Penny Mordaunt’s apparent U-turn on trans rights is, in a surprising turn of events, being weaponised against her by opponents within the Tory party.
Mordaunt, once seen as an underdog in the Tory leadership race, has quickly become a surprise favourite. She’s finished second (to Rishi Sunak) in both rounds of voting among MPs, edging out Liz Truss, and polling shows she commands huge support among the wider Conservative Party membership.
She’s considered a “broad church” candidate – a more moderate would-be leader than either Sunak or Truss, the Johnson continuity option. It seems likely she’ll beat Truss to the final vote and could go all the way.
However, Mordaunt’s opponents won’t go down without a fight. A series of articles littered across the right-wing press on Friday (15 July) appear to represent a co-ordinated attack against her candidacy. In them, Mordaunt is described as “lazy”, with some suggesting Boris Johnson removed her from the defence portfolio because she was “out of her depth”.
But one of the areas she’s facing the most condemnation for is her flip-flopping on trans rights.
Penny Mordaunt is trying to convince the Tories that she’s anti-trans – but it’s not going well
Mordaunt served as minister for women and equalities during Theresa May’s tenure in No 10. It was during that time that May announced plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow trans people to self-identify.
If introduced, the reforms would have significantly streamlined the gender recognition process for trans people – but it wasn’t to be. The government launched a public consultation, but the results were repeatedly delayed. May resigned, Mordaunt left the equalities office, and Truss took over. Before long, plans to reform the act had been entirely scrapped.
Penny Mordaunt arriving for a Cabinet meeting in 2019. (Leon Neal/Getty)
Much has been made of Mordaunt’s perceived support for LGBTQ+ rights during her time as minister for women and equalities. She marched in Pride parades, promised to ban conversion therapy, and spoke openly about her twin brother’s experience of growing up gay.
That’s not all – Mordaunt once told the House of Commons that “trans men are men” and “trans women are women”. It should have been a relatively innocuous (and obvious) statement, but it attracted controversy within a party that has become known for its opposition to trans rights.
Many LGBTQ+ people were tentatively hopeful when Mordaunt announced her leadership bid, but their hopes were largely dashed when she decided to answer the question “Do I know what a woman is?” on Twitter.
In the thread, Mordaunt sought to distance herself from what she described as the “trans orthodoxy”. She drew a firm distinction between herself – a woman who was assigned female at birth – and trans women, saying the two could never be seen as the same.
She also spoke out against trans women competing in sport, saying biology is “overwhelmingly important”.
Mordaunt is alienating LGBTQ+ people and those who oppose their rights
The backlash was swift, and what’s notable is that LGBTQ+ people weren’t alone in expressing frustration with Mordaunt. Many who describe themselves as “gender critical” feminists also lashed out at the would-be prime minister, suggesting that her anti-trans credentials didn’t stack up.
Her efforts to ingratiate herself with the anti-trans movement have so far entirely backfired. Now, her opponents are using her flip-flopping on trans rights to try to discredit her.
Penny Mordaunt addressed the PinkNews Awards. (Paul Grace)
Suella Braverman, who was kicked out of the leadership race in the second round of voting, accused her of failing to “stand up for women”, drawing attention to the supportive comments she’s made about the trans community in the past.
Even the Daily Mail has said there are “troubling questions” concerning her inconsistent statements.
Much of the criticism levelled at Mordaunt in Friday’s newspapers revolves around whether she’s a true Brexiteer, if she has the adequate experience to lead the country, and whether she’s really as opposed to trans rights as she says she is.
In a truly unique series of events, LGBTQ+ people and those who oppose their rights have united in their mutual mistrust of Mordaunt.
Most would still prefer Mordaunt as prime minister over her opponents
While many have been horrified and upset by Mordaunt’s recent comments, others still believe she’s the best option on the table for the LGBTQ+ community.
Penny Mordaunt attends a service to recognise fifty years of continuous deterrent at sea at Westminster Abbey on May 3, 2019 in London. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty)
Jayne Ozanne, an LGBTQ+ activist and anti conversion therapy campaigner, is of the view that Mordaunt is the only way forward for the UK’s embattled LGBTQ+ community – even if she is deeply concerned by some of Mordaunt’s recent comments.
“I’ve been appalled by the mudslinging and co-ordinated attacks against Penny Mordaunt – who the gender critical press and candidates are trying desperately to undermine,” Ozanne told PinkNews.
I am impressed by the fact that Penny has sought to model ‘positive politics’ and would far rather her as prime minister than Liz.
“As with the toxic debates I encounter in the church, people can often take our words out of context and spin them to their own ends. I also know that we can be so focused on addressing the concerns of one audience that we forget how it is received by another.”
Ozanne added: “I am impressed by the fact that Penny has sought to model ‘positive politics’ and would far rather her as prime minister than Liz.”
Britain’s International Development Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt leaves 10 Downing Street after attending a Cabinet meeting in London on April 23, 2019. (ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty)
Despite everything, there is still some hope that Mordaunt would advance LGBTQ+ rights if she were in office. Speaking at a PinkNews reception in Westminster, former equalities minister Mike Freer said he had received assurances from all four frontrunners in the race that they would support a trans inclusive conversion therapy ban.
If Freer is right, it would suggest that Mordaunt might not actually be as opposed to trans rights as she claims she is.
Also worth noting is that Dame Maria Miller, a Mordaunt backer, told Sky News that the leadership candidate hasn’t actually changed her stance on trans rights since launching her leadership campaign.
Still, none of that will come as much of a consolation to trans and non-binary people. Their very existence has been used by Mordaunt in a bid to boost support and to prove their “anti-woke” credentials. Mordaunt will never have broad support from LGBTQ+ people as long as she continues to weaponise their rights in a bid to win support from a small but vocal group of anti-trans campaigners.
Members of LGBT Conservatives have told PinkNews that they are “in despair”.
Penny Mordaunt visits RAF Lossiemouth on November 24, 2015. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)
Speaking to Sky News on Friday (15 July), Mordaunt accused her rivals of “black ops” campaigns.
When asked about her statements on trans people, she called for the focus to be shifted onto issues such as the cost of living crisis – but did not change her stance.
“Some people who are born male will go through a process to transition into another gender and they are issued a legal document in their new gender,” she said.
“They are not biological women like me, but the law recognises them in their new gender and that’s very simple and straightforward – and Westminster is tying itself in knots over it.”
She added that trans women can be “legally but not biologically” women, adding: “And we are not equivalent in that respect.”
It’s now clear that Mordaunt must urgently clarify where she stands on LGBTQ+ rights. Mordaunt has hurt the community with her words – as have others in the race, including Sunak, while Truss has actively stopped LGBTQ+ rights from advancing while serving as equalities minister.
Even if Mordaunt were to backtrack on her anti-trans comments, it would be too late for many within the community. Social media is awash with queer Tories disavowing their previous support for her, with many expressing upset and disappointment that she would abandon trans people so carelessly.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear: politicians who espouse their support for queer people should never be trusted until they’ve actually put in the hard work to make life better for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community.