The Tories’ LGBT+ conference was an egotistic sham. It was doomed to fail from the start

Liz Truss and Boris Johnson

The Tories’ LGBT+ rights conference has finally been cancelled, and in the end, it went out with a whimper rather than a bang.

The event, described by the government as the “first-ever global LGBT conference”, was doomed to fail right from the get go – but few could have predicted just how badly it would blow up in Boris Johnson’s face.

In the end, Downing Street’s announcement that it would be scrapping a conversion therapy ban entirely – and the subsequent U-turn to ban the practice, but not to protect trans people – made sure that the conference couldn’t go ahead.

Late on Tuesday evening (5 April), the government finally confirmed what everyone already knew. A government that consistently refuses to advance LGBT+ rights can’t be trusted to host a conference on the topic, let alone one that’s described as “global”.

The truth is that the Tories have been sowing the seeds of destruction for some time.

The government is far from an authority on LGBT+ rights – so why did it want to host a conference on the topic?

There was some head-scratching when the Tories first announced the Safe To Be Me conference in May 2021. In a press release, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) described it as “the largest event of its kind”, saying it would “focus on making progress on legislative reform, tackling violence and discrimination, and ensuring equal access to public service for LGBT people”.

In a statement, Liz Truss, minister for women and equalities, said she wanted LGBT+ people to live their lives “free from prejudice, malice, or violence, regardless of their background or who they choose to love”.

She continued: “This conference will take aim at the prejudices LGBT people still face, and look at the collective action we can take to tackle those injustices alongside our international friends and partners.”

It was a confusing statement to anyone who had been paying attention to the government’s approach to LGBT+ rights – specifically to trans rights and the issue of conversion therapy.

In 2018, it looked like change was on the cards. That year, then prime minister Theresa May promised to ban conversion therapy and a public consultation was launched on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Trans people were clear – they wanted the act to be reformed to make legal gender recognition easier.

That public consultation showed strong support for efforts to streamline the process of legal gender recognition – but that apparently wasn’t enough. In September 2020, after a lot of back and forth, Liz Truss announced that she was shelving plans to reform the GRA.

“It is the government’s view that the balance struck in this legislation is correct, in that there are proper checks and balances in the system and also support for people who want to change their legal sex,” Truss said in a statement at the time.

The reaction from trans people and LGBT+ organisations was swift – the government was condemned for its failure to make life meaningfully better for queer people in the UK.

In the background, the much-discussed conversion therapy ban was nowhere to be seen. At various points, Truss and Johnson insisted that legislation would be brought forward, but progress was achingly slow. As time went by, it became increasingly clear that something was amiss.

LGBT+ people have long been dissatisfied over government failings

It was in that context that the equalities office announced the Safe To Be Me conference in May 2021. A government that had proven it had little to no intention of improving life for LGBT+ people in the UK was positioning itself as an authority on the subject, much to the confusion of a frustrated queer community.

The Safe To Be Me conference was scheduled to run in London from 29 June to 1 July, but as the date drew nearer, it became apparent that all was not well behind the scenes. There were rumblings that the conference was in trouble.

On 31 March, Vice World News published an article which revealed just how bad things had gotten. The government was asking corporate sponsors to come forward and make a minimum donation of £100,000, but with just months to go, it had failed to find a single sponsor.

Vice World News revealed that major companies like BP and OVO Energy were asked to sign up, but had declined the government’s invitation. Notably, an unnamed investment bank turned down the chance to take part in the Safe To Be Me conference after one of its employees threatened to quit. That depth of feeling shows just how bad the UK government’s relationship with the LGBT+ community had become.

Then came a bombshell – just hours after Vice World News revealed that the conference was in jeopardy, ITV News broke the story that the government was scrapping plans to ban conversion therapy altogether.

The backlash was swift and furious. Within hours, Downing Street back-pedalled, announcing that it would ban conversion therapy after all – but only for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

That decision was the final nail in the coffin for the Safe To Be Me conference. With that, the Conservative government made its position abundantly clear: it was more interested in appealing to a small group of anti-trans voters than it was in protecting the trans community from avoidable harms.

In the days that followed, more than 100 LGBT+ organisations announced that they would be boycotting the Safe To Be Me conference. As the backlash intensified, it became apparent that the conference couldn’t go ahead.

Finally, the Tories confirmed on Tuesday evening (5 March) that the Safe To Be Me conference had been consigned to the dustbin of history – much like all of the reforms the Tories promised to the LGBT+ community in 2018.

The fiasco should send a clear message to government – you can’t claim to be an authority on LGBT+ rights unless you’re prepared to actively improve life for queer people. Until the UK government learns that lesson, its efforts to engage with the LGBT+ community will fail.