Two departing ministers have accused the government of creating a hostile environment for LGBT+ rights as they joined the wave of resignations from government.
Equalities and exports minister Mike Freer said yesterday that the government had created an “atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people”.
He is among the more than 50 ministers who have resigned from government – ultimately triggering Boris Johnson's resignation – amid a row over the handling of complaints against deputy chief whip Chris Pincher.
In his resignation letter, Freer said he had been “grateful for the opportunity to create focus in creating new exports markets and in working to try and improve the lives of LGBT+ people in the UK”.
“However, I feel that we are moving away from the One Nation Conservative Party I joined, not least in creating an an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people and I regret I can no longer defend policies I fundamentally disagree with,” he said.
Freer added that he felt the party had “let down our constituents and our supporters" and in resigning, he had chosen to “prioritise the diverse constituency of Finchley and Golders Green, one nation conservatism, as well as my passion for equalities”.
Peter Gibson, a PPS in the Department for International Trade, also cited policies he felt were harmful to LGBT+ people in his resignation letter.
“On Saturday last week I marched with LGBT Conservatives at London Pride,” he wrote.
“As a gay MP, that should have been a liberating, enjoyable experience. Instead due to the damage our party has inflicted on itself over the failure to include trans people in the ban on conversion therapy, it was a humiliating experience and signalled to me the immense damage that has been so needlessly inflicted after years of hard work by many to rebuild the damage of Section 28.”
Section 28, which prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities, was enacted in 1988 under then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who said children were being "cheated of a sound start in life" by being "taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay". Its UK-wide abolition in 2003 came after mass protests by LGBT+ campaigners.
Former government equalities adviser Jayne Ozanne said at the time that the exclusion of trans people from the conversion therapy ban marked a return to Section 28, calling it a "smokescreen for an agenda against one of our most vulnerable communities".
The decision triggered the resignation of LGBT+ business champion Iain Anderson seven months into his 18-month term. Anderson said the “deeply damaging” move – which came after a U-turn on a proposal to drop the ban altogether – had left him no choice but to quit.
“As a young gay man I lived through fear and oppression under the backdrop of Section 28. I could have never have dreamt then that a government – any government – would appoint an LGBT+ champion later in my lifetime.
“However, the recent leaking of a plan to drop the government’s flagship legislation protecting LGBT+ people from conversation therapy was devastating. Only hours later to see this plan retracted but briefing take place that trans people would be excluded from the legislation and therefore not have the same immediate protections from this practice was deeply damaging to my work,” he said.
"Trust and belief in the government's overall commitment to LGBT+ rights has been damaged,” he added.
Shortly after his resignation, the government cancelled its landmark “Safe To Be Me” LGBT+ conference, after more than 100 organisations said they would boycott it over the exclusion of trans people from the ban.
Questioning of Pincher accuser's sexuality 'problematic'
Relations with LGBT+ supporters have been further strained this week after one of the men who has accused Pincher of groping him said Conservative whip Sarah Dines asked him if he was gay.
“I was a bit taken aback by that and said, ‘What’s that got to do with it? But yes, I am’. And her words were, ‘Well, that doesn’t make it straightforward’," the man told The Times.
Johnson then drew the ire of MPs on the Liaison Committee when he refused to condemn the question yesterday afternoon.
Standards Committee chair Chris Bryant asked the prime minister if Dines was right to ask if the victim was gay and if the suggestion was “victim shaming”.
He asked: “Do you not understand why this is problematic? Because it means that being gay for some reason or other makes you sort of asking for it.”
A "hostile environment" for LGBT+ people
Freer's warning of an "atmosphere of hostility" echoed similar phrasing used by Ozanne when she resigned as equalities adviser and chair of the government's LGBT+ panel last year, saying it had created a "hostile environment" for LGBT+ people.
Ozanne, a survivor of conversion therapy, was one of three panel members who quit after saying ministers were ignoring their advice – shortly before then-equalities minister Liz Truss disbanded the group.
She said she had been “astonished” at the “ignorance” of both Truss and Kemi Badenoch – then a junior equalities minister, who has also resigned this week – who she said were “known among the community as the ministers for inequality”.
Badenoch is among those who have been accused of stoking a “culture war” against trans rights. This week, she announced that public buildings would be required to have separate male and female toilets – removing the option of having only unisex toilets instead – to ensure “women feel safe and comfortable when using public facilities”.
Gender-critical activists have claimed policies that allow trans people to use toilets that align with their gender identity put women at risk of violence, by making it easier for men to enter women’s toilets and assault women.
The National Trust and the Old Vic theatre were both criticised recently for introducing gender-neutral toilets, with some critics accusing the National Trust of pursuing a “woke agenda”.
At the time of Ozanne's resignation and comments, a government spokesperson said: "The government is committed to building a country in which everyone, no matter their sexuality, race or religion, is free to live their lives as they choose.
"We have repeatedly made clear that we will take action to end conversion therapy and we are working to bring forward plans to do so shortly."