Women opposing trans rights reforms protest in London. Photo: Sophie Hemery.
Christian conservatives have become the unlikely allies of women’s groups mobilising against trans rights reforms in the UK, openDemocracy can reveal.
There is no evidence that they are actively working together. But our analysis of responses to a Scottish consultation on potential reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) found that opposition came from these two groups.
Roughly half of the anti-reform submissions came from Christian conservative groups, which traditionally oppose abortion and same sex marriage; the other half were submitted by women’s groups that fight for these rights.
Some of their arguments in response to the consultation’s questions were also markedly similar: that reforms would threaten women-only spaces, marriages, families, and the safety of women and children.
The UK government is considering reforms to the 2004 law, which enables people to change their gender on legal documents, after a survey found the current process “too bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive”.
A public consultation on these reforms in England and Wales closes on 19 October. A separate consultation in Scotland earlier this year attracted an avalanche of more than 15,500 submissions.
Our analysis of more than 150 published responses to the Scottish consultation shows that only about 20% opposed reforms – and how groups that sharply disagree on other rights issues have converged against this one.
Vic Valentine, Scottish Trans Alliance policy officer at the Equality Network, said the opposition is likely to fail. “However, it is having a big personal impact on trans people at the moment,” as “many trans people feel under attack.”
Women’s groups opposing reforms “might want to consider what it says about their campaign,” Valentine added, that others taking similar positions are “conservative religious lobby groups [that] are no friends of women’s rights.”
“Conservative religious lobby groups are no friends of women’s rights”
Valentine added that the proposed reforms won’t affect access to single-sex spaces, which is covered under separate equality legislation.
The reforms would “simply improve the process for trans people to change the gender on their birth certificates – and when was the last time you were asked to show your birth certificate before using a toilet or changing room?”
Submissions to the Scottish consultation, opposing reforms. Image: Claire Provost.
The proposed reforms would enable trans people to legally self-identity their gender, “removing requirements… to provide medical evidence and to have lived in their acquired gender for two years before applying”.
The government’s web page insists its consultation “does not consider the question of whether trans people exist”. People can already legally change their gender, it says, “and there is no suggestion of this right being removed”.
The Scottish consultation asked questions including: if respondents agreed with a self-declaratory system; if reforms should apply to younger people; and whether spousal consent should be required for legal gender recognition.
Submissions came in from across the UK – as well as from groups in other countries including Canada, the US, and Australia.
ADF International, the global branch of a US Christian ‘legal army’ that defends opponents of sexual and reproductive rights in courts around the world, said in its submission that “gender dysphoria” is “as rare as it is serious”.
“Persons with such presentations,” ADF International claimed, “have testified that they felt nothing less than their sanity to be at stake".
The Newcastle-based Christian Institute – which previously worked with ADF International to support a London registrar who refused to officiate at same-sex civil partnerships – also submitted to the Scottish consultation.
It criticised the “fundamental premise” that “a man can become a woman and that a woman can become a man”, saying the current law “creates a legal fiction” and that reforms could “abolish” women-only spaces.
Other Christian groups warned that women and girls could end up in “vulnerable and potentially risky situations” under the reforms and cited "the mental suffering of wives and children of men who decide to live as transgendered”.
The Maryburgh and Killearn Free Church of Scotland said gender is “decided by GOD… while in our mother's womb” and “that lovely woman they fell in love with and married who now wants to be a man – such horror is incredible!”
Meanwhile, women’s groups opposing the reforms include Midlothian Women's Spaces, which said “a man in a dress is not a woman” and the YES Matters group, which said “gender dysphoria is a mental health condition”.
Women's Place UK said the proposed reforms may have “unintended consequences for the safety and well-being of women and girls” as “predatory men could demand access to women-only spaces and services”.
Some women’s groups also argued that people are born male or female and cannot change this and that reforms could negatively affect marriages.
OBJECT – Women Not Sex Objects! argued: “We are a sexually dimorphic species, born (not 'assigned') male or female at birth. This is a scientific fact.” Recognising other genders “is a recipe for madness”, it added.
Lesbian Strength Scotland said that one partner in a same-sex relationship deciding to change their gender can affect “the nature of a marriage, and is likely to be linked to a distressing and sudden change in character”.
Fair Play for Women added that if a woman’s husband changes his legal gender to female, “her marriage has fundamentally and dramatically changed” while divorce “may not be an easy option” for some, including “devout Catholics.”
‘Would set trans rights back decades’
Valentine, the Scottish Trans Alliance policy officer, told us that most of the largest Scottish women’s groups support the proposed reforms while a “small minority” is “organising a campaign, which relies heavily on misinformation”.
They said that groups opposing reforms are not focusing on the specific law and reforms under consideration “but seeking to repeal trans people’s protection from discrimination, which would set trans rights back decades”.
It’s not surprising to see Christian fundamentalists in this opposition, said Isabel Marler at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), describing them as “quick to deploy” whenever legal changes might grant marginalised groups more rights.
Their interest in this topic, she said, may be because “they see it as a ‘wedge’ issue” with less social consensus and “potential to whip up a moral panic.”
But she argued that anti-reform women’s groups should “reflect on the fact that they are aligned with some of the most patriarchal ideologies around, and ask themselves if their version of feminism is working for the liberation of all women and oppressed people”.
* 50.50 is tracking the backlash against trans rights in the UK as part of our ongoing series tracking the backlash against women’s and LGBT rights.