Reforming the Gender Recognition Act is a feminist responsibility
*The consultation deadline has been extended to Monday at noon 'due to the large volume of responses'*
For the next few hours we have a chance to make a practicable difference to the quality of life for British trans people. As feminists we must take it.
Tonight, the government will be closing its consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. The consultation asks English and Welsh citizens what they believe the process for legally changing gender should look like. In its current form, the process amounts to a medical intervention – forcing trans folk to live within their ‘acquired gender’ for a two-year ‘reflection’ period up until that request for an official gender switch is granted.
Within that time, the applicant must produce evidence to a medical professional that they are subject to a psychiatric condition that the medical community call ‘gender dysphoria’ – a term used to describe ‘when a person experiences distress because there is a mismatch between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity’, according to the definition of LGBT-rights group Stonewall.
Beyond this, applicants must sign a waiver declaring their seriousness to live within their ‘new’ gender identity permanently. And if the trans applicant is married, their spouse must give consent to advance the application.
Why there must be reform
For feminists committed to interrogating and dismantling gendered power, the current process enshrined in the Act is deeply worrying. Stonewall calls it medicalized, interventionist, inaccessible and expensive.
It’s worth remembering that the Gender Recognition Act is about legal recognition – not medical advice or gender reassignment (which is not a pre-condition for transhood anyway, as it happens) but legal recognition of gender identity.
By unnecessarily medicalizing the process with psychiatric diagnosis and compelling trans people to legally live within their coerced identities for another two years, the status quo treats trans identity as akin to mental illness. It’s worth noting that in Norway legal changes to gender avoid this pathologization altogether, with no wait period.
At a time when 41 per cent of trans people say that healthcare staff lacked specific understanding of their health needs in the last year, it is important we use whatever leverage we have to demystify what it means to be trans.
The problem has its roots in a cruel misconception of how gender identity works: by assuming trans people are only changing gender at the point of lodging an application, as opposed to having always been said gender, the state becomes complicit in upholding a coercive practice.
In its current iteration, the Act bears a striking similarity to the days when homosexuality was defined in relation to mental illness within diagnostic manuals, a process that caused lasting psychological damage to queer people who lived through the phenomenon.
Gender is about social position, not the brute presence of particular genitalia, and trans people are subject to an extortionate amount of gendered violence.
This year, Stonewall revealed that 53 per cent of trans people aged 18-24 experienced a hate crime and 25 per cent of trans people experience homelessness at some point in their lives.
Feminists concerned about power know that it is not genitalia that bears a causal relation to the intimidation and harassment that women, including trans women, face. It is not genitalia that compels men to follow women (especially trans women) home at night. It is power.
When trans women attempt to live visibly as women, the threat of violence is heightened; 40 per cent of trans people adjust the way they dress in order to avoid discrimination.
Dismantling the ‘panic’
The moral panic that has surrounded the Gender Recognition Act is founded on two incoherent grounds: that recognition will allow trans women access to women-only spaces, and that trans women are a threat to cis-women (non-trans women).
Under current laws, trans women already have a default right to access women-only spaces and services, so the moral panic is coming a little late. But the first objection really stems from the second.
The notion that trans women have been socialized as men, and so are a threat to non-trans women in the way cis-men have historically been, is false because trans women have patently not been socialized as cis-men.
Trans women have been coerced into living as gender-conforming men from early on, while enduring transphobic bullying and violence. Their experiences are wildly different to that of non-trans men. As Lorna Finlayson and others recently put it: ‘There is clearly a difference between the experience of a child who is treated by others in ways that are characteristic of boys and also feels like a boy, and a child who is treated by others in ways that are characteristic of boys whilst feeling that they are really a girl.’
Cis-men (non trans-men) are largely conditioned into inheriting positions of power in patriarchy, the same cannot be said for young trans people, faced with the knowledge that, when it comes to getting a job, one in three UK employers admit they are ‘less likely’ to hire a transgender person and 43 per cent were unsure if they would recruit a transgender worker.
The government’s consultation advice states that ‘trans and non-binary people are members of our society and should be treated with respect’.
Until 11:00 pm on 19 October, feminists in Britain have a unique, time-bound opportunity to stand up against gendered coercion. It would be travesty not show support and act for our trans allies.
Stonewall’s guide to filling out the GRA can be found here. It takes a mere 10 minutes. The consultation will close at 11pm tonight GMT.