In the early hours of Wednesday, March 30, Conservative Jamie Wallis became the first openly trans MP. “It’s time,” he said.
Boris Johnson began PMQs later that day by offering praise. “I know that the House stands with you,” the prime minister told the Commons.
But just 24 hours later, on international trans visibility day, ITV News revealed Johnson was set to abandon his pledge to ban LGBTQ+ conversion therapy.
Just hours later – following a ferocious backlash – the government performed a dramatic U-turn, letting it be known a ban would be introduced after all. But it was only a partial backtrack.
Under the new plan, conversion therapy will be banned for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. But not for transgender people.
How did we get here?
A full ban was promised by Theresa May in 2018 and formed part of Johnson’s Queen’s Speech last year. The government’s conversion therapy consultation FAQ page, last updated on December 9, said it would “protect everyone, whatever their sexual orientation or whether they are transgender or not”.
It later emerged that Liz Truss, the foreign secretary who also holds the equalities brief, was not told about the PM’s decision to abandon the pledge.
She only found out shortly before the news was about to be broken by ITV, while having dinner in India with her opposite number, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
Mike Freer, a minister in the equalities office, announced in a video posted on Twitter just hours before it was revealed No.10 would exclude trans people from the ban, that he was “committed to banning conversion therapy practices and want to tackle the challenges faced by trans communities”.
Tory splits erupt
Ditching the promise given to trans people triggered a noisy public and private backlash from Conservatives who want a full ban to be brought in.
Alicia Kearns, the Rutland and Melton MP first elected in 2019, wrote in The Times: “Excluding trans people from this ban not only devalues the misery and suffering already suffered by countless victims, but also devalues trans people as less worthy of protection.”
Elliot Coburn, the MP for Carshalton & Wallington, said excluding trans people was “totally unnecessary and a massive own goal”, adding: “Fuelling the fire and giving into some kind of culture war will benefit no-one.”
Wallis said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the government. “If the CT ban passes through parliament without any protections for the transgender community, it cannot be described as anything other than a broken promise,” he added.
William Wragg, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons public administration committee, was scathing. “If banning conversion therapy will stop the likes of me being subjected to mental cruelty in repressing my true self, why not so for someone who is trans?” he said. “I can see no logic in excluding trans people from legislation banning conversion therapy. Let’s have some empathy.”
Iain Anderson, the government’s LGBTQ+ business champion resigned, branding the government position “profoundly shocking”.
The government’s landmark international LGBTQ+ Safe To Be Me conference, due to take place in June, has also been cancelled, after more than 80 LGBT+ groups and over 20 HIV groups said they would no longer take part.
Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison, a rising star from one the Red Wall seats captured from Labour at the last election, branded it a missed opportunity to “prove the UK (and the Conservative Party) is a defender of freedom”. She added: “It is so wrong it has come to this.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has also broken with No.10 and said he would back a “trans inclusive” conversion therapy ban in the Scottish Parliament.
But further highlighting the deep splits within the Tories on the issue, Workington MP Mark Jenkinson backed the prime minister.
He has criticised “virtue signalling BS” from campaigners who want trans people included in the ban. “MPs have a choice – pursuing those warm, fuzzy feelings at the expense of the most vulnerable, or a serious discussion on where rights clash,” he said.
Another vocal opponent of including trans people is Nikki da Costa, the former director of legislative affairs at No.10. She has warned it would have “profound consequences for children struggling with gender dysphoria” and has been a rallying point for many Conservatives who are wary of expanding the conversion ban to include trans.
“Doctors, therapists and parents would be deterred from exploring with a child any feelings of what else may be going on for fear of being told they’re trying to change a child’s identity”, da Costa told the BBC.
What is conversion therapy?
Conversion therapy takes many forms. According to Stonewall practices include “pseudo-scientific counselling sessions; being induced to ingest ‘purifying’ substances; threatening a person with homelessness; corrective rape; being prayed over as a form of “healing”; and exorcisms”.
Johnson last week described the practice as “utterly abhorrent” and insisted it would be banned for LGB people. But he argued there were “complexities and sensitivities” when it came to gender.
The PM added he did not think “biological males should be competing in female sporting events”.
And he raised concerns about whether some children were “Gillick competent to take decisions about their gender or irreversible treatments that they may have”.
Gillick competence is the term for whether children under the age of 16 can consent to medical treatment without parental permission or knowledge.
But there is frustration among Tory MPs who want a full conversion therapy ban that the issue is being conflated with sporting participation.
The government has said separate work will be undertaken to “consider the issue of transgender conversion therapy further”.
Tory rebels get organised
A parliamentary showdown lies ahead. Legislation will need to be introduced to ban conversion therapy for LGB people. It is inevitable that there will be an attempt to amend it to include trans people as well.
Behind the scenes HuffPost UK understands Tory MPs who want trans people included are organising, getting the numbers together ahead of any vote. “You only need a small amount,” one source said. The rebels would need around 40 Conservatives to oppose the government to win.
Labour divisions on trans rights have also been bubbling away from a long time. But the majority of Labour MPs would be expected to vote in favour of banning trans conversion therapy.
If an amendment does not come from the Tory backbenches or Labour, it will come from the Lib Dems. Wera Hobhouse, the party’s equalities spokesperson told HuffPost UK they would do “everything in our power to ensure conversion therapy is banned in full” and would “table or support any amendments to legislation to ensure trans people are protected from this abhorrent practice”.
Johnson, in explaining his decision, told broadcasters: “Let me just say, because this is something that frankly, for people like me, it wasn’t something I thought that I would have to consider in great detail.” He now will.