UK Conservatives & LGBTQ+ Rights: Rishi Sunak's 'Common Sense' Talk is Big Shift

The schism within the Conservative Party over LGBTQ+ issues mirrors a broader ideological rift within the party.

6 min read
Hindi Female

The Conservative Party's recent conference has ignited a fierce and contentious debate surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights, catalysed by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's uncompromising declaration – "A man is a man, and a woman is a woman; that's just plain common sense."

The party's trajectory on LGBTQIA+ rights has been a perplexing journey, marked by a blend of ever-shifting values and convictions.

In 1966, Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley introduced a bill to decriminalise male homosexuality. Conservative Arthur Gore, 8th Earl of Arran echoed this effort in the House of Lords.

In 1977, Conservative Lord Boothby pushed for decriminalisation of homosexuality in Scotland. UK MP Edwina Currie sought to set the age of consent for gay men at 16 in 1994.

The Conservative Party & Their Ever Shifting Stance

The 2013 passage of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act in the UK, legalising same-sex marriage in England and Wales, was a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ rights.

Notably, Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative Party member, actively supported and championed the bill, defying traditional party norms. The legislation was met with bipartisan support, with a majority of Conservative and Labour Members of Parliament voting in favour.

This demonstrated a broader consensus for LGBTQ+ rights in the UK. Cameron's leadership showcased the power of political figures in driving social change, ultimately fostering a more accepting society for queer and trans individuals.

This historic legislation signalled a profound shift in focus, emphasising the importance of mental health, combating workplace bias, and improving public healthcare within the realm of conservative LGBTQ+ advocacy.

In the latter half of the 2010s, influential figures within the Conservative Party, including Justine Greening, Nick Boles, Ruth Davidson, and former British Prime Minister Theresa May, spearheaded campaigns that underscored the party's commitment to advancing LGBTQ+ rights within a conservative framework.

In the latter half of the 2010s, influential figures within the Conservative Party, including Justine Greening, Nick Boles, Ruth Davidson, and former British Prime Minister Theresa May, spearheaded campaigns that underscored the party's commitment to advancing LGBTQIA+ rights within a conservative framework.

A corrective approach introduced early in the decade, driven by these influential figures, inadvertently sparked broader societal change.

However, resistance to Tory-normativity highlighted the need for a subsequent correction in the latter half of the decade, aligning with ongoing societal shifts. This pragmatic conservative advocacy for gay rights modestly contributed to a more progressive society throughout the 2010s.

However, the 2021 Conservative Party conference introduced a contentious element by welcoming the LGB Alliance, an organisation known for its critical stance towards the queer and trans rights movement.

This decision triggered vehement debates within the party, with critics asserting that it risked overshadowing the conference with divisive discussions on trans rights, further exacerbating internal schisms.

In early 2022, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson changed his stance on the legality of gay conversion therapy, abandoning his initial support due to strong opposition from activists and members of Parliament. This sudden change of direction, which came shortly after he decided not to make attempts to alter a person's sexual orientation a criminal offence, raised questions about the Conservative Party's genuine commitment to LGBTQ+ rights, given their 2018 promise to end these "conversion" therapies.

Sunak's predecessor Liz Truss's lukewarm approach to LGBTQ+ rights, exemplified by her dissolution of the LGBTQ+ advisory panel in 2018, again raised substantial doubts about the party's sincerity in addressing these urgent concerns.

Rishi Sunak's Stand Signals a Stark Shift

Rishi Sunak's recent statement on gender, asserting that it is a matter of "common sense" to differentiate between a man and a woman, signifies a shift towards a more conservative interpretation of gender identity.

While this stance aligns with Johnson's promise to outlaw gay conversion therapy, it also raises critical questions about the legal status of conversion therapy for trans individuals, highlighting a perceived gap in protection for this marginalised group.

