Gender Recognition – it’s not what you think
This is the first of a series of articles exploring the issues and debate around trans issues, identity, feminism and solidarity aimed at building understanding and in a spirit of open dialogue. The articles have been carefully commissioned and will be carefully moderated, but you may encounter views you disagree with. This is not only ok, it’s essential. We hope you will give some leeway to people who are entering the debate from a position of less knowledge than people who are already immersed in it. Thank you.
Jennie Kermode is Chair of Trans Media Watch and author of ‘Transgender Employees in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers‘.
The Scottish Government is currently looking at reforming the system of gender recognition which allows transgender people to be legally recognised in the gender roles in which they live. Given some of the statements that have been made about this in the press and in social media, it’s not surprising that some people are alarmed about it. Here’s why you shouldn’t be.
Access to toilets
Some people have expressed concern that making it easier to change gender will mean mean start going into women’s toilets, claiming to be female themselves and endangering women. This is not the case, however, because men can already go into women’s toilets, without having to pretend to be anything but themselves. There are no laws restricting who uses which toilets, just customs. There are, however, laws dealing with breach of the peace, harassment and assault. In other words, if men choose to do this, the law can already deal with it. Changes to gender recognition would make no difference.
In those US states that have passed laws to say people can only use toilets associated with the sex they were registered as at birth, trans men have to use the women’s toilets. This makes it easier for predators, who don’t need to make any effort at disguise. They can just claim to be trans men. Who’s going to check?
There are vanishingly few cases of trans women causing trouble in women’s toilets, anywhere in the world. Like most other people, they generally go to the toilets because they need to pee. Some trans women look quite masculine, but this doesn’t mean they’re men – it just means that their bodies don’t fit social expectations, and most women know how tough that can be. If they try using the men’s toilets, they face serious risks – a recent US study found that 47% of trans women have experienced sexual assault at least once in their lives.
The prison system
Fears have also been expressed that the government’s proposed changes will lead to men being able to say they are women and get moved straight into women’s prisons. In fact the Scottish Prison System already deals with prisoners on a case by case basis. No Gender Recognition Certificate is needed for a trans woman to be placed in a women’s prison if staff, after consulting with a psychiatrist, believe it is the best option for her mental health. A move like this often involved extra precautions to ensure that she can fit in and isn’t in danger from other prisoners. People who say they are trans but whose behaviour is considered dangerous to other prisoners are not moved, but are usually placed in high security units where they can live as women without being in danger from other prisoners. (This is why trans prisoners are disproportionately found in such units – there is no evidence to show that they are more likely to commit the kind of crimes normally associated with such places).
Sexual assault support services
There are, understandably, few places where women feel more vulnerable than in sexual assault support services. A few years ago, trans women were almost always excluded from such spaces, but in recent years organisations like Rape Crisis Scotland have welcomed them, recognising that they can need help just as much as other women. This means that changes to gender recognition will make no difference to the possibility of encountering a trans woman in such spaces. None of these organisations have reported problems as a result of extending support to trans women.
Some people worry that gender recognition will mean that men pretending to be women will suddenly start being employed by NHS Scotland to provide intimate women’s services. In fact, the NHS has employed trans women in gynaecology wards for years. It has also employed men. Most patients don’t have a problem with this because all they want is a professional service. If they feel uncomfortable about it, for any reason, they will normally be offered an appointment with somebody else, because everybody recognises patient well-being as a priority. This is the case even when, as is sadly often the case, a patient objects to being treated by a black or Muslim health professional.
If trans women don’t pose a physical risk to other women, is there still a danger that they will take up spaces on lists intended to help women make progress, e.g. in politics? Again, most organisations that run such lists – including the Labour Party, which is currently at the centre of a media storm over this – have included trans women for years, so nothing is going to change. They see trans women as being vulnerable to the same discrimination as other women. In fact, trans women face additional barriers on top of those affecting women more generally – transphobic discrimination in employment is commonplace and a recent Stonewall survey found that a shocking one in eight trans people have been physically assaulted at work.
So what do the proposed changes mean?
In fact, all the proposed changes to gender recognition mean is that the bureaucracy of changing legal gender will be simpler (there will still be plenty of paperwork to put off anybody who’s not serious about it). They will mean that trans people, like other people, are recognised as better placed to recognise their own gender than anyone else. The system will be more accessible to people from all class backgrounds, and easier access to identity documents that match their appearance will help protect people from discrimination. For the vast majority of non-trans people, it will make no difference to anything.
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