50.50: Opinion

The Tory leadership contest is becoming a transphobia contest

Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak are competing to see who can make things worst for us

Maysa Pritilata
18 July 2022, 5.30pm

Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch, both candidates in the Tory leadership contest


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK is becoming increasingly unsafe for trans* people (especially transfeminine people). So it should be a great thing that the Tory Party’s contest to determine our next prime minister is giving so much attention to trans* people.

But they’re not talking about banning conversion therapy, helping us with housing or improving trans* healthcare. Oh no. They’re fighting over who can make things worst for us.

The contest for Tory leadership is becoming the contest for who can be the most transphobic.

This morning, Sky News cancelled a Conservative leadership debate that had been due to take place tomorrow, after former chancellor Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss refused to take part.

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A spokesperson for former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who is running against them, seemed disappointed, telling the press: “Kemi welcomes public scrutiny – it builds trust. She is open to a debate which sheds light on the issues that matter” – so far, so good – “but not one which is designed purely to cause a row.”

It’s interesting that Badenoch wants to avoid rows. After all, she’s the one who effectively accused one of her opponents of being too kind to trans people.

What did Penny Mordaunt – touted as Sunak’s main challenger – do to deserve this? According to Badenoch, the trade minister had wanted to remove at least one of the medical requirements that trans people must currently satisfy to gain gender recognition.

I know. How dare she? How dare she make it easier for trans* people to obtain recognition of their gender without having to jump through multiple hoops and endure a humiliating, invasive process?

In the bizarre contest of who can be the most transphobic, Mordaunt and her campaign have been trying to claw back some ground and stay competitive.

The response to Badenoch’s criticism started off reasonably well, with a spokesperson sniping: “The fact that so much of this contest has been distracted by side issues, instead of the cost of living crisis impacting millions of people, is a major disappointment.”

This is very true. Does this mean that Mordaunt recognises what Cleo from Gendered Intelligence told openDemocracy last week – that trans people “have been used as a political football to distract from serious issues”? Does she wish to take the opportunity “to move away from attacking a marginalised community to mask a legacy of failures”?

The spokesperson continued: “Arguing about policy is one thing, but questioning Penny's values and integrity must be challenged.”

Wait, what? Accusing good old Penny of trying to relieve some of the burden on trans* people looking to transition would bring into question her “values and integrity”? Which values are we talking about here? It sounds like Mordaunt is offended by the suggestion that she might not be adequately supportive of medical transphobia.

Mordaunt denied that, as equalities minister in Theresa May’s government, she had pushed through a policy to remove a diagnosis of gender dysphoria – which is notoriously difficult to obtain – to legally change gender.

In what she presumably saw as an act of self-defence, Mordaunt insisted that she would “not have divorced [the process of gender recognition] from healthcare”. “All ministers in the department,” said her spokesperson, “wanted to maintain medical involvement, including Penny.”

Ah, OK, so Mordaunt is no less anti-trans than any other minister in the equalities department. That’s a relief. Thanks for clearing that up.

If this is what’s reassuring to Tory voters, then Badenoch must feel very safe.

It was Badenoch who urged then equalities minister Mike Freer not to go ahead with the government’s proposed ban on conversion therapy, and met with the anti-trans lobby group the LGB Alliance. And yes, there’s a reason the T is missing in the group’s name.

Earlier this month, Badenoch said she wanted to “abolish” gender neutral public toilets, needlessly resurrecting a debate that has had serious implications in the US – where the “bathroom debate” has been used to inform debate around policy. A bit strange that she could get this riled up about toilets that are ungendered, just like the one(s) I assume she has in her own house. But the fact that she can grandstand about something so inconsequential to her makes her a worthy candidate in the contest for who’s most transphobic.

As equalities minister, she even opposed trans* inclusive workplace policies. Impressive.

She has also proven her credentials in this contest in numerous other ways, including calling trans women “men”.

Sunak has not felt the need to wade into Badenoch and Mordaunt’s conversation about (but without) trans* people. And that’s probably because he also feels safe.

Sunak is expected to produce a “manifesto for women’s rights” which opposes trans* inclusion in sport and the use of non-transphobic language. Nice one Rishi. Keep fighting the bad fight and you’re in with a chance of winning.

This party is a mess. This contest is a mess. This country is a mess.

I feel like I’m in a cartoon where the main villains are involved in a power grab and are accusing each other of not being villainous enough for top spot.

Whoever comes out on top of this contest will very likely come out on top as the most dangerous person to trans* equality in the country.

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