Today is a red-letter day for all those committed to a society that accepts and celebrates the diversity in our humanity, and a Britain that gives all individuals the opportunity to be themselves. First because today (31 March) is Trans Day of Visibility. And second because it marks the day after the decision of my colleague, Jamie Wallis, the MP for Bridgend, to come out as the UK’s first transgender MP. It is not only an act of extraordinary personal courage but a landmark in the fight for trans equality in Britain, as the one principle that remains unfinished on the domestic LGBT+ equality agenda.
It is of great satisfaction to Conservatives that Jamie Wallis is one of us. It speaks to the fundamental change in our collective attitude to personal equality and social freedom that we now celebrate and want to represent and protect diversity, and enable people to be themselves in all their differences and not their conformity. The Prime Minister made this point in welcoming the trans MP to their place at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. But only 14 hours earlier, the PM had tried to exploit the Labour Party’s difficulties on trans issues with a comic jibe about their leader’s probable definition of “ladies and gentlemen”. Wallis will provide a useful reminder that these seemingly harmless, amusing sallies are too often anything but. The demeaning of a group, particularly one that is small in number, has consequences.
The Prime Minister is famous for his fondness for classical quotes and tags, and I would only warn him and other members of the government who dabble in the apparent “logic” of gender-critical sentiments: facilis descensus Averno – the descent to hell is easy. The equalities minister and the party chairman should take note when they next choose to send up people’s pronouns.
More than 30 years ago the Conservative government passed Section 28. The underlying assumptions about family life around the legislation seemed common sense to an overwhelmingly married, male and heterosexual parliamentary party, and also provided useful political ammunition to attack “loony left” Labour councils with their wasteful support for exotic causes such as LGBT+ rights. That section cast a cloud over the acceptance of LGBT+ and is a stain on the record of the Conservative Party. We had to learn the hard way how to recover our reputation. The increased prominence of LGBT voices in the Conservatives – particularly with MPs such as Margot James, Nick Herbert and Mike Freer, one of the present ministers for equalities – gave a personal face to the fight for marriage equality, and has made the rejection of the prejudice and bigotry protected by Section 28 the establishment position.
The presence of a trans colleague on our benches can now help to raise the consciousness around trans issues within the Conservative Party; Wallis’s personal example and leadership have given us an interest to defend. His position will make the suggestions that gender-critical statements are red meat for the Red Wall unsustainable, not least because he is joined by MPs elected in 2019, such as Dehenna Davison and Nicola Richards, who are as socially progressive as any MP from the party’s more comfortable heartlands. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past and find ourselves at variance with the country as a whole. The independent polling is clear – the majority of the British public, and importantly the majority of women, already support trans rights, and when we look at polling among younger voters, that majority will only increase.
Once we’ve sorted our language and presentation out, the Conservative position will contrast well with Labour, whose uncertainty about how to manage competing rights has put it in a dither over how to find the right language.
As for substance, the PM’s special envoy on LGBT+ rights, Herbert, and the minister for equalities, Freer, as well as Iain Anderson, the government’s LGBT business champion, are committed to improving the lives of trans people. Their presence and Wallis’s leadership on this issue makes the case they are putting forward inside the government incontestable for the mainstream of the party. For the sake of the trans community and its faith in our party, I hope we will see tangible changes in this parliament to the issues that affect the lives of trans people across the UK: access to healthcare, waiting lists, sex education and reform of the Gender Recognition Act.