When those two great publications The Daily Telegraph and Pink News both agree something is significant, you naturally take note. The Spring Statement may have overshadowed last Wednesday’s PMQs, but one answer from the session has been touted as representing Julius Boris Caesar wading into the murky Rubicon of the UK’s ongoing gender wars.
Angela Richardson asked Johnson about the Cass Review into the children’s gender identity services at the Portman and Tavistock Clinic, requesting he meet with her to discuss helping young people “who are experiencing gender distress”.
The Prime Minister responded that whilst “we must recognise when people want to make a transition in their lives that they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect”, and added that “when it comes to distinguishing between man and woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”.
A few years ago, such a statement stressing the importance of both basic tolerance and basic biology would have been uncontentious. Yet the debate over transgenderism, self-identification, and its attendant implications for women’s rights has become so polarised that the Prime Minister was pillared by Stonewall and various trans activists.
But allegations of bigotry are hard to square with the words “maximum possible generosity and respect”, or the fact that – notorious 1998 comments about “tank-topped bumboys” asides – Johnson has been consistently progressive on LGBT+ issues.
He was one of the first Conservative politicians to back gay marriage, banned advertising for gay conversion therapy on the Tube as London Mayor, and nodded along vigorously as his wife listed Conservative successes in this area at last October’s Conservative Party Conference. He is hardly Section 28 in human form – an act that he broke the whip to repeal.
Instead, according to those who know his thinking on this personally, Johnson has a long-standing and nuanced position on the trans debate. Commentators who have treated Johnson’s PMQ’s comments as his first testing of the gender wars waters have missed that he used a similar formulation in an interview with GB News last year.
Asked if only women had cervixes – an issue his Opposition equivalent had struggled with – the Prime Minister’s response was hardly dripping in prejudice. “Biology is very important,” he noted, “but we’ve got a system now in our country, for many, many years in which people… can change gender.” Moreover, “[we] help them to do that, and what I absolutely passionately believe – and I’ve thought this for a long time – is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.”
It is an approach that he apparently replicates in Cabinet. He tells ministers to do two things. First, to copy Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball and to “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge” the trans issue, to prevent opening a toxic culture war. He follows that with a simple exhortation: to be kind.
The desire for kindness motivates many Tories across this debate. Speaking to MPs on both sides, all are quick to stress that their motivation for their stance comes from a place of basic compassion. Whether they are championing gender self-identification or arguing to protect female-only spaces like refuges, all maintain their central objective is to make life easier for some of society’s most vulnerable.
There is widespread support across the party for taking practical measures to aid the average trans person in Britain. On average, as one MP told me, it takes three years for someone considering transitioning to get medical help and access to counselling. Speeding up that process would do much to make a lot of very unhappy people a little happier. These are measures that are supported, and separately suggested to me, by MPs publicly on different sides of the gender self-identification debate.
So if there is a large amount of consensus on these issues amongst Tories, why is the assumption still that it must be a divisive issue? Partially, it is because recent governments have made an active effort to push these issues forwards.
Consultations on reforming the law on gender self-identification were first launched by Theresa May’s government. Although Liz Truss decided against the need for legislation in that area, banning gay conversion therapy was a manifesto commitment in 2019, championed in the Commons by Alicia Kearns, and is likely to be put to a vote this coming year.
Simultaneously, questions of the implications of transgenderism for women’s rights have become regular headlines. A decade ago, stories about someone with a penis winning a female swimming race or of someone self-identifying as a woman committing a rape in a hospital would have seemed almost impossible.
That these are both from the last two weeks shows how trans issues have become part of the national conversation. A considerable number of elected officials privately, and a growing number publicly, are concerned by this, and worry that well-meaning efforts to help trans people may come at the cost of hard-won female rights.
Nevertheless, disputes also arise from participants in this debate talking at cross-purposes. A failure of communication is to blame if MPs from different sides can privately agree over the importance of improving healthcare access for trans people and keeping transwomen out of female-only sports, yet publicly appear poles apart.
Undoubtedly, culture warriors have an interest in riling things up for their fifteen minutes of fame. But the experience of Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend also indicates how conversations can be blunted through a fundamental failure to understand what the other side wants.
Townsend shared a Tweet of J. K. Rowling’s last year which suggested biologically male rapists were not female. Three men, including local MP Crispin Blunt, complained. Although Surrey’s Conservatives gave Townsend their overwhelming support, she was understandably aggrieved. Blunt had acted from a position of wanting to ensure trans people did not feel victimised – but Townsend has suggested his failure to mention women when reporting her showed that he did not understand that her actions came from a genuine desire to protect women’s’ rights, not blind prejudice.
That is the central issue. Those wishing to protect rights won by women over the last century confront those fighting to extend trans rights in this one. But there is hope that this can be done without public acrimony.
Polling suggests the Prime Minister’s attitude is very similar to that of the general public – supportive, but conscious of issues surrounding biology in particular circumstances, whether the velodrome or female prisons. With a consensus over the importance of practical improvements to help trans people, and as Labour’s frontbench still struggle to define what a woman is or whether they can have a penis, the government – and the Conservative party as a whole – have an excellent opportunity to lead the way.