Sunak's assertion firmly places him within the right-wing faction of the party, which increasingly emphasises the primacy of traditional values and scrutinises the trajectory of LGBTQ+ advocacy.

This shift is palpable in the prime minister's dismissal of "virtue signalling" and his call for heightened transparency in the public sector, particularly in matters pertaining to education and healthcare.

Sunak argues that parents should have the right to know what their children are being taught in school, particularly regarding relationships, and that patients should be informed about discussions concerning gender in hospitals.


Divisions Within the Conservative Party

The schism within the Conservative Party regarding LGBTQ+ issues has deep historical roots, reflecting a broader ideological division within the party. Advocates for inclusivity like Natalie Bowen and Elena Bunbury have consistently raised concerns about the party's position. They've specifically highlighted policies such as Rishi Sunak's pledge to review the Equality Act, which they see as potential setbacks for LGBTQ+ progress.

On the other side, Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, along with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, have consistently shown their support for LGBTQ+ rights. Raab notably voted in favor of same-sex marriage in 2013, Hunt has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ-inclusive education, and Keegan emphasises equal access to healthcare and safe spaces for trans individuals.

This internal divide underscores the ongoing dialogue and advocacy efforts within the Conservative Party concerning LGBTQ+ rights.

Meanwhile, the right-wing faction, led by backbenchers Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, expresses concerns about sex education and perceives a lack of transparency for parents. This has left the party membership deeply divided, particularly on issues related to transgender individuals.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay's proclamation of a ban on trans women from female National Health Services wards also underscores the depth of the ideological rift within the party. These declarations reflect a broader trend in which numerous Cabinet members have used their platform to address transgender persons' issues, signalling a growing significance for activists on the right-wing of the Conservative Party.

Sunak's pronouncements and the broader discourse within the Conservative Party have ignited a passionate debate surrounding LGBTQ+ rights.

The unwavering support for Sunak's assertion that distinguishing between genders is a matter of "common sense" is indicative of a constituency that aligns with the Prime Minister's conservative interpretation of gender identity. This sentiment also resonates with other key ministers, underscoring a unified front within the party on this issue. 

However, critics, including LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, have voiced concerns that certain policies may inadvertently hinder access to healthcare for trans women, potentially placing them in precarious situations. This raises crucial questions about the potential impact of the party's evolving stance on LGBTQ+ issues on the rights and well-being of trans individuals.

Shaping the Party's Legacy on LGBTQ+ Rights

As the Conservative Party grapples with these evolving policies, it stands at a crucial juncture in delineating its stance on LGBTQ+ rights. The decisions made in the coming months will undoubtedly shape the party's legacy on these pivotal issues for years to come.

The ideological schism within the party, epitomised by Sunak's recent statements, reveals a nuanced landscape of beliefs and values.

The noteworthy speech came just a day after Suella Braverman faced a heckling from a prominent Conservative party member. The outspoken Tory, Andrew Boff, who proudly declared over 50 years of loyalty to the party, didn't hold back. From his seat, he challenged the Home Secretary's assertion that concepts like “gender ideology, white privilege, and anti-British history” were fueling a 'woke' culture in the UK.

Boff insisted, “There's no such thing as gender ideology,” and went on to denounce the speech as “trash.”

He didn't mince his words, accusing it of painting the Conservative Party in a transphobic and homophobic light. Security guards eventually escorted Boff out, but not before he addressed the press, accusing the Home Secretary of 'bullying' both trans persons and the 'LGBTQIA+' community.

Balancing the interests of various factions while upholding the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals will be a formidable challenge for the party leadership. Ultimately, the path they choose will not only define their legacy but also wield influence over the broader trajectory of LGBTQIA+ rights in the political landscape of the UK.

(Ashraf Nehal is a foreign policy analyst and a columnist who mainly tracks South Asia. He can be reached on Twitter at @ashrafnehal19 and on Instagram at ___ashraf___19. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from opinion

Topics:  LGBTQ   Opinion   Conservative party  

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More