Things to read before you comment on the Gender Recognition Act

Following the announcement of reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, rs21 recommends reading to help socialists understand the key issues.  

This week, the government has announced reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act to make legal processes for registering a change of gender less distressing. This has sparked debates across the media, including on sections of the left, about what effects the changes will have on those undergoing transition, as well as whether it will affect others such as cis- (non-transgender) women.

In solidarity with trans people, rs21 believes that laws restricting free expression of gender are part of the problem not the solution to women’s and LGBT oppression, and so we welcome changes to the Gender Recognition Act which would make life slightly easier for trans people. Below, we have collected together some articles and essays which may be informative for those getting to grips with this issue. Click on the titles to read the full article.

Transgender Pride flag

Background to sex, gender and trans liberation

 ‘“I Was Born a Baby Not a Boy”: Sex, Gender and Trans Liberation’

Shanice McBean summarises the debates on gender in recent history, challenging gender essentialism and arguing for trans liberation.

As transgender identities, social spaces and movements have developed over the past 150 years there’s been a sharpening of the confrontation between bourgeois ideological constructions of gender and how gender is defined by ordinary people.

In its crudest form, dominant ideology claims that there is a fixed and necessary connection between one’s biological body (sex) and one’s social being (gender). According to this gender essentialist view women are nurturing, sensitive, emotional, caring and apt mothers not because social environments have created this dominant construction of womanhood, but because of women’s biology.

The history of gender variance across the globe, as Leslie Feinberg documents in Transgender Warriors, is enough to cast doubt on the essentialist view of gender. From two-spirit people of the American First Nations, to cross-dressers such as Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park (also known as Stella and Fanny; two cross-dressers who lived as women in Victorian London’s theatrical scene) the practice of gender and how people identify themselves has often diverged from essentialist ideology.

 ‘Notes on women, men, trans and intersex: “the gender binary does not fit the facts”’

rs21’s Colin Wilson unpicks the idea that gender or sex are binary and biological, and considers some cases through history.

If elite sport demonstrates the arbitrary nature of the gender binary in terms of biology, it’s also important to be clear that being a man or a woman is typically, from day to day, not really about biology at all. When we interact with people we don’t know about their genitals, their DNA or their hormones. A lot of “being a man” or “being a woman” is about being acknowledged as such in society, and feeling that you are so acknowledged. Here it’s useful to refer to the ideas Judith Butler outlines in her book Gender Trouble. Butler argues that society pressures people to act in such a way that they are recognised either as a woman or as a man – people who behave in ambiguous ways face oppression of various kinds. If we have an inner sense of masculinity or femininity, this is because we’ve internalised this masculine or feminine behaviour. This is the opposite of the common sense view that masculine or feminine behaviours are the expression of some internal masculinity or femininity.

Osh Tisch (left) of the Crow nation with their wife. The name means "finds them and kills them"

There have been many cases through history and across cultures of forms of gender which do not fit today’s common sense idea of gender and sex. This is Osh Tisch (left) of the Crow nation with their wife.

Recommended reading on changes to the Gender Recognition Act

 ‘The Gender Recognition Act: Recognising transgender people’

James Dobson considers the cost, process and legal basis of the Gender Recognition Certificate, which individuals must possess in order to be treated as their gender in law.

In order to have their transition legally recognised, transgender individuals are required to have, or have had, a documented mental-health diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Generally, transgender rights organisations object to this requirement on two grounds. First, they argue that it is offensive to transgender people because it classes their gender identity as a mental disorder. For example, Peter Dunne – a New York University law school researcher – argues that “the continued ‘pathologisation’ of transgender identities [treating them as a disease or disorder] through the 2004 Act causes significant offence and distress”. Second, it is argued that transgender people are forced to wait for significant time periods and travel long distances in order to gain medical documentation of their transition. For example, Pink News have highlighted the case of Sue Parscoe, who was forced to wait for two and a half years for her first NHS assessment appointment at Leeds Gender Identity Clinic.

 ‘Statement on the Gender Recognition Act’

NUT LGBT Executive Member Annette Pryce writes in response to the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which were supported at the 2017 NUT annual conference.

LGBT+ trade unionists and allies stand together with our trans colleagues in defending their hard won rights and recognition. LGBT+ trade unionists and allies believe that the consultation to review the Gender Recognition Act is a necessary step in making the process of gaining a gender recognition certificate easier, de-medicalised and significantly less traumatic for those that want it.

