To be trans in Britain, you have to “laugh or cry” to new, nightmarish levels. Before I get all Rishi Sunak across, make sure I’m not flippant: I don’t mean “laughing” because anything remotely funny. I mean when your jaw is slack and you make a small joke, as if you can’t believe something you just heard. The scoff is a panicky motion to refute the “something” and, at the same time, there is terror in your eyes. That kind of smile.
It didn’t surprise me that the Prime Minister insulted transgender people to score cheap political points (nor did the lack of self-awareness it takes Sunak and the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, et al, the accused same as Starmer). To be honest, it was no surprise that it might have happened in the presence of the mother of a murdered transgender girl. I can’t imagine that any trans person who has lived in Britain for the past six odd years has been surprised by the relentless, co-ordinated, cynical and very loud attacks, not just on our legal protections but on our very humanity.
What surprised me – and fueled that sense of mockery – you don’t break – was the wider reaction. Starmer looked disappointed. Political journalists accurately recognized that it was a terrible moment for the prime minister. This analysis was even echoed, at least for the rest of the day, within Downing Street. For the first time in years, a powerful public figure said something offensive, inaccurate and dehumanizing about trans people and everyone reacted – as they should, as they should. Instead of citing or advocating evidence of anti-cross bias as “common sense”, the mainstream verdict, aside from some publications that parroted No. 10 in the opinion: this was not acceptable; even the kind of anger that requires a public apology; a dead body of civil discourse in modern democracy.
Wait a minute, I thought, I don’t understand. How can this strike everyone as wrong when senior Tory and Labor politicians are saying a woman can’t be in prison for months? How can journalists and commentators react without crying, when for a while “Can a woman have a penis?” and “What is a woman?” Somehow the most pressing questions were on the mouths of reporters across this pleasant green country?
Where were you all while we were screaming into the void about the real-world dangers of anti-trans bias that so many right-wing politicians and their “gender-critical” allies harbor? Where was the criticism back in 2021, when the then health secretary, Sajid Javid, branded it “a complete rejection of scientific fact” to say that there are some – a small number, of course – but that some men have a cervix? How can you criticize Sunak’s elegant attempt at humor but in the next breath frame its substance as a valid and urgent matter of public debate?
It is not acceptable now, it was not acceptable then, and it should never be acceptable to objectify trans bodies for political advantage, as if we are not fully human, with feelings, fears, hopes, thoughts, families, jobs, past. , futures and fundamental rights. Our humanity should not be discussed in any civil forum. We’re no more level playing field for PMQs than anyone else. But before Wednesday, it seemed that most of politics and the media agreed that we were. For many years, transgender people have had to contend with this harsh and destabilizing reality, and it wasn’t that long ago.
One level, I get it. Everyone suddenly realized that they could be alone with transphobic rhetoric because someone who loved trans was in parliament that day. I don’t want to think about how sick Esther Ghey felt. The fact that I even have to mention her and her family – who desperately need to be left to grieve in peace – to give the context of this piece frankly, makes me want to hit a wall. But it cannot be ignored – and was not at all – if Brianna’s mother hadn’t been visiting that day, Sunak’s malicious jibe would have gone unnoticed. It would be dehumanizing business as usual.
For the rest of the day, between food shopping, cooking pesto pasta for my six and two year old and sorting laundry, I exchanged messages with friends and fellow trans journalists to try to make sense. out of everything. . Sunak was not using us as his party’s best political football, but out of confusion.
Related: Sunak refuses to apologize to Brianna Ghey’s father over PMQs trans jibe
People who were smarter than me helped me realize the truth. If it’s only wrong to insult and exploit a vulnerable minority when it could be someone’s mother, then it’s not really “wrong”? The fundamental choice to treat trans people as we are or not “real” will remain. Sunak’s real mistake was embarrassing himself and everyone else there. Consider the logic behind toxic male humor: it’s not wrong to tell misogynistic jokes, the reasoning goes with them, it’s just awkward and embarrassing to do it in front of your girlfriend, your wife, your mother… she’ll take it is the wrong way. The content is fine, then, 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 anyone with an Internet-capable screen to watch.
There is at least one other consequence that explains the uncharacteristic disappointment, the clues to true regret. It is, simply, the connection he made with Esther Ghey, not only a parent but an unusually compassionate one; the best of us. If the Tories and their allies want to continue using and abusing trans people, they need you to believe that we are only an abstract concept. To sustain this lie, they must be careful not to remind you that it is just that: a lie.
The worst thing they can do – the thing they will really regret – is to make it so vague that we are, in fact, human. We have mothers like Esther, fathers like Peter Spooner, Brianna’s father, and we are normal people, in every sense, who do not deserve to be insulted, exploited or debated, no matter who is in the room.
Freddy McConnell is a freelance journalist
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