Gender Recognition or Reaction

Rowan Fortune examines a report on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004, what it means to trans and nonbinary people in the UK, and what it says about our reactionary government.


Anyone who seeks, considers seeking or even takes time to understand those who seek to change their body to better match-up with their gender identity knows that it is an inherently apprehensive process. As someone considering such a change, I know with many other nonbinary and trans people how this journey is frequently made worse by hostility from the medical establishment, government, media, and other institutions.

Therefore, when I recently read that the Women and Equalities Committee reported to the Westminster government in December 2021 on long overdue and vital reforms to the GRA, I took notice. They concluded, damningly, that the government had only made minimal and inadequate responses to its own consultation on improving the GRA and the treatment of trans and nonbinary people more generally, resulting in the unfair and overly medicalised system that is all too familiar to those of us impacted by it.

For those less familiar, there is nearly no recognition of nonbinary people in the UK’s legal structures; vital surgeries like phalloplasty and metoidioplasty (needed to construct a penis) have been unavailable on the NHS for long periods, leaving many in a painful limbo between operations; fertility treatments were denied to transgender people for ideological reasons; waiting lists for transition can last half-a-decade in some places and so on. Trans people live under a system of medical apartheid, with treatments granted to cis people (such as hormone replacement therapy) gatekept from us. And this results in trans people relying on DIY and private healthcare.

Much of this situation worsened during the pandemic. As already inadequate Gender Identity Clinics reduced or ceased services and GPs took in fewer patients, many seeking to start or continue their transitions or even to just access hormones were often unable. Moreover, during lockdowns some had to return to live with families that mistreat them due to transphobic prejudices. One 2020 study by University College London and Sussex University found prevalent depression among LGBTQ+ people in general during this time, with transgender and gender diverse individuals showing the highest rates of social depression in a context of pronounced harassment and discrimination.

Against this backdrop, the Committee recommended a review of the obscure Gender Recognition Panel tribunal alongside other substantive reforms. With the goal of de-medicalising gender recognition, MPs advocated removing requirements such as spousal consent, living for a two-year period in an acquired gender, and a gender dysphoria diagnosis from the process. Instead, and in accordance with even cis public opinion, self-declaration was advanced as the best way to determine someone’s gender, acknowledging that trans and nonbinary people (just like cis people) are themselves best placed to know their own gender identities.

In calling for a new healthcare strategy and GP training, nonbinary individuals were included in the recommendations. A welcome surprise when those of us who fall outside the binary are rarely given much acknowledgement by those whose laws often negatively shape our lives. It is especially significant as many nonbinary people hide their gender identity to access medical interventions that permit us to better embody our genders, fearing the ignorance or even prejudice of GPs and a medical establishment with a history of demanding trans people play to feminine or masculine stereotypes to receive care.

The Chair of the Committee was notably scathing about the treatment of trans and nonbinary people by the government’s inaction.

The Government took nearly two years to respond to the consultation on an Act that was written at the turn of the millennium. The GRA is crying out for modernisation, and the Government has spectacularly missed its opportunity. This is an area of reform which has attracted strong opinions and debate, but there are areas—such as the removal of a time period for living in an acquired gender—which many can agree on. The Government’s failure to implement even these changes—made clear in its consultation—suggest its lack of willingness to engage. 

Being trans is not an illness. It is imperative that the Government de-medicalise the process of gender recognition by removing the outdated requirement for a gender dysphoria diagnosis. The current response to the 2018 consultation has amounted to little more than administrative changes. We are now calling on the Government to enact real, meaningful change.

Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP

In responding to the report, the usual anti-trans suspects assumed a typical position of faux outrage. Debbie Hayton, for example, took up the case with her usual mix of respectability politics and hyperbole. She is a mainstay of the so-called gender critical movement, a trans woman who has made her lifework the limiting of the rights of other trans people. She is someone who equates nonbinary genders with cultural fads, talks of some transitions as anti-gay conversion therapy, and often refers to trans women as men. She has accused the report’s writers advocacy of self-identification as being an example of ‘magical thinking alongside the works of [Lewis] Carroll.’