We note that the Republic of Ireland has had this policy for two years and there has been only a modest take up and no reported abuses of the system. In Ireland similar legislation to the GRA has not resulted in more oppressive treatment of women. Instead, progress has been made in organising the pro-choice campaign on abortion rights. It is possible for advances to be made if we link the struggles against oppression, not counter pose them negatively.

We believe that transgender people do not use self-definition lightly, but often make decisions after considerable periods of gender dysphoria, real suffering and serious reflection about their personal situations. This is not just someone ‘deciding to call themselves a woman’ and is not a decision made to oppress women. It is highly unlikely to lead to unwanted invasions of women’s safe spaces. In fact, women and transgender colleagues can unite together to fight for better public provision for both oppressed groups of people.

Further reading on trans liberation

‘This story of a trans life is a step towards imagining real liberation’

Sølvi reviews Juliet Jacques’ memoir Trans.

What this memoir shows is that there is an inescapable politics to trans lives, whether they’re stealth or “out”, that makes the questions of gender and power in society immediate. Of course, gender is immediate to everyone, but there can be little doubt that when someone who is read as a man steps out on the high street in a maxi dress, they generate very different social reactions from when they step out in a Superdry shirt and cargo shorts. The apparently gut-wrenching reaction that seems to be drawn from people when you assert yourself as the gender you are, but not the gender they perceive you to be, shows how violently society relies on a rigid gender binary to function.

The value of trans memoirs is that they can document the many ways in which this takes place. Writing them establishes something collective, something that gives names and colour to feelings that readers have, often in confusion, understood as their own inadequacies.

Books by Leslie Feinberg

Leslie Feinberg‘s non-fiction work, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul is the first analysis of the historical roots of transgender oppression. Transgender Warriors won the 1996 Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Non-Fiction. In Spring 1996, Beacon released the paperback edition, newly subtitled: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Feinberg’s non-fiction book Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (Beacon) contains a compilation of speeches by the author with written portraits by other trans activists. (Taken from Feinberg’s website)

 ‘The Future of Trans Politics’

Kae Smith lays out hir vision for what kind of movement trans people need, and what the organised left needs to do to support that.

Beneath the radar of most British anarchists and Marxists, Trans activists have spent years arguing with (what black feminists would aptly describe as the ‘basic’) remnants of the TERF phenomenon, and pretty successfully. Sandy Stone’s seminal 1993 piece ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Post Transsexual Manifesto’ destroyed much of the poisonous legacy of Janice Raymond’s 1979 The Transsexual Empire. Stone’s riposte to Raymond, in addition to being a heroic personal response to an organised attempt to frame her and other Trans women as either moonlighting rapists or psychotically deluded, showed the public the extent to which Raymond and others directly emboldened the American Right’s attempts to deny Trans women access to healthcare when they needed to transition. To many of us, considering the resulting spikes in suicide rates and stigma in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, TERFs quite literally have blood on their hands.

The London vigil for trans teenager Leelah Alcorn, January 2015

The London vigil for trans teenager Leelah Alcorn, January 2015.

There are 8 comments

  1. Lilith Morris

    Doesn’t the reform the Gender Recognition Act propose to remove restrictions on changing of legal sex, rather than concern free expression of gender per se. Gender expression, resistance or agnoticism is not dictated by one’s legal sex, and surely socialists wouldn’t argue that it should be. As the loss of the high heels dress code case shows*, the law that needs strengthening in order to protect free expression of gender is the equality act as it relates to the freedom of people to express themselves irrespective of sex.


  2. Janice Briggs

    I am concerned that the conflation of the terms sex and gender, which is not only common but seems to be generally accepted, will lead to the registering of males (a biological sex) as females (a biological sex) which they are not no matter surgery and/or hormonal treatment. Why one’s gender needs to be registered is questionable since gender is a social construct and ought to be so fluid that no one, two, or more categories could possibly cover the unlimited variations possible. However, I am from the US and am not sure that sort of conflation exists in Britain.

  3. Colin Wilson

    I’ve no problem discussing sex and gender, but it seems to me we need to start from the simple fact that trans people are severely oppressed. Figures for the UK show that that 4 out of 5 trans young people have self-harmed, and more than 2 out of 5 have attempted suicide. 26 trans women were killed in the US last year, and already this year the figure stands at 16. As socialists who fight for a world without oppression, the first thing we have to say is that we stand in solidarity with our trans friends, comrades and work colleagues. I’m very struck that the people posting above are discussing the issue in an abstract way, which doesn’t relate to the experiences of actual trans people.

