Self-declaration of legal gender is a reckless proposal that would deny trans people the opportunity to have their gender externally verified and force them to rely entirely on their own assertions. While that might work in some parts of society, it could be catastrophic for those living in hostile environments where their motives may be questioned and their claims disbelieved.
Hostility can develop from suspicion, so we must listen to other groups who fear that their rights may be compromised. In particular, we need to take seriously the concerns that some women have raised about sex-based protections and access to sex-segregated spaces.
People should have the right to identify and express their gender, but a more nuanced approach is needed when the law is reviewed.
Reform is essential because, as our understanding of gender develops, the current legislation is increasingly unsatisfactory. Trans people are let down by the law, but rigid gender norms restrict everyone. Rather than contemplate self-declaration of gender, into two or possibly more categories, we should stop defining people by their gender in the first place. We need to relax the rules, not make new ones. When it comes to dress codes, for example, let’s legislate to stop employers treating men and women differently. While trans people may be the main beneficiaries, progressive solutions like these help everyone.
However, access rights to sex-segregated spaces and other sex-based protections need to be considered separately. Women have fought for them, and it is unwise to dismiss reasonable concerns that they raise. Under self-declaration, how do women distinguish between a trans woman and an opportunistic man? Even the possibility of men taking advantage generates suspicions, and those suspicions will have a deleterious impact on trans people, including trans women who have hitherto been welcomed and accepted.
The Gender Recognition Act is in desperate need of reform, but self-declaration of gender is not a progressive solution. Indeed, where sex-based protections are concerned, external verification is vital to maintain trust and confidence. Otherwise, trans people face an uncertain future in a society that may decide that it just doesn’t believe them.
* This article was first published by The Morning Star on 7 October 2017 as part of a larger feature that discussed the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act: The gender identity debate explored
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