On 5th April 2022 the government was forced into a humiliating climbdown, cancelling its long heralded international LGBT Conference, after 100 or so organisations withdrew their support for the event, and the government’s own LGBT Business Champion resigned. In his resignation statement, Iain Anderson spoke for many when he said that “trust and belief in the Government’s overall commitment to LGBT+ rights has been damaged”.
You don’t have to go back far to find evidence that the Tory Party hasn’t always been at war with LGBT people.
Same sex marriage passed through parliament in 2013. David Cameron later described this in his autobiography as “one of the things of which I’m proudest.”
Teresa May wanted to build on this achievement. She told an interviewer “I want to be seen as an ally of the LGBT community.” In 2018 her government published plans that seemed to promise much. The LGBT Action Plan was informed by a large government survey of the LGBT population. Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt, introducing the document, proclaimed herself a “Stonewall LGBT Ally” and declared that the UK “has consistently been recognised as one of the best countries for LGBT rights in Europe.” The Plan consisted of about 75 pledges for improving the lives of LGBT people. A consultation on reform of the GRA had already been announced. Other headline grabbing measures included banning conversion therapy; improving LGBT healthcare, and in particular, developing a new model for access to trans healthcare; tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools; publishing guidance to schools on how to support trans pupils; supporting police in tackling hate crimes; giving protection to LGBT asylum claimants; and respecting the rights of transgender prisoners.
The Plan was welcomed by Stonewall, who congratulated the government for “not only [having] asked, but listened.”
Following publication of the Plan, the government set up an LGBT Advisory Panel, appointed its first Health Advisor on LGBT issues (Dr Michael Brady), and created a new LGBT Health Fund.
One of the criticisms of the Plan had been the absence of any proposals to introduce same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. However in 2019 parliament voted to legalise same sex marriage in the six counties, and this became law in January 2020. By now though the sands were shifting. Johnson had replaced May as PM, and in September 2019 Pink News reported that following Amber Rudd’s resignation from the Cabinet and the appointment of Thérèse Coffey, “for the first time since equal marriage passed in 2013, more than half of the Cabinet have a record of opposition to same-sex marriage.”
Johnson is chameleon like in his public approach to gay rights, painting himself in different colours depending on the situation and who his audience is. Only Johnson could have the nerve to present himself as a supporter of gay marriage, having once likened it to marriage between three men and a dog. His instinct is still to attack “woke culture” and there’ve been a few examples of this in his speeches; yet these are isolated examples. He’s not a dedicated culture warrior. If asked, he’ll waffle about how he’s always been an ally of the LGBT community, and defend the Tory Party’s record.
Perhaps the true measure of Johnson though was his decision in September 2019 to appoint Liz Truss as Women and Equalities Minister, and the fact that he’s stood by her ever since.
It was Liz Truss who, 12 months later, announced that the government’s response to the Gender Recognition Act consultation would be to abandon the proposed reforms. While the cost of applying for a GRC was greatly reduced, other hurdles including the requirement for a medical diagnosis were left in place. Responses to the consultation had been polarised, but predominantly in favour of reform. Truss did promise however to take action to improve access to trans healthcare on the NHS.
Truss possesses no more than a dim understanding of the equalities agenda, but is no less dangerous for that. In her 2020 speech at the Centre for Policy Studies she set out her stall. In the speech she used terms like ‘fashionable’ and ‘virtue signalling’ to belittle cornerstones of equality policy such as diversity statements, targets, and provision of equal opportunity to those with protected characteristics. “Our new approach to equality,” she said, “will be based on the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity” – verbiage with no substance. Absurdly, she even claimed that doing the job part time made her a better Equalities Minister – “It is fundamentally important that the role of equality minister is held by someone who also has another cabinet job.” It’s hard to imagine the same argument being put for a department like Health or Education.
In this speech, Truss also announced the appointment of a new EHRC Chair, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, and a number of new EHRC Commissioners, “to drive this agenda forward.” The importance of this would soon become apparent.
In March 2021, three members of the LGBT Advisory Panel resigned in the space of a couple of days. All were completely damning of Liz Truss and the government’s direction of travel. Jayne Ozanne said ‘Truss and [Kemi] Badenoch were “known among the community as the ‘ministers for inequality’” because they did not understand LGBT people, particularly transgender people. “The language that I hear from them is of us being woke, or of being loud lobby groups, and what they don’t seem to understand is the reason we have to shout is because we are hurting, because there are people who are vulnerable who are going unheard and unnoticed.”’ Ellen Murray added “There’s precious little patience I have left for the government at this point, but with what remains: get your act together. Use the panel for what it was intended and actually prohibit conversion therapy. Stop deporting LGBT refugees. Drop the trans culture war.”
