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The long road to gender recognition reform

From bans on trans athletes to violence in the streets and attacks in the legislature, Jamie Jewkes traces the normalisation of transphobia in Britain

5 to 6 minute read

The Transgender Pride Flag – white, blue and pink stripes – flies at on a pole over a grand looking building

In 2015, according to The Telegraph, ‘trans went mainstream’. Now, in 2023, transgender people in Britain find ourselves potentially without healthcare for kids, adult healthcare costs spiralling even further out of control, recorded anti-trans hate crimes skyrocketing and Westminster risking constitutional crisis by blocking the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) bill.

How did we get here? As has been said by many before, a huge portion of responsibility for rising anti-trans moves lies at the national and popular media’s door, due to its campaign to whip up public opinion against trans individuals and the community at large. Consistently negative reporting has wide-ranging impact, from policy through to our interpersonal relationships.

Fear-mongering articles about trans women’s inclusion in elite sports, for example, prompted the previous Culture Secretary to argue that women’s sport ‘must be reserved for people born of the female sex’. Bans on trans athletes is however largely felt at the grassroots level, where trans young people are being told they can’t take part in sports days and are made to wear gendered uniform or play in gendered teams, which can exacerbate existing dysphoria. It’s important to remember that all elite athletes are outliers, extreme representations of what humans can achieve.

Regardless of what may be considered ‘fair’ at a competitive levels, the constant backlash against a select few trans individuals has had a huge ripple effect, tearing down trans people’s confidence to simply participate in community sports.

Popular media reports have also shaped the conversion on so-called conversion therapy. Despite the UK government originally committing to banning ‘the coercive and abhorrent practice of conversion therapy’ as recently as 2021, the process has been completely demoralising. First we faced plans to drop the commitment entirely, then a U-turn last April that would have excluded trans people from the ban that cited ‘unintended consequences’, then thankfully the recent announcement of a fully inclusive ban of the traumatising practice.

The ‘unintended consequences’ narrative echoes and circles back to never-ending discussions on transition regret and disproportionate focus on those people who have detransitioned. Reports on detransition are frequently made in bad faith, with the press seemingly refusing to accept the overwhelming evidence that medical transition results in, by far, the best outcomes for trans individuals, with regret being vanishingly small: a recent study of 3,400 NHS gender identity clinic patients found that only 16 (0.47%) regret their transition, with even fewer taking material steps to detransition.

Battle fatigue

Efforts to improve policies that impact trans people, particularly those concerning the NHS failures to support us, have led to recurrent public consultations that have led to little positive effect. Non-binary philosopher Matthew Cull suggests that this cycle can result in a phenomenon called ‘consultation fatigue’ – wearing out the trans population so much that we give up demands for adequate healthcare and legal protections.

Cull frames the current political climate through a lens of gender hegemony, inspired by Christopher Chitty’s work on sexual hegemony, which examines centuries of bourgeoise attempts to regulate homosexuality.

Today’s obsessive consultations are also regulatory, and not launched with a genuine aim at establishing truth – trans people know the truth of what we are fighting for already. Instead, they play a deeper political role, aimed at legitimating and reinforcing gender hegemony, establishing justification for anti-trans policy (or at least the continuation of current, deficient policy) by asking the same questions over and over until the normatively ‘correct’ answers are given.

This is evident in Westminster’s response to the Scots’ defiance of hegemony. Despite other nations’ successful implementation of self-identification laws, Westminster wants to frame a positive gender recognition certificate (GRC) reform as ‘controversial’, and perhaps more importantly, ‘rushed’. Characterising the bill as ‘rushed’ echoes narratives used to prevent healthcare options being given to trans youth.

It also allows transphobic ministers a soapbox to air their ‘concerns’ about such policy, likely leading to yet another consultation, which in turn provides a formal platform for transphobic views to once again be publicised as legitimate moral concerns, rather than the obvious hatred and bigotry they represent. All this for a small piece of legislature!

Small action, big impact

It’s easy to feel cynical about these small steps, especially given how rapidly we see policy that negatively impacts trans people pushed through, particularly in the United States. Such cynicism is not unfounded. There is little that a GRC does for a trans person in their daily life. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.

The need to fight for reform has become even more apparent in light of the recent murder of trans teen Brianna Ghey, who at sixteen was not eligible to use the current GRC process. As a result, her death certificate will label her as ‘male’. The trans fear of what will happen after our deaths is longstanding – the only reason why we know that Victorian surgeon, Dr James Barry was transgender, for example, was because his death wishes were disrespected, revealing to the world his assigned gender at birth.

A GRC impacts upon three of the most significant aspects of people’s lives: birth, marriage and death. That’s why it matters, despite the effects of a GRC being invisible in day-to-day life. By making the process of obtaining at GRC (or to remove sex identifiers from documents) as hard as possible, this government refuses trans people any sense of authenticity in those major live stages. I am a transgender man. I should not have to get married or die as a woman.

In this context, our fight for dignity as trans people is two-fold: we have to fight legislative violence and physical violence. A GRC would not have protected Brianna from the hatred of the media, nor the poisonous rhetoric of the organised transphobic right, which fuels the violence that caused her death. But she still deserves dignity. 

In today’s Britain, other trans people will continue to die through fatal attacks, as Brianna, or indirectly from the failures of the NHS and related services. Fighting outdated and harmful legislation is only one important part of our broader struggle for dignity and battle to stop the continued legitimisation of transphobia.

This article was commissioned via Mermaids, an LGBTQ+ charity providing emotional and practical support to trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse children, young people and their families

Jamie Jewkes (he/they) is studying Philosophy and Theology at Bristol University

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