As the race to replace Conservative party leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson tightens, candidates have been leaning into culture war issues including transgender rights.
CNN  — 

Britain’s Conservative leadership contest kicked off this week, a weeks-long process that will result in the country’s next prime minister. Besides the standard pledges of tax cuts or a slimmed down state, there has also been an enthusiastic promotion of anti-trans positions, potentially marking an intensification of the current government’s “war on woke.”

Leading the pack of hopefuls is Rishi Sunak, Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose resignation from the government last week contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. After the second round of voting among Conservative Party lawmakers earlier this month, Sunak topped the list of the five candidates who remain in the running.

One of Sunak’s first policy pledges, after he announced his intention to run, was protecting “women’s rights,” he wrote in a Twitter post, linking to an article in which an unnamed Sunak ally was quoted as saying the lawmaker was “critical of recent trends to erase women via the use of clumsy, gender-neutral language.”

Sunak will create a manifesto, this ally told British tabloid the Daily Mail, that will oppose trans women competing in women’s sport and “will call on schools to be more careful in how they teach on issues of sex and gender.”

Rishi Sunak, who won the first two rounds of the Conservative leadership contest, will oppose trans women competing in women's sport in his manifesto, an ally told the Daily Mail.

The Johnson-led government leaned into culture war issues during the pandemic as it attempted to play to its traditional, southern Conservative Party base and new northern English voters won over from the center-left opposition Labour party in the 2019 general election. Even if polling suggests culture war issues, like trans rights, do not preoccupy the day-to-day lives of the British public, many of the candidates have taken up the government’s mantle, staking their positions in the debate over sex and gender identity.

Over the past week, Conservative candidates are more likely to have been asked “what is a woman” by British journalists than to have been tripped up by more traditional questions, like the cost of a pint of milk. On Wednesday, Sunak’s biggest rival in the race, the once relatively little-known junior minister Penny Mordaunt, was asked if she would continue with culture war issues like trans rights.

“Let me deal with the issue floating around in the background. It was (former UK Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher who said that ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie,’” Mordaunt said in reference to Thatcher’s deputy, William “Willie” Whitelaw. “A woman like me doesn’t have one,” she added.

Mordaunt has spent a lot of time this week rowing back on her past pro-trans views. She told online newspaper Pink News in 2018, for example, that “trans women are women.”

In a 10-part Twitter thread posted last Sunday, Mordaunt u-turned, stressing that trans women might be legally female by law but “that DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me.” She added: “I am biologically a woman. If I have a hysterectomy or mastectomy, I am still a woman. And I am legally a woman.”

Penny Mordaunt has come under fire for walking back on her statement that "trans women are women."

Descriptors like “biological woman” are considered slurs by trans advocates when they are deployed by gender critical activists, who believe the sex one is assigned with at birth is immutable, and any rights or privileges associated with it cannot be extended to those who choose to identify as that gender.

The repeated misgendering of trans people in the public sphere is not only harmful to their wellbeing, but suggesting gender does not exist and that a person is the sum total of their reproductive organs is reductive, erasing the existence of trans and non-binary people, say advocates.

Yet these gender critical views, parroted by a largely sympathetic British press, have helped restrict efforts to broaden trans rights, say campaigners. This includes trans people potentially being left out of plans for a ban on conversion therapy, and the Conservative-led government scrapping efforts to make it easy for trans people to change their gender marker without medical requirements.

“Not in my adult lifetime can I remember a situation where in a leadership election or selection process, there’s been this amount of focus on LGBTQ+ rights measures,” Nancy Kelley, chief executive of LGBTQ rights group Stonewall, told CNN.

The British public is more tolerant than some politicians or the press care to acknowledge, she said. “I think it’s part of a wider phenomenon that we’re experiencing in the UK where we have really progressive, positive public attitudes to lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, but we’ve got plenty of media and political conversation quite obsessively talking about trans people, and largely in a negative way,” Kelley said.

‘Disproportionate and scary’

Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley told CNN "negative" media and political rhetoric surrounding trans people in the UK is at odds with "positive public attitudes" to LGBTQ+ rights.

A study by think tank More in Common, published in June, found that “few Britons spend very much of their time thinking about issues of gender identity.” It added that in focus group conversations “most Britons, even those who are opposed to trans people using single-sex spaces, look for common sense ways of handling issues around changing rooms and toilets that involve being aware of people and treating one another with respect.”

Almost every focus group participant “asked why there were not also now more unisex toilet options available, which seemed for many to be a practical solution to the issue of single-sex spaces,” it wrote.

What is dominating public discourse is the state of the UK economy, where inflation hit a 40-year high of 9.1% in May, the highest among the G7 leading economies – and is forecast to climb above 11% later this year despite a series of interest rate hikes. The country is in the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, forcing households to choose between eating or heating this winter amid no real wage growth for over a decade, say economists.

“We’ve got major cost-of-living crisis, we are facing down a global climate emergency, there is war in Ukraine… (and we are) dealing with the aftermath of Brexit – the fact that the media are asking so obsessively about (trans) issues, and candidates are all being expected to pronounce their views on trans people’s place in society is so disproportionate and scary,” for a group that only accounts for an estimated 0.6% of the population, Kelley said.

While Liz Truss has avoided culture war issues in her bid for Conservative party leader, her allies have positioned her against Penny Mordaunt's pro-trans record.

Transphobia might not be an electorally viable strategy, but that has not stopped this year’s leadership hopefuls.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who placed third in the second round of voting, has been vocal in her opposition to making it easier for trans people to change their gender markers in England and Wales. While she steered clear of culture wars issues in her leadership speech on Thursday, her allies have been briefing against Mordaunt’s pro-trans record.

Behind Truss was former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, a spirited culture wars proponent who warned in 2020 that teaching “critical race theory as fact” would be against the law. There is no evidence however that schools have been doing that. Vice News reported this week that Badenoch urged the country’s financial services regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), to drop its policy on trans inclusion.

Badenoch’s spokesperson did not deny the allegation, telling CNN in a statement that “In response to a FCA consultation, and in her capacity as Equalities Minister, Kemi wrote to the FCA on how they could comply with the Equality Act and improve the representation of women on city boards.”

At the conservative think tank Policy Exchange, where Badenoch launched her leadership campaign on Tuesday, journalists noted handwritten signs scrawled in black ink with the words “men” and “ladies” taped to the doors of gender-neutral toilets.