What makes a man? What makes a woman? Is it possible to be somewhere in between? The government closed its consultation on changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA) on October 19ththis year. Naturally, the consultation opened a fresh can of worms relating to the question of gender identity.
One of the key proposed changes to the act is the idea of self-ID, allowing individuals to identify as their “chosen” gender without having to go through the current process of approval. Under existing legislation, those wishing to legally register as a gender other than their biological gender must present their case to a panel after living as the opposite gender for two years. It was announced last week that the results of the GRA consultation are due to be announced next spring.
There are concerns from a number of quarters that allowing self-ID will leave people who are genetically female open to abuse from male-to-female trans people. This has paved the way for a storm of mudslinging from both “sides”, with violence and threats sadly caught up in the mix. At a time of general turmoil within the government, as Brexit looms on the horizon (barring, of course, some fortuitous act of God), this issue has been eclipsed to some extent. But in terms of gender revolutions, this one may be escalating to an unprecedented point.
“We don’t even know what the government will really look like in the spring,” Jennie Kermode, a spokesperson from the Trans Media Watch campaign group, tells OutNewsGlobal.com. “The news agenda is so chaotic. And although we’ve seen this kind of legislation reform work elsewhere, there’s an awful lot of confusion around the what the GRA consultation was really about. I realise that some trans people are anti self-ID but I’m not sure they’re fully educated on what it entails.”
Kermode understands that some trans people see self-ID as an encroachment on the rights of those who have “fully” transitioned. “A lot of trans people are loath to see the trans umbrella expanded, because they believe it should only include people who’ve fully physically transitioned,” she says. “But there are trans people who are unable to have surgery for medical reasons, people who simply don’t wish to have surgery, people who haven’t been approved for gender recognition certificates and non-binary people to consider too.” Kermode cites a recent US study as evidence than self-IDed females rarely perpetrate attacks on genetic females.
“A study published quite recently ( http://jaapl.org/content/46/2/232/tab-figures-data) showed only one example of a genuine transwoman causing an issue in a women’s space across the US, the U.K., Canada and Japan between 2013 and 2016. It’s very rare.”
“This idea that children are being rushed on to puberty blockers isn’t based on fact,” Kermode says, responding to a rush of media coverage of child transitioning following the consultation launch. “Most children have to wait 18 months for their first appointment at the gender clinic, and that first appointment is just to talk to their counsellor. Children are given a chance to explore their gender identity fully before they make any decisions. People are too quick to base their opinions on reading an article and not on speaking to people working in that system. Trans children have a very difficult time, with bullying, coming out to their parents and so on. It’s certainly not something anyone would choose.”
Charlie Kiss is the author of A New Man (https://anewman.uk/), a memoir of his transition.“The Government has stated ‘we are not necessarily proposing self-declaration of gender’ in order to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC),” he tells OutNewsGlobal.com. “But there is a cross party consensus that the GRA is not fit for purpose at present. There are many different organisations, such as ‘Stonewall’ and ‘Gendered Intelligence’ who propose certain changes and there are also pressure groups such as ‘Fair Play for Women’ who would rather retain most of the GRA as it stands – despite the standard declaration being legally binding as it would be a criminal offence to falsify. It is important to note that none of the proposed changes will affect a person’s ability to obtain treatment in the form of hormones and surgery. A trans person would still need to have medical approval to obtain treatment on the NHS.”
Kiss is keen to see the expectation of physical transitioning and the high cost of obtaining a GRC removed. “Currently the cost of obtaining a GRC is £140 plus the cost involved of obtaining two recent medical reports which can be anything from £200 each to £500 if the medical treatment was obtained privately,” he says. “Some of the proposals to change the GRA include the removal of the need to provide medical evidence because of the costs and length of time involved obtaining these and to remove the anonymous panel.” Kiss lists a number of examples of successfully implemented self-ID programmes in other countries. “Legal self-declaration is in existence in many other countries in the world: Ireland, Norway, Belgium, Argentina, Malta, Colombia and Denmark. Portugal has also recently announced that they have introduced self-declaration.”
