Trans Rights 101
What does it mean to be trans?
The classification of a person as male or female. At birth, infants are assigned a sex, usually based on the appearance of their external anatomy. A person's sex, however, is actually a combination of bodily characteristics including: chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
A person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices (see non-binary and/or genderqueer below.)
External manifestations of gender, expressed through a person's name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Typically, but not always, transgender people seek to align their gender expression with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
Describes a person's enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as a straight woman.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth, including non-binary identities (see below). People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms - including transgender. Use the descriptive term preferred by the person in question. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.
A person whose gender identity sits comfortably with the sex they were assigned at birth.
A man who was assigned female at birth. Many (not all) trans men choose to undergo surgical or hormonal transition, or both, to alter their appearance in a way that aligns with their gender identity or alleviates gender dysphoria. All do identify with a binary male identity, though. For people who don't, but feel more masculine than feminine, there are terms like "transmasculine", "demiboy", etc.
A woman who was assigned male at birth. Many (not all) trans women choose to undergo surgical or hormonal transition, or both, to alter their appearance in a way that aligns with their gender identity or alleviates gender dysphoria. All do identify with a binary female identity, though. For people who don't, but feel more feminine than masculine, there are terms like "transfeminine", "demigirl", etc.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn't sit comfortably with 'man' or 'woman'. Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely. As an umbrella term, there are a host of other terms which are generally considered to sit under it, such as bigender, multigender, gender neutral, agender, androgynous, genderfluid, genderqueer, and so on. Most trans people will not expect you to be an expert on every single one of the myriad words that people have coined to describe their experience of gender, so don't panic! Google is your friend (other search engines are available!).
Some Other Terms You Might Come Across
- Genderfluid: A gender identity which which varies over time.
- Genderqueer: Has a similar but broader connotation to "non-binary", describing a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions or norms of expression, but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.
- Agender: An individual who has no gender identity, though some use it to describe a gender identity which is more neutral.
We don't have good data on this as there hasn't historically been a census question on this. Best estimates currently put it in the ballpark of 1% of the population. In Britain that would imply ~600,000
Prior to modern understandings of trans identities, many cultures have had concepts which cover some of the same ground. For instance: "two-spirit" people (Native American), Hijras (Indian). Many other examples exist.
Barriers Facing Trans People in the UK
- Trans people are often not identified correctly (or at all) in culture or in law. This is particularly true for non-binary people, who are often not accounted for in many record-keeping systems, and forced to lie about their identity to submit a form at all.
- Media representations have often been stereotypical and mocking.
- Trans identity is pathologized in the UK, meaning that recognition is in some ways contingent on a medical diagnosis. Whilst this may be necessary for those trans people who wish to access medical interventions, it is unnecessary for those who do not.
- Proposed reforms to the GRA have been repeatedly postponed then shelved (see below).
- There are proposed reforms to the 2021 census to canvass trans identity; we need to make sure those aren't shelved!
- Difficulties in accessing healthcare are always felt more intensely by underprivileged minorities; trans people are no exception.
- Waiting times for critical healthcare for trans people is often a matter of years. The NHS's Gender Identity Clinics, of which there are 7 adult clinics and 1 youth service in England and Wales, are all hugely oversubscribed.
- Healthcare delays lead to an increased risk of depression and, in the worst case scenario, suicide, which puts further stress on trans people and on the healthcare system.
- 41% of trans people report that healthcare officials "lacked understanding of specific trans health needs" according to a 2018 YouGov survey. Many trans people find their doctors are not as enlightened and helpful as one might hope, facing:
- "Trans broken arm" - the tendency of many medical professionals to ascribe almost any medical issue to someone's trans status, or refuse to treat them because their trans status makes them "complicated".
Workplace, employment, poverty
- Trans people face less discrimination at work in the UK vs other OECD countries, however it is still high - 47% of retail employers are unwilling to hire a transgender person, according to a 2018 report by Crossland.
- As with most (if not all) underprivileged groups, trans people tend to have poorer workplace outcomes for promotion, salary, and employment (when their trans identity is known to employers).
- Employment conditions are greatly exacerbated by income inequality and rent costs; as most transgender people are from lower income backgrounds, their levels of disposable income are extremely low and often lack a personal safety net to provide them security against employment issues.
- 25% of transgender people have experienced homelessness.
Harassment and discrimination
- Transgender people in the UK are more likely to report discrimination from family than in the workplace (YouGov 2018; 2020); this is confirmed by surveys of parents who are more comfortable with the idea of having a colleague who is transgender than with the idea of having a child who is transgender (OECD 2017).
- British children and young people are highly likely to have internet access and are highly likely to express their gender identity in education settings - these are positive things but mean that harassment and bullying are more likely to occur.
- The unpleasant tone of "debate" over trans rights in recent years has led to an increase in harassment and hate crimes, with even such simple acts as going to the toilet outside one's own home becoming a contested and stressful experience for many.
This year: COVID and botched GRA reform
- Many already report waiting times of 2 years or more just to get a first appointment with NHS GICs: For people who have waited months or years for particular appointments, cancellations or postponements are particularly frustrating.
- Meanwhile, the cancellation of elective surgeries by the NHS will have set many back still further.
- For those with unsupportive households, lockdown has been particularly gruelling, cutting them off from many of their usual coping strategies.
- GRA was originally slated to introduce Self-ID, which would involve a statutory declaration of gender identity by the trans person concerned, rather than the existing intrusive and costly process of submission of various documents to a panel who never meet the applicant, which embeds medical gatekeeping of trans identity and makes the system complex and bureaucratic to no useful end.
What Rights Do Trans People Have Now?
Gender Recognition Act (2004)
Passed in 2004, following a European Court of Human Rights ruling in favour of trans woman Christine Goodwin (who was denied the right to marry in the UK), at the time this was a step forward for trans people in the UK. It allows individuals to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, which is essentially a replacement Birth Certificate, and as such serves as an official legal recognition of a trans person's gender. This is important in situations where a Birth Certificate might be important in how someone is treated, which legally might include things like pensions, prisons and marriage. It is largely irrelevant to everyday situations where a Birth Certificate would not be important, such as use of single-sex facilities, what name and titles one can use on most records (including driving licenses and passports), etc.
Equality Act (2010)
Passed in 2010, the Equality Act served to consolidate and update a number of previous Acts and Regulations, and is now the central plank of anti-discrimination law in Great Britain. The Act protects people against discrimination, harassment or victimisation in employment, and as users of private and public services based on nine protected characteristics, including (of particular interest to trans people) gender reassignment. As such, it prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of their trans status. It defines gender reassignment as covering an individual who is 'proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process or part of a process to reassign their sex'. As such, there is no requirement for a trans person to have any kind of medical supervision or intervention in order to be protected from gender reassignment discrimination.
Schedule 3, Part 7, Para 28 of the act does make an exception in the case of provision of single-sex services, "if the conduct in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim". In practice, however, this provision has been rarely used, with many providers of single-sex services (or separate-sex services) seeing no reason to exclude trans people from their services.
The Need For Reform
There is a noticeable mismatch in the two Acts detailed above, in what standards of "proof" they require from trans people. The older act, the GRA, revolves around medical gatekeeping and bureaucracy, where the newer Equality Act is much more centred around self-identification. Some other countries which have introduced laws similar to the GRA more recently have opted for the self-ID approach, such as Ireland in 2015, with no major problems. The UK government announced previously that it intended to reform the GRA to follow suit, but after several rounds of consultation which unleashed a storm of transphobic misinformation in the press, they have backed away from meaningful reforms, choosing instead to simply move the process of applying for a GRC online and reduce the processing fee.
In addition to the flaws in the existing GRC process, the GRA (alongside many other aspects of government provision) currently includes no recognition for non-binary identities at all. Since the 2013 introduction of Same Sex Marriage, in many respects a victory for LGBT+ people, another issue has been created for trans people in England and Wales: a person who is already married when they transition and wish to obtain a GRC requires the legal consent of their spouse (this has been labelled the "spousal veto"). Whilst this does not present a high barrier to happy couples, it does give ex-partners in acrimonious separations an unpleasant weapon to wield against a trans person: their ability to apply for a GRC can essentially be blocked until their divorce can be finalised.
Meaningful reform of gender recognition in the UK should include:
- De-medicalisation and simplification of the process to obtain a GRC.
- Recognition of non-binary identities in law.
- Removal of the spousal veto.
There are also wider areas of legal reform still to be addressed, such as disentangling the act of giving birth from "motherhood" in the cases of trans men like Freddy McConnell, who would (understandably!) prefer not to be listed as "Mother" on their child's birth certificate.
The Campaign to Support Trans People & Rights
Leading charities and organisations:
- Stonewall: Umbrella LGBT+ group which started covering trans issues under Ruth Hunt's leadership.
- WPATH: non-profit, interdisciplinary professional and educational organization devoted to transgender health. Engage in clinical and academic research to develop evidence-based medicine and strive to promote a high quality of care for transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals internationally.
- Mermaids: Particularly concerned with supporting trans young people and their parents.
- Gendered Intelligence: Trans-led charity working to increase understandings of gender diversity and support trans young people.
- Sparkle: A national transgender charity which organises the Sparkle Weekend celebration in Manchester in July of each year.
- Twilight People: a landmark project that discovers and celebrates the hidden history of transgender and gender-variant people of faith in the UK past and present.
- Faith groups: For example, for LGBT Muslims, Imaan has a support group for Trans Muslims.
Lib Dem Policy:
- Tackle the rise in hate crimes by making them all aggravated offences, giving law enforcement the resources and training they need to identify and prevent them, and condemning inflammatory rhetoric - including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia - by those with public platforms.
- Complete reform of the Gender Recognition Act to remove the requirement for medical reports, scrap the fee and recognise non-binary gender identities.
- Introduce an 'X' gender option on passports and extend equality law to cover gender identity and expression.
- Ensure accurate population data on sexual orientation and gender identity by including a question on LGBT+ status within the 2021 Census.
- Require schools to introduce gender-neutral uniform policies and break down outdated perceptions of gender appropriateness of certain subjects.
- 2015 Motion "Mental Health", Amendment 1: "Monitor the impact of the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy and expand it to cover transgender and gender non-conforming people."
Basic ways to show solidarity:
- Challenge transphobia, whether it be blatant abuse of a trans person, or more insidious acts, like only respecting a person's pronouns when they are present.
- Normalise giving pronouns (i.e. "My name is Egbert and my pronouns are he and him.")
- Take care over disclosure. Just because someone has told you they are trans, doesn't mean they wanted you to tell everyone else. Not everyone feels safe being "out" to everyone. Check with the person concerned before you disclose their trans status to anyone.
- Leave "deadnames" in the past. When someone transitions, it usually matters to them a great deal that you use their new name, and that as far as possible their old name, or "deadname", is removed from circulation. Many trans people go out of their way to remove all records of their previous name as far as possible. Where deadnames do need to be retained, they should be treated as sensitive personal information, with access to those records restricted to as small a group as possible.
- Educate yourself. Try not to place the burden onto trans people to personally educate you; there are plenty of resources out there that you can find in your own time. We list some on our Trans Ally Guide.
- Support campaigns for trans liberation.