Features Gender Recognition Law Transphobia

The Unending “Debate”

by Helen Belcher

I’m really very tired of having my identity questioned.

There’s a very binary way of thought which has gained credence across the UK media and other institutions which we rely upon – and that is that you’re either a man or a woman. Full stop. That’s it. No other options.

Ah, they say – you can be an effeminate man, or even like dressing in women’s clothes, and that’s all OK. But – and this is a big but – you’re still a man. (And, yes, I was told that, repeatedly, about 20 years ago.)

Identities and biological realities of intersex people are also ignored. Apparently they all identify as either a man or a woman. Wrong – but who lets facts in the way of a good opinion-based debate?

And don’t get me started on “biological sex”, as if we know everything about human biology already, and as if biology is inerrant and fixed from birth. Because science and medicine tell us that we don’t and it isn’t.

According to the so-called “gender criticals”, “gender identity” doesn’t exist – one’s gender and identity is solely derived from one’s biology. Well, biology might be involved with someone’s identity. There has been peer-reviewed research published over the past decade or two which shows that there may be a biological essence to trans people’s identity. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that how someone understands themselves has to be derived from some inaccurate test of chromosomes or gametes or whatever.

We don’t know what causes some people to be trans, but we know that some people are trans, and we know that such people have existed across all cultures across all of recorded (and some unrecorded) human history. That alone ought to demonstrate the limits to our current scientific or biological understanding.

Some people have “concerns”. Great. Almost every trans person I know respects others’ concerns. It’s why, despite all the fear to the contrary, we behave in public spaces. Most of us don’t want to draw attention to ourselves, so we act in a way which ensures that we fit in.

It’s rare that trans people predate on women. So rare that the Scottish Police said they’d not arrested anyone who declared themselves to be trans on a sex charge for 4 years. So rare that a Wiltshire Police inspector told me just before he retired that, out of around 850,000 crimes and incidents logged by the force over nearly two decades, not one was someone who declared themselves to be trans in a single-sex space. It’s also rare that men decide to present themselves as women in order to predate on women – not unknown, but rare.

Even in prisons, assaults by trans women are rare. Statistics in this area are patchy, but from what has been published in the UK, one individual appears to have racked up over half of such recorded assaults in the last few years – but the number of assaults on trans women in one year exceeds the total number of assaults by trans women in the last few. We are often the victims, rarely the perpetrators.

Nonetheless, it’s this predator argument that has gained traction. Someone might do this. So thousands of law-abiding people have their rights “legitimately” questioned and potentially curtailed because of what someone might do – despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Imagine this in other areas. Someone might break the speed limit along a particular road, so let’s ban everyone from driving down that road. Someone might contaminate food in a supermarket, so we should prevent anyone from going near food in supermarkets. None of that debate happens, despite evidence that people have contaminated food in supermarkets or, god forbid, sped down roads.

Lots of us aren’t physically identifiable as trans. I still remember a friend of mine, let’s call him Steve, being utterly surprised many years ago to discover that the man he’d welcomed to barbeques for years was actually a trans man. Steve genuinely had no idea, and it really shook him. People have been surprised to discover that I’m trans. But that doesn’t mean that trans people should live in fear simply because we are trans – fear that someone might object to our presence. It should be a shock if that happens, not an expectation.

Saying that then usually draws out the other side of the argument – because some trans women cannot be identified as “not being women”, that somehow proves trans women are deceptive, so we must ban them from women-only spaces. Damned if you don’t fit in, and damned if you do.

In the last few months both the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (“PACE”), two internationally acknowledged and respected human rights bodies, have condemned the so-called “gender critical” views which have infected UK media dialogue. They do this, not by engaging with the individual arguments per se, but by looking at the end point of those views.

The starting point is that all people, including trans people, have basic human rights – not least of which is the right to respect for one’s private and family life, and the protection from discrimination. They assess the end point of the so-called “gender critical” campaign as being that trans people should be removed from certain spaces simply because they are trans – spaces which they need access to because of the need for safety and respect (It’s not that hard to assess this as the end point, as it’s being said out loud. It was said out loud when I did Newsnight in October 2018.). That, these international bodies say, breaches those two basic human rights, so the campaign cannot be compatible with human rights. End of.

These campaigns are not really about reform of gender recognition law. They never were. Legislative reform, or more accurately the lacuna which followed the initial proposals, was used as a convenient opportunity to establish, apparently unquestioned, the predation myth about trans women – claiming that men would identify as women in order to endanger women. A trans exclusionary position which has existed on the fringes of feminism since the 1970s, made mainstream in the UK by a compliant media which loves spectacle rather than substance.

However, few in the UK’s public life appear to recognise that banning someone from a space which they would otherwise be entitled to use purely on the basis of being a minority is the very definition of discrimination. It doesn’t matter if someone objects to being called out because they promote the view that trans women are unsafe in women’s spaces so should be banned from them. It is innately a discriminatory position, and should be labelled as such.

Which is why it is so galling to see the UK’s increasingly misnamed Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) look at that statement from PACE, shrug their shoulders and the very next day publish a letter to the Scottish Government requesting that the plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act are paused, so that “reasonable concerns”, which happen to be expressed by so-called “gender criticals”, can be examined more closely. These same “reasonable concerns” which have been examined throughout two public consultations over 5 years (when the norm is just one over a few months) and which have been dismissed by international human rights bodies.

Not content with that, on the very same day as their letter, the EHRC also released a statement saying that trans people should not be protected from conversion practices. How exactly is this equality?

The upshot appears to be that the Scots, who never appreciate being told what to do by the English, are outraged, and LGBT+ organisations in the UK (and beyond) are now calling for the EHRC to be stripped of its status as a nationally recognised equalities body. All of which makes the idea that this Government can host an LGBT+ conference called “Safe to be Me” utterly laughable. It is patently no longer safe to be me, and Government bodies which should protect me are likely not to.

What this apparently unending narrative does is start to strip away my humanity. It makes me feel unsafe, as if every part of my being is under scrutiny. I need to mentally balance myself every single morning in a way that I never used to have to. In some ways the narrative is designed to do that. It’s designed to make others suspicious of me, afraid of me, further justifying their calls to remove me from their society. It’s tiring at a very fundamental level.

And while I know, or at least hope, that this regime will fall and that some sense of normality will be restored, I also see the damage that is being wrought while this is going on. Rather than an environment of compassion and learning, we are breeding an environment of fear and anger. And people, some of whom I knew, are being lost in the meantime.

This piece also appears on Helen’s Challenging Journeys blog.

Helen Belcher is the Chair of TransActual’s board of directors, a trustee of Trans Media Watch, as well as a Wiltshire Councillor and the Chair of Corsham Town Council.
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