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Johnson ensures progress on trans rights in England is stalled

London Letter: Government makes not one but two U-turns on conversion therapy ban

Boris Johnson will welcome German chancellor Olaf Scholz to Downing Street as the war in Ukraine offers the prime minister a chance to shift his focus on to the international stage. Johnson's diary these days includes almost daily bilateral, trilateral or multilateral meetings with other leaders to co-ordinate action and agree joint statements.

But one international gathering the prime minister will not be attending is his own government's Safe To Be Me conference on LGBT+ rights, which was due to take place in London at the end of June. Johnson had to cancel the conference when all of Britain's LGBT+ organisations withdrew from it this week in protest against his U-turn on banning conversion therapy.

The government made not one but two U-turns on the ban, first announcing that it was dropping plans to outlaw conversion therapy altogether. A few hours later, a Conservative backbench revolt triggered a partial U-turn on that U-turn: the government would now protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals from the practice but not trans people.

‘Sacred journey’

Stonewall and more than 80 other LGBT+ groups immediately pulled out of the Safe To Be Me conference, saying they would only participate if the government reversed its decision to exclude trans people from protection against conversion therapy. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Council for Psychotherapy condemned the government's decision.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was among the signatories to a letter calling on the prime minister to include trans people in the ban, saying, "to be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole". Labour also called for the ban to be inclusive and a number of Conservative MPs voiced their unhappiness over the way trans people were being treated, with Rutland and Melton's Alicia Kearns apologising to the trans community.

“It’s the government’s duty to protect the British people – all of them. It goes without saying that LGBTQ+ people must not be excluded from these protections – including trans people,” she wrote in the Times.

“We cannot say that so-called conversion therapy is an illegal and abhorrent practice when used against our gay community but stand indifferent when the same techniques are inflicted elsewhere, especially on those most likely to face it: our transgender community.”

Johnson doubled down on Wednesday, saying that trans women should not be allowed to take part in women’s sports. This won praise from the Daily Mail with a front page headline saying “Finally, a Voice for Common Sense”. Older LGBT+ activists recall that the Mail’s version of common sense in the 1980s included support for section 28 which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

The Conservatives abandoned the culture war over gay rights under David Cameron, who introduced marriage equality with Johnson among its earliest Tory supporters. The current controversy over trans rights began in 2018 when Theresa May launched a public consultation over reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.

Groups like Stonewall called for the legislation to be brought into line with countries like Ireland, which allow gender self-identification. This means that people can change their legal gender by making a statutory declaration and do not require the involvement of medical professionals in the legal process.

Traditional conservative voices opposed to such a change were joined by “gender critical” feminists who said that gender self-ID would put other women at risk from trans women. They also launched a campaign against mainstream medical and psychotherapeutic approaches to treating trans children and young people.

‘Gender critical’

The trans debate within feminism in most other countries, including the United States, has been essentially settled for decades, and opposition to trans rights is now mostly the preserve of the far right. But "gender critical" feminists are a vocal minority in the British women's movement and they have won support from newspapers like the Mail, the Sun and the Times.

This coalition of "gender critical" and traditional opponents of LGBT+ rights has ensured that progress on trans rights appears to be stalled in England, but Scotland is pressing ahead with gender recognition legislation that mirrors Ireland's. First minister Nicola Sturgeon said it did not change anybody's rights or diminish anyone's protections but made the process less inhumane for trans people.

“What it does is, if you are a trans person wanting to legally change your gender, and few, few, people do it – instead of having to go through a process that means you have to go before a medical panel to prove gender dysphoria, you can self-declare – but it is still a statutory process with criminal implications if you do that fraudulently,” she said.

“It’s about making an existing process more humane and less traumatic for one of the most stigmatised and discriminated-against groups in our society.”