THE time for public consultation on the Reform of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) has just run out. Currently, if an individual wishes to change gender, he or she must obtain medical evidence of gender dysphoria and make a commitment to living in his or her desired gender until death. There is also a fee.
Trans lobbyists describe the process as “intrusive, costly, and humiliating”. They think that self-declaration should be the critical issue, and that this should be independent of any intention to transition surgically. The Women and Equalities Minister, Penny Mordaunt, supports changes to the current law.
But it has proved hard to debate the proposed reforms publicly. Planned events have often been cancelled, owing to aggressive lobbying from men who now identify as women — and, of course, nobody wants to appear transphobic.
In 1979, a radical lesbian feminist, Janice Raymond, published The Transsexual Empire: The making of the She-Male. Raymond’s argument was that men who sought to become women were attempting to “colonise” women’s experience, which was, she argued, a form of sexual assault.
At the time, I thought that this was interesting, if rather extreme. I had read Jan Morris’s Conundrum, in which she described how, although born male, she had always identified with the feminine. I could not see anything in her experience to suggest that trans women were determined to take other women over.
Yet the bullying behaviour of some trans women towards their critics has given me pause. There has not been enough debate about the relationship between birth sex and gender, and the place that public endorsement plays in our sense of who we are. The feminist argument that trans women are not real women because they have not experienced the way that birth women are socialised carries weight.
More specifically, I am not sure that I want to share public loos with people who have male genitalia, since there is no way of knowing who might constitute a risk to other women. I think that Raymond overstated her case, but she was perhaps on to something. If the trans lobby get their way, the right to safety and privacy that most women expect will be compromised. Of course. Again.
Interestingly, Morris herself has tried to take the heat out of the argument and to support women who feel under threat. She also said recently that she regarded her own experience as truly privileged: she has had the opportunity to live in both genders.
The real issue here is whether personal identity is created by an act of individual will, or whether it has, in some sense, to be negotiated socially. The modest requirement for some medical endorsement before a legal change of gender seems to me to honour the Christian and common-sense perspective that I receive who I am before I declare who I am. Recognition is a two-way process.