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  • Daniel Collins

“Defining a Woman” – The ‘Culture Wars’ and Anti-LGBTQ+ Hate Crimes

During the Prime Minister’s Questions on the 7th of February Rishi Sunak came under criticism for his jibes aimed at Keir Starmer about transgender people. Sunak accused Starmer of struggling to define a woman, which although might not initially seem extraordinary, the context reveals the underlying issue. 

Esther Ghey, mother of the late Brianna Ghey, a transgender girl who was murdered last year, was present for Sunak’s comments. In sentencing, the judge said that messages sent by Eddie Ratcliffe, one of Brianna’s two murderers, were “transphobic and dehumanising” and that part of their motivation was hostility to Ghey “based on her transgender identity.” Starmer condemned the comments made by the Prime Minister, whilst her father Peter Spooner labelled the comment as “dehumanising” and demanded an apology. No such apology was coming, however, as Sunak refused the condemnation as “sad and wrong” in linking his comments and the murder case. Yet despite the Prime Minister’s protestations there may be some link between anti-trans rhetoric and similar incidents.

Lee Anderson, then deputy chair of the Conservative Party, said in February that post-Brexit the party should focus on the “trans debate” and “culture wars” to boost their support. Heavy emphasis is now placed on ‘culture war’ issues, as shown by the prevalence of transphobic rhetoric at the Conservative Party Conference. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that the Conservatives “know what a woman is”, a thinly-veiled swipe at Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, and at the same event Steve Barclay, then Health Secretary, supported a ban on transgender women in female-only hospital wards, demonstrating how the party’s model of statecraft now privileges ‘culture war’ divisiveness as a key aspect of their election strategy. This isn’t necessarily something new, however – governments in difficult circumstances can use homophobia as a political tool, scapegoating a “largely invisible” minority to create a moral panic and present a perceived threat to social order for political gain. LGBTQ+ people are used to draw attention away from problems on which they are seen as unpopular. This agenda-setting action was previously deployed under Margaret Thatcher with the Section-28 reforms targeting gay people but has now refocused on the transgender community to consolidate support, yet such attempts also succeed in demonising the targeted group, with transgender people made an ‘enemy’ similarly to how gay people were under Thatcher, for example.

"it’s impossible to deny that ‘culture war’ rhetoric exacerbates divisions."

Whilst potentially difficult to establish direct causation between ‘culture war’ issues and rising hate crime statistics, it’s impossible to deny that ‘culture war’ rhetoric exacerbates divisions. Home Office statistics highlight how political narratives around trans people may have led to an increase in hate crime incidents, and Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBTQ+ charity, criticises the government’s role due to “senior figures” who have “helped to spread divisive rhetoric and misinformation for political capital.” In 2023, The Office for National Statistics on LGBT hate crimes in England and Wales found that hate crimes against trans people increased by 11% in a year and by 186% in the last five years, on the basis of sexual orientation up by 112% over the same period, and that hate crimes based on sexual orientation or transgender identity are the most likely to involve physical violence or the threat of it. It’s impossible to deny the link, even if not causal in nature, between the divisive effects of such ‘culture war’ rhetoric and the demonisation and persecution of LGBTQ+ people.

Whilst Labour have been critical of Conservative ‘culture war’ narratives, they too have been drawn into such narratives. Labour had formerly been supportive of “self-declaration for transgender people” but now favour a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. This is despite most of the Labour MSPs voting in favour of self-ID under the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, who accused Barclay of scapegoating transgender people, and labelled ‘culture war’ debates as toxic now supports housing trans people in separate wards. Streeting’s comments are problematic, as even though there’s evidence to suggest that single-sex wards make assaults less likely, there is no evidence to link transgender people with this, these comments contributing to the demonisation of trans people as predatory. From a more pragmatic perspective there simply isn’t the budget for such distinct spaces. Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee feared that such reforms would mean transgender people will be forced into a ward of a different gender due to budget constraints and single-sex spaces, which could have drastic implications upon their physical and mental care. Labour Party cooperation in ‘culture war’ narratives legitimise transphobia, and thus both parties’ platforms can be linked to this rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate.

Divisive ‘culture war’ rhetoric depicting transgender people as predatory and making light of their gender dysphoria and struggles demonises them as a community, leading to hate and violence. The use of ‘culture war’ narratives for electoral strategy needs to be re-examined, especially in the wake of Brianna Ghey’s death and Sunak’s comments. Whilst other factors, such as the internet and social media, play a role in such divisions, the permeance of ‘culture war’ narratives from the two largest parties normalises the demonisation and hate.

Image: Wikimedia Commons - FriendlyHMM

Image Description: 'Brianna Ghey, murdered transgender 16 year old, is remembered by a candlelit vigil in Glasgow’s George Square'



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