As ministers consult the public over plans to simplify the legal process for changing gender, it’s important to recognise the valid concerns that many women have about their safety. Removing medical and legal barriers to people who want to identify their own gender is welcome, but it involves a lot more than wearing new clothes and changing names.
Transgender people like me change our legal sex and hence our access to facilities — everything from high street store changing rooms to prison cells. What works for one works for all: trans women, fetishists and even abusive men seeking access to women. It is a safeguarding nightmare.
Arguments that amount to “What are those silly women worried about?” have been exposed for what they are: a dismissal of women’s reasonable concerns and ignorance of the world we live in. In an ideal world we would all treat each other with dignity and respect. Our real world, however, needs ways to protect people.
Abuse of transgender rights destroys public confidence in them. Without ways to ensure that women are protected in spaces such as swimming pool changing rooms, some will be tempted to put up their own barricades. That may ward off abusers but it also excludes trans women who the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) is designed to benefit.
In these pages on Saturday Janice Turner wrote about the case of Karen White, a trans woman who sexually assaulted four inmates at a women’s jail. White was on remand for three rapes and retained male genitalia. This was a catastrophic policy failure. It is hurtful to suggest, however, as Janice did, that transsexual women in jail are “foxes in a hen house”. But without an objective means of distinguishing the majority of us from those “foxes” we will always face suspicion.
It is not for me to judge whether Karen White is a trans woman who transitioned to escape gender dysphoria, or an abusive man who seized an opportunity to prey on women. But who should judge: doctors or White herself?
Trans people have made many gains in recent years and we do not want to lose them. Society needs to tread carefully when the GRA is reformed: the law can command society to take us at our word but it can never force people to believe us.
It would be a pyrrhic victory if legal rights were gained at the expense of social acceptance. The judge will be the court of public opinion and if society loses faith in the process, trans people will be the victims.
Debbie Hayton is a physics teacher and campaigner for trans rights
* This article was first published by The Times on 13 September 2018: Women are right to have concerns over trans reforms.