Such individuals opposition to advancing trans rights is of a piece with that advanced by the right-wing advocacy group The Christian Institute, but whereas the latter does so in the honest guise of defending conservative norms, the likes of Hayton hide behind a notion of sex as socially determinative that is no less reactionary in its much professed but dubious common sense basis. Indeed, Hayton’s invocation of Wonderland here reveals the anxiety being provoked by the furtherance of trans liberation. Trans people should be allowed to exist, they seem to say, but if they are too accommodated, believed and treated as human beings rather than as medicalised objects, the world itself has gone topsy-turvy. 

Such reactionaries, be they religious bigots or gender critical hatemongers, help to maintain—intentionally or otherwise—the dehumanising status quo Nokes describes so aptly. The report is to be welcomed, and socialists, who should always side with the oppressed, must do so in this instance too. But however good when taken alone, the wider context in which the report takes place is not one that will see many trans and nonbinary people in too celebratory a mood.

Commenting on the Committee’s findings, Mallory Moore for the Trans Safety Network supplies much of this context, such as the government appointing the ‘well known anti-LGBT MP Jackie Doyle-Price to the Committee, only a month ahead of publication.’ She joined the similarly reactionary ‘Shipley MP Phillip Davies who has held an appointment to the Committee since 2016.’ Such appointments do not signal a government likely to be friendly to the suggested reforms, especially when its delays have already been instrumental in exacerbating ‘tensions between an already polarised group of stakeholders’ and thereby causing ‘real distress to many within the transgender community.’

That is, this delay created the very ground for a ‘debate’ on trans rights, one based on anecdotal supposed threats posed by trans people and a sex-reductive denial of trans agency. This is the very ‘debate’ still being waged by the likes of Hayton (as well as other anti-trans culture warriors, overwhelmingly cis, such as Dr. Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, and Graham Linehan). Moore lists various anti-trans organisations to emerge in the wake of this delay, all forming from 2017 to 2019: LGB Alliance, Woman’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women, and the Women’s Declaration International. (These groups frequently operate together, with LGBA and WPUK demonstrating strong links.)

The current moral panic against trans people that has overtaken the UK finds some of its origins in this debate, and therefore also has its origins in the government’s delay. This is a moral panic that has caught the attention of media throughout the world, including CNN, Vox, Al Jazeera, and the New York Times. A moral panic that forms the backdrop of an 81% increase in anti-trans hate crimes. A moral panic that has spread to the United States and become a plank in creeping fascism there as much as in the UK.

Liz Truss, the then Minister in charge of the equalities brief, the one most personally responsible for this state of affairs, refused to meet the Committee. Moore reports that Truss delegated to fellow Tory MP Kemi Badenoch, who delegated to another Tory MP Jo Churchill, who delegated back to the Government Equality Office. If any situation evokes the fiction of Carroll, it is surely this merry-go-round.

This cycle of passing the buck caused the Committee to comment that it was ‘a matter of deep regret that the Government and its public bodies have chosen to evade Parliamentary scrutiny on this contentious subject.’ Truss is someone who has previously compared trans people using spaces appropriate to their gender to paedophile grooming gangs and antisemitism, so her unwillingness to take responsibility is not a surprise.

Worryingly, Truss is currently the bookmakers’ second favourite to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Given all of the above, it is justified for trans and nonbinary people (who are unrepresented in parliament) to believe that she is actively directing hostility against us, either because of her genuinely held prejudices or because she sees the issue as potentially popular with an electoral coalition. Or, indeed, both.

So while the recommendations of the Committee are welcome, and in many instances would be materially vital to trans and nonbinary flourishing, any hope of their implementation is going to be tinged with fear about what the Tory government and the transphobic establishment at large has prepared for us next. It is unlikely to be in line with the Committee’s findings, or with the government’s own consultation’s findings, as that would not add fuel to a moral panic that has served the Tory Party well. Instead, true hope is found in the trans struggle and the solidarity of cis people with that struggle.

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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