Why UK trans rights debates are so frustrating, but I won’t give up hope

Proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act have led to a vile backlash in the media. But we all deserve freedom

Owl Fisher
19 October 2018

Supporters of trans rights at a Pride parade in Scotland last year.

Supporters of trans rights at a Pride parade in Scotland last year | David Cheskin/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved

Anyone following the debate about trans rights in the UK will have heard about the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Given the amount of energy and time spent debating this in the media, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this is the single most important trans rights issue in recent times.

While opponents of the reforms go on about how they will impact the safety of cis women, creating avenues for abusive men to pretend to be women, the GRA is just about trans people being able to get new birth certificates. The reforms are about updating the current intrusive, outdated, bureaucratic process.

The proposals would create a new legal process for people to sign a statutory declaration in order to get a new birth certificate. This process already exists in other countries including Argentina, Denmark, Ireland and Malta.

The sky hasn’t fallen in these places, nor have abusive cis men seized the opportunity to put on a dress and lipstick and march into women’s toilets to abuse women. All that has happened: a handful of trans people have got new birth certificates without having to prove to complete strangers who they are.

Reforms, not revolution

GRA reform will potentially include legal gender recognition for non-binary people as well, who are not currently recognised under the law in England (though they are in countries including Canada, Denmark, Malta and Norway). This means that non-binary people could get IDs that reflect who they are.

The reforms may also apply to younger people, at 16 or 17 years old. At this age, kids can already enter into marriages or civil partnerships, consent to medical treatment and join trade unions. Being able to change a letter on their IDs shouldn’t be seen as a massive concern.

Despite the relatively limited focus of the reform proposals – to make legal gender recognition more accessible and inclusive – it has led to a vile backlash in the media, with the opposition repeatedly framing it as cis women versus trans women, feminists versus trans people, even lesbians versus trans women.

Moral panic

This opposition has drummed up a moral panic over trans women using women-only services or facilities, compromising the safety of cis women because of their “male bodies”. They have even suggested that young trans girls are potential abusers or rapists.

These are baseless – and harmful – narratives, but the media constantly gives platforms to them. Not only does the GRA have nothing to do with access to single-sex spaces, but trans people are already legally allowed to use these spaces in accordance with their gender identity under the 2010 Equality Act.

Women and feminists at large are not concerned about this reform. Most who know what the GRA is actually about are wholly supportive. Trans women have been using single-sex services and facilities for decades. Services in Scotland publicly recognise rights of trans people, and many across the UK have diversity and equality policies.

This is what makes the debate so frustrating. People are allowed to spout complete nonsense on TV without evidence and get commissioned to write articles by mainstream media about the dangers of ‘transgenderism’. In the process, the media endorses these views as if they are actually reasonable.

Opponents of GRA reform have bought adverts in newspapers. On social media, we’ve seen bizarre posts hoping, for example, that trans women will be afflicted by cancer if they can, in the future, get pregnant via uterus transplants.

The real problems

I really hope the GRA reforms will go through – but I cannot wait for this to be over so that we can start focusing on the real issues at hand.

These issues include unacceptably long waiting lists to receive trans-related healthcare; media silence over the brutal murder of Naomi Hersi, a trans woman of colour; and a raft of worrying statistics.

In the UK, two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime; 25% have been homeless at some point in their lives; 12% have been physically attacked by a colleague or customer; up to 45% of trans youth have attempted suicide.

While the relentless media debate rages, in which we are constantly vilified or all made responsible for a few bad apples, it is easy to feel hopeless.

As a campaigner who is outspoken about trans rights, I get harassed on social media every day. I also get invited on to TV programmes to argue with people who think I’m nothing but a misogynistic bloke in a frock (confession: I don’t own a single frock. Do I have to hand in my membership card to womanhood?).

Still, I’m hopeful that we as a society will recognise each other’s shared humanity; that we as the feminist movement will continue to fight for all women from an intersectional perspective; that we as the LGBTI community will continue to come together and not let this rise in transphobia divide us.

In the end, this is all about the freedom to be yourself without persecution, judgement and discrimination. Isn’t that something we all deserve?

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