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Tilting at Windmills: the Tory Party and the Transgender community

Hanorah Hardy

In 1987, then Prime Minister of the U.K., Margaret Thatcher, addressed the Conservative Party Conference. Her infamous speech came off the back of calls for equality from lesbian and gay rights activists in the late 1980s, to which she said: "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated out of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated."

In October 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressed the Conservative Party Conference regarding his stance on gender identity, stating that "we [conservatives] shouldn't get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can't. A man is a man and a woman is a woman — that's just common sense."

Apart from being queerphobic, there is another crucial similarity surrounding the context of both speeches. Thatcher's address in 1987 was given as she started to fall out of public favour, just three years before her resignation in 1990. Sunak's speech in 2023 has come as Labour continues to gain popularity in the polls and looks likely to form the next government in the looming general election. 

It seems as though when faced with decreasing popularity and a desperate need for votes, the Tory party's go-to is to scapegoat the LGBTQ+ community. It is easy to dismiss identities as ‘just words’. 

Government institutions have considerable control over how we classify and imagine the world around us through specific language choices. Institutions use language to focus public attention on particular topics to construct a reality that benefits their objectives and deflects attention away from their failures. Language is the principal means by which institutions construct and produce their authority. It is a power, the influence of which cannot be understated.

While targeting marginalised groups may be a political tactic for the Tory party to reassert themselves in the face of numerous scandals and disasters, this has a real tangible impact on the communities affected. Unsurprisingly, discourse from our most powerful institutions is internalised by the public and exhibited in society.

A year after Thatcher's Conference address, support for anti-gay legislation was mobilised, and as a result, Section 28 was introduced. Section 28 banned local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. The legislation meant that councils were prohibited from funding books, plays, leaflets, films, or other materials showing same-sex relationships. At the same time, teachers weren't allowed to teach about gay relationships in schools. 

Section 28 came around the time of the HIV epidemic, meaning the Tories could justify the Act by claiming it was "essential in stopping the spread of the sickness." The word homosexuality was now a synonym for disease, and homosexuality itself was linguistically constructed as an "epidemic". The policy and language had enormous detrimental effects on the LGBTQ+ community, leading to years of shame, stigma and invisibility.

Section 28 remained in place until 2003.

In 2023, instead of a focus on homosexuality, the focus is now on the Transgender community.

To deflect from their failures in government, the Tories have constructed a reality that scapegoats trans people's existence as the most pressing political issue in the United Kingdom. The Tory party has recently produced a new problem, targeting trans healthcare in hospitals. 

Home Secretary Suella Braverman, speaking on Sky News, said: "Trans women have no place in women's wards or indeed any safe space relating to biological women[...]This is about protecting women's dignity and women's safety and privacy." Not only does this language ostracise entirely, discriminate against and humiliate trans people, but it also clearly and purposefully implies that transwomen are a danger to the community, which is wrong, dangerous and sometimes fatal to transwomen.

Transphobia has already been on the rise, and the impact of Sunak and Braverman's verbal attacks is likely to cause further escalation. Hate crimes against trans communities rose by 156% in the last four years. This was the highest increase of hate crimes recorded amongst communities experiencing marginalisation. Anti-trans rhetoric has also become mainstream. 

Mermaids, a charity that supports transgender young people, published research in 2019 on media coverage around trans people. They found that "trans people generally are increasingly written about in negative ways". One of their findings stated, "trans people are described in the context of crime 608 times in 2018-19, as opposed to 3 times in 2012."

The Census 2021 indicated that 0.5% of the United Kingdom's population identifies as transgender. So why is the government focused on ensuring transmen and transwomen do not receive the same rights as everyone else? 

Scapegoating is used to accuse people from marginalised communities of societal problems, diverting from the real causes of those social issues. The scapegoat is chosen because they present an easy victim without fear of large-scale retaliation, and with transphobic attitudes rising in the last four years, the trans community is a perfect target for the Tories to deflect from their continuous inaction and repeated scandals. 

The focus on verbally constructing certain narratives about specific communities, such as the trans community, is a deliberate tactic meant to entrench division in voters as it did in the 1980s, creating an 'us' vs 'them' mentality which keeps the public disunited. Therefore, we cannot focus on the inhumane and detrimental policies brought in by the Tories over the last thirteen years. 

The impact of Thatcher's attack on the LGBTQ+ community can still be seen today in the current Tory government. We cannot allow what happened to homosexual people to happen to the trans community. Can we permit another thirty years of discrimination and ostracisation for those in the LGBTQ+ community? 

Image: Charlie Bibby/FT

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