We must not uphold gender norms at the expense of human dignity

Sexual intimacy, gender variance and criminal law.

Imagine the following scenario:

A white woman and a man of mixed race, who outwardly appears white, meet in a wine bar. They flirt with each other. The man returns with the woman to her apartment where mutually satisfying sexual intercourse takes place. Subsequently, the woman discovers the mixed-race background of the man and claims to feel violated. She reports the matter to the police and requests that he be charged with rape on the basis of his failure to disclose his racial background.

There are people who would consider a rape charge an appropriate, or at least legitimate, outcome on these facts, and certainly in circumstances where the man was aware in advance of the complainant's feelings. However, for the rest of us, such a suggestion seems not only counter-intuitive, but ludicrous. It is also true to say, as a matter of law, that on such facts a rape or other sexual offence prosecution is highly unlikely ever to be brought and if it were it would certainly fail to secure a conviction. The same is true in relation to non-disclosure of all kinds of other personal facts. Thus facts about a potential sexual partner that might be considered material, but to which no legal consequences attach in the event of non-disclosure, include (in the heterosexual context) prior homosexual or bi-sexual sexual experience, convictions for child abuse and heroin addiction. The list is potentially endless. Indeed, even in the context of HIV positive status, non-disclosure will not serve to vitiate consent in relation to a rape charge1.

Now consider a different scenario:

A woman and a transgender man meet in a wine bar. They flirt with each other. The man returns with the woman to her apartment where mutually satisfying sexual intercourse takes place. Subsequently, the woman discovers the man is transgender and claims to feel violated. She reports the matter to the police and requests that he be charged with rape on the basis of his failure to disclose his gender history.

While I imagine my comments concerning the mixed-race example proved uncontroversial to most, if not all readers, I know from experience that the second scenario is likely to lead to a more complicated and variegated set of emotional responses. The comparison is designed to tease out such differential responses and encourage reflection upon them. And what is at stake for transgender people is a great deal. Conviction on such facts not only leads to loss of liberty, it also serves to call into question the validity or authenticity of something as profoundly personal as gender identity. Nor are these issues hypothetical. In March 2013, two young transgender men, Scott McNally and Chris Wilson, were convicted, in London and Edinburgh respectively, of sexual offences on the basis that they had obtained consent by fraud through failure to disclose their gender history to female sexual partners, and in the case of Chris Wilson, two 15-year-old girls. McNally was sentenced to three years imprisonment while Wilson received three years probation and 240 hours of community service. Both were placed on the Sex Offender’s Register for life.

Yet neither of these young men committed fraud. They identified as men, and had done so from an early age, presented as men and were desired as men. There is nothing fabricated about their feelings or performance of masculinity, or at least none more so than in the case of cisgender men. Fraud, and encroachment on sexual autonomy in any meaningful sense, only becomes intelligible once we deny the gender identities of the male defendants. For those who feel (and it tends to be a matter of feeling) that they have a right to know about the backgrounds of transgender men prior to sexual encounters, they do so because they want to retain the right not to have sexual congress with someone they do not consider to be a man. This view of transgender men as “posing,” “pretending to be” (Mail Online, 21/3/12) or “masquerading as” men (Telegraph, 24/2/13) was extensively reproduced in the press. Yet we live in a society that recognises transgenderism, provides public funding for associated medical needs as well as legal recognition. Indeed, Scott McNally and Chris Wilson have both indicated a desire to undergo reassignment surgery. This state of affairs is undermined by criminal prosecution as it serves to call into question the reality of transgender people’s gender identities.

For those who still see wisdom in prosecuting these types of cases it is important to recognise that disclosure of gender history to a sexual partner would not serve to protect transgender people from prosecution. In practice, it would also be necessary to disclose to the friends and/or family of sexual partners. This is because a transgender person is always vulnerable to the accusation of non-disclosure even where disclosure has actually taken place, and we need to bear in mind the possibility that prosecution might be motivated in these circumstances by a desire to conceal from parents and the world "lesbian" feelings. In the event of false allegation, a cisgender person’s claim that she did not know will be hard to rebut. This is because the view, one reproduced by these legal judgments, that a cisgender person would not knowingly engage in sexual congress with a transgender person, enjoys considerable weight in normative terms. We might call this a kind of "hostage problem". In effect, what law requires is a more generalised form of institutionalised "outing". This is not consistent with promoting the safety of transgender people, especially young transgender people like the defendants in these cases. On the contrary, transgender visibility can, and frequently does, lead to violence, and sometimes deadly violence, as the tragic cases of Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo testify.

Recognition of these dangers to the physical body needs to be supplemented by recognition of the psychic trauma potentially suffered by transgender people having to disclose their chromosomal status, earlier or present gonadal and/or genital condition as well as a history of coerced gender performance. It is acknowledged that sexual partners who remain unaware of gender history may, upon discovery, experience harm in the form of distress, disgust and/or revulsion. It is not my intention to trivilise these experiences. Nevertheless, these forms of harm ought not to be viewed as justification for state intervention against such a marginalised minority group through the criminal law. This is especially so given that these feelings of disgust only make sense when viewed through the lens of transphobia and/or homophobia, outlooks which are, in turn, legitimised through prosecution and conviction. In this sense, law proves to be implicated in a problem that, should it take any stance, ought to be one of remedial action. It seems unlikely on the facts of these cases that prosecutions would have been brought had the defendants been cisgender. This is true even in regard to those charges relating to minors because the Crown Prosecution Service does not normally prosecute, in the absence of aggravating factors, where consensual sexual activity takes place between young persons who are similar in age. These young men have been punished not, primarily, because of any concern over the sexual autonomy of the complainants, but in order to uphold gender norms, specifically ideas of masculinity and heterosexuality that, in legal hands, prove resistant to including transgender men and treating them with human dignity.

To return to the two scenarios with which we began, it would seem that the intolerance that we rightly bring to expressions of racism in our society deserts us when we are asked to accommodate the fact of gender variance. Of course, transgender men are different from cisgender men and this is so irrespective of whether reassignment surgery has taken place. But multiple differences exist within the group we denote men. In relation to cisgender men, and for that matter cisgender women, we do not require such total transparency of self in the face of negotiating the complexities of the sexual life world. Indeed, given that we all have gender histories but only some of us (transgender people) are required to disclose them, there appears to be a good basis for arguing that a legal requirement to disclose gender history constitutes discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The requirement might also be viewed as an encroachment on the right to privacy guaranteed by Article 8, especially once it is appreciated that disclosure to a sexual partner alone is unlikely, in practical terms, to bring transgender people within the protection of the law. Certainly, the Law Commission appear to think so.2

Alex Sharpe is a Professor of Law at Keele University

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1R v Dica (Mohammed) [2004] EWCA Crim 1103; R v Konzani [2005] EWCA Crim 706. 

2Law Commission, Consent in Sexual Offences: A Policy Paper: Appendix C of Setting the Boundaries (London: Home Office, 2000, para 5.31). 

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Sharpe is a Professor of Law at Keele University.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.