This month, we have a historic opportunity to improve trans rights. The government is currently consulting the public on whether it should make it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognised through the Gender Recognition Act.
In early 2016, a government select committee released a report recommending changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA), which governs how people can legally register a change to the gender they were assigned at birth. Chaired by Tory MP Maria Miller, it recommended a simple system of self-identification over the current process, which requires trans people to "prove" their gender with intrusive questioning and medical tests.
The suggested amendments to the GRA wouldn't change how trans people use gender-controlled spaces such as toilets or women's refuges – which is governed under the Equality Act 2010 – but would allow them to be legally recognised for who they are.
A huge step forward for equality, right? Not according to swathes of the British media. Since the select committee report, the tabloid press, conservative broadsheets and even left-leaning publications have pushed the message that changes to the GRA threaten cis women's rights. This has culminated in fear-mongering stories about men accessing female swimming sessions and toxic "debate" over the legitimacy of trans women, as well as vicious online abuse of any trans person who speaks up in favour of reforming the GRA.
Sadly, anti-trans bias in the media is nothing new. As journalist Paris Lees notes, certain publications have been recycling inaccurate stereotypes about trans people for years, and trans representation in the media is notably lacking.
This summer, the government opened consultation on the GRA, asking the public for their opinions on how to reform the legislation. (You can submit your views to the consultation here.) While Stonewall and trans activists including Lily Madigan and Aimee Challenor have spoken out against the anti-trans stance in mainstream media, transphobic myths continue to dominate the conversation.
We asked a panel of experts to call bullshit on some of the most insidious mistruths perpetuated by the right-wing media about trans people and reform of the GRA.
"If we reform the Gender Recognition Act, anyone will be able to wake up and decide they’re a woman on a whim."
There is no precise detail yet on how the reformed legal mechanism for gender recognition would work in England and Wales, but we can take an educated guess that applicants will swear a statutory declaration that they are sincere in their desire to live in their acquired legal gender. Once the application has been registered, permission will be granted for the gender marker on the applicant’s birth certificate to be changed and the birth certificate will be re-issued.
It is important to recognise that this is an administrative process designed to allow trans people privacy about their history. Gender markers can already be changed on passports, driving licences and other documents without any sworn declaration. The reality is that trans people generally declare their actual gender in almost all social contexts: coming out to friends and family, telling doctors and psychiatrists at gender clinics, how they ask to be considered at work and in their documents. Self-determination is the guiding principle already and, given the suspicion and hostility visibly trans people can face, declaring oneself to be a gender at odds with your sex at birth is not a "whim".
The only prominent case of a man admitting he was attempting to identify as a woman on a whim was Labour activist David Lewis. It was a deliberate attempt to undermine the party’s policy on gender, and resulted in him being suspended.
– Shon Faye, Recognise Me guest editor.
"A streamlined system of gender recognition involves a huge redefinition of what it means to be a woman. It erases the biological basis of women’s oppression."
Opponents to GRA reform often argue that self-identification is dangerous for cis-gendered people, in particular for cis women. They fear that by allowing trans people to more easily gain recognition for their true gender, the category of woman will be diluted or rendered meaningless – and with it our understanding of gendered and misogynistic oppression. As a cis feminist from Ireland, I feel well placed to rebut this falsehood. In Ireland, we have had self-identification for trans people for three years, a system akin to what would be brought in with GRA simplification in Britain. We also won an overwhelming victory for reproductive rights this summer when we repealed the Eighth Amendment.
In January, the We Need to Talk tour opposing GRA reform tried to schedule a stop in Ireland, nominally to discuss abortion. An open letter from Irish feminists was sent to them in objection: "Together, cis and trans, we are Irish feminism," it read. "Trans women are our sisters; their struggles are ours, our struggles theirs."
The inclusion of trans people in Irish dialogues about reproductive health did not threaten our success in repealing the Eighth. We achieved it while being a country with self ID (a system with which there have been no issues, which no nefarious people have abused for predatory gain). Accommodation and inclusion of like-minded trans people in a movement does not hinder any woman. Solidarity makes us stronger.
As freely evidenced in Ireland, we lose nothing – and stand to gain everything – by supporting each other and recognising where we have common ground and common enemies. Personal bodily autonomy is what we all want, trans people and cis people alike, and authoritarian patriarchy is what stops us achieving it. It made me feel safer and happier when queer trans-inclusive groups were protesting during the referendum – and it made me feel proud as hell to be an Irish feminist when we stood by our trans siblings without apology.
