What is a woman? Toxic debate over trans rights engulfs Britain

Friday, 19 October 2018 11:12 GMT
Trans people currently need a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and proof of having lived in their new gender for at least two years, as well as meeting a slew of other conditions

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, Oct 19 (Openly) - It was supposed to be a simple consultation process.

Yet just three months later, the British government's review of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which ends on Friday, has descended into a bitterly fought battle over language, culture and the meaning of what it is to be a woman.

At the heart of the matter is how to simplify the law, ensure it keeps pace with changing times, and how best to recognise transgender and non-binary people in their new gender.

The result has been a war of words over gender and the wider society.

"What the whole kerfuffle has revealed is a massive confusion about what the hell gender is, what sex is – why they're different, why they need to be to be different," writer and broadcaster Beatrix Campbell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It has revealed a kind of crisis in the ways that boys and girls inhabit our hugely polarised gendered culture."

According to a British charity, the Gender Identity Research and Education Society, about 1 percent of the 66 million-strong British population is "gender non-conforming to some degree".

However, just 4,910 people have legally changed their gender since the act was implemented.

Announcing the review in July, the British government said it recognised many had deemed the process "too bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive" to bother applying.

Under the current terms, trans people need a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and proof of having lived in their new gender for at least two years, as well as meeting a slew of other conditions.

An anonymous panel then assesses the application.

Yet while the consultation, which has received more than 36,000 responses, set out to streamline the legal process, the debate has morphed into a series of questions on the very nature of being a woman in today's society.

Are trans women's rights compatible with those of other women? Do they impact hard-fought-for women-only spaces and services? Or is this, conversely, a straightforward human rights issue?


From the outset, leading British LGBT+ rights group Stonewall has been clear: "Trans women are women."

Yet many feminists believe hard-won rights for women should remain ring-fenced for those born into that gender.

The strength of feeling on both sides soon hijacked what might have been an arcane legal discussion and pitted former allies against each other in the battle for rights.

"Much of the current debate is based on inaccurate information and issues irrelevant to Gender Recognition Act reform and this has an impact," said a Stonewall spokeswoman.

According to the organisation, one in eight trans people has been physically attacked by colleagues or customers at work.

"All trans people should be respected for who they are," she said. "History has shown us, time and time again, that extending equality to others doesn't take away from anyone else."

For others, the debate over what constitutes a woman should have been conducted before any review of the GRA.

Stonewall was criticised in a letter to Britain's Times newspaper two weeks ago by a group of prominent LGBT+ campaigners for "demonising as transphobic" those who dissented from its line.

Campbell, who was among the letter's 17 signatories, believes there is probably a case for streamlining some of the procedures involved in changing gender.

Yet she remains opposed to self-identification – one of the main tenets for many trans people and LGBT+ organisations - and said the debate touched issues far removed from the legal system. Campbell called it "a wider debate about our culture".


Other countries have already changed their legal process.

Ireland and Malta, for example, allow trans people to self-identify through a statutory declaration. In Norway, people are able to change their gender by applying to the local tax office.

In Britain, the process "can take a very long time. It really has an impact on people who have quite chaotic lives," said Jamie Pallas at Gendered Intelligence, a trans community organisation.

"If you haven't been in employment, and there's no paper trail that can prove you've lived in your gender for two years – and there are high unemployment rates for transgender people - it can be really difficult for some people to prove that.

"You can get your application rejected many times."

A further wrinkle in the debate is that some trans people themselves do not want a review of the GRA.

"The government seems to be misleading the public over the GRA," said writer and journalist Jenny Randles.

"They have moved the goalposts to re-define who should qualify, from 5,000 transsexuals to an estimated 500,000 transgender – meaning many things including cross dressers.

"Transsexuals feel the law (as it stands) is working for us," she added.

Randles cited the example of "encountering fully intact males in a woman's locker room", which, she said, could possibly cause "distress to women and transsexuals".

Many others have raised the spectre of a predatory man who can pose as a woman to gain access to women-only spaces.

Last week, inmate Karen White – who identifies as a woman – was sentenced to life imprisonment for sexually assaulting women in her jail after being transferred from a men's prison.

Yet this misses the point, said Susie Green, chief executive of Mermaids, a charity that supports transgender children and their families.

"There seems to be a particular type of feminist who seems to be conflating trans women with sexual predators," she said.

"I don't have to go through a process to declare I am a woman," she said. "Why do trans people have to?"

(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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