Why Are We Seeing So Much Transphobia In UK Politics?
“I wish we could go back to the ’90s and ’00s, when Trans people were just the butt of the joke,” says Charlie Craggs. The warm and witty Trans activist is mentally and emotionally exhausted by the growing wave of overt transphobia from political figures in the UK. What more damning indictment of the current landscape can there be, when she deems those days of ‘tranny’ jokes preferable?
In 2023, Trans people are no longer jokes, but political chess pieces – used as leverage to create division and cultivate ‘us-versus-them’ narratives in pursuit of electoral gain. A prime example of this hostile atmosphere: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak using his platform during the Conservative Party annual conference in October 2023 to make anti-Trans comments. To the sound of cheers and applause he declared: “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t. A man is a man, a woman is a woman.”
In October, the UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay vowed to ban Trans patients from male and female-only wards – even though not a single complaint had been made about Trans patients in hospitals. In January 2023, the British government took the inflammatory decision to overrule legislation passed by the devolved Scottish Parliament – the Gender Recognition Reform bill – which would make it easier for Trans people to change their legal sex. Scottish ministers have since launched a court challenge against this decision.
These are just a few of the recent events in politics, which have left many in the Trans community feeling as if their existence has been weaponised. “The young people we work with are profoundly affected,” says Cleo Madeleine, communications officer at Gendered Intelligence, a queer and Trans youth support charity. “Being a teenager is already a really hard time in your life when you question your identity and sexuality. It makes it so much more difficult when these questions are being litigated by people such as the Prime Minister. Any young person needs to be heard and supported, and instead a huge amount of pressure is put on them when they see that their lives are being tossed back and forth in government.”
Trans people make up an estimated 0.5% of the UK population. Their outsize presence in national rhetoric grossly misrepresents, not only the reality of their existence, but the scale of the so-called ‘Trans Issue’. For the only people threatened by the Trans Issue are Trans people themselves.
“When we were just a joke we weren’t being targeted as much,” Craggs says, who says her mental health is suffering. She has had to take a break from social media to avoid both seeing and experiencing first-hand the full scope of anti-Trans discourse online. “Now we are constantly part of ‘the conversation’, and honestly, I just feel broken by it,” she says. “I just want to be left alone to live my life, what is so controversial about that?”
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This is the double-bind of Trans visibility. In 2023, there is more openness about Trans lives, increased representation and, crucially, larger and more easily accessible communities. But when Trans people ceased to be ‘fringe material’, they became the Trans Issue – a self-perpetuating political maelstrom with devastating real-life consequences.
Recent statistics compiled by LGBTQIA+ rights charity Stonewall show that hate crimes against Trans people were up by 11% this year and 186% over the last five years in the UK. Stonewall itself attributed this rise to “the UK Government drawing back its support for Trans people and the growth of divisive and demonising rhetoric about Trans people in society”.
Alarmist media headlines are adding fuel to the political fire. “There is a self-sustaining media narrative right now, with 7,500 articles published about trans issues in mainstream press in the UK last year,” says Madeleine. “The vast majority of those are hostile.”
She adds that what troubles her most is that almost every political party seems divided on the Trans Issue and so she fears Trans lives will likely be openly – and hostilely – debated in the lead-up to the next UK general election (estimated to be in late 2024). Research conducted by the US-based The Trevor Project found that public debate around queer and Trans identity during any US election has a hugely negative impact on the mental health of LGBTQIA+ youth.
This recent ramping up of transphobia in politics appears to be straight out of the populist playbook of stoking fear to gain votes. It’s a deeply cynical divide-and-rule manoeuvre and a means of diverting attention from other topics.
“I’m almost tempted to say, go on, ban us from everything,” says an exasperated Craggs. “Because then [politicians] would have to address far more complicated, more important issues – the climate crisis, the cost of living, the NHS – if they didn’t have us to use as a pawn. So, go on, strip me of all the rights you want, if it means we can move on and talk about something else. I’m tired of being used as an excuse.”
When it comes to fighting back against this anti-Trans rhetoric, Madeleine speaks of the tireless resilience of the Trans and queer communities, and the importance of education in reframing the narrative.
“Education and storytelling are our most powerful tools,” she says, of the outreach and media engagement work, which aims to debunk the threatening and misinformed rhetoric around Trans people. “In our work, what’s important is that it is Trans people delivering it and that you get to meet a Transgender person and realise that they are a normal person. A lot of what we’re talking about as a community is really mundane stuff that has somehow ended up being in the public eye. What I want, ultimately, is for everyone to just realise how ordinary we are.”
5 Resources To Help Understand And Support Trans Rights
- To My Trans Sisters edited by Charlie Craggs – an uplifting collection of letters by successful Trans women sharing their stories.
- What The Trans? – a Trans-made podcast addressing (and fact-checking) alarmist headlines.
- Gendered Intelligence – a charity dedicated to improving the lives of Trans people in the UK
- The Transgender Issue: An Argument For Justice by Shon Faye – a radical and much-needed reimagining of the real issues faced by Trans people.
- Club Curran – a joyful global platform created by Trans and queer people to share and explore the everyday realities of the community.
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar