UK

Boris Johnson’s government has left trans people ‘feeling ignored, despondent and depressed’, MPs emphatically told

Vic Parsons December 14, 2020
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Meets Leo Varadkar In Ireland

Boris Johnson. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The trans community is “exhausted” by repeated consultations on trans rights while women are being “silenced” on the issue of the Gender Recognition Act, a group of politicians has heard.

In what will be the first of several evidence sessions, the Women and Equalities Select Committee heard on Wednesday (9 December) from six academics about the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

This forms part of the committee’s Gender Recognition Act inquiry, announced in the wake of Tory equalities chief Liz Truss’ decision, in September, not to reform it.

Despite a huge 2018 public consultation finding clear support for comprehensively reforming the GRA – including removing the requirement for trans people to get a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before being able to have their gender legally recognised, legal recognition for non-binary transgender people, the removal of the “spousal veto” and the lowering of the age for legal gender recognition from 18 to 16 – Truss instead said that she would place the gender-recognition process online and reduce the £140 fee for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) to a “nominal amount”.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee GRA inquiry, which is due to report over the summer of 2021, is asking three main questions: “Do the government’s proposed reforms on gender recognition go far enough? What changes need to be made to the Gender Recognition Act and other laws to improve transgender equality? What about wider reforms?”

Chaired by Tory MP Caroline Nokes, who previously told PinkNews that she knows this inquiry “won’t be easy” but that it is needed after Truss’ “standstill”, the committee heard from six academics.

The trans community feels ‘infantilised, ignored, despondent and depressed’

Professor Stephen Whittle of the University of Manchester, professor Alex Shaw of the University of Warwick and Dr Ruth Pearce of the Trans Learning Partnership and University of Leeds were the first panel to talk to the Women and Equalities Select Committee.

“The failure of the government to respond to the figures in its own consultation has left the trans community feeling infantilised, ignored, despondent and depressed,” Whittle, who helped architect the GRA as the head of legal for Press For Change, told MPs as the session began.

He added: “Especially young people, who feel a large element of their future has been taken away from them.” 

Shaw agreed: “I really don’t understand why we’re here today, going through this again. I’m at a loss as to why we have to go through this endlessly, and I think this is a widespread sentiment through the trans community.

“We need a strong message from the government in support of self-determination, instead of a passing of the buck, again.”

Pearce added that there have been “nine or 10” trans-related consultations in the last five years, and that “people in the community are exhausted”.

Trans healthcare and self-declaration

Moving on to the requirement that adult trans men and women who want to have their gender legally recognised get a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, Pearce said the problem is not just the £140 fee to apply to the Gender Recognition Panel or the two-year period that a trans person must live in their “acquired gender” for before being allowed to apply.

“It’s about the hidden costs and hidden waiting times,” she said. Getting a gender dysphoria diagnosis means waiting two to four years for an appointment at an NHS gender clinic, and the only alternative – going private – is expensive.

The result of this, as has been documented, is that very few trans people have used the GRA to get their gender legally recognised – meaning the law is not fit for purpose, which is what led to the Women and Equalities Select Committee suggesting it be reformed in 2015.

In Argentina, which has a system of gender self-declaration like many other countries including Ireland, Malta, Uruguay and Nepal, more than 13,000 trans people have changed their legal sex since 2018 “with no reported instance of fraud”, Pearce added. “By contrast, in the UK, by 2018 just 4,910 trans people had been issued a Gender Recognition Certificate.”

Pearce also told the committee that the three “new” gender clinics announced by Truss as part of GRA reform – actually three pilot programmes already announced by NHS England – would not help reduce waiting times for trans healthcare, which have spiralled to the point where in some parts of England trans patients are waiting 193 weeks to see a doctor on the NHS.

The pilot programmes are an “exciting innovation”, Pearce said, but more gender clinics must be opened or the existing model of how gender clinics operate changed for waiting times to be seriously reduced.

Legal recognition for non-binary people

MPs also asked about legal recognition for non-binary trans people – which, as the government’s own National LGBT Survey found in 2018, make up more than half of the UK’s trans population. Legal recognition of non-binary identities was suggested as part of GRA reform and backed by 64.7 per cent of respondents to the GRA consultation, but was not mentioned by Truss.

Should non-binary people be legally recognised? “If the GRA is to be in any way relevant to trans people it must include non-binary people,” Pearce answered.

Shaw agreed, and added that the government could look to Ireland for a template for gender self-declaration. What’s needed is a “simple administrative procedure”, she said.

Shaw added that the “statement of solemn intent” that trans people must make, declaring they will live in their gender until death, should be removed because it doesn’t account for gender fluidity or the small number of people who detransition.

