Trans activists were celebrating a double victory last week. A rather clumsy proposal to “help” the transgendered by outing them was kicked into touch. Meanwhile, one member of the coalition government hinted publicly that it might be time to remove gender entirely from official documents, unless it was genuinely necessary.
Both events took place on Tuesday during debate on the Identity Documents Bill, which sets out the coalition’s position on identity cards and is currently at the committee stage in the House of Commons.
One of the lesser known aspects of the previous government’s policy on ID cards was their preparedness to allow the transgendered to hold two cards: one in each gender. The theory was that this would spare the blushes of individuals who had started to transition, and were “out” to some of their acquaintances – typically friends and family – but were not yet “out” at work.
Former* identity minister Meg Hillier was unhappy with the coalition proposals and put forward an amendment to allow transgendered persons to continue to hold two identity cards. Rather, cards issued to the transgendered prior to the passage of this bill would continue to be valid until such time as the Secretary of State was “satisfied that an identity document in the assigned gender is available”.
According to the government, this clause would affect just one individual in the entire United Kingdom!
The logical hole at the centre of this proposal was also made clear by Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert. He pointed out that a measure designed to stop the inadvertent outing of transgendered individuals would not be very useful if the transgendered were the only group of UK citizens still carrying identity cards.
Lynne Featherstone, junior minister at the equalities department, further suggested that the amendment would not achieve the intended effect anyway.
She said: “This clause would have no practical effect except for requiring the Secretary of State to lay an unnecessary report before both Houses of Parliament. I am sure that is not what the hon Lady intended, but that would be the effect of the new clause.”
Ms Hillier persisted, accusing the coalition of not having done its homework properly and of failing to consult widely enough with transgendered groups on this issue.
Ironically, much the same criticism had been levelled at the last government by transgendered activists. Few would question the Labour Party’s commitment to extending rights to minority groups: however, their approach has often created the means for new discrimination.
Thus, the Gender Recognition Act is broadly welcomed, but it has also led to many unlawful demands for sight of the gender recognition certificate before an individual can access rights to which they are entitled.
Such a demand was a major part of the falling out at Pride 2008, when officials demanded to see a gender recognition certificate before permitting a trans woman to use the female toilet facilities.
Ms Hillier argued that “it can be distressing for people to travel on one identity document while looking very much like their new acquired gender and having a new identity in that gender”.
This, in turn, brought forward an interesting response from Mr Huppert, who suggested: “The simple solution to many of these circumstances is just not to have gender information on any of these identity documents.”
He went on: “There does not seem to be a need for identity documents of any kind to have gender information. It is not a very good biometric… Military ID, such as the MOD90, which obviously can have quite a high security clearance, contains no gender information. That might be what we should look at. It is certainly what some of the people I spoke to were keen on.”
In other words, if there are issues with official documentation, one possible – and revolutionary – answer is not to produce yet more official checks and balances, but to do away with the requirement to show certain information unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. It is unclear whether this could become official coalition policy – or was just a bit of creative thinking by a new member of parliament.
Nonetheless, it does bring into the debate an idea that the transgender community have been backing for a long time – and whose time, maybe, is finally coming.
*Note: while Ms Hillier is believed to have left government, along with the rest of her party in May 2010, her website continues to describe her as “currently a junior minister at the Home Office”. Perhaps she needs to pay a little more attention to her own identity details.
Jane Fae’s blog can be found at janefae.wordpress.com