Trans* rights and the Gender Recognition Act

Emma Rock, a queer activist living in Germany, offers a socialist analysis of the recent debate.

Trans* rights have increasingly moved from the fringes and into the spotlight for the Left. While this attention should be something we could all applaud, it has not been characterised by support for the rights of gender nonconforming people but by the reaction of a small but vocal group opposed to trans*, nonbinary and intersex liberation. The crux of the current debate stems from proposed changes to the law to allow gender nonconforming people to gain legal parity with cis people.

Tabloids have rolled out misleading and transphobic headlines implying that the changes will allow predatory men to claim to identify as women in order to gain access to women only spaces and services. This sensationalised rhetoric that has been echoed by Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who for decades have pursued a transphobic agenda which is seriously harmful to gender nonconforming people. These positions rely upon a combination of selective reporting and outright fabrication. In this article I will concentrate solely on how we can improve the lives of trans*, intersex and non-binary people rather than being distracted by the demands of those who oppose trans* liberation. I will focus on briefly explaining why the changes should be supported and why, now more than ever, trans*, intersex and nonbinary people need solidarity and support

Partial victories

The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) passed through Parliament in 2004 after years of campaigning by activists. At the time it was hailed as a victory by much of the trans* community and was indeed a huge step forward, however 13 years later the Act is looking tired and outdated. The Act brought into UK law a clear and codified route for trans* people to acquire legal recognition of their identified gender by acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). The most significant features of this were the ability to amend and replace birth certificates and tax records, and to allow for heterosexual marriage (before the introduction of same sex marriage, applicants would have to annul existing marriages before being granted a GRC). Changes of name and gender marker on documents such as drivers’ licenses, passports and NHS records however can normally be done without a GRC.

The GRA, much like most policy relating to trans* and gender nonconforming people, is essentially ‘expert’ led. This means that in order for a person to change their gender they must convince a panel of legal ‘experts’ (none of which are usually trans) and submit evidence of their change of gender including medical reports and diagnosis. In addition applicants must wait 2 years after transitioning and complete an onerous 16 page form with 24 pages of explanatory notes. Once submitted the process can take up to 14 weeks to gain approval. Applicants must pay a fee, and while this is income dependent, doctors can also charge for specifically tailored medical reports. Besides being unnecessarily bureaucratic, the system as it stands raises a number of other concerns:

The GRA is tailored specifically towards trans* people seeking medical treatment when not all trans, nonbinary, or intersex people applying for legal status will necessarily have taken or want to take a medical route. In addition, the final say on whether a GRC is granted is in the hands of the Gender Recognition Panel and not the individual themselves. This propagates a situation where trans*, intersex and non-binary lives are being governed by cis people.

In the hands of the state

Gender nonconforming people in the UK are still governed by ‘gatekeepers’ in virtually all interactions with the state and health service. These can be doctors with the power to grant or deny treatment, or bureaucrats who hold the final say on whether a person’s gender identity is ‘real’ or not. This system takes the final decision on a person’s identity away from them and places it in the hands of officials who are for the most part cis and received training from other cis people. On the most benign level this denies gender nonconforming people full autonomy over our identities, something that most cis people take for granted. At the other end of the spectrum, it maintains the power of cis people over us, and gives them the power to define and diagnose regardless of the consequences.

The situation is exacerbated by a historical lack of trust between gender nonconforming people and the medical profession. While we have moved on from the days when trans* people were subjected to shock treatment, the abuse of gender nonconforming people is still anything but history. Intersex people have been and continue to be subjected to non-consensual medical procedures that often occurred while they were too young to have any idea what was going on. Trans* people can have treatment denied simply because they have an unsympathetic or openly transphobic doctor, or because of the onerous ‘Harry Benjamin’ standards which demand they fulfil a number arbitrary tests in order to prove they are trans*. Non-binary people can find that they pressured to fit into the gender binary in order to access treatment they need from system geared entirely towards binary trans* people.

The situation as it stands means that there is little trust for gatekeepers and it is increasingly important that we find a solution whereby trans*, nonbinary and intersex people can make their own decisions independent from self-appointed experts. Steps to allow for greater self-determination have already improved the situation significantly in other countries. Ireland passed its own Gender Recognition Act in 2015, which allows all people over the age of 18 to self-declare their gender in a process that is determined by the individual alone. Unlike in the UK, applicants to the Irish system must only complete a two page document, with no requirement for medical evidence, in a process that takes weeks instead of years.

Fighting for civil rights

All this has led to growing demands for the GRA to be overhauled or scrapped altogether. Because of this, and under pressure from Labour and LGBTQI groups, Women and Equalities Minister Justine Greening announced the setting up of a consultation with gender nonconforming people early this year about how to reform the GRA. While it is not yet clear what form this will take, it seems likely that the 2 year wait and requirement for medical evidence are top of the list to be axed.

We now have the biggest opportunity since 2004 to demand and win rights for trans*, intersex and non-binary people. Despite recent progress in trans* visibility and awareness, gender nonconforming people still face rates of murder, suicide, and violent abuse far exceeding national averages. Trans* women of colour in particular face a hugely inflated risk of murder and violence, meaning the stakes remain very high in this fight for equality. While changes to the GRA will not solve these problems, they would be a significant step along the road to civil rights in the UK. It is essential that we fight for reform of the GRA and that this fight gains active support and solidarity from cis people and is not left to trans*, intersex and nonbinary people alone.

Increasing popular awareness of trans*, non-binary and intersex issues has created an environment where by more and more people are feeling confident to come out or openly question their gender. However we live in a transphobic society, and under a state which remains institutionally prejudiced against gender nonconforming people. We need to build a movement for change and to fight for a Left that does not sit on the sidelines but engages en masse in the fight for trans*, intersex and nonbinary civil rights ­– just as it would the rights of other minorities.

The use of trans* denotes that it is one word used for a variety of identities.

Further reading

  • Action for Trans Health
    A campaign group that seeks to improve trans* people’s access to healthcare.
  • Press for Change
    A legal campaign group that helped fight for the introduction of the GRA in 2004 and continues to support trans* people through legal advice.


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