One year of Rishi Sunak: How the Tory prime minister has failed LGBTQ+ Brits
There was a sense of anticipation in Manchester when prime minister Rishi Sunak took to the stage to deliver his Conservative Party conference speech.
For any party leader, a party conference speech is a big moment – it’s an opportunity to boost confidence, to show the public they know what they’re doing. With the Tories trailing in the polls, Sunak’s speech represented an opportunity to change his party’s ailing fortunes.
Rishi Sunak could have said anything to win back support, but in the end, he went for the lowest hanging fruit: trans rights.
“A man is a man, and a woman is a woman, that’s just common sense,” the prime minister said to rapturous applause. The public were being “bullied”, he added, into believing that “people can be any sex they want to be”.
It was a dark moment for the UK’s trans community, but it was hardly a surprise. Ever since Rishi Sunak settled into Downing Street a year ago, he’s made it abundantly clear that he’s more than happy to weaponise anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment if it leads to increased support.
From vague rhetoric to concrete anti-LGBTQ+ policies, Sunak’s first year in office has been a long, hard slog for queer people in the UK – but does his constant barrage of attacks make him the worst prime minister for LGBTQ+ rights in recent history?
Rishi Sunak’s open hostility to LGBTQ+ rights
Within days of Sunak becoming prime minister, he was already busying himself with plans to roll back hard-won LGBTQ+ rights and protections.
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Less than two weeks after he made No 10 his home, reports started circulating that Sunak was planning to “review the Equality Act to make it clear that sex means biological sex rather than gender”.
It didn’t help that he immediately appointed Kemi Badenoch, one of the party’s most prominent anti-trans voices, as women and equalities minister. Many saw her appointment as a sign of things to come – as clear an indication as any that Sunak would not be an advocate for positive change.
Just weeks later, Sunak’s next major faux pas came when he failed to wear a World AIDS Day ribbon. His excuse was that he “doesn’t put things on his lapel”.
From there, things went from bad to worse. In December 2022, while Sunak was still a fledgling prime minister, the Scottish government passed its landmark Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) bill after years of debate, amendments and discussion.
Sunak’s government quickly decided to block the legislation in a move that was condemned as both unprecedented and legally contentious. Sunak was quick to pander to those who oppose trans rights, tweeting that the bill could have “consequences” for “women and children’s safety in the rest of the UK”.
His first year as prime minister has also been marked by an ongoing failure to ban conversion therapy.
To cut Sunak some slack, he’s far from the only person to blame for the ongoing failure to ban the dehumanising, degrading practice. Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss before him have also failed to get the legislation over the line.
But Sunak has set a record for the sheer amount of flip-flopping he’s done on the issue. Over the last few weeks alone, the ban was off the table. Then it was back on the table. Then it was off the table again. Activists condemned Sunak for his apparent inability to simply make up his mind on an issue that many LGBTQ+ activists have repeatedly made clear should be one of the most important things on his to-do-list.
Instead of banning pseudoscientific practices that seek to change a queer person’s very identity, Sunak’s government has reportedly considered whether it should ban trans children from playing school sports. Meanwhile, Badenoch has even turned kids using the toilet into an issue worthy of a newspaper op-ed.
In one of the most government’s most crushingly depressing moments, the government signalled that it wants to force schools to out trans youth to their parents. Around the same time, reports suggested that the government wanted to ban pupils socially transitioning in schools altogether.
The Times later reported that Sunak was preparing to drop the ban on social transition – but not because doing so would be morally wrong. No, he reportedly backtracked because he realised doing so would be illegal under the Equality Act, and that his government would have to go to the trouble of amending legislation that was put in place to protect vulnerable people.
Anti-trans rhetoric has been relentless
As if the many policy changes and debates haven’t been enough, Sunak has also repeatedly leant on anti-trans dogwhistles in his desperate bid to win back popular support.
Both the government and the media have been complicit in driving a debate about whether a woman can have a penis, or what constitutes a woman in the first place. It’s a regressive, cruel talking point – but that hasn’t stopped Sunak using it in an effort to draw a firm line between himself and his biggest political opponent, Keir Starmer.
Speaking to ConservativeHome in April, Sunak sought to distance himself from Starmer when he said that “100 per cent” of women do not have a penis. While he said there should be “compassion and understanding” for those exploring their gender identity, he also said female single-sex spaces should only be for those assigned female at birth.
“As a general kind of operating principle, for me biological sex is vitally fundamentally important,” he said. “We can’t forget that and that’s why we need to make sure – particularly when it comes to women’s health, women’s sports, or indeed spaces – that we’re protecting those rights and places.”
“I know what a woman is – and I’ll protect women’s rights and women’s spaces,” Sunak said.
The very same week, Sunak – apparently left with no other rebuttals to Keir Starmer – decided to distract from real issues by announcing in parliament that the opposition leader “does not know what a woman is”.
And then came one of Sunak’s biggest missteps – he was caught on video mocking trans women. In a clip shared exclusively by PinkNews, the prime minister was heard joking about “women having penises” at a party attended by Conservative MPs. There was outcry and public condemnation, but Sunak was not deterred.
That set the stage for his latest effort at relevancy in his Conservative Party conference speech. Once again, Rishi Sunak was widely criticised by LGBTQ+ activists. There were even protests in response to what he said. And yet, there was no apology.
Is Rishi Sunak the worst prime minister yet for LGBTQ+ rights?
It’s largely impossible to determine whether Sunak is the worst prime minister for LGBTQ+ rights. There’s little to no point in comparing him to prime ministers who served a hundred years ago, or even 50 years ago, because public perceptions of queerness were so markedly different then.
But he can be compared to the long line of recent prime ministers, many of whom have mixed records themselves on LGBTQ+ rights.
There was of course David Cameron, who was prime minster when same-sex marriage finally got over the line. At that time, anti-trans sentiment or discourse wasn’t as part of the political fabric as it is today, and Cameron was presumably aware that most people were, at that stage, broadly supportive when it came to gay rights.
Next up was Theresa May. Like Cameron, she spent much of her political career opposing LGBTQ+ rights. Before she became prime minister, May had voted against same-sex adoption and voted against the repeal of Section 28.
During her time as prime minister, which coincided with the gradual mainstreaming of “gender critical” talking points, May sought to distance herself from her past records. She promised to ban conversion therapy and reform gender recognition laws – but she didn’t last long enough in No 10 to achieve those changes.
Boris Johnson was the first prime minister to happily wade into anti-trans talking points. During his deeply controversial time as prime minister, Johnson backed a ban on trans women taking part in elite swimming and said women can’t be born with a penis. Like Sunak, he also became known for his constant flip-flopping on conversion therapy. His time in office was detrimental to many, but for LGBTQ+ people, it was a time of rising hate and political inaction.
Liz Truss was only prime minister for a few weeks, but she made it clear right from the word “go” that she was prepared to weaponise anti-trans talking points. Much like Sunak and Johnson, she happily played into cruel debates about trans rights, insisting that trans women aren’t women and hitting out at the “woke bandwagon”.
Is Sunak worse than his predecessors? We’ll leave that up to you to decide. But one thing is increasingly clear: anti-trans hate and anti-LGBTQ+ policies have become mainstream in the UK’s political class. Even if you take all the various failings of successive prime ministers out of the equation, it’s never been clearer that the rhetoric at the heart of politics needs to change.
For that to happen, politicians must start seeing LGBTQ+ people – and especially trans people – as human beings again.
Right now, that feels like a distant dream.
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