On 1st December 2016, the House of Commons will debate the motion:
That this House notes the UK’s status as a pioneer in legislating for equality for LGBT people; welcomes the Government’s announcement of a new trans equality action plan; and calls on the Government to review its response to the recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on Transgender Equality to ensure that the UK leads the world on trans equality rights, in particular by giving unequivocal commitments to changing the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in line with the principles of gender self-declaration and replacing confusing and inadequate language regarding trans people in the Equality Act 2010 by creating a new protected characteristic of gender identity.
As a transwoman, I am delighted that Parliamentary time is being devoted to trans rights. Trans people continue to face systemic discrimination and bias, so it is timely to review the legislation. However, the more I reflect on the two specific proposals in this motion, the more anxious I become.
The current protections are based on objective reality. The Equality Act 2010 created the protected characteristic, Gender Reassignment. It refers to something that people do: they change their name, their gender markers, their gender role, and they live full-time as a member of the opposite sex. These changes can be externally verified and, when corroborated by expert witnesses, used to secure full legal recognition through the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I don’t enjoy being subject to scrutiny but it secures credibility to my transition that would be lost should these proposals be enacted.
Self-declaration of gender would weaken an already fragile protection. Discrimination can be fiendishly difficult to prove. A survey for TotalJobs earlier this year reported that 60% of trans people had experienced workplace discrimination, but cases are not being brought to Employment Tribunals. Rather, the law helps our allies feel confident that they are doing the right thing when they support trans rights. However, if someone can change their gender in the absence of any substantiating evidence, trans people and their allies may find it harder to convince the more antagonistic parts of society. It would certainly be far more difficult to defend against accusations that trans people are deluded, or that transition is something done on a whim.
Gender Identity is problematic because it is based purely on feelings. Unlike my gender reassignment, I cannot prove my gender identity. Whilst I can demonstrate that I live as a woman, I cannot provide any evidence that I think like a woman, or feel like a woman. The proposed law might require people in official positions to take trans people at their word, but it cannot regulate social groups that create their own boundaries. Transwomen in particular may find that goodwill is replaced by suspicion should abusive men spot an opportunity to exploit women’s spaces and protections.
The real losers will not be those who are antagonistic to trans people, but trans people themselves. Protections may be weakened not strengthened if self-declaration replaces expert testimony, and gender identity replaces gender reassignment as a protected characteristic. We need to reflect on the reality of the society we live in before we rush into a world where facts are replaced by feelings and evidence is replaced by the ethereal. I have therefore asked my MP to oppose the motion, and I urge others to do likewise.