Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, gave evidence on 22 April 2020 to the cross party Women & Equalities Select Committee via a Zoom meeting, setting out her priorities for the Government Equalities Office. The final section of her speech was devoted to trans rights, specifically to the reform of the GRA (Gender Recognition Act) following a public consultation in 2018. Brexit and other shenanigans saw this issue shelved for a time, giving us all a breather, but here it is, rearing its ugly head again. (you can read the transcript of that speech here)
You see in the beginning, those amongst us who live and think progressively, had great hopes that a consultation might result in the lifting of some of the frankly archaic and discriminatory processes embedded in the existing GRA. At the time (2004) of its original passing, this bill and this country were at the forefront of the international push for trans rights. One of the first countries in the world to enshrine the right to change gender and have it legally recognised, including protecting trans people against discrimination, we then saw trans people protected in their own special category under the Equalities Act 2010.
But it was also a time when trans visibility was minimal, and necessarily so; to be out as trans at the time of this bill passing was to attract harassment, violence, both sexual and otherwise, social isolation and rejection. In fact the GRA was intended to allow people to up sticks and start their lives over, so as to avoid this degree of persecution; secrecy was enshrined in the Act and in the medical processes that necessarily accompanied a ‘full’ transition across the gender divide. At the time, and still today, it is those who assigned male at birth who suffer the most. An adult body that has been through puberty on testosterone has features which cannot be undone. Many trans women are recognisably assigned male at birth, and cannot escape the biological effects of testosterone, even though this has been and continues to be the source of psychological distress of an untold magnitude, resulting in suicides, poor mental health, job and family loss, addiction and poverty.
GRA reform was meant to mean that people did not have to jump through so many hoops to demonstrate that distress; it has never been compulsory to have had any medical treatment in order to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (the outcome of a panel decision upon postal application), which in turn allows for the issuing of a new birth certificate with an altered gender marker, and yet people felt pressured to do so – to prove themselves if you like. It was meant to make it cheaper (only 6000 applications in 15 years suggests this was a privileged few who could afford the fee of just under £200) and it was meant to be an opportunity to allow recognition of non-binary identity. GRA reform was something that younger, less binary-constrained trans people wanted and were pushing for. The NUS got right behind it. It was not going to mean anything to anyone who wasn’t trans, apart from perhaps being pleased that we weren’t having our identities quite so heavy policed by the state. And then came the counter-attack.
The GRA reform consultation saw a rapid rise in interest, especially on line. It spawned a raft of interconnected hate groups, (Fairplay for Women, Woman’s Place UK, LGB Alliance) with spurious links to far-right evangelical hate groups in the US, and questionable sources of income. It gave birth to the widespread hate-filled rhetoric against trans women which still lurks beneath the Covid19 tarpaulin, and resulted in court cases both crown and civil, as hate crimes soared and libel ran amok. The past two years have been really tough for trans communities who have largely hunkered down and tried to weather the storm, taking a path of passive, or non-violent resistance as befits and dignifies an oppressed minority under siege. It has taken its toll on peoples individual and collective self esteem, and has predictably affected the most vulnerable amongst us.
Counter-counter action has often come in the form of misplaced protest from our cis-allies who are rightly angry on our behalf, but at the same time fuel the fury of the gender-critical by giving more ammunition to the idea that there is a well funded trans lobby with an agenda. There isn’t. What there is however, is a large and vulnerable group of people whose voices are absolutely not being heard. Trans men and non-binary people are not even getting a look in, and trans women are cherry-picked for their allegiance to the cause of misplaced feminism.
For the privileged, there is nothing but fear encountered when an oppressed minority starts to become more visible. Trans people and their lives challenge gender norms in a way that literally rock the foundations of our socially conservative society. A society where the nuclear family is upheld as a building block, despite it being a hotbed for abuse and violence, where men are masculine and women are feminine, and babies are born of a union between the two. I know that the rise of LGBT visibility, same sex union and now marriage and other rights that have been won over the past 50 years are hugely important, but somehow the trans rights movement is uncovering a deeply, deeply held belief that somehow this is wrong. And it must be stopped. It boils down to the weaponisation of the penis and vulnerability of those without one. We cannot allow this legitimate concern to be appropriated as a cosh to bash trans people with.
In Liz Truss’s speech, she goes on to mention three specific issues, none of which are actually anything to do with the GRA or the recent consultation held on its reform. All are thinly veiled attempts to begin to roll back the precious rights we have won this century, including the treatment of distressed children. There is clear malintent here, and I very much fear the direction of travel.
Dr Sam Hall is a regular Gscene columnist and is also a practising GP and the Chair of the Clare Project, Brighton & Hove’s long established self-supporting transgender support and social group based in Brighton and Hove open to anyone wishing to explore issues around gender identity.