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We must not let the state control trans identity

Official control of gender identity by the state is outdated – now a stronger trans community must fight it

We must not let the state control trans identity
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Trans Pride 2015: Are UK's laws on trans people out of date?

For years trans people have been suppressed by an unthinking system that assumes there are only two genders and it should be very hard for someone to change from one to ‘the other’.

The current medical way to change genders grew from the 1950s, when surgeons wanted assurance the trans people who were asking them for surgery were sane.

Only ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ trans people were put forward for treatment.

I’ve heard it said quite a few times that courts grant trans people rights, and governments take them away.

For example, the UK government was forced to find a way to allow some trans people to be registered as our true gender by two judgements in the European Court of Human Rights.

The result was the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which was ground-breaking in its day for not insisting the individual had undergone surgery. But the wording in that law was watered down by the Equality Act 2010, which made it legal once again to discriminate against trans people in certain circumstances.

A few weeks ago a petition was launched challenging the UK government to allow trans people to self-determine their gender, and recognize the gender of non-binary people – those who either reject or don’t fit into society’s general understanding that we are either male or female.

It raised over 30,000 signatures in only a few days. In the early hours of this morning, Britain’s Ministry of Justice replied. I find myself wondering why a response was sent out at 1am on a Saturday morning, and can only come up with cynical reasons.

In some ways it’s a standard government response – rather than replying to the point made, it simply restates the current position. But it’s inflammatory for a number of reasons.

On Tuesday the new Commons Women and Equalities Committee in the UK Parliament heard about the parlous state that National Health Service gender services have been in for some considerable time.

With average waiting lists of over a year in some clinics just to get a first appointment with a gender specialist, Members of Parliament questioned why doctors run it as they do – in particular why they insist people live in their gender before surgery.

Those working in the NHS conceded an arbitrary time limit before gender surgery made no sense.

MPs heard standards vary across clinics, that provision has been developed in a haphazard manner, and that levels of trans awareness (and training to address the gaps) across all NHS staff were very low.

MPs were open-mouthed as Jess Bradley explained to them the lack of ‘cultural competency’ within the NHS and the consequences it has. The chief exec of West London Mental Health Trust, which runs the important Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, said ‘it is a lottery how you move through the system’.

The government claims all gender identity clinics provide an appropriate service to trans people. But parliament has now heard from senior people in the NHS that this is not true.

The government also claims they put in laws to allow trans people to legally change their gender in 2004 because they were committed to allowing trans people their rights. Trans people with slightly longer memories, however, point out the UK was forced into this by the European Court system.

And the law they passed in 2004 required trans people to end their marriages to gain gender recognition – something now accepted as just plain wrong.

Recent government statistics reveal that just 10 married trans people applied for gender recognition in the first three months of 2015. Given that I personally know over 25 trans people who are married, this rather indicates that the current law is failing.

The UK’s insistence you have to prove your identity to a faceless panel is now looking dated – particularly in the face of new Danish and Irish laws permitting self-determination.

It took one Irish friend of mine just 24 hours to have his gender recognition certificate to be issued this week. Compare that to the weeks of uncertainty UK applicants face, not to mention the financial and emotional cost incurred.

That was the focus of this new petition.

The UK claims the ‘state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that people who take on a new legal status can establish that they meet certain criteria’. So what makes the UK so different to Ireland, Denmark and the handful of other countries where self-determination now exists?

What does this statement mean other than ‘you have to prove you’re acceptable’?

The government is claiming ownership of a core part of your identity, and doesn’t want to give that up without a fight.

We seem to be coming to an end of the period where trans people have had to prove themselves. But the paternalism displayed by medics and government is still very much on display.

The response to this latest petition shows the fight to get the establishment to listen and change appropriately is very far from over.

Trans people are finding stronger and stronger voices, and are no longer prepared to accept lies and paternalistic whitewash. All this response will do is unite the voices for change even more.


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