people’s right to self-determine their gender – especially in front of Esther Ghey – was detestable. ‘Of all the weeks to say that,’ Starmer said, ‘shame’.
Responses on social media were even more emphatic. Activist Munroe Bergdorf called it ‘an abhorrent display of transphobia.’ Others called for Sunak to resign. How can my trans friends, or my brother, who is trans, be expected to stay afloat in this kind of environment; I wondered; a world where those with the most power show total disregard for the wellbeing of those without it.
In the days since Sunak made the cheap joke, he has doubled down, refusing to apologise. To make matters worse, in a video where he was asked why exactly he refuses to apologise to Brianna Ghey’s family (her father has asked Sunak for an apology) the PM appeared to be smiling. It’s a deeply unsettling watch. Sunak maintains that his remark was targeted at Starmer. ‘To use that tragedy to detract from the very separate and clear point I was making about Keir Starmer’s proven track record of multiple U-turns on major policies because he doesn’t have a plan, I think is both sad and wrong, and it demonstrates the worst of politics.’
To apologise would be to relent, and Sunak has shown no signs of relenting on his ongoing campaign against trans people as Tory leader. During his two-year tenure, he has launched several attacks on trans people, making light of the issue as he does so. At the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October last year, Sunak said the British public are being ‘bullied’ into believing that ‘people can be any sex they want to be’. He added: ‘They can’t, a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.’ At the same conference, Tory plans to ban trans people from treatment in female- and male-only British hospital wards were announced by the health secretary.
For many trans onlookers, Sunak’s comment was met with a sentiment of exhaustion, the understanding that, while this might have felt like a new low, it wasn’t necessarily shocking. ‘It wasn’t even a surprise that it might have happened in the presence of the mother of a murdered trans girl,’ as journalist Freddy McConnell wrote. ‘I cannot imagine it surprised any trans person who’s lived in Britain during the past six-odd years of relentless, coordinated, cynical and very loud attacks, not just on our legal protections but our very humanity.’ The response to Sunak’s comments is what actually felt new, McConnell, adds. ‘For the first time in years, a powerful public figure said something insulting, inaccurate and dehumanising about trans people and everyone reacted – well, as they should.’
Displays of transphobia in the halls of power no doubt have a top-down effect on the everyday experiences of trans people. We can see this play out in the U.S. – where more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced to state legislatures across the country in 2023, while the Human Rights Campaign declared in June a national state of emergency for LGBTQ + people due to an epidemic of violence. I recently wrote about how this wave of intense anti-trans legislation is forcing trans people and their families to relocate from Republican states to Democrat states because life is – literally – becoming unlivable. In the year to March 2023, reports of hate crimes against transgender people in England and Wales reached an all-time high. Breanna Ghey, killed in a park near her home at just 16 years old, was a victim of this environment.
As a general election approaches in the UK, so-called ‘debates’ around trans rights are likely to ramp up, with both parties putting trans lives on the line to demonstrate their ‘stance’ around what has become a culture war issue. Those wondering how to make their own stance against transphobia can be vigilant and call this out for what it is when they see it. They can write to their MPs. They can show their condemnation of Sunak’s comments at the ballot box. They can challenge transphobia in everyday settings. They can consume stories that do not reduce trans people to statistics or this one facet of their identity. They can donate to relevant charities like Stonewall and Mermaids, or the fund set up in memory of Brianna Ghey by her mother. They can deepen their understanding of the issue by reading books like Jules Gill Peterson’s recent A History of Transmisogyny or Shon Faye’s best-selling book The Transgender Issue, which offer context and clarity on how transphobia operate.
On a fundamental level – and it has come to this – we can collectively advocate that trans people not only exist but – like Brianna Ghey – are people with talents, futures and loved ones. As Faye herself, a trans writer from Bristol and based in London puts it: ‘Hope is part of the human condition and trans people’s hope is our proof that we are fully human. We are not an issue to be debated and derided, our existence enriches the world.’
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