Being transgender in Britain takes ‘laugh or cry’ to a new, nightmarish level. Before I get all Rishi Sunak, rest assured I’m not being flippant: I don’t mean ‘laughing’ because everything is even remotely funny. I mean, like your jaw is slack and you’re kind of scoffing, like you can’t believe something you just heard. The mockery is actually a panicked attempt to refute the ‘something’, and at the same time there is fear in your eyes. That kind of laughter.
I’m not surprised that our Prime Minister has insulted trans people to score cheap political points (nor the lack of self-awareness required for Sunak and the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, et al., to make the same accusation against Starmer ) . To be honest, it wasn’t even a surprise that it happened in front of the mother of a murdered trans girl. I can’t imagine it has surprised any trans person who has lived in Britain for the past six years of relentless, coordinated, cynical and very loud attacks not just on our legal protections, but on our humanity.
What surprised me – and created the mocking-if-you-don’t-break feeling – was the broader reaction. Starmer looked horrified. Political journalists stated bluntly that this was a terrible moment for the Prime Minister. This analysis even repeated the rest of the day: inside Downing Street. For the first time in years, a powerful public figure said something insulting, inaccurate and dehumanizing about transgender people and everyone responded – well, as they should. Rather than glossing over or praising the evidence of anti-trans bias as “common sense”, the mainstream judgment, apart from a few publications that mimicked No 10’s defense of the commentary, was: this was unacceptable; worthy of the kind of outrage that demands a public apology; inappropriate for civil discourse in a modern democracy.
Wait a minute, I thought, I don’t understand. How can this seem wrong to anyone when senior Tory and Labor politicians have been saying for months that a woman cannot have a penis? How can journalists and commentators respond without cringing, if for a while “Can a woman have a penis?” and “What is a woman?” were somehow the most pressing questions on the lips of reporters in this green and pleasant land?
Where have you all been while we’ve been screaming into the void about the real dangers of unchecked anti-trans bias that obsesses so many right-wing politicians and their “gender-critical” allies? Where was the condemnation in 2021, when then Health Secretary Sajid Javid labeled it “total denial of scientific facts‘ to say that some – relatively few of course – but some men have a cervix? How can you condemn Sunak’s pathetic attempt at humour, but in the next breath describe its content as a valid and urgent topic of public debate?
It is not acceptable now, it was not acceptable then and should never be acceptable to objectify trans bodies for political gain, as if we are not fully human, with minds, fears, hopes, ideas, families, jobs, pasts. , future and fundamental rights. Our humanity should not be up for discussion in any civilized forum. We are not fair game for PMQs, any more than anyone else. But before Wednesday, it seemed that most of the politicians and media tacitly agreed. For years, transgender people have been forced to deal with this cruel and destabilizing reality, and it has been nothing short of hell.
One level, I get it. Everyone suddenly realized that they could be shocked by transphobic rhetoric because someone who loved a trans person was in parliament that day. I don’t want to dwell on how sick Esther Ghey may have felt. The fact that I even have to mention her and her family – who desperately need to grieve in peace – to give this piece context honestly makes me want to punch a wall. But it cannot be ignored – and it certainly wasn’t – that if Brianna’s mother had not visited that day, Sunak’s damaging joke would have passed without comment. It would have made business as usual inhumane.
For the rest of the day, between grocery shopping, cooking pesto pasta for my six- and two-year-olds, and sorting the laundry, I exchanged messages with friends and fellow trans journalists to try to make sense of it all. . Not that Sunak used us as his party’s favorite political football, but because of the confusing outrage.
Related: Sunak refuses to apologize to Brianna Ghey’s father over PMQ’s transgender jibe
People smarter than me helped me find out the truth. If it’s just wrong to insult and exploit a vulnerable minority while someone’s mother might be present, it’s not really ‘wrong’ is it? The fundamental choice to treat transgender people as if we don’t matter or aren’t really “real” will continue. Sunak’s real mistake was that he embarrassed himself and everyone else there. Consider the logic of toxic male banter: it’s not wrong to tell misogynistic jokes, or so their reasoning goes, it’s just awkward and embarrassing to do it in front of your girlfriend, your wife, your mother… .she will take it the wrong way. So the content is fine, as long as you choose your audience. When it comes to the humanity of trans people, I think the socially acceptable audience is PMQs: available to watch by anyone with an internet-enabled screen.
There is at least one other consequence that explains the uncharacteristic consternation, the indications of true contrition. It is simply the link it made with Esther Ghey, not only a parent, but an extremely compassionate parent; all the best from us. If the Tories and their allies want to continue using and abusing trans people, they must believe that we are just an abstract concept. For this lie to stick, they must be careful not to remind you that it is just that: a lie.
The worst thing they can do – the thing that will make them truly repentant – is to show so clearly that we are really human. We have mothers like Esther, fathers like Peter Spooner, Brianna’s father, and we are, in every meaningful sense, regular people who don’t deserve to be insulted, exploited, or talked about, no matter who’s in the room.
Freddy McConnell is a freelance journalist
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