Boris Johnson leaves behind bitter LGBTQ+ legacy of failure, hurt and transphobia

In this photograph Boris Johnson speaks behind a podium

Boris Johnson’s legacy will be defined by his fuelling of a transphobic culture war that has put lives at risk, say MPs and LGBTQ+ activists.

Johnson’s successor will be announced at around 12.30pm on Monday (5 September), with foreign secretary Liz Truss widely expected to replace him as prime minister.

When Johnson won his landslide snap election victory in December 2019, just months after taking office, his ambitions were clear: to leave a mark on history greater than any prime minister since his hero, Winston Churchill.

But three years on, it seems Johnson will be remembered more for the crises – often of his own making – and missteps that came to define his premiership. And for the LGBTQ+ community, those missteps have been many.

“Boris Johnson has been responsible for one of the most regressive anti-LGBTQ+ administrations that our generation has witnessed,” says Jayne Ozanne, a former member of the government’s since-disbanded LGBT Advisory Panel, who quit over the “hostile environment” stoked by Johnson’s administration.

“Ignoring advice from his own ministers, he has fuelled transphobia and stoked culture wars without a thought for the lives he has put at risk.”

Boris Johnson stepped down as Conservative Party leader after several scandals prompted a wave of resignations from his top officials. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

In the early days of his political career, Johnson seemed promising enough.

After being elected in 2001, the MP for London’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip was a rebellious backbencher, voting against his party to repeal Section 28 and later voting for civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

As mayor of London, he was the first senior Tory to back marriage equality, as reported in a 2010 interview with PinkNews. This came after years of leading the capital city’s Pride parade.

As he threw his hat into the ring to become the next prime minister in 2019, Johnson promised he would tackle LGBTQ+ bullying in schools, “vigorously combat” rising homophobic hate crimes, ban conversion therapy and organise a conference to celebrate the global LGBTQ+ community.

None of this happened.

Boris Johnson’s record on LGBTQ+ rights amounts to mealy-mouthed words.

In 2020, Boris Johnson’s government axed efforts to crack down on LGBTQ+ bullying. A reformed Gender Recognition Act – a policy proposed by Theresa May’s government – was also in the cards, yet ministers ditched that, too.

Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime has surged under his leadership, going hand-in-hand with increasingly hostile rhetoric about LGBTQ+ lives – trans lives, especially.

Perhaps Johnson’s most notable failure was his attempt to abandon a legislated conversion therapy ban, before deciding he would just exclude trans people from it instead.

Liz Truss and Boris Johnson

Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. (Getty)

This double U-turn drove so many LGBT+ rights groups to pull out of the government’s much-feted “Safe To Be Me” conference that the it was cancelled it altogether.

Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, says Johnson’s list of broken promises shows exactly who he is – just a bunch of “mealy-mouthed words”.

“Like every aspect of his premiership, Boris Johnson’s record on LGBTQ+ rights amounts to mealy-mouthed words. From offensive remarks to failure to protect LGBTQ+ people from harmful conversion therapy, this Conservative government has fixated on dividing communities,” she tells PinkNews.

Another legacy of Johnson’s time in office is that queer asylum seekers now face being handed a one-way ticket to anti-LGBTQ+ Rwanda under a new immigration pact, while the Nationality and Borders Bill will make what is already a difficult and exhausting asylum-seeking process for LGBTQ+ people even harder.

Rainbow Migration, a group that supports queer asylum seekers and refugees, says: “Boris Johnson’s government has put the lives of LGBTQ+ people seeking safety in the UK in jeopardy…. many will be disbelieved and returned to countries where they could face torture, imprisonment or death.

“He leaves behind a legacy of avoidable human rights failures, cruel immigration policies and significant damage to the lives of LGBTQ+ people seeking safety in the UK.”

A person attending London Pride holds up a white sign reading "Boris Johnson! Stop stalling on LGBTI+ rights #ReclaimPride" with a rainbow LGBTQ+ flag seen in the background

Boris Johnson has been accused of stalling, if not outright reversing progress. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty)

In its final days, Johnson’s government has eyed up Trumpian anti-trans policies that both his potential successors seem keen to carry on, such as banning trans women from sports and restricting life-saving healthcare for trans youth. He often treats trans people with much the same scorn he once did gay people – or, as he famously once called them, “tank-topped bum boys“.

To Stonewall communications director Robbie de Santos, the aggressive focus on trans rights from the government is a strange one given that, for the most part, voters have little interest in such so-called “debates”.

“We have witnessed a sliding back on support for trans people as the government leaned into a media ‘culture war’ which is detached from the real experiences of how people live their lives,” de Santos adds.

Among the final tests of Johnson’s time in office were the ongoing outbreak of monkeypox and the escalating cost of living crisis. It was an opportunity for him to rise to the occasion, in a way that he perhaps didn’t for COVID-19.

Rejoice! Boris Johnson’s premiership is coming to an end

Peter Tatchell, veteran human rights activist, is among those unimpressed by his response.

“Johnson’s underfunding of vaccine procurement and sexual health clinics are fuelling the monkeypox pandemic,” Tatchell says, adding: “The shambolic failed response to the cost of living crisis is causing immense hardship to LGBT people and millions of others.

“Rejoice! Boris Johnson’s premiership is coming to an end. The Conservatives won less than 44 per cent of the vote at the last election. 56 per cent of electors voted against them. They have no mandate for anything.”

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, contenders to become the country’s next prime minister, have both lambasted so-called ‘woke’ issues. (JACOB KING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

During Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister, there have been some wins for LGBTQ+ people. Blood donation rules for queer men were relaxed, while military personnel convicted of historic gay sex offences were all pardoned under the government’s Armed Forces Bill 2021.

More than 100 LGBTQ+ Afghans were relocated to the UK following the fall of Kabul thanks to government officials and LGBTQ+ activists working side-by-side.

Some victories that took place under Johnson (such as PrEP now being on the NHS or mandatory LGBTQ-inclusive education in schools) were already in the pipeline before he took power. Johnson easily could have built upon the progress achieved by his predecessors – instead, he chose to tear it down.

“What is so upsetting is that he had several opportunities to make the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Britain significantly safer,” says Ozanne.

De Santos adds: “The next prime minister has the chance to turn that story around for the better: respecting our rights and protecting us from abuse allows everyone to live freely and achieve their potential.”

Labour MP Nadia Whittome knows this too. But she doesn’t expect a Truss or Sunak premiership to be all that different from Johnson.

“Having watched the Tory leadership election unfold, I’m not getting my hopes up for a change of course,” she says. “However, I am urging the next prime minister to rethink whether this is really the direction our society should be headed.

“Attacking minorities will not pay anyone’s rent or energy bills, and people around the country know it. LGBTQ+ people deserve so much better.”