– Megan Nolan, Irish journalist and feminist.
"GRA reform would allow men access to female toilets and changing rooms. It would also threaten safeguarding around women’s refuges."
Excluding trans women from women-only spaces such as toilets, changing rooms and women's refuges is a cruel violation of human rights. Every individual has the right to present themselves in the gender they identify as, and support must be provided according to this gender.
The Equality Act 2010 states that single-sex services such as women's refuges must be trans-inclusive. While the law stipulates that service providers can refuse to provide support for someone who is undergoing or has undergone gender reassignment, this only applies in very restricted cases. Each case would be analysed on an individual basis by the service provider.
In short, the law already states that trans people can access single-sex spaces that match their gender, therefore reform of the GRA would not threaten the safeguarding around services like women's refuges.
Indeed, reform of the Gender Recognition Act is not about changing the Equality Act, but guaranteeing the safety and dignity of trans people who need to access support services. Trans women should be welcome in women-only spaces and services for the same reason trans men should be admitted in men-only spaces. Excluding trans people from these spaces is discriminatory.
Changes to the GRA are also vital for trans women in abusive relationships. As the GRA currently stands, trans people who are married before they transition must divorce or ask their partner for consent before they change their gender. This requirement puts trans people – especially trans women who are experiencing domestic abuse – at further risk of abuse and control from their partners. Reform of the GRA would provide an opportunity to address these gaps in the current policy, and help prevent domestic abuse happening to trans people.
As a women-only organisation that is trans-inclusive, Latin American Women's Aid Service already provides support to trans women escaping abuse – and it works. Our staff understand about the different issues that trans victims of domestic abuse face, and we work in partnership with other organisations that provide support to the LGBTQI community.
– Victoria Gutierrez, Service Manager at Latin American Women’s Aid Service, a London-based organisation that runs refuges for BME women fleeing gender-based violence.
"GRA reform grants sexual offenders in prisons access to vulnerable women by identifying as women."
One of the biggest myths currently being put forth in opposition to trans equality is that GRA reform will lead to a free-for-all in the prisons, with sex offenders able to gain unfettered access to a captive pool of vulnerable women. Real life experience shows that this is nowhere near the truth. Scottish Trans Alliance has worked in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service to develop policies and procedures that respect the rights of trans people in custody, while upholding safety and fully recognising the complexities of managing people with challenging offence histories.
Since the Equality Act became law in 2010, the Scottish Prison Service has recognised trans people's self-declared genders. The current policy (formalised in 2014) does not base housing decisions on whether or not someone has a Gender Recognition Certificate. It utilises comprehensive risk assessments to determine appropriate prison placement for each individual trans person. This has not turned into a free-for-all.
Trans prisoners are very diverse in terms of their length of sentence, integration in their gender identity, risk level, vulnerability and rehabilitation programme needs, so it is not appropriate or lawful to automatically isolate them away from other prisoners. Decisions on where to place them must be made extremely carefully, and the safety and wellbeing of all prisoners and staff is the highest priority. The current proposed reforms to the GRA do not seek to change any of the existing risk assessment decision-making criteria.
– Becky Kaufmann, Justice Policy Officer at Scottish Trans Alliance.
"Trans kids are just a new fad!"
There have always been trans children. I've spoken with enough trans adults to be certain of this. Many recall very clearly knowing they were trans at a young age – though lacking the vocabulary to describe their experience and lacking reassurance from those around them that their existence was acceptable, most were forced to hide their identity. Some suffered terribly, often at the hands of their families.
Things are starting to change for the better, but even today, many trans youth are not supported at home or in school, with awful consequences. Life is dangerous for many trans kids; 84 percent have self-harmed, suicide ideation is high and conversion therapy is all too commonplace. Conversely, those kids supported in their identities and allowed to socially transition are thriving. Even simply using a trans child's name and pronouns dramatically lowers the risk of depression and suicide risk.
A decade ago, even supportive families faced a very difficult path. Trans kids were too often thrown into a parallel life of living their true selves at home and pretending to be their assigned gender at school. The 2010 Equality Act changed this for the better. For the first time, trans children had legal protection and schools were uniformly required to support and protect trans children, to welcome them in their schools.
So being trans is cool? What dad doesn't think their kid is cool? I look forward to the day when being trans is seen as something to be admired. I am grateful that we live in a time where my child has some incredible trans role models, racing car drivers, helicopter pilots, actors, journalists. My hope for the future is that my daughter's identity is an issue for her alone, and that she can be free to live her life and grow up happy and safe.