Gender Recognition Act reform

What might the government do to change gender recognition in England and Wales? We don’t know, but can guess. We don’t even have the consultation yet but do have the Scottish consultation, the report of the Women and Equalities Committee, and Justine Greening’s announcement of the English consultation, made on 23 July 2017.

The announcement promised New measures to deliver greater equality for the LGBT community… ahead of the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. That’s accurate. The criminal offences were not completely expunged from the statute book until this century. Initially, there was a narrow defence to a charge of gross indecency or sodomy, which applied in restricted circumstances. Homophobia was still everywhere, and “normal”.

The new rights for gay men were underwhelming. Men who have had sex with men, even once, could not ever give blood, and that humiliates people who want to do a good thing for society. You can’t because you’re gay. Then a time limit was put in- they could give blood if they had not had sex with a man for a year, which is quite an intrusive question. The proposal was to reduce this to three months, but many people would find that an unbearable sex famine. Stonewall’s response was that there should be individualised risk assessment. Of course- what about faithful couples? The three month limit has now been implemented. These rules are in place to keep blood donors and the patients who receive their blood safe, said the press release.

Given the Women and Equalities Committee report, the new rights for trans people are underwhelming too. They are first described as Proposals to streamline and demedicalise the process for changing gender. It is not a consultation on trans rights, but on the Gender Recognition Act alone.

Proposals will include:

Removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before being able to apply for gender recognition. The current need to be assessed and diagnosed by clinicians is seen as an intrusive requirement by the trans community; and

Proposing options for reducing the length and intrusiveness of the gender recognition system.

The gender recognition system is intrusive because it requires documentary evidence of expressing our true selves for two years, as well as that medical evidence. And our promise to live in the acquired gender life long is not enough: the statutory declaration which we swear to that effect must be assessed by the gender recognition panel.

However while in Scotland the consultation proposed a simple statutory declaration, the English announcement is considerably more guarded. Many options would “reduce the length and intrusiveness” other than a simple stat dec, and we might even still have to wait two years before starting the process.

While the Committee proposed reforming the Equality Act, to restrict the circumstances in which we could be excluded from women’s spaces, the announcement refers specifically to the Gender Recognition Act and procedure under it. The Equality Act was never on the table.

Suzanna Hopwood of the Stonewall Trans Advisory Group said “I am really pleased… the current system is demeaning and broken.” Indeed it is, and no nearer being fixed now than nearly a year ago.

So it is false for A Woman’s Place to claim that self-ID would mean becoming a woman simply because you sign a form. It is false for them to claim that anyone’s rights would be affected, apart from trans people’s. They are fear-mongering. Making such statements as they do, they have an obligation to establish the truth: if they are ignorant of it, that does not excuse their circulating falsehoods. People should ignore them.

Unfortunately, the Sunday Times is spreading the misrepresentations, fear and lies: “Men identifying as women [they mean trans women] were permitted to swim in the ladies’ pond on Hampstead Heath in North London and a woman with a fear of men was locked in an NHS women’s psychiatric ward with a burly 6ft-tall transgender patient.” They also wrote, “Ministers have vowed to defend women’s rights to exclude transgender people from female-only spaces such as changing rooms, lavatories and swimming sessions. In a significant victory for campaigners, the government has promised not to put the rights of those who identify as women ahead of those who are biologically female.” But there was never any intention of changing the Equality Act. The campaigners have been wasting their time, and won nothing.

That Sunday Times article quotes the government’s response to a petition from gender critical feminists. It adds nothing. “That does not necessarily mean we are proposing self-declaration of gender,” says the response, but they are having a consultation: why consult, if you have decided the outcome beforehand? The Guardian was initially cozened into publishing the same non-story, including an insulting comment from A Woman’s Place, but later added a comment from Stonewall putting the record straight. “The exemptions to this rule only apply to sensitive and complex services, for example refuges, where services can exclude trans people if they can demonstrate that is absolutely necessary, for example if inclusion would put that trans person at risk. However, these exemptions are rarely used and in almost all situations trans people are treated equally as is required by our equality laws.”

That Sunday Times article is a propaganda coup for the transphobes. There was no victory. There was no change proposed to the Equality Act. But they have spun this as them winning concessions pledging to retain the Equality Act exemptions, and their staunch press allies have gone along with it. Further, they have spun those exemptions as a right to exclude, which only applies in restricted circumstances. We need to point out how narrow the exemptions are.

There were a lot of good answers to the consultation, now published and summarised here.

In December 2019 the Scottish government published a draft bill and a further consultation.

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