Gender and consent: trans is not a deception

Conservatives have made their peace with gay marriage, but trans issues remain beyond their grasp.

This month, right-wing Italian MP and Berlusconi groupie Michaela Biancofiore hit the headlines with a ministerial career that was short, even by Italian standards. Appointed on a Friday, critics took instant exception to a junior equalities minister who opposed gay marriage, refused to make physical contact with a lesbian and suggested that “anyone who goes with a trans has serious issues of sexual identity”.

A spirited rearguard action, in which she accused “gays” of “ghettoising themselves”, only confirmed her unsuitability. She was dismissed in time for the Sunday breakfast news.

That, of course, is Italy and nothing like the UK, where a right-of-centre administration is presently preening itself on its recent equalities achievements. On Wednesday morning, the LGB community was, mostly, celebrating the fact that gay marriage – Lords permitting – was now several steps closer to reality. A few diehards, Peter Tatchell amongst them, bemoaned the fact that civil partnership had not been opened up to all. Mostly the mood was positive.

Not so in the trans community, which sat and watched in utter despair as junior equalities minister Helen Grant swatted away amendments designed to sort out problems facing trans individuals in, or seeking to be in, a state-sanctioned married relationship.

Historically, the gender-reassigned trans person has faced three serious obstacles to a happy married life. To begin with, if already married, the holy grail of a gender recognition certificate (GRC) – which adjusts birth certificate to an individual’s actual gender identity – was beyond their reach. Divorce first – and then jump through a series of bureaucratic hurdles to “prove” to a disbelieving state that one really, really is the gender one claims.

That has proven heart-breaking for many. Hold on to a marriage into which you have invested a great deal of love and life: or let go, possibly replacing it with a civil partnership. Except there has always been a second obstacle, which is that “survivor’s benefits” – the bit of pension that a spouse would get if they survived you into old age – would be counted only from the date of the NEW civil partnership. Potentially, that single piece of paper could cost your partner tens of thousands of pounds in pension.

Thankfully, that particular iniquity is gone. You may now continue in your marriage, which will seamlessly translate from opposite to same sex on acquisition of the GRC. Before obtaining your GRC, however, you must show that your partner actively consents to it. Not that they are aware, or have been informed: but that they consent. This is a seriously odd requirement, seeing as how their consent has not previously been required for other changes, including name, hormones, or surgery. Or even a second mortgage on the home!

Its been a while since one partner to a marriage was required to ask their spouse’s permission for significant decisions: decades since women were forced, humiliatingly, to go cap in hand to husband for such permission. Basic equality, it seems, is not for the trans spouse.

Meanwhile, the government has held on to an even stranger anomaly. It's offensive, and, in conjunction with other recent legal developments may yet end up killing someone. No matter!

A marriage is voidable on the grounds that either party did not validly consent to it, “whether in consequence of duress, mistake, unsoundness of mind or otherwise”. That’s fair, and covers most eventualities – including the possibility that one party was trans and had not mentioned that fact to the other.

Should they? In practice, that’s an issue that rarely arises. In a close relationship, gender history, along with fertility, religion and views on having children is discussed, is disclosed. Times, however, are changing. Some men, some women of trans history are now transitioning very early. They assert their gender as young as five or six, will never undergo a puberty reflecting their birth gender: by the time they are “of marriageable age”, they will have spent three-quarters of their life living the gender they understand themselves to be.

Should they really be obliged, by law, to disclose? Particularly when no similar obligation is imposed on those who just happen not to have mentioned a past that includes any number of crimes – from child abuse to rape to murder.

Definitely odd. Doubly odd, that marriage law should contain a special clause identifying just one ground for voiding a marriage, over and above any other possible ground. Can you guess? Yes: its non-disclosure of a GRC. And while that might have made sense in an era when same sex marriage was verboten, once this new legislation passes, it ceases to.

Could this get people killed? Not exactly: but it sits uneasily alongside recent police and CPS decisions to prosecute trans persons for not disclosing birth gender when it comes to having intimate relations. Let’s remind ourselves of the fundamental message here: it is OK not to disclose past criminal status.

Every attempt to force sex offenders and perpetrators of domestic violence to reveal themselves to prospective partners is dogged with squeals from the civil liberties lobby. How could you possibly insist? Do you not trust men?

No comment.

I observe only that an establishment that keeps putting gender history over and above every other issue when it comes to validating intimate consent is sending a message loud and clear: that trans is a form of deception; and deception must be controlled and ultimately punished.

And while junior equalities minister, Helen Grant came nowhere close to the odiousness of Biancofiore in her response to the Commons this week, her failure to understand, her failure to get to grips with current policy suggests a deeper truth: that while Conservatives may have made their peace with the gay community, the world of T remains, for now, a step too far, just a little too “icky” for personal comfort.

A pro-gay marriage demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution