Nadhim Zahawi urged to ‘defuse toxic debate’ on trans rights amid confusion over equalities role

Nadhim Zahawi

Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment as the minister for equalities has been met with a mixed welcome from LGBTQ+ activists.

Zahawi was named chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, minister for intergovernmental relations and minister for equalities, by Liz Truss on Tuesday (6 September).

In the latter role, he will take responsibility for cross-government equality strategy and legislation, including LGBTQ+ rights.

Issues of importance for Zahawi will include banning conversion therapy – in one of his final acts, previous prime minister Boris Johnson fired the starting gun on legislation (after an aborted attempt to drop the issue), but said trans people would not be covered by it.

Jayne Ozanne, a former government LGBTQ+ advisor and conversion therapy survivor and campaigner, took to Twitter to welcome Zahawi. 

She told PinkNews she is looking forward to working with him on the forthcoming conversion therapy ban.

“Many within the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the trans community, are understandably apprehensive about how this administration will approach LGBTQ+ people’s rights,” Ozanne said.

“My hope is that the secretary of state will work to defuse what has been a very toxic debate over the summer and seek to rebuild bridges of trust and confidence with those he has been appointed to champion and protect.”

Jayne Ozanne smiling

Former government LGBT advisor and conversion therapy survivor and campaigner Jayne Ozanne. (Jayne Ozanne)

Ozanne said it’s “notable” that Zahawi is the minister for equalities, not for women and equalities.

The role has been a combined brief since 2007, other than for a short period in 2014. Prior to that there had been a minister for women since 1997.

“I await with interest the appointment of other ministers within his department,” Ozanne added.

Labour MP Anneliese Dodds has also picked up on the discrepancy between Zahawi’s brief and that of his predecessor Liz Truss, who was minister for women and equalities under Boris Johnson. PinkNews has contacted No 10 for clarity on the issue, but had not received a response at the time of writing.

“Women are always an afterthought for the Tories,” Dodds tweeted. “Erasing the role for women in cabinet confirms it.”

Dodds spoke hours before Theresa May used PMQs to ask Liz Truss why all three women prime ministers to date have been Conservatives, with Truss mocking Labour for being unable “to find a female leader, or indeed a leader who doesn’t come from north London”.

Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment has not been so warmly received elsewhere.

A spokesperson for Gendered Intelligence, a charity that works to increase understanding of gender diversity and improve the lives of trans people, told PinkNews it is “serious cause for concern, particularly within the trans community”. 

“During his failed leadership bid, Zahawi attempted to appeal to the Conservative right by criticising trans-inclusive relationships and sex education,” they said,

“The minister for equalities is responsible for ensuring that the UK improves the quality of life of all marginalised people; instead Zahawi’s comments have rightly drawn comparisons with Section 28.” 

Zahawi was widely criticised for a speech in June in which he vowed to “focus on letting children be children, protecting them from damaging and inappropriate nonsense being forced on them by radical activists” – widely understood to be a reference to LGBTQ+ and trans groups.

The Gendered Intelligence spokesperson added: “If Liz Truss hopes to repair the credibility of the Tory party after Boris Johnson’s disastrous exit it will be critical to rebuild bridges with the LGBT+ community.

“So far her cabinet is far from promising.”

Zahawi will likely face calls to revisit reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – however, as these were scrapped by Truss in her time as minster for women and equalities, it seems unlikely.

Another priority for Zahawi in his new post will be addressing hate crime, reports of which have more than doubled in five years, according to police figures.

Zahawi has a good track record of voting in favour of same-sex marriage, and a decade ago wrote that he supports gay marriage, and believes society is stronger “when we make vows to each other and support each other”.