Whittle agreed, pointing out that gender self-declaration is recognised as best practice by trade unions and human rights groups. “We should consider a short piece of legislation which is rewritten afresh rather than rewriting what we have… and moving away from the idea that this is some kind of judicial process,” he said.

Single-sex spaces and the Gender Recognition Act

As part of their GRA inquiry, the Women and Equalities committee asked for people to submit evidence on trans equality.

The process is underway of publishing these responses online. The committee has received evidence that highlights “fears about access to women’s single-sex spaces”, MPs said, moving on to ask the panellists about the interaction between the GRA and the 2010 Equality Act (EA).

Whittle said the current exemptions in the EA – which allow for a trans person to be excluded from a single-sex service, like a domestic abuse refuge or a prison, on a case-by-case basis if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim – are “acceptable”.

“We shouldn’t be looking to address any issues around predatory men by attacking the rights of a small community who are also often attacked by predatory men,” he continued. “We understand the issues raised by gender critical feminists, because we face them too.”

Pearce said that there has been “confusion” in the language used to describe this issue. Shaw said the “the fear itself has no basis empirically”.

At the moment all trans women are subject to sex-based exceptions,” Shaw continued. “And if we have more trans women with a GRC in the future, all those women will be subject to sex-based exceptions.

“So we will continue to have the status quo. The people who suggest there will be [increased risk to cis women from changes to the GRA] are creating alarm when there is no legal or empirical basis for it.”

Finally, the committee asked whether a government ban on so-called conversion therapy – a harmful and discredited practice that the Tories said they would ban in 2018 – should include a ban on trans conversion therapy. All three agreed.

‘When women speak out we are told we are being transphobic’

Professor Rosa Freedman of the University of Reading, Dr Kathleen Stock of the University of Sussex and professor Alice Sullivan of UCL were the second panel of academics to give evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee.

Sullivan began by outlining how women have been “attacked” by trans activists, beginning with the physical assault of Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in 2017 and continuing to the point where “all” meetings of Women’s Place UK – a group set up to campaign against GRA reform – are attacked by trans activists.

Freedman said that this violence is not always “perpetrated by trans individuals, but by trans allies, straight cisgender men”.

She continued: “Women have a great deal of compassion for gender dysphoria. Women will voice their concern about sex-based rights but will also be compassionate towards trans individuals.

“Whereas trans individuals refuse to recognise the legitimate needs of women as a class. And that has really silenced women. So when women speak out we are told we’re being transphobic.”

Stock agreed, and said what “hasn’t helped” are “HR policies” that have “a very expansive definition of transphobia”.

“Because they are Stonewall diversity champions, transphobia includes ‘denying gender identity or refusing to accept it’,” Stock said.

“Now that can be read in different ways. If you think sex is more important than gender identity and you want to say so, you run the risk of looking transphobic.”

Stock said that she has been called transphobic or anti-trans, but like “most women [she] knows”, she is “concerned about male patterns of violence and sexism”.

“That doesn’t mean we’re anti-trans,” Stock said.

Sullivan added that organisations which “promote the gender identity point of view”, like LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall, are “shutting down” the conversation.

“That’s been absolutely vicious and I have personal experience of this,” Sullivan said. “I was deplatformed from a research methods seminar, and the reason for that was that as a quantitative social scientist I believe we should collect data on sex.”

She added that others have also been targeted by “gender activists”, like Maya Forstater – the tax researcher who lost an employment tribunal case over misgendering trans women – and the LGB Alliance’s Alison Bailey.

Gender Recognition Act reform and trans healthcare

The three academics in the second panel were all “sympathetic”, as Freedman said, to the idea that the Gender Recognition Act needed to be “looked at”.

We should be looking at trans healthcare, at identity affirmation, to allow people to be married or be buried in the gender identity they hold,” Freedman continued. “But this is separate to the GRA. We’ve been avoiding this conversation and it’s created this toxic discussion, because of the gap thats been left by the failure to take this on and address it.”

Sullivan agreed and added there is “absolutely a need for clarity” on the interaction between the GRA and EA.

Asked about whether the people who run single-sex services, like women’s rape shelters, are “confident” at applying the sex-based exceptions, Freedman said there is a need for non-politicised data on service users.

Rape victims can be retraumatised by exposure to certain sights, sounds, smells,” Freedman added. “PTSD doesn’t just respond to being told you should educate yourself.”

“And I don’t think its a human right to have your identity recognised by the state,” she said. 

The Women and Equalities Select Committee is still considering the evidence submitted and will hold more oral evidence sessions as part of its GRA inquiry. No dates have yet been set.

Related topics: allison bailey, gender recognition act, GRA Reform, Kathleen Stock, maya forstater, Rosa Freedman, Ruth Pearce, single-sex spaces, stephen whittle, Stonewall, women and equalities select committee

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