  4. Roderick C

    The article in the Morning Star linked to above is well known to rs21 members already, being what led to this piece being commissioned. Its contents are bigoted bilge, based on the utterly false idea that rights for trans people threaten womens’ rights and even women’s spaces – an idea akin to Julie Bindel’s conspiratorial claim that trans women are simply men in disguise seeking to invade women’s spaces to commit rape. The kinds of arguments Tunks presents are akin to the old claim that gay rights would open the door to child abuse. Back then some on the left even fell for these sorts of arguments with talk of “homosexuality” being a “bourgeois perversion”. It beggars belief some on the left seem to have completely failed to learn the lessons from those shameful times.

  5. Angela S

    Unfortunately the Morning Star article is not helpful, but is devisive in its lack of understanding of trans people’s lives. It doesn’t take in to account the experiences of many people, for example trans men (ftm) experiences are ignored. Intersex people, (who are dismissed in the MS article as a biological variance) and others who identify and exist outside of the gender binary experiences are also ignored. Also it ignores the experience of people as they are transitioning. For anyone transitioning it takes time, so defining people by the sex they were identified at birth creates avoidable distress and harm. For example, imagine having to travel with a passport showing a name and gender that does not match your appearance and identity. For example ftm trans men can have periods. Acknowledging these realities is not a descent into identity politics, it’s showing compassion and standing by the oppressed, which socialists should be making a priority!

  6. Gill George

    One of the problems with the Morning Star article is that it sets up straw men – and I use the word men intentionally – and then spends a lot of time knocking them down. If it were the case that there were a bunch of men just itching to declare themselves as trans so they could harass women in toilets, undermine the struggle for abortion rights, and deny women the right to fight for women’s liberation – yes, that would of course be problematic.

    But but but– let’s look at the experience from the Republic of Ireland, where the legislation changed a couple of years ago to allow people to define their own gender without fuss or bother. Annette Pryce, NUT LGBT Executive member comments on this:

    “We note that the Republic of Ireland has had this policy for two years and there has been only a modest take up and no reported abuses of the system. In Ireland similar legislation to the GRA has not resulted in more oppressive treatment of women. Instead, progress has been made in organising the pro-choice campaign on abortion rights. It is possible for advances to be made if we link the struggles against oppression, not counter pose them negatively.”

    The NUT’s 2017 annual conference supported changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

    I think Colin Wilson is right to start from oppression – because socialists must surely oppose oppression and fight for human liberation.

    When I was training as a speech and language therapist – close to a quarter of a century ago – we had a few lectures on ‘gender dysphoria’. It was seen as a rare and strange disorder, a clinical condition that apparently necessitated an enormous number of medical and legal hoops to be jumped through before people were allowed to change their gender.

    In the intervening time, attitudes towards gender have shifted. More people are starting to question their assigned gender publicly – and seeking to change it. The law and the medical profession still lag far, far behind. The accepted international methodology for classifying disorders and diagnosing disorders is called ‘ICD-10’. This is currently in use in the UK. ICD-10 defines ‘gender dysphoria’ and ‘gender identity disorder’ as mental or behavioural disorders. Trans people are deemed to have a pathological condition; there is supposedly something ‘wrong’ with them. Access to hormonal and surgical intervention is controlled by doctors. A formal diagnosis is dependent on the ‘persistence’ of the preferred gender for at least two years. The current legislative framework dates back to 2004. It allows people to apply for a ‘Gender Regulation Certificate’ if they have a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria and have lived in their acquired gender for two years or more. Then and only then is a legal change of gender permitted.

    It’s a horrible process, and one that causes incalculable distress. It gives a great deal of power to doctors (who may have little understanding or empathy); and, very importantly, pathologises something that is simply part of who someone is and how they define themselves. Why? For no legitimate reason at all. It’s about a system that is oppressive, that seeks to impose a binary view of gender, and that desperately needs to change.

    And of course, many/most trans people also face bigotry and harassment on a routine basis. Violence is commonplace. Discrimination in the workplace is part of the territory.

    Is there anything in this discrimination and bigotry that should be welcomed by socialists or feminists? Of course not. It’s unacceptable.

    I personally think that undermining the gender binary imposed on us by the ruling class is a good thing. As a cis woman I’m totally unphased by sharing a toilet with trans women. The trans women I’ve worked alongside in the trade union movement are my sisters and my comrades. They have fought with me for abortion rights, and for women’s liberation. They are not the enemy.

    There’s simply nothing progressive about supporting or condoning the oppression that trans people currently face. Women’s liberation, trans liberation and human liberation are part and parcel of the same package.

Leave a Reply