No Place for Transphobia in the Gender Recognition Act Consultation
Content warning: violence and sexual harassment against women and trans people, transphobia
Across Crosby beach stand 100 life-size cast iron figures, each gazing eerily out to sea. They are ‘Another Place’, a permanent art installation by Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley. In the past couple of weeks, Gormley’s figures have been bestrewn with phallus-shaped stickers bearing the claim that “Women don’t have penises”.
The stickers are a protest led by Liverpool ReSisters against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. As it currently stands, the gender registered on your birth certificate is your gender in the eyes of UK law. The Gender Recognition Act sets out the process through which transgender people can apply to change their legal gender. Applicants must be over 18, must have received a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and must have lived in their ‘acquired gender’ for at least two years. Applications cost £140 and often consist of ‘intrusive medical assessments and long, demeaning interviews’. The process can take more than five years. It can be an arduous, time-consuming obstacle course. The act is currently undergoing public consultation to make the process “a better service for those trans and non-binary people who wish to use it”.
The government is encouraging opinions on whether self-determination (also known as self-identification) of gender would be a better model to use. This would remove the requirement for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and would eradicate vetting through a gender recognition panel.
Liverpool ReSisters and other parties, such as A Woman’s Place, are against self-identification. They worry for the sanctity of women-only spaces. The crux of their fear is that a dishonest man will falsely ‘self-identify’ as a trans woman and gain access to women-only spaces, opening the women up to assault. They support this fear with examples such as Christopher Hambrook, a man who assaulted two women in women’s shelters while claiming to be a transgender woman. What they mean when they say ‘women’s spaces’ is in fact single-sex, female-only spaces.
This method of protest is transphobic.
Yes – it is vital that women have safe spaces and services catered to their needs. One in four women in the UK experience domestic violence. Violence against women is an epidemic. Women-only spaces are a much-needed resource and any threats to their existence can have devastating results.
However, women-only spaces are a much-needed resource for trans women too. A survey by Stonewall and YouGov found that 28% of trans people in relationships in the last year had experienced domestic abuse from their partner. 34% faced gender identity discrimination in cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs in the last year. Of the trans people who contacted the emergency services in the last year, 25% were discriminated against based on their gender identity. Services offering refuge from gender-based violence and discrimination are vital for cisgender women, non-binary people, and transgender people. Cassie Brighter’s article on Medium puts it far better than I can: ‘The trans woman in the public restroom is not saying, “I’m here to invade your space!” – she’s saying, “please take me in. I have no other place to go. We’re not conquerors or invaders, we’re refugees.’
My first issue with Liverpool ReSisters’ protest is the transphobic statement that “women don’t have penises”. This is TERF (trans-exclusionary radical ‘feminist’) language. Some women have female anatomy, some women have male anatomy. Certain body parts may hold a lot of trauma for some trans people – but for the outsider, what’s behind someone’s underwear should hold no concern.
My second issue is the group’s vilification of trans women and the greater trans community. Liverpool ReSisters’ fear of false self-identification is closely linked to people being deceived by another person’s gender. This ‘deception’ is a common cause of discrimination and violence against trans people, positioning trans people as wrongdoers for ‘lying’ (i.e. being a woman with male anatomy), rather than as victims of traumatic misgendering and discrimination. While Liverpool ReSisters fear cis men – rather than trans women – deceiving the likes of women’s shelters, their concerns perpetuate the smearing of trans people as crooks and may negatively impact trans rights in the Gender Recognition Act.
My third issue: preventing the improvement of trans rights in the name of cis women’s safety unnecessarily pits cis women against trans women. Positive reform to the Gender Recognition Act does not necessarily mean a reduction in women’s rights. It would be a huge problem if that were a certain outcome as that would suggest a limited supply of rights. A healthier conversation can be had when we are neither defensive nor offensive. I do, however, understand where this comes from – when women’s position still feels far from on par with men’s, it’s easy to fear taking steps backwards. But where this mindset creates a picture of human rights as a ladder where only one party can climb at a time and where some groups are sacrificed to benefit others, the aim instead should be to widen each rung.
Inhibiting trans rights in the name of protecting women’s rights prioritises the safety of cis women over the safety of trans people. Everyone should have the right to safety. My safety as a woman is not threatened by trans people being able to self-identity and bypass a potentially invasive and traumatising application process.
This leads me onto my fourth concern. Rather, my safety as a cis woman is threatened by people who abuse the law and who abuse the sanctity of safe spaces. It is not fair to maintain the oppression of one group for fear of wrongdoers (and particularly wrongdoers from a predominantly unoppressed group!) Does it not make more sense to improve trans rights whilst simultaneously strengthening laws against violence and harm to those at risk?
Part of Liverpool ReSisters’ press release/manifesto states that until violence against women perpetrated by males is stopped, “women need safe female-only spaces”. It can be traumatising for a survivor of sexual violence perpetrated by a male (most commonly a cisgender man) to come across the male anatomy during their healing process. In respect of this, one could argue single sex spaces do have their place. It is important that all people, cisgender, trans, non-binary, have spaces available for healing. However, doing so risks creating preferential treatment of trans people who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery over those who have not, will not, and/or cannot. In my understanding, this creates a hierarchy of sexual anatomies within safe spaces – a hierarchy which, outside safe spaces, has been the cause of much sexual violence already.
(As a side note, I’m wary of reducing the act of sexual violence to the anatomy that causes it. It is not the penis that assaults, but the person attached to it. For too long, men have been escaping unharmed from accusations of assault – and on an everyday level, from guilt-tripping women into sexual acts in the name of ‘blue balls’ – by pretending lack of control over their penis. This needs to be stopped.)
Could women-only spaces providing refuge to survivors of sexual violence (predominantly perpetrated by males) put into place a system where the survivor need not see the triggering male anatomy without excluding trans people? In some cases, this might be as simple as shower curtains. Could services not be offered in women’s spaces for both cisgender women and trans women? If a trans woman has been sexually assaulted by a cisgender man, where can she go to keep safe and to heal if she is excluded from women-only spaces? If we maintain the restrictive process for trans people to legally change their gender, don’t we risk not only trauma and discrimination for those who make the application, but also the perpetuation of misgendering, of ‘deception’-fuelled violence, and of gender dysmorphia for those who choose not to, or cannot apply?
Yes, Liverpool ReSisters, “a debate must be had, and legislation drafted that benefits trans people, protects children, and upholds women’s rights.” Women have been ignored and silenced throughout history, and our experiences as women have been shunned and disregarded. And so too have the experiences of trans people. Both groups face discrimination and violence at a systemic level. It is equally important to recognise both the differences and the similarities of our experiences, and there are times when such categories need to be adhered to for the benefit of all. Yes, it’s hugely important that we don’t remove women’s rights and resources in order to bolster trans rights and resources while men’s long-held rights and resources remain unaffected. Conversation surrounding the Act’s reformation is vital, and silencing voices would be damaging. But – just like misogyny should have no place in the determination of women’s rights – transphobia has no place in this conversation.
Cover art by the wonderfully inclusive Alice Che.
For a little further reading and trans activism...
Christine Burns MBE - Christine campaigned for the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and was one of the first to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate