Why reform of the Gender Recognition Act is essential (Blog)

Jenny Harvey is a member of UNISON’s trans network, part of the West Midlands regional LGBT+ group and a member of UNISON’s health service group executive. Here, she explains why reform of the Gender Recognition Act is long overdue.

Just for a little while during lockdown, the cacophony from UK’s anti-trans media quietened. A few weeks without a scare-mongering headline or ill-informed comment piece was a little respite for a community battle weary from the ceaseless task of defending the most human of rights – our right to be valid, our right to be men, to be women or to be free from the binary.

Then came along JK Rowling (15 million Twitter followers) and government minister Liz Truss. What would unite the Harry Potter scribe and Boris Johnson’s choice for minister for equalities? Well, the answer is seemingly an aversion to rights for transgender people like me.

JK Rowling decided in the middle of Black Lives Matter campaigns to tweet her objections on the term ‘people who menstruate’ – an entirely accurate term that is inclusive of women and trans men. That came on the back of her expressing support for a gender critical employment tribunal claimant who believed they had the right to misgender trans people. The judge in the case, by contrast, said their views were not worthy of respect in a democratic society.

Liz Truss, however, is a real and present danger to trans rights if the leaks from her department about the overdue reforms to the Gender Recognition Act are true. Not only are the reforms apparently not going to be implemented, but the government may be considering weakening rights that are already in place. This, despite an overwhelming 70% of respondents to the consultation supporting progressive reform.

The process was impractical, humiliating, expensive and unfair

It might be worthwhile remembering what the proposed reforms are about.

The Gender Recognition Act, introduced in 2004, was an important piece of law. Welcome at the time, it has quite quickly become an anachronism and totally unfit for purpose.

The main aim of the act was to enable trans people to change their birth certificate to their correct gender. This would help with identity documentation and was supposed to make life easier for trans people. Sadly, it became obvious that the process was impractical, humiliating, expensive and unfair.

First, a trans person cannot start the process until they have been living for two years since socially transitioning (living full time as their true gender). That means they are stuck in limbo. It also implies that gender identity only becomes real after this length of time. This is utter nonsense to the trans people who are very often utterly certain of their gender identity many years before they are able to transition.

Second, it is expensive: costs include paying to get psychiatric reports. Considering that being transgender is not a mental health condition, this is totally unwarranted. Why should I need a psychiatrist to affirm my gender?

As far as I’m concerned, a psychiatrist is no more qualified to pronounce on my gender identity than a postal worker. If I think about it, my postie will at least have seen my name change and prefix use, so maybe they are more qualified.

Having to provide intrusive medical evidence to a faceless panel can be humiliating, and what if they turn you down? How would I cope if a panel of so-called experts did not accept I am a woman? There is no appeal mechanism.

The upshot of all this is that only a small percentage of trans people go through the Gender Recognition Act process. I certainly have not. We have just accepted that we may have to struggle at times: for instance, sorting things when we marry or trying to calculate our pensions.

‘Being trans should never be treated as an illness’

That is why, three years ago, Theresa May’s government proposed the reform starting with, the then prime minister stating: “I want to see a process that is more streamlined and de-medicalised – because being trans should never be treated as an illness.”

The main aspect of the reforms would be to move to self-identification for trans people, which many other nations, including Ireland, have now implemented. It is interesting to note that, as a nation that had previously led the way on progressive LGBT+ rights, we now lag behind many countries.

This failure to improve trans rights has been noted internationally. ILGA (the international LGBTI association) now ranks the UK as 9th in Europe for LGBT+ rights, when as recently as 2015 we had been ranked 1st.

Implementing reform of the Gender Recognition Act is more important now than ever. With increased visibility, we have seen a rise in transphobia and hate crime. Trans people need the protection of fair and workable legislation. If these reforms were not to happen, that would be a catastrophic blow for trans and non-binary people of every age.

Above post from the National UNISON website

Click here for UNISON’S fact sheet on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act