I wasn’t surprised by Rishi Sunak’s cheap trans jibe – but I was confounded by the outcry | Freddy McConnell

Being trans in Britain takes “you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry” to new, nightmarish levels. Before I come across all Rishi Sunak, rest assured I’m not being flippant: I don’t mean “laugh” as in anything is remotely funny. I mean like when your jaw is slack and you scoff slightly, as if you can’t believe something you’ve just heard. The scoff is actually a panicked bid to rebut the “something” and, at the same time, there’s terror in your eyes. That kind of laugh.

Hearing that our prime minister had insulted trans people to score cheap political points did not surprise me (nor does the lack of self-awareness it takes for Sunak and the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, et al, to level the same accusation at Starmer). To be honest, it wasn’t even a surprise that it might have happened in the presence of the mother of a murdered trans girl. I cannot imagine it surprised any trans person who’s lived in Britain during the past six-odd years of relentless, coordinated, cynical and very loud attacks, not just on our legal protections but our very humanity.

What surprised me – and triggered that scoff-so-you-don’t-break feeling – was the wider reaction. Starmer looked dismayed. Political journalists roundly identified that it was a terrible moment for the prime minister. This analysis even echoed, for the rest of the day at least, within Downing Street. For the first time in years, a powerful public figure said something insulting, inaccurate and dehumanising about trans people and everyone reacted – well, as they should. Instead of glossing over or praising evidence of anti-trans bias as “common sense”, the mainstream verdict, beyond a few publications parroting No 10’s defence of the comment, was: this was unacceptable; worthy of the kind of outrage that demands a public apology; unbecoming of civil discourse in a modern democracy.

Hang on a minute, I thought, I don’t understand. How can this strike everyone as wrong when senior Tory and Labour politicians have been saying that a woman cannot have a penis for months? How can journalists and commentators react without cringing, when 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 across this green and pleasant land?

‘Not just a parent but an unusually compassionate one; the very best of us.’ Esther Ghey. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Where have you all been while we’ve been screaming into the void about the real-world dangers of unchecked anti-trans prejudice obsessing so many rightwing politicians and their “gender-critical” allies? Where was the condemnation back in 2021, when the then health secretary, Sajid Javid, branded it “total denial of scientific fact” 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 frame its substance as a valid and pressing topic of public debate?

It isn’t acceptable now, it wasn’t acceptable then, and should never be acceptable to objectify trans bodies for political gain, as if we aren’t fully human, with minds, fears, hopes, ideas, families, jobs, pasts, futures and fundamental rights. Our humanity should not be debatable in any civilised forum. We are not fair game for PMQs bants any more than anyone else is. Yet before Wednesday, it seemed like most of politics and the media had tacitly agreed we were. For many years, trans people have been forced to cope with this cruel and destabilising reality, and it has been nothing short of a living hell.

One one level, I get it. Everyone suddenly realised they could be appalled by transphobic rhetoric because someone who loved a trans person was in parliament that day. I don’t want to dwell on how sickened Esther Ghey may have felt. The fact I even have to mention her and her family – who are in dire need of being left to grieve in peace – to give this piece context frankly makes me want to punch a wall. But it cannot be ignored – and wasn’t by all – that had Brianna’s mum not been visiting that day, Sunak’s noxious jibe would have passed without comment. It would have been dehumanising business as usual.

For the rest of the day, in between a food shop, cooking pesto pasta for my six-year-old and two-year-old and sorting laundry, I exchanged messages with friends and fellow trans journalists to try to make sense of it all. Not of Sunak using us as his party’s favourite political football, but of the confusing outcry.

People smarter than me helped me get to the truth. If it’s only wrong to insult and exploit a vulnerable minority when someone’s mum might be there, it’s not really “wrong” is it? The fundamental choice to treat trans people like we don’t matter or aren’t really “real” is going to remain. Sunak’s real mistake was to embarrass himself and everyone else there. Think of the logic of toxic male banter: it’s not wrong to tell misogynistic jokes, their reasoning goes, it’s just awkward and embarrassing to do it in front of your girlfriend, your wife, your mum … she’ll take it the wrong way. The content is fine, therefore, as long as you pick your audience. When it comes to trans people’s humanity, I guess, the socially acceptable audience is PMQs: available to watch by to anyone with an internet-enabled screen.

There’s at least one other consequence that explains the uncharacteristic dismay, the hints at real remorse. It is, simply, the link it made to Esther Ghey, not just a parent but an unusually compassionate one; the very best of us. If Tories and their allies want to keep using and abusing trans people, they need you to believe that we are merely an abstract concept. For this lie to stand, they have to 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 genuinely remorseful – it to demonstrate so starkly that, in truth, we are people. We have mothers like Esther, fathers like Peter Spooner, Brianna’s dad, and we are, in every meaningful sense, ordinary people who do not deserve to be insulted, exploited or debated, no matter who is in the room.


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