The government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, which sets out the law around transgender people changing their gender, ends today (October 19).
The consultation is an opinion-gathering exercise on how the process of changing gender could be made easier. No new policy has been drafted, and it’s unlikely any changes to the Act would be made immediately.
At present, transgender people must live in their chosen gender for two years, have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a psychiatrist, and face a panel who will decide if they are eligible for a gender recognition certificate.
When the consultation was launched in May, the government noted that trans respondents to a survey on LGBT issues found it “too bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive”.
The plans to simplify the process have faced heavy opposition from a number of radical feminist campaign groups, like Fair Play for Women and Woman’s Place UK, as well as activist Posie Parker, who organised public graphics bearing the words ‘woman: adult human female’.
The basis of their concerns is that a simpler system will be open to abuse by men who may seek to ‘identify as women’ to gain access to women’s spaces to abuse women, and the case of transgender prisoner Karen White - who was housed in a women’s prison despite convictions for multiple sex crimes against women and children - was held up by some as an example of what could happen if the law was changed.
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The prison service apologised for "mistakes made in this case".
However, many transgender women already use women's facilities without having any legal paperwork affirming their gender, and transgender woman Jane Fae says the fears that a reform of the Act would open women's spaces to predators are based on a “false premise”.
talkRADIO asked her about ‘self-identification’, the Gender Recognition Act and life as a trans woman.
How do trans people feel about the consultation and the conversation around it?
“The problem began with the use of the phrase self-identification,” says Fae.
“That is a toxic phrase which is interpreted as meaning simply that people can decide on a day-to-day basis what they’re going to be.
“Few people in the transgender community really want to use it. It was foisted on us by the government, and for reasons that are probably more to do with mischief-making than anything else, the anti-trans people chose to interpret that as meaning you can just wake up and identify as a particular gender.”
Fae says that, even if the process of legally changing gender was to be changed, trans people would largely support an official process such as declaring in court that you plan to change gender for life.
“All we have is the government talking about self-identification, but there was never any demand or desire in the trans community for a complete free-for-all,” she says.
“We wanted an end to a particular medicalised process.”
As human rights lawyer Adam Wagner points out on Twitter (below), making a statutory declaration that you’re changing gender is a legal document, and there would be penalties for lying. So, in theory, any man who did abuse the system could be punished just for obtaining a gender recognition certificate through dishonest means.
Do you, as a trans woman, think there’s a danger of men abusing the system?
“If people think that a guy is going to change gender to predate people, they can [already] do it,” says Fae.
“All they have to do is assemble the right paperwork. It’s expensive at present, but you can always find medical people who’ll produce the letters and so on, to order.
“You’d expect that if people were going to abuse the system, they would have. I’ll tell you why - until recently, if you changed from male to female, you got an extra five years of pension. So there was a massive bonus built into the system. But to the best of our knowledge, nobody in the entire UK has gone out and thought ‘I’ll spend £400 to get extra pension’.”
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The government’s official guidelines on transgender people and pensions are that employers must change the codes on the payroll for national insurance payments, so employees pay make the right contributions for their gender.
“You’ll find a lot of people in the trans community would want to see incredibly tough penalties on any man found to have abused this [obtaining a female birth certificate for the purposes of abuse],” Fae continues.
“By abusing this, they bring an entire system into disrepute and make life incredibly risky for the entire trans community. I would go along with that. The whole thing [risks] is based on a false premise.”
Don’t trans women already use female facilities?
The women's pond at Hampstead Heath, London. Image: Getty
“If you go a bit further, and talk about people being abusive in women’s changing rooms, people never ask for your birth certificate [to enter a changing room],” says Fae.
“We’re already in changing rooms, because A) once we’ve transitioned, that’s where we belong, and B), in order to transition currently, there’s a requirement of two years of real-life experience. There’s got to be a period of time when we’re in there.
“If you scour the world, and bear in mind there are probably a few million trans women across the world, they’re [campaigners] having to scrape and scrape to come up with stories of trans women abusing it.
“Can I saw no trans woman has ever abused it? No. But what they’re doing is saying that a gender recognition certificate makes it easier for men to abuse. That’s not true - a man could go and grab a cleaner’s jacket and get into a changing room. So it’s not a barrier.”
Women’s refuges are also cited by campaigners as somewhere that trans women could be problematic in, due to service users possibly being traumatised by a male body due to their experiences.
But many refuges and women’s services already work with transgender women.
talkRADIO asked Women’s Aid, a national organisation which helps women suffering abuse access advice and refuges, for their policy on trans clients.
“Services are already supporting trans women, we haven’t heard from members that [any changes to the law] are going to massively affect how refuges operate,” said a spokesperson.
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“In terms of our employment policy, we’re not delivering direct services like refuge provision so we will welcome applications from all women, including trans women.”
However, the Equality Act sets out some situations in which transgender people could be discriminated against if a certain service needs to be segregated by biological sex, and women's refuges are one example mentioned.
“As a national domestic abuse charity, we want to ensure that any changes to the law have survivors’ escape and recovery from domestic abuse at its heart,” Women’s Aid said in a statement.
“We recognise that transgender people experience gender-based violence, the root causes of which are systemic gender inequality and patriarchy, and that transgender people face additional barriers in accessing the specialist support they need…
“We welcome the government’s clarification that it will not make changes to the Equality Act 2010, which enables organisations to continue to provide single-sex services. Women-only spaces provide a physically and emotionally safe environment that is vital to survivors’ safety and recovery after experiencing domestic and sexual abuse. Women’s Aid member services assess every survivor, including trans women, on a case by case basis in order to best respond to their needs.”
Is the Karen White case really an example of what might happen if the law was changed?
Transgender sex offender Karen White, who was born Stephen Wood. Image: PA
“We were gobsmacked by Karen White,” says Fae.
“She arrived in prison, and went straight into the women’s system.
“As an individual, you’d not put Karen White near the women’s system, because she’s a risk. The law as it stands says you’re meant to assess the risk.
“Karen White didn’t have a gender recognition certificate. She got through under the existing system, and that case had nothing to do with gender recognition. She is an instance of the prison service screwing up.”