That a prime minister would try to score political points by making jokes at the expense of minority groups would be disappointing in any circumstances. That he would do it when the mother of a murder victim belonging to the group in question was visiting Parliament shows a remarkable level of insensitivity. But it is Sunak’s response to being challenged over his remark that reveals the deeper problem: one that should concern us all.
“To use that tragedy to detract from the very separate and clear point I was making about Keir Starmer’s proven track record of multiple U-turns on major policies, because he doesn’t have a plan, I think is both sad and wrong, and it demonstrates the worst of politics”, Sunak said.
The tragedy, of course, was the death of Brianna Ghey, and while it is true that his remark did not refer to her murder – it very much referred to her life. If Sunak really believes that what he said was “very separate”, he has failed to grasp that his sparring with Starmer is more than just a game – that the words he uses in the chamber have a direct impact on real people’s lives.
Real world consequences
This is true of trans people just as it is true of, say, disabled people, who he recently blamed for creating an unfair burden on taxpayers, or asylum seekers, whom he claimed were being “driven to our shores” by our “enemies” and could “destabilise” or “overwhelm” our society.
Such remarks have real world consequences. They hurt real people and contribute to hostility towards them from other people. Transphobia may have been a secondary motive in the killing of Brianna but it is something she would have had to deal with on a frequent basis during her short life, and that is due, in part, to politicians more interested in exploiting the potential of toxic rhetoric than in solving real problems.
Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, has, understandably, declined to comment on Sunak’s remark, saying that she now wants to focus her efforts on creating a legacy for her daughter by building a “more understanding, peaceful and stronger society for everyone.”
She and Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, are due to meet with the prime minister in the next few days to talk about the contribution that social media may have played in inspiring the murder. Spooner has called for an apology from Sunak, which has as yet been refused. Speaking to Sky News, he referred to the remark as “absolutely dehumanising” and said “Identities of people should not be used in that manner”.
Young trans people increasingly denied support
One of the tragic things that has emerged in the aftermath of Brianna’s death, adding to her parents’ grief, is her use of ‘pro-ana’ websites, which promote anorexia. The connection may not be immediately apparent to most people, but trans teenagers are disproportionately likely to visit such sites because one of the effects of anorexia is to slow down puberty. It’s an extremely dangerous way to go about it, of course – there’s no point in hoping for a better future if you might lose your future altogether – but in a situation where young people are desperate and can’t see another way out, it’s not hard to see why it happens.
For young trans people, it has become harder to hold onto hope and a positive way forward under a government which has overseen the closure of NHS support services and made it extremely difficult to get access to puberty blockers. People in this situation need real help, and Sunak’s government has failed them.
“Trans young people need their politicians to build supportive school environments, to fix our broken NHS and to protect them from violence”, said Mermaids, the charity which works to support young trans and gender questioning people and their families. “Rishi Sunak’s shameful and heartless comment … and his refusal to apologise, shows just how little his government thinks of trans young people and the important people in their lives.”
Brianna was fortunate in one thing, at least: she had parents and friends who loved and supported her. For those who don’t, Sunak’s government now proposes to make life even harder. Its new guidance urges teachers to alert parents if children request any gender-related change in how they are treated, which could be as simple as wanting to be referred to by a different name.
This will make many children feel that it is unsafe for them to turn to their teachers for support and all the more likely to seek help and advice online. They might be lucky and find a supportive organisation like Mermaids, but equally, they might find their way to pro-ana sites, or worse, and have no adults to help them understand the dangers.
Insulation of the privileged
If Sunak genuinely doesn’t understand the harm his government is doing to people like this, it must be because he doesn’t understand that politics is a part of the real world. Again and again, his government has scapegoated vulnerable groups and contributed to hostile public discourse for political reasons. Furthermore, when senior politicians think like this – easy to do, perhaps, when insulated by money and privilege – then you don’t need to be part of such a group to be at risk.
Sunak is ultimately responsible for our NHS, for tackling wealth inequalities and for taking urgent action to protect our warming planet. If he thinks he’s just playing a game – one in which cruelty doesn’t matter, one with no real consequences for human beings – well, then that’s the worst of politics.