Penny Mordaunt’s trans rights U-turn shows how desperate, shameless and out of touch politicians are

Penny Mordaunt arriving for a Cabinet meeting in 2019.

Penny Mordaunt’s U-turn away from supporting trans rights is a sign of things to come in the Tory leadership challenge, activists say.

When Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister, many LGBTQ+ Tories looked hopefully to Penny Mordaunt as a potential successor.

During her time as equalities minister, the MP was behind since-ditched promises to ban conversion therapy for all LGBTQ+ people and to reform the Gender Recognition Act. She marched in Pride and earned a reputation as a rare trans ally in the parliamentary Tory party.

That all came crashing down on Sunday (10 July), when, shortly after announcing her bid for the Tory leadership, Mordaunt posted a lengthy Twitter thread answering the question: Do I know what a woman is?

Mordaunt tweeted about her opposition to what she described as the “trans orthodoxy”, said biology is “overwhelmingly important” when it comes to trans women’s inclusion in sport, and said that while trans women can be considered “legally female… That DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me”.

The backlash was swift – Mordaunt was heavily criticised by LGBTQ+ people let down by her apparent capitulation to the anti-trans wing of her party, and by so-called “gender critical” campaigners who were also suspicious of her motivations.

Tom Pashby, a non-binary journalist and political activist, was just one of the many LGBTQ+ people who was disappointed.

“Penny Mordaunt’s previous comments gave a lot of people like me hope that she was going to be a leading champion for trans rights,” Pashby tells PinkNews.

Non-binary activist Tom Pashby campaigns for Green Party deputy leader

Tom Pashby. (Provided)

“I had thought she was a fairly stand-out principled campaigner, but clearly I was mistaken.

“It is deeply disappointing that she is using trans and non-binary people as a punchbag to maybe win more votes or get a senior cabinet position. I hope she takes time to reflect on her decision to attack us.”

They are all vying with each other to be more right wing and more horrible.

Like many others, LGBTQ+ rights activist Lisa Power was perplexed when she read Mordaunt’s thread – but she’s also glad queer people now know where Mordaunt stands.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” Power says. “But I think what is useful about this rush to the bottom by the Tory leadership candidates is that some of them we knew were homophobic and transphobic so they’re not a surprise, but what this is exposing is the people who actually aren’t homophobic or transphobic by tendency, but are perfectly entitled to be so if it’ll get them into power. I think that tells you quite a lot.”

Power thinks leadership hopefuls like Mordaunt are attacking trans people so they can distract from their party’s “atrociously poor” track record in government. She believes Mordaunt’s move towards anti-trans sentiment will only cost her support.

Transphobia has become firmly embedded within the Conservative Party

What’s troubling is that Penny Mordaunt is far from a lone wolf – courting anti-trans or ‘gender-critical’ support has now become a mainstay of the Conservative Party.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the Tory government will know that MPs and even the former prime minister himself have repeatedly lashed out at trans people, with trans women, in particular, facing the brunt of the hatred. The Labour Party, meanwhile, isn’t doing much better.

That didn’t happen in a vacuum – it’s part of a wider move towards transphobia that’s been heavily pushed by the media and by a small but influential group of ‘gender critical’ feminists. Conservative leaders have both capitalised on and fed the narrative that trans people are to be feared.

Lisa Power in Sky documentary Positive

Lisa Power in the three-part documentary series Positive. (Sky)

Power thinks some senior Tories are stuck in their own right-wing bubble, meaning they now believe transphobia is a legitimate and reliable way to shore up support. She is adamant that there are good Tories out there, but that “none of them are in any form of power at the moment”.

“They are all vying with each other to be more right wing and more horrible,” Power says.

For Pashby, what’s frustrating is that there are so many other issues Tory leadership hopefuls could be focusing on, from the cost of living crisis to the climate emergency. Instead, they’re throwing fuel on the flames of a culture war they know nothing about.

“Some of them clearly have no idea what they’re talking about – just picking out random ‘culture war’ words and phrases and hoping they will work to get more votes. It’s a great example of why we need more trans and non-binary people in politics,” Pashby says.

Penny Mordaunt attends a service to recognise fifty years of continuous deterrent at sea at Westminster Abbey on May 3, 2019 in London.

Penny Mordaunt attends a service to recognise fifty years of continuous deterrent at sea at Westminster Abbey on May 3, 2019 in London. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty)

“Having spoken to a lot of Conservative voters from my time as a political campaigner, I know that most people are most concerned about the big issues like the cost of living and environmental issues, and either don’t know about, or don’t understand the so-called ‘trans debate’. I think it’s embarrassing for leading politicians in the UK to be plumbing the depths like this.”

Does Penny Mordaunt deserve another chance?

While many are disappointed about Penny Mordaunt’s recent comments, others are willing to give her a second chance. Activist Jayne Ozanne, a former LGBTQ+ advisor to the government, thinks she’s still “far and away” the best candidate in the Tory leadership race and believes that she will “champion” LGBTQ+ rights if she were to win.

“I also believe that she is a true champion of all the LGBT+ community,” Ozanne says.

“However, the reality is that she is facing fierce opposition from the anti-trans movement within the Conservative Party and has been viciously attacked in the Conservative press. Twitter is not, in my opinion, the best medium to try and unpack what is a very complex and sensitive topic and I think some of her tweets were clumsily worded.”

Despite this, Ozanne believes that shouldn’t detract from Mordaunt’s “proven track record on trans rights”.

“I am confident that she will continue to be a firm advocate of trans people and will ensure a full ban on conversion therapy, as she announced back in 2018.”

Opinion may differ about just how harmful Mordaunt’s comments are, but one thing is certain – she won’t be the last Tory leadership hopeful to wade into the toxic, never-ending “trans debate” in a bid to win support.