In the wake of the killing of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, it’s time our political leaders found a backbone and stood against the attacks being waged on young trans people across the country.

Floral tributes and messages are seen in Soho Square during a vigil for Brianna Ghey on 18 February 2023 in London, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Brianna Ghey, a 16-year-old girl, was killed in broad daylight on Saturday 11 February. She was described by her family as a much-loved daughter, granddaughter, and baby sister, a larger-than-life character who would leave a lasting impression on all that met her.

It has been reported that Brianna was the target of transphobic bullying at school, and police have issued a statement that ‘All lines of enquiry are being explored, including whether this was a hate crime.’

The tragedy has shaken young and LGBTQ+ people. Thousands of people have participated in vigils organised to celebrate her, to share anger at her young life being cut short, and to stand together as a community. Over £100,000 has been raised to support her family to cover funeral costs, and calls to support LGBTQ+ helplines have been met with overwhelming support.

But while the response from the LGBTQ+ community has been heartening, the truth is, Brianna, alongside thousands of young people who are LGBTQ+, grew up in an increasingly hateful and dangerous climate for trans people in the UK.

The British media has found a new target, leading what can only be described as an obsessive campaign of fear and vitriol against trans people. Just hours after this young girl’s murder, in one of the most sickening displays of transphobia in our press’s dirty history, The Times deleted references to Brianna being a girl in their original article and added her deadname—even in death, denying a child the dignity she and her family deserve.

Author Shon Faye has reported that in 2020, the Times and the Sunday Times published over 300 articles with negative or hostile commentary towards trans people, and a study covered in CNN reported that in 2018-2019 the British press altogether published 6,000 articles about trans people, the majority written to be critical of them.

This obsession is by no means limited to the media class. Leading politicians have jumped on the opportunity to join the pile-on, or exploit it for a new electoral coalition of what they call ‘anti-woke’ voters.

When launching his campaign to become the next Conservative leader, now prime minister, Rishi Sunak kicked off with an attack on the Equality Act, promising to crack down on ‘gender neutral language’ and ‘woke nonsense’. He later appointed Kemi Badenoch as Minister for Women and Equalities, a politician who has repeatedly used her position to attack trans rights and infamously intervened to halt the ban on conversion therapy.

Across the hall, the Labour Party leadership seem to have entirely abandoned the floor, leaving trans people to rely on the support of a small minority of MPs. Labour leader Keir Starmer has repeatedly refused to meet with trans rights groups, yet has twice met with Mumsnet—a well-known platform on which transphobia targeting young trans women is rife. Starmer recently came under fire from LGBTQ+ members of his own party for his comments about young trans people and for whipping MPs to abstain on a vote in Parliament that could have defended Scotland’s Gender Recognition Act reforms. Meanwhile, complaints against Labour MP Rosie Duffield have gone ignored, while she has devoted her platform to attacks on trans people and their allies, reflective of the alarming online radicalisation against a small, often young, minority.

I’ve been told time and time again by politicians that the ‘trans debate’ is a ‘culture war’ we shouldn’t be dragged into. They bury their heads in the sand while attacks on trans women grow exponentially. But this climate of hate is not just a political inconvenience—it’s a reality where thousands of people, including many of their own constituents, are being targeted for their gender identity.

Hate crime against LGBTQ+ people has risen by over 300% in recent years, and trans people are two times more likely to be the victim of a crime than cis people. While the media creates hysteria around trans youth and ‘irreversible medical procedures’, the reality for trans people is years-long waiting lists and an underfunded healthcare service, with disastrous implications for their mental health.

As Stonewall’s Schools Report exposed, over half of LGBTQ+ young people don’t feel that there is an adult in school they can talk to about being LGBTQ+. At least three in five young trans people are not allowed to use the toilets they feel comfortable in, and 84% of young trans people have deliberately harmed themselves.

Consider these young people, navigating exclusion by their peers, often unsupportive parents, online hate, and a society determined to characterise them as a threat, an enemy, unwanted. It paints a picture none of us would ever want our children or relatives to experience. So where’s the opposition?

Keir Starmer’s advisers have calculated a political path to power that does not involve young or LGBTQ+ people, despite organisations such as LGBT Labour being long-term allies of the leadership. The strategy relies on winning over socially conservative voters by avoiding combating reactionary views on gender, race, or class. But it also means the only real political opposition in England is ignoring the crisis facing LGBTQ+ youth.

Just a couple of years ago, I sat around a table in a youth group, where a young person felt safe enough to ‘come out with a cake’ to celebrate who they are with their peers and their youth workers. With the current direction of travel, even the few spaces LGBTQ+ young people do have risk coming under attack and even ceasing to exist in the near future. We are on the brink of losing decades of ground gained by LGBTQ+ liberation struggles.

It is time for those Labour politicians who claim we have a long and proud tradition of LGBTQ+ solidarity to face down the narrative being constructed by the far right—not to simply see this as a ‘distraction from the real issues’, but to see it for what it is: a bigoted attack on a minority group.

Our elected representatives must find a backbone. We should always refuse to capitulate to the demands of an extremist view that trans people should be marginalised from society, not just when it is politically convenient. Coming off the fence and committing to GRA reforms and access to transitional healthcare is a start. Policy pledges won’t change the climate of hate overnight, but it will send a message to transphobes that they are no longer dictating Labour policy and that trans youth that they will be protected under a Labour government.

Turning the tide on transphobia can’t be left to chance. It can’t wait. We need an urgent change of course to put an end to this ugly charade.

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