Scotland-based rs21 member Leslie Cunningham argues we should all be fighting in the struggle for trans liberation, and asks: why the delays to reforming the Gender Recognition Act?
In March 2019, the Scottish Government announced it was extending the Public Consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. These reforms would simplify the process of legally changing gender, make the process less lengthy, and remove many of the current requirements, including psychological assessments, which many trans people find intrusive and paternalistic. These changes still leave non-binary people unrepresented as there is no option for a person to formally identify themselves as non-binary (feeling themselves to be neither solely female, nor solely male), but they are a step forward for those who wish to transition from one recognised gender to another. Countries which allow trans people to legally ‘self-identify’ include Ireland, Malta, Norway, Argentina, Portugal and Belgium.
The Scottish Government made it clear that the proposed reforms would in no way impinge on the safeguards provided to women and other people by the Equalities Act passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2010. Moreover, the reforms were and are supported by many women’s organisations in Scotland, including, for example, Scottish Women’s Aid, which provides support for survivors of domestic abuse.
Unfortunately, as predicted by many, the extended period of public consultation did not result in reasoned and informed discussion, but a torrent of alarmist allegations about the potential ‘invasion’ of safe spaces for women. The consultation closed on 17 March 2020, and nothing has happened since. The Scottish Government has claimed that this delay is due to Covid-19, advising that ‘the Scottish Government will not now bring forward a Bill to reform the gender recognition process before the next Scottish Parliamentary elections in May 2021’.
Though the delay may well be a result of the pandemic, which has also affected the progress of other legislation, it was kicked into the long grass at a convenient time, just as other parties across the UK and the world were making transphobia a core part of their agendas. 2020 saw the Conservatives vocally opposing adjustments to the GRA despite a 70% positive response to the UK’s wider public consultation. As the SNP lose transphobic members and voters to the bigoted Alba Party, there will be pressure on them to take the focus off solidarity with trans people. It seems likely that there will be more delays, more distractions, and more distress for trans people living under antiquated legislative frameworks unless we continue to put pressure on elected representatives to hear trans people and their comrades’ calls for change.
This delay is not simply inconvenient; it is having an adverse effect on the lives of trans people. The waiting time for an appointment at a Gender Identity Clinic, well over two years when I was referred by my GP in July 2019, is lengthening by the minute. Many trans people, already affected by much higher levels of mental distress than cis people (people identifying as the gender assigned to them at birth), are at breaking point. The pandemic has exacerbated the stress experienced by many LGBTQ+ people, as many of us have had no alternative but to share accommodation with people who are unsympathetic or downright transphobic or homophobic. Many of us become homeless because of this.
While we are forced to wait for legal reform, Tory hostile environment policies continue to perpetuate a “culture of disbelief” towards LGBTQ+ asylum seekers across Britain, leading to the deportation of many trans people to places where they could face persecution and punishment, including imprisonment and the death penalty. Meanwhile, Britain has itself been considered an unsafe place for trans people by the New Zealand asylum system, as in one case a tribunal deemed it would be ‘unduly harsh’ for a trans woman to be forced to return after the discrimination she had experienced here. This is understandable if we remember that trans women are, tragically, among the people most likely to be on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse, up to and including murder.
It is estimated that trans people account for about 0.7% of the population, so, for our numbers, we seem to be attracting an awful lot of the wrong sort of attention. Sadly, many otherwise tolerant people have been terrified by suggestions that evil trans people may be loitering at the school gates or in women’s bathrooms. Such unsubstantiated association of transgender people (especially trans women) with paedophiles is horribly reminiscent of the attitudes widely prevalent in Scotland, particularly towards gay men, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
So, why is this an important issue for working class people, and revolutionaries in particular? At the risk of sounding simplistic, transphobic attacks (whether in the press, parliament, or in the streets) are serving the interests of the ruling class in two very sinister ways.
Firstly, stirring up ‘culture war’ arguments over trans people is a very useful distraction from the UK government’s criminal use of the pandemic to further enrich the rich and exacerbate existing institutionalised racism and ableism. Black and Asian people are 30% and 49% more likely than white people to die of Covid-19 respectively. Do Not Resuscitate policies and medical decisions have resulted in people being taken off ventilators to make ventilators available to the able-bodied, even if the disabled person had a better chance of survival). Meanwhile, this ‘culture war’ posturing also helps the Conservatives keep its voters in the far right, and make allies of right-wing governments worldwide, uniting around an anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.
Secondly, transphobia is a classic example of dividing the working class in order to weaken it (and, potentially, to destroy its organisation, as happened in Nazi Germany). Many people think they have never met a trans person (although they probably have, and didn’t notice), so think that trans rights are not relevant to them. ‘Isn’t it just some middle-class fad?’ Well, I know lots of working class trans people, and when I came out at work in 2019, the response was overwhelmingly positive – and many of my colleagues were bus drivers, not known for their attraction to middle-class fads.
If we let the transphobes – whether wearing ‘gender critical’, liberal, Conservative or far-right stripes – succeed in their attempts to marginalise and discriminate against trans women and men, the next target will be the other letters in LGBTQ+, then women’s rights, then the rights of Black people and other People of Colour. Divide and rule tactics harm us all.
Trans and non-binary people will not be silenced. Together we can create a society where every person is valued as an individual, and gender identity and sexual orientation are no longer seen as our defining characteristics.