This year, Britain has been commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted some married women the right to vote. The exclusion of those born into the female sex from democracy was the result of centuries of political control over women’s bodies and agency by men. As such, the Act was a vital turning point in the struggle to liberate women from patriarchal domination.
Less well known – but just as groundbreaking – is an event that happened a year later in another part of Europe. In 1919, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld opened the Institute of Sexology in Berlin. The first of its kind in the world, the Institute became home to a community of gender variant people, whom Hirschfeld classified as transsexuals and transvestites. While gender diverse people have always existed in some form, it was here that the Western concept of "transgender" as it exists today began to emerge.
The first instance of legal recognition and protection of trans identities in the Western world was the "transvestite pass", a document Hirschfeld himself issued to trans people, which allowed them to present as they wished on the streets of Berlin without fear of arrest. The transvestite pass compelled state authorities and institutions to recognise trans identity as a legitimate expression, rather than a deviation. That such an early form of legal gender recognition existed before the First World War is remarkable in 2018, when trans people are often seen as a new phenomenon that emerged on Tumblr sometime in 2012.
The fight for women's suffrage and the fight of Hirschfield and his gay and trans patients to be better understood are connected. One looked to overcome gender as a sex-based hierarchy, the other to overcome gender as a rigid binary imposed on people because of their bodies. It is why feminism, trans liberation and gay rights overlap and continue to have so many similar battlegrounds. Women's reproductive rights, gay men's struggle for proper sexual health provision and trans people's activism to end medical gatekeeping and pathology all recognise that patriarchy functions by curbing our bodily autonomy.
Similarly, lobbying for legal protections and recognitions to grant equality under the law not only strengthens social progress, but signals the kind of society in which we all wish to live.
This is why the right of trans people to self-determine is so important in a progressive society. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) was one of the leading pieces of LGBT equality legislation in the world when it was first passed. Now, however, it is not fit for purpose.
Under the GRA, trans people have to go through a lengthy and medicalised process to "prove" that they are trans enough. This involves psychiatric interviews, medical assessments and a £140 application fee. It also requires them to hand over two years of proof that they have lived as their "acquired gender".
A panel of clinicians – who have never met the applicant – have the power to approve or deny them based on this evidence. The whole process can take years. If you're married, you need the permission of your spouse to apply – and there are other things which the Act doesn’t even take into consideration. Non-binary people, for instance, aren’t recognised by the law at all.
It is wrong that a trans person is required to submit to a psychiatric assessment or answer a stranger's questions about genital surgery in order to have documents which reflect their lived identity and provide them with privacy.
Today, VICE launches Recognise Me, a campaign in support of reforming the Gender Recognition Act. In partnership with Stonewall, we are calling on everyone who cares about LGBTQI rights to submit their views to the government as part of its public consultation on how best to reform the GRA, before it closes on Friday the 19th of October.
The consultation form only takes 10 minutes to fill out, and anyone can respond, regardless of their gender identity. It’s important for the government to see that support for reforming the GRA comes from all sectors of society.
Sadly, current discussion around reforming the GRA has become a vehicle for the worst kinds of media attacks on trans communities in the UK, in which distortions are common and diverse trans experiences are shouted down. Recognise Me is focused on amplifying trans voices about the issues that matter to them.
It is no coincidence that we are currently seeing the rise of an emboldened right wing that seeks to roll back hard-won protections of the bodily autonomy of all women, all trans people and all gay people by the same stroke. That the same oppressors attack us all is no surprise. Patriarchy relies on removing agency; on compulsion and on telling women, non-binary people and queer and trans men that they do not know their own minds and cannot be trusted to pursue their own destiny.
Solidarity between oppressed groups is vital – now more so than ever. All of us – feminists, gay activists, trans people – know legal equality to be a prerequisite for extricating ourselves from oppression. For that reason, we should all be calling for reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
– Shon Faye, Recognise Me Guest Editor.