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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

What the Rise of the Right, and the UK’s new PM, Mean for the LGBTQ Movement

November 6, 2022 QueerForty .com

Europe is moving right. A series of elections have pushed that populist trend—a trend that’s increasingly worrying for LGBTQ people who have been subjected to attacks, reprisals and anti-LGBTQ policies in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Serbia recently.

Liz Truss, leader of the U.K.’s conservative Tory party became the third woman Prime Minister of the U.K. on Sept. 6, following Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. Truss replaced disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was forced to resign following a series of COVID-related scandals. Two days after installing Truss as Prime Minister, Queen Elizabeth II died after a 70 year reign.

The nation was in an extended period of mourning until the Queen’s funeral on Sept. 19, keeping Truss’s Cabinet choices and policy plans on the back burner of U.K. news. The media barely noticed that Truss made U.K. history by choosing for her Cabinet the first Black Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, and the first Black Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng. Cleverly and Kwarteng are the first Black people to hold a Great Office of State in U.K. history.

Short-lived UK prime minister Liz Truss (L); Radical right-wing Italian leader Giorgia Meloni (R)

But Truss became the shortest-lived PM in modern British history, forced to resign after only 49 days after a disastrous series of economic decisions threatened the pound and caused a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Rishi Sunak, the man she had soundly defeated in September, is the latest PM–the third this year. Sunak also made history–he’s the first person of color, first person of Southeast Asian heritage and first Hindu to be elected PM. He is also, at 42, the youngest British Prime Minister in 200 years.

Sunak, who is even more stridently right than Truss, will be PM–barring more upheavals–through 2024, when the next general election is due to be held.

Amidst the turmoil in Britain, on Sept. 25, Italy’s national elections were held. Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party won an absolute majority in the Italian Parliament. Meloni’s FdI is a radical-right political party with neo-fascist roots in the post-World War II neo-fascist Italian Social Movement. With the election of Italy’s first far-right-led government since World War II, Meloni was poised to become Italy’s first woman premier, a post she assumed October 22.

The elections of Truss, 47, and Meloni, 45, were not a feminist moment to be celebrated. Rather they signal a disturbing trend of right-leaning governance throughout the EU and right-wing women rising to power. France’s Marine LePen has narrowly missed election in France. And now Sunak has put some far-right women in his cabinet.

While headlines like The Globalist’s jarring “Meloni: Mussolini’s Come Back in Italy?” and Politico’s “Reason to worry: Italy’s Meloni holds a mirror to Trump’s GOP” and The Daily Beast countered with a GOP apologia for Meloni explaining “Why Right-Wing Traditionalism Is So Appealing to So Many,” feminists and LGBTQ activists in Italy were rallying against her impending takeover of the government and policy.

Othering people is a basic conservative tenet, both in the U.S. and abroad, with nationalism and Christian family rhetoric another element of conservative movements. The focus on traditional family is a dog whistle for conservatives as Americans have witnessed for decades, since the religious right rose to power during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. While the U.K. doesn’t lean religious to the degree of some European nations, like Italy, Hungary and Poland, unsurprisingly, Truss and Meloni, and now Sunak, like other right-wing leaders in the EU and the U.S., have made LGBTQ people a target.

Fratelli d’Italia is against marriage equality, gay parents adopting children and surrogate motherhood. Italy ranks 23rd in the EU with regard to legal protections for LGBTQ people and is the only major country in Western Europe that has yet to legalize same-sex marriage.

Meloni rose to political powerhouse in part due to her stance for traditional families–a stance she’s championed despite being an unmarried single mother. She has always opposed the introduction of same-sex parents into the national discourse on families. In a 2019 speech Meloni told constituents, “I am a Giorgia, I am a mother, I am Christian, and you cannot take that away from me.”

That speech and another resurfaced on Twitter immediately after the Italian election, promoted by MAGA Republicans. Meloni decried what the GOP refers to as identity politics and wokeism, saying “everything that defines us is now an enemy.” She adds that “they” attack “national identity,” “religious identity,” “gender identity,” and “family identity.”

Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative, said, “Do we have a single American politician capable of speaking words like that with such force, and such conviction? I can’t think of one. Giorgia Meloni has more balls than a Congress full of Republicans.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) suggested he did, noting, “Global elites are crying in their granola because yet another conservative populist was elected,” and praised Meloni’s “spectacular” victory speech. Cruz said, “And across the globe, we see battles between the socialist left—the arrogant elites who want to control people’s lives—and the populist uprising pressing back against it.”

Cruz isn’t wrong about the populist uprising, which is why in Italy, the concern is that Meloni’s embrace of Mussolini’s mantra of “God, Fatherland, Family,” is not the worst element of her platform. Rather, activist worry that Meloni and FdI will do what the GOP is doing in the U.S. and curtail or eliminate civil rights for women, for LGBTQ people, immigrants and others of whom they disapprove. Meloni has, for example, spoken repeatedly of the “threat” posed by what she calls “the LGBT lobby.”

