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27 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:11pm

Easing gender recognition rules is about more than convenience – it’s a step towards bodily autonomy

Amendments to the legal process are a small victory on the way to a much bigger goal.

By Marilyn Misandry

Growing up and coming out as a young trans person in the shadow of the Gender Recognition Act, I was constantly met with stories of medical professionals refusing to validate or support my friends and partners.

Swathes of trans people were forced into claiming a stake in maleness or femaleness, that didn’t reflect their non-binary identity. For years, I felt that any attempt to medically transition, or to take steps to be recognised in the eyes of the law, would be met with ridicule or disdain.

As a non-binary person, I heard and still hear countless stories of trans people like me forced to lie about their identity, existing in their own spaces as complicated and beautiful creatures, only to pigeon-hole themselves into rigid forms of gender.

The wider implications of the act and its rigid fixation on gender normativity where damaging. Trans men I knew were routinely told that experimenting with make-up, or feminine presentation, were grounds to be denied a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Similarly, any sign of masculinity in a trans woman would be used as proof that her desire to legally change gender was little more than a fetishistic romp. 

It’s for these reasons that I greet the news that the act is to be reformed with cautious, but excited optimism. The amendments, which will make it easier for people to change gender on their birth certificate and be recognised as a man, woman or non-binary person, should be celebrated as an important and fundamental step in the long-fought struggle for transgender liberation.

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The removal of gender dysphoria as a diagnostic criteria, and the re-assessment of the need to “live as one’s chosen gender” for arbitrary periods of time, herald a new understanding of our lives in the eyes of the law, and the beginning of what hopefully will be a gradual move away from the pathological and essentialist view of trans identity the legislation currently takes.

Maria Miller’s announcement, taken at face value, is a commitment to the attempted rebranding of the Conservative Party’s relationship with the LGBTQ community, a tribute to what Theresa May envisages as a move away from the image of the “nasty party”.

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Yet it is from within the Tory party that the harshest condemnation of the amendments has come. Mary Douglas, of the Grassroots Conservatives, has compared calling a trans person by their chosen gender to agreeing with an anorexic’s delusion of fatness. Her comments would be laughably risible if they were not so offensive. To equate the constant self-destructive dangers of anorexia with the positive realisation of one’s gender is patently absurd. Agreeing with an anorexic’s belief in their weight is deadly – agreeing with a trans person’s chosen gender is often life-saving.

As long as a valid GRC remains a pivotal step in accessing NHS gender services, we must fight tooth and nail against the Douglases of this the world, who ironically would rather see a drastic decline in the mental health of trans people than any steps to relieve the constant pressure and stress of living under transphobia.

In a far more literal sense, the easing of access to a GRC can prove pivotal to the survival of some of our most marginalised community members. There is an ongoing and severe problem with the placement of transgender women in male prisons, which was put under the spotlight by the tragic suicide of Vicki Thompson.

Her death brought to the forefront a crisis barely spoken about outside trans circles. If a trans woman in prison lacks the relevant GRC, they are assigned to a male facility. While the wider issue of trans prisoners itself could fill another whole article, it is cruel, worrying and dangerous that something as arbitrary as a GRC determines the placement of prisoners.

Frequently, stories come out of trans women in prisons subject to harrowing sexual, physical and emotional violence. That this can be prevented by the simple possession of a GRC must surely show not only how important it is to fight for them to become accessible, but also how fundamentally broken our approach to trans issues is.

Removing hurdles put in the way of trans people by the current system is much more than simple convenience. It is part of the continued struggle for bodily autonomy, for liberation, and for a world where we are free to exist as our authentic selves. I am not naive enough to believe that these reforms alone will secure this. I have my own criticisms, and yet again find myself excluded by our government’s lack of non-binary gender markers.

But for the trans man turned away from hormones for lipstick, the trans woman denied electrolysis for wearing trousers, the Vicki Thompsons of the world forced into violent and dangerous situations, we must understand, this is a small victory. And it is a step on the road to a far bigger one.

Marilyn Misandry is a trans activist and performance artist from Manchester. Her work focuses on existing as a radical trans person