Tuesday 6 October 2020 4:32 am

The government is still dragging its feet on gender recognition

Harry Readhead is a writer and member of the advocacy group Liberty.

Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, and for the second group, each passing day must make the thought of retreating to the bunker with the wine and olives increasingly appealing.

Still, we are presented now and then with cause for optimism, an example of which presented itself last month. It was an opportunity for an embattled government to do something decent and worthwhile — something that would make the lives of people palpably better.

And it was missed.

Read more: Covid-19 note on gender: How do we prepare for A new normal which includes women equally?

Three years ago, in 2017, the government began the 2004 Gender Recognition Act consultation, the aim of which was to bring the law on gender recognition up to date. As it was, the process for those wishing to change their gender officially was needlessly long, bureaucratic, and costly, as well as highly medicalised. Trans people had to apply to a panel providing medical evidence of a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and “proof” that they had been living as their “preferred” or “chosen” gender for at least two years.

Three (shall we say eventful?) years have passed since then — three years during which there was much debate around the rights of trans people that was less than respectful. Now, with the findings published, the changes the government has made are small. In England and Wales the cost of the application for a gender recognition certificate has been cut from £140 to what the government calls a “nominal” fee. The application may now be made online as well.

While these changes are better than nothing, they give the impression to casual observers that something significant has changed when it hasn’t. The medical aspect of the process, which has repeatedly and rightly been described as dehumanising (as well as exhausting), remains. 

It is worth bearing in mind that more than 108,000 people took part in a 2018 public consultation on the reforms put forward, and 80 per cent of those respondents were in favour of doing away with the medical aspect. Three quarters said they would also get rid of the requirement that trans people must give “proof” that they have been living as their “chosen” gender.

It is both ludicrous and insulting that people must rely on a panel of strangers to be able to be themselves and to be treated as such in the eyes of the law. It is unjust, insulting, patronising — and this towards a marginalised group in our society who are already suffering more than anyone should have to. 

A cursory examination of the relevant facts and figures on this matter will yield in even the least imaginative mind a well-drawn picture of a rather stark landscape. Crimes against trans people rose by 37 per cent between April 2018 and March 2019. And though the government keeps no national data on LGBTQ+ suicides (despite considering LGBTQ+ people to be at higher risk of suicide than others), we do know that the LGBT Foundation took more calls about suicide “than ever before” during lockdown, and that Mermaids, which gives support to young trans people, has had to contact the police more than once over concerns that callers may take their own lives. 

The government’s timing, then, leaves something to be desired.

As an exasperated friend of mine put it to me on one occasion: “why do people care so much about who I am or how I want to live?” The “bathroom argument” was always thin at best, as the news watchdog Media Matters has shown. In any event it is not for the state to tell someone what their gender is and to demand that they “prove” otherwise — if not for reasons of respect then because that person’s gender has no real impact on those in power or on anyone else, yet has an enormous impact on the life of the individual in question. This is a matter of pointless state overreach, and at the high cost of individual freedom. 

All mainstream political parties agree on this. The LGBTQ+ wing of the Conservatives agrees on this. And it is my suspicion that the majority of the “freedom-loving” people of Britain, to quote Boris Johnson, agree on it too.

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Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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