Dr Meg-John Barker is a gender non-binary academic and activist and author of a raft of queer-oriented books includingHow To Understand Your Gender, co-authored with Alex Iantaffi. “There’s been a moral panic ever since the consultation was proposed,” they tell OutNewsGlobal.com. “This has been deliberately stirred up by mainstream media despite the fact that the proposed changes to the GRA will have zero impact on most of the things that people claim to be concerned about (e.g. trans healthcare for young people, and who has access to public toilets and domestic violence services). Given what we know from the research about the mental health of trans people – and the levels of suicide and self-harm among trans youth in particular – the toll this has likely taken is deeply concerning.”
Barker was, of course, pleased to see questions aimed at non-binary people included in the consultation. “The LGBT survey that the government undertook leading up to the consultation had over 7000 responses from non-binary people – more than those from trans women and trans men put together – suggesting that this is a significant proportion of the population who need to be recognised accurately in their gender,” they explain. “It should also be remembered that many countries around the world do not have a binary understanding of gender, so a multicultural society like ours needs to provide options for genders beyond the binary for that reason as well.”
Miranda Yardley is a prominent trans journalist and activist who has written for a range of mainstream media outlets. “There are trans people all over the world who don’t think that self-ID is a good idea,” she tells OutNewsGlobal. “These people have gone through certain processes to get where they are in life and self-ID seems to them like a way of delegitimising their own experience. We’ve seen an epidemic of trans-identifying people in recent years and many people worry that self-ID will stop genuine trans people from being believed.”
Yardley still considers herself a biological male, despite her transition into a body which feels more comfortable to her mind. “Whether we like it or not, we are born a certain sex and we can’t change it. I accept the reality that my biological sex is male. My biological sex defines what I am, but it doesn’t define who I am. Unfortunately, we have people who aren’t trans, including academics, sticking their oar in and calling that attitude ‘transphobic’. But I don’t see where the benefit is in essentially getting people to lie to us.”
Yardley is concerned that children are being hurried into adopting an alternative gender identity before they are ready. “We’re in a horrific situation where we have organisations going into schools and telling children that what defines them as being male or female is their brain and that they can change their body to meet their personality,” she sighs. “I find it unconscionably cruel that these people are telling children that their bodies are wrong.”
Yardley also holds an issue with the ever-increasing list of gender identities. “I disagree with deconstructing people as being fragmented identities,” she says. “You go on social media and you see people identifying as a ‘bisexual, polyamorous, demi-girl, part-rat, part-rabbit’ or something like that. How many labels do you need to define yourself? If one wants to wear a dress, one can wear a dress. If one wants to wear short hair, one can wear short hair.”
Esther Betts appeared on the Channel 4 documentary Trans Kids: It’s Time To Talk. “Many trans people, including myself, feel like the GRA is missing the point,” she tells OutNewsGlobal.com. “Being able to legally change my gender to female would be nice but it practically will not change very much for us. What we are more concerned about it access to trans related healthcare, the current process for accessing hormones on the NHS is intrusive and timely, it can take over five years to finally get a script for cross-sex hormones and it can take even longer to be accepted for surgery. The GRA is a step in the right direction but we need more actual practical changes.”Betts believes that both sides in the “TERF war” have “fallen into their own echo-chambers”.
She despairs at the lack of balanced debate. “For the most part they only seem to interact with people who already agree with them. These echo-chambers have their own language and completely reject the language of the opposite camp. With the word ‘cis’ in particular, I’ve seen some people completely disregard arguments out-of-hand simply because they used this word. I’ve also seen people from the trans rights side of things disregard someone’s entire argument just for using a phrase like TIM (trans-identified male). To me this seems like fixating on the finger. If we have a real dedication to the debate, we will need to be a lot more forgiving on this front.”
Asked how she thinks the consultation results will swing, Betts responds: “As it stands, it’s honestly hard for me to say. I feel like at this point it could go in either direction. There seems to be a lot of support for the changes in both the Labour and the Conservative party, but also a lot of resistance. I am very concerned that if it is shot down then it could signal the end of positive trans policy at least for our generation. I’m also concerned it will embolden transphobia, but nevertheless, I’m trying to remain optimistic.”
The Brexit eclipse may brush the spring announcement regarding the GRA under the carpet to some extent, but one thing is clear: the “debate” on the self-ID issue is not as clear-cut as it might originally appear. It is not a case of trans vs cis, TERFs vs TIMs or any other kind of binary rivalry. It’s a complex – and important – issue and one that looks set to be explored for some time yet.
Want more? Listen to Linda Riley and Julie Bindel discuss this very issue on BBC Woman’s Hour (about 13 minutes in): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0001d8k