Instead of listening more, Liz Truss dissolved the Advisory Panel altogether, and a few weeks later was telling the Women and Equalities Committee that the LGBT Action Plan was no longer government policy.
Truss then followed this by calling on government departments to withdraw from the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme.
During the 2021 Tory Party Conference, the PM’s wife Carrie Johnson spoke at a Pride event in Manchester at which she praised the government’s record on LGBT rights, assuring the audience that “we now have a prime minister who is completely committed to accepting those gains and extending them further.” One wonders how the delegates who applauded these words feel now, six months later, after Johnson’s pro-LGBT credentials have been blown out of the water.
What extensions of rights, you might well ask, did Carrie Johnson have in mind ? The LGBT Action Plan had been shredded, and the government had demonstrated its unwillingness to move toward GRA reform. On trans healthcare, while some valuable work was being done to develop new services, fundamental issues haven’t been addressed, and waiting lists have continued to rise during Truss’s time in charge. The promises of action to tackle hate crime were long forgotten, as levels of hate crime against LGBT people continued to rise every year. The one big reform still on the table was the promise of a ban on conversion therapy.
The real agenda was to support gender critical attacks on trans rights. In 2021, EHRC Commissioners held a series of meetings with the leaders of two anti-trans hate groups, Kate Harris and Bev Jackson of LGB Alliance and Nicola Williams of Fair Play for Women. In January 2022, the EHRC released two statements, one of them recommending that any ban on conversion therapy in the UK should be limited to sexual orientation and exclude gender identity, and the other calling on the Scottish Government to delay any reform to the Gender Recognition Act to allow time for further consultation. I’ve written previously on the uproar that these statements caused. There can be little doubt though that Baroness Falkner was acting with the full support of senior figures in the government.
In the eyes of the LGBT community, instead of fulfilling its role as a regulator, the EHRC has become tied to an anti-equalities agenda. (The LGB Alliance, who think that all LGBT organisations are homophobic, are on this as on other issues an isolated dissenting voice driven by transphobia.) Further evidence of this was provided by the guidance on single sex spaces that it published in April 2022, the purpose of which appears to be to undermine the Equality Act and the rights of trans people.
The conversion therapy u-turn wasn’t only a betrayal of promises made by May. It was also a betrayal of promises made by Johnson. The plan had been announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2021, a consultation was launched in October 2021, and legislation was expected in 2022. As recently as 30th March equalities minister Mike Freer had told MPs that the government “remain wholly committed to bringing forward proposals to ban conversion therapy practices”. The next day, ITV reported on a leaked document which said that Johnson had agreed not to proceed with the ban. Focusing on how to manage the announcement, the document’s authors warned that Mike Freer may resign; and Liz Truss, though “not ideologically committed to the legislation” may have misgivings “having personally committed to delivering the Bill” !
The document was genuine. Within hours though, the government spectacularly backtracked, confirming that there would be legislation after all. The catch was that this legislation would now follow the advice of the EHRC by excluding trans conversion therapy. Many were quick to speculate that this had been the plan all along.
For the LGBT community, this was the final straw. Organisation after organisation lined up to day that this wasn’t acceptable, it was a breach of promise, and it was absolutely the wrong thing to do, because young people who’d made that hard decision to come out as trans needed to be believed, and they needed protection. And days later, 100 organisations proved magnificently in practice that there can be no LGB without the T, by pulling out of the government’s Safe To Be Me conference.
The government can’t even claim not to have known what the response of LGBT groups would be, because the protests had been just as vociferous when the EHRC statement was published a few weeks earlier. Yet they went ahead anyway. Back in 2019 the Conservative Party proudly said – in a manifesto very light on equalities content – “We will support marginalised communities in the developing world, hosting the UK government’s first ever international LGBT conference.” It was a hollow commitment, not backed by any vision or strategy to make the conference a success. A week ago, VICE World News quoted an anonymous staff member saying “We’re less than three months away, and we have no speakers, no sponsorship, no budget. It’s a mess.” And as the government went to war on LGBT people, the project met its inevitable undignified end.
A parliamentary petition’s just started up demanding that any conversion therapy ban includes trans people. I urge you all to sign it.