Like MAGA GOP in the U.S., Meloni has infused her campaign with incendiary anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, telling supporters, “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death.”

Meanwhile, in the U.K., trans rights have long been a contentious issue in politics, with a phalanx of British feminists actively campaigning against trans issues, most specifically around reforms to the hotly debated Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Many U.K. feminists assert that allowing trans women to identify as women would harm those assigned female at birth.

Noted British author J.K. Rowling has led anti-trans commentary on a regular basis and has even sided with American GOP extremists like Matt Walsh on Twitter. Rowling praised Walsh’s recent documentary What is a Woman? for “exposing the incoherence of gender identity theory and some of the harms it’s done.”

With that kind of rhetoric on social media, Truss’s parroting of similar discourse raised concerns in the LGBTQ community. Prior to running for Tory leader, Truss headed the government’s Equalities Office, which is dedicated to policy on “women, sexual orientation, and trans equality.” Truss was literally in charge of making civil rights happen for LGBTQ people in the U.K. Now Sunak has an anti-LGBTQ activist in that role.

Kemi Badenoch was appointed by Truss and has been retained for the Sunak government. Badenoch says she is “anti-woke” and opposes allowing trans employees to self-identify in the workplace and opposes gender neutral bathrooms in public buildings.

One former Tory minister, speaking anonymously, told the U.K.’s Pink News, “I’m appalled that all the effort we put into changing the party on LGBT issues over the years has been trashed in a few weeks.”

Sunak has said,“I want this to be the safest and greatest country in the world to be LGBT+.”

Yet Sunak holds similar views to some of his furthest right cabinet ministers. In recently revived video from earlier this year, Sunak has said that transgender women are not women. When asked about the “rising problem of transphobia” within the party, Sunak said: “Prejudice against trans people is wrong. The Conservative Party is an open, welcoming family to everybody across society, no matter who they are and irrespective of their background.”

Then Sunak said that while trans people should be “respected”, when it comes “to questions like toilets or sports” he is “of a view that biology is important, is fundamental.”

“I think biology is critically important as we think about some of the very practical functions, like toilets or sports,” he said. Sunak said that he agreed with then-PM Johnson who said, “biological males” should not compete in women’s sports. Sunak has promised to release a “manifesto for women’s rights” that would call for banning trans women from women’s restrooms and sports.

And like the GOP, Sunak supports “Don’t Say Gay” policies in schools saying students should be “shielded from inappropriate material.” He has appointed virulently anti-LGBTQ Suella Braverman as Home Secretary.

Braverman said schools should no longer teach “keywords” about LGBTQ+ people and rallied against all things “woke.” Braverman said teachers should refer to students by the gender they were assigned at birth and make them use a “third” bathroom.

Unlike the GOP, Tories have supported LGBTQ rights in some areas, so Truss and Sunak represent a step backward. In 2018, former Tory P.M. Theresa May had, during an annual meeting of 53 British Commonwealth leaders, “urged the Commonwealth nations to overhaul ‘outdated,’ colonial-era legislation that treats more than 100 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across the member countries as criminals.”

UK PM Rishi Sunak has no plans to reinstate the
government’s LGBT Advisory Panel or ban conversion therapy

May said, “Nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love.” May also pledged to ban conversion therapy in the U.K.

In October 2021, while speaking at the Conservative Party conference, Truss said of gender identification that “It wouldn’t be right to have self-identification with no checks and balances in the system.” She said, “It is clear process of medical understanding of how that process works, and those medical checks are important.” And added, “Only women have a cervix.”

Sunak has never voted on LGBTQ issues, but Truss had a positive history on marriage equality going back a decade. In 2013, as a Member of Parliament, Truss voted in favor of marriage equality and in July 2019 she voted to permit same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Two months after that Truss was appointed Minister for Equalities. Yet in September 2020 Truss said that reforms to the Gender Recognition Act would not include a right to self-identification for trans people. Then throughout her campaign, Truss asserted that trans women were not women. At a campaign event in Cardiff Truss said, “a woman is a woman” and asked at a Talk TV event, when asked if trans women are women she replied, “No.”

Truss failed to ban conversion therapy and she disbanded the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel after she had promised to reinstate it. Sunak has no plans to reinstate it nor take up banning conversion therapy.

What happens in the weeks and months to come in the U.K. and Italy under Sunak and Meloni remains to be seen. Both countries are facing staggering economic issues—the U.K. due in large part to Brexit and Italy due to the previous government. Those issues could put LGBTQ rights and women’s rights on the back burner. But the politics of the populist right are getting more and more entrenched in Europe—and spreading. And that does not bode well for LGBTQ people anywhere on the continent.

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