20/10/2018 08:00 BST

How Possible Changes To The Gender Recognition Act Prompted A Toxic Debate

Transgender campaigners and some feminists are bitterly divided about the idea of self-identification.

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It’s been a vitriolic few months since the government launched a consultation around potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act. A fierce, and at times unpleasant, debate has raged both on and offline involving transgender campaigners and some of the feminist community

The crux of the disagreement is around how transgender people legally have their gender recognised. While the existing Gender Recognition Act allows trans people to receive legal recognition of their gender through a set process, only a small proportion of trans people actually go through the bureaucratic process. 

Since 2004 when the act became law, only 4,910 people have legally changed their gender. This is despite there being up to 500,000 trans people living in the UK, according to government estimates. 

The reason, many transgender people say, is because the process is long, too bureaucratic and can be humiliating. It involves needing a doctor’s diagnosis of a condition called gender dysphoria, then showing you are living in your preferred gender for two years, getting assessed by a panel of medical experts, and a fee of around £140.

Campaigners say that trans people shouldn’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness in order to have their gender legally recognised and that non-binary people do not fit into this process at all. 

Trans people want to see a much simpler process known as self-identification, and its this that some groups of feminists have vocally opposed. They say it could allow some men to self-identify as women in order to access women-only spaces such as changing rooms, refuges and even prisons.

Since the consultation was launched in July, several campaigns and groups have emerged on both sides, such as Man Friday, Woman’s Space and the Come Out For Trans Equality campaign.

Both sides have taken out full-page adverts in the Metro newspaper, leafleted neighbourhoods and projected messages onto famous buildings. But the debate has, at times, become particularly nasty.

Hannah Clarke, spokeswoman for Man Friday, a campaign that aims to highlight how self-identification could impact women-only spaces, says the last few months have been exhausting and “not fun at all”.

She says that since she and her fellow campaigners have begun to make their voices heard, they have received rape threats, death threats and been told to “go and die in a fire”.

She claims people have tried to silence the debate and, at times, meetings have been shut down after venues pulled out of hosting events after pressure from transgender rights campaigners. Last month, Leeds City Council reneged on its promise to host a meeting and the group met in a pub instead. 

Clarke’s stories of being trolled and threatened are surprisingly similar to Tara Hewitt, who is the co-founder of the Trans Equality Legal Initiative (TELI), which is a collective of human rights lawyers, trans activists and diversity professionals. She sits on the opposite side of this debate to Clarke.

“This morning I had a panic attack because of the level of vitriol,” she says. “It’s really impacting on mine and other people’s mental health. It’s a mix of trolling and all the headlines and newspaper articles.

“I’ve never been trolled more in my life and I already block quite a lot of people and I still get people trolling me. We heard about the hostile environment in relation to Windrush, and it feels like a really hostile environment to be trans right now.” 

She says the current public debate has echoes of the 1980s when homosexual men were being linked to paedophilia and sex offences. 

“It’s the same kind of narrative ... I try and argue in a very professional and evidence-based manner but it’s so difficult to remain emotionally detached when its your own rights that you are trying to defend. 

“It all comes down to the fact we aren’t meant to be debating toilets and changing rooms and discrimination law, we are meant to be debating the bureaucratic process by which we change birth certificates, which does not impact on someone’s right to access services, which has been based on self-identification for years, and the sky hasn’t fallen in since that happened.”

Hewitt says that people are using the focus around the GRA to rehash debates that actually happened many years ago, even before the Equality Act was written in 2010.

She says: “The consultation itself refers to someone’s birth certificate and often when I do training when I’m working as a consultant, I’ll ask the room when was the last time people used their birth certificate for anything, and do they even know where it is.

“If we are going to have a debate on this, I think you should do it in a very academic sense, based on evidence. It shouldn’t happen at the time we are having the consultation on the GRA.”

She says she doesn’t believe that it’s only transphobic people who have hijacked the debate, but other groups with very “specific agendas”, such as people who are both right-wing and very religious.

She points out that when some trans people get angry about the issue, it’s important to remember that the levels of self-harm and suicide among trans people is a lot higher than other groups. 

“When you’re trying to frame a discussion about taking away rights, which some people are, it’s hard not to hurt people,” she points out.

However, Hannah Clarke from Man Friday denies that the vitriol has come from her side of this debate.

“The vitriol and the hatred is very much in one direction. None of us would do that because we want there to be a discussion and a debate. We want people to know what is happening and what it means. I understand that people have different viewpoints. I’m perfectly willing to hear them.”

She says the Man Friday campaign is trying to making a point using humour by donning fake beards, claiming to be men and trying to access male-only spaces. Many trans people, however, have said they find these stunts are offensive. 

Clarke says that institutions where they have staged protests, such as Swim England, Hampstead Ponds, Girl Guides and other organisations “are getting ahead of the law and allowing self-ID when it’s not necessary and not wanted.”

She says single-sex spaces are crucial “because of the risk to women of male violence. “Obviously we know that’s not all men but we don’t know which men are going to be inappropriate and worse, so we have always separated on sex for that reason.”

Campaigners such as Clarke have highlighted the case of transgender prisoner Karen White, who sexually assaulted two inmates at a women’s jail in 2017.

“How can we protect vulnerable women and girls from predatory men when you give them a massively easy way in?

“This is not necessarily about trans people - although I’m sure in the trans community, there will be predators because there are predators in every community. But this is about people who will take advantage of self-ID.”

Clarke, however, recognises that she doesn’t speak for all feminists. Many high profile feminist campaigners such as Emma Watson have thrown their weight behind the Come Out For Trans Equality campaign started by Stonewall, the leading LGBT+ charity. 

The British Social Attitudes Survey, an annual study of public beliefs carried out by NatCen, found that a majority of Britons are comfortable with a transgender person using a single-sex public toilet according to their gender identity.

The major study actually found that women (72%) tend to be more comfortable with this then men (64%).

Clarke says there is a schism in feminism over the issue. “I find the whole concept of transgenderism from a feminist perspective quite regressive and sexist because it’s turning a woman from a biological reality into a stereotype and a performance of femininity so I don’t see how that can work through a feminist lens.”

Trans people, however, have a simple response when anyone tries to separate feminists and trans women: “Trans women are women”. The phrase has become a popular hashtag and t-shirt slogan.

The government consultation on the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 closed on Friday.