Given the enormous amount of news about Coronavirus and Brexit, a contentious matter has gone under the radar in recent months. That is, whether the Government would drop proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 to allow for “self-ID”; in other words, a person being able to change their legal gender without a doctor’s approval or undertaking other administrative processes.
In 2017, Theresa May announced her government would run a consultation on reforming the GRA, with the expectation that it would allow transgender people to change their birth certificates without a medical diagnosis. Johnson’s Government, on the other hand, has reversed the idea. In April Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, signalled that the existing checks would stay in place – something she confirmed to Parliament this week, and has received an incredibly polarised response over.
The strength of feeling on GRA is obvious from the fact that 102,000 people responded to the Government’s initial consultation on the subject. It is reported that thirty nine per cent of these came from Stonewall, which advocates for self-ID.
Proponents of the concept argue that the current processes are intrusive and distressing; these include providing two medical reports (one to show a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria”, and the other to outline details of what treatment has been received), obtaining the consent of a spouse if married, demonstrating that a transgender person has lived in their acquired gender for at least two years, and paying £140. Self-ID would put an end to all this.
Many, particularly women’s rights groups, feel it goes too far, however. While polls routinely show that the public is sympathetic to trans rights, there are concerns about transgender women with male anatomy being able to access female-only facilities, such as prisons and changing rooms. From women’s sport, to census data collection, self-ID would have enormous practical and legal implications.
The Government clearly wants to achieve a compromise on the matter. Although ministers haven’t carried forward self-ID, they want to speed up the process for those wanting to change gender. Truss, for instance, said that the Government would be “opening at least three new gender clinics this year” to reduce waiting lists; that the process would be “kinder and more straightforward”, mainly by moving online, and that the fee would be reduced to a “nominal” amount.
Is the debate closed, though? While it looked that way this week, the Government will still find itself under enormous pressure to reform the GRA – not only from activist groups.
For starters, there’s its own MPs. Crispin Blunt has been one of the most vocal about the decision. He said it had caused “crushing disappointment”, and accused Truss of not proposing legislation – so as to avoid it being voted down. “Does she appreciate that her statement does not command a majority in this House?” Were his words.
There’s also the fact that Scotland is close to implementing self-ID, as Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson recently pointed out in their column for ConHome. This will either exacerbate demands on Johnson’s Government to change direction – or give it evidence of why self-ID is practically untenable.
Lastly, one of the big surprises this year was that Google UK attacked Truss over self-ID. On June 18, the company Tweeted a petition to its followers (which now stand at 190,000), inviting them to sign a petition asking her to reform the GRA. “Don’t roll back on trans dignity”, it read, along with the hashtag: #TRUSSTME.
It emphasised a sinister, broader point, which is the capacity for tech giants to try and influence political policy (something troubling considering the Government’s increasing reliance on them – not least to help get out Britain’s contact tracing app).
With all that being said, Truss was robust in her response to Blunt’s criticisms, and no doubt many people will have been impressed with her actions.
But with Conservatives having u-turned on the matter, it’s a reminder that shifts in leadership can easily change the direction of this battle. The Government has got its way for now, but the debate is far from over.