Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.
Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden went to Washington, D.C. recently to tell the Americans about culture wars. The “war on woke” had reached our shores and was here to say, he said. This seemed curious. Did a British politician really need to lecture an American audience about the politicisation of gender, faith and freedom of speech? They’ve been experts in extracting political gain from thorny social issues for years.
The latest iteration of the culture clash over gender in the United States happened in Florida. The Sunshine State can often act as a test case for an extrapolated national political picture because of its importance to presidential elections as a crucial swing state. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557 late last month. It was born out of an attempt to restrict the freedom of teachers and education boards to teach children in school about social issues that for many parents belong in the family home, not the classroom. Its terms will come into effect from 1 July, with all school district plans required to be updated by June 2023.
It is the most fashionable policy trend in Republican circles and follows Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race. Youngkin put parent power at the centre of his campaign, at which point ‘Critical Race Theory’ looked like it would be inflicted on the nation as a whole. And so, the Parental Rights in Education Bill was introduced in the Florida state legislature by GOP lawmakers amid a spiralling nationwide debate about identity in schools. It bans classroom education on sexual orientation or gender identity “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”. Parents must also be told when a child seeks counselling at school.
The ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ became the label attributed to the legislation by its Democratic opponents and LGBT+ organisations who argue it directly targets a specific group of students and staff while effectively silencing vulnerable students. After a 2021 study found that LGBT+ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider, plan, or attempt suicide than their peers, critics argue that they need protecting, not silencing.
Viscerally opposed by the left, there is no denying that this kind of legislation has a core base of support. Governor DeSantis is one of America’s most cunning political operators. With a keen eye on the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024, he would not have thrown his political weight behind an unpopular policy platform doomed to failure. When DeSantis signed the bill into law, he said it would ensure “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.” It’s the kind of political slogan that you could see catching on, even if its underlying practical application were more sinister than the soundbite.
Barely a month separates Florida enacting HB 1557 and Downing Street muddling its way towards a position on conversion therapy. The Government has decided it will legislate to ban gay conversion therapy, but not trans conversion therapy. Less than 24 hours earlier, Equalities Minister Mike Freer told the Commons the Government was “wholly committed” to bringing proposals forward.
The details matter, but the broader trend sees politicians either seeking electoral gain out of legislating for gender and sexual orientation, or outright struggling to take leadership on an issue with a profoundly personal impact.
It is impossible to imagine legislation akin to ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ being exported to the UK. But on these deeply complex and personal issues, there is no point pretending that for some the topic of gender and sexual proclivity are ones to be avoided, gender pronouns on emails curious, and different rainbow flags too complex to bother trying to understand. Hence diversity and inclusion groups pride themselves on wining over allies in the hope of creating a more understanding and tolerant society.
Where the clear similarity lies between the political context in the USA and UK is that politicians are finding it impossible to escape what appear to be rudimentary questions about gender and sexual identity. There looks to be a major difference in willingness to discuss it. Governor Ron DeSantis wants to zoom in on parents replacing educators in talking about gender because a similar strategy worked well for Glenn Youngkin in Virginia. But whenever a Member of Parliament is asked “what defines a woman?”, even the most rehearsed lines look to be nervously delivered.
The Government’s indecision on conversion therapy proves how difficult it is to legislate over sex and gender. But is sensitivity is an excuse for inaction? Canada and France both introduced legislation banning conversion therapy this year. “Being oneself is not a crime”, President Macron tweeted when the legislation passed. The Republican tactic in Florida proves that there are votes to be won by limiting discussion over emotive topics, or restricting them to the family home.
Downing Street wants to duck elements of the debate around conversion therapy, but the world is moving too quickly for inaction to be a viable path forward. On a near daily basis, sporting bodies are being asked to rule on what events trans athletes can or cannot compete in. The bravery of Jamie Wallis MP to come out as trans puts the conversation at the heart of Westminster.
Given the political temperature generally runs several degrees lower in Westminster than Washington, it seems unlikely the shape of the debate would duplicate here. But the Government will not be able to sit on the fence much longer. It must decide if it wants to be accused of fanning the flames of a “woke war” or stamp them out.