The Gender Recognition Act. Questions, toxicity and women-only spaces as safe or sacred?

I’m not going to directly quote some of the messages I’ve received on social media since posting some videos about the GRA. Suffice to say the whole consultation is one of the most toxic ‘conversations’ you’ll currently find out there. Anyone who questions whether the GRA is a wholly good idea is likely to be immediately labelled as transphobic or a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist). Anyone who talks about the importance of trans-rights in the sexual violence or domestic abuse sectors is likely to be labelled as a sell-out to the women’s movement, happy to place vulnerable women at increased risk to predatory men.

The conversations have become divisive and binary, as if the consultation is a yes/no vote rather than a space for us to talk about the complexities. There’s a ‘if you’re not with me, you must be against me’ attitude, and when I say ‘me’ I mean ‘us’, because the groups have congregated down either end of the spectrum, displaying a unity that hides the differences of opinion a more open conversation would uncover.

The whole thing is a great example of how this patriarchal society successfully sets disadvantaged groups against each other. We’ve bought into the competitive ‘If you win, I lose’ way of thinking that helps keep the patriarchal show on the road. We’ve demonstrated excellent levels of fear and panic in the face of a perceived loss of control, painfully holding on tighter to the things we feel are rightfully ours instead of considering whether they really belong to anyone. We’ve used the kind of debating tactics that any stuffy private school would be proud of, approaching people with points and counterpoints on twitter, demanding answers to our questions, successfully buying into some of the biggest lies of all – that conversations like this can only be binary, that we should spend our time searching for differences of opinion instead of agreement, that there’s nothing to gain by admitting you’re not sure about something, that the aim of the whole exercise is to persuade other people to agree with you, that we’re not complex enough to hold multiple opinions some of which might contradict each other.

In this closed, binary, toxic space I give myself permission to have multiple views and opinions. I give myself permission to not know it all. I give myself permission to identify the similarities I hold with people who think they disagree with me. I give myself permission to experience how being in this space ‘feels’, as well as what I think about it. This consultation raises a series of unknowns. This isn’t the kind of territory anyone should feel too certain about. Shouting at each other from either side isn’t likely to help any of us move forward with the empowerment that comes from learning, sharing and being sure about the direction we’re heading in.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions on social media. Some of them politely, most of them not. This is my way of answering them.

What is the GRA?
From 2004 the Gender Recognition Act has allowed transgender people (if you’re not sure of the different terms for transgender people read this) full recognition of their acquired sex in law (for more information on the history of the act click here). So the legislation isn’t new. Trans women and trans men have had the ability to navigate our society with new birth certificates and full legal recognition of their acquired sex for 14 years. They’ve been accessing health services, using domestic violence shelters, and getting support for sexual violence. However, the current GRA process is considered to be invasive, expensive, time consuming and it isn’t open to everyone. It also requires a medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ and is ultimately approved by a panel of clinicians – meaning a group of clinicians get to decide your legal sex, not you (find out more here).

What are the proposed changes?
Well, this is why there’s a consultation. If the current process is no longer fit for purpose what would a better process look like? What age should people be able to use it? Should non-binary people be included? How long should it take? What kinds of ‘checks’, if any, should be included?

Would potential changes to the GRA threaten the safety of women-only spaces?
It’s important to remember that the GRA has been in operation for 14 years and that courtesy of the Equality Act most services that work with women mean ‘people who identify as a woman’ (if you’re interested to know about more about the relationship between the GRA and the Equality Act help yourself here).

Scotland recently consulted on their proposed changes to the GRA, this is what Chief Executive of Rape Crisis Scotland Sandy Brindley said: “I think the most important thing to say is that [the proposed legal changes] should make no difference to the provision of women-only services – that’s where some confusion has arisen… There isn’t any Rape Crisis which would ask to see documentation of gender.”

So in many ways not a lot is likely to change.

These services are already working with complexity around gender and risk. You can’t just waltz in to a Rape Crisis or Domestic Violence Shelter brandishing your birth certificate and demanding access to all the other clients. Everyone is risk and needs assessed on a case by case basis. If a service feels they’re unable to support a client with their particular needs they will try to identify alternative provision. The vast majority of services will not work with any client who has a history of perpetrating abuse.

But what about Karen White? Doesn’t this prove that transwomen are a risk?

It proves that some transwomen are a risk but the mistake HM Prison Service made in the case of Karen White wasn’t that they let a transwoman have access to other women prisoners, it’s that they let a prisoner with a history of violence against women have access to other women prisoners. This shouldn’t have happened. Just as it shouldn’t have happened if Karen was a cisgender female prisoner with a history of violence against women. I don’t think the data on the number of trans women who are serving sentences for sexual offences can be taken as evidence that trans women represent an especially high threat. It’s not clear that the data available is accurate, the numbers themselves are low so when you start to talk in percentages you’re more likely to misinterpret any trends, and if trans women do pose a risk to other service users this is a risk that organisations in the women’s sector have been managing for years.

But wouldn’t the GRA mean that a woman fleeing domestic abuse could be at risk of their violent male partner using the legislation to change their legal sex and gain access to domestic violence shelters?

This is possible but very unlikely. As mentioned above, it isn’t the case that anyone is able to walk in and demand access to a space or other clients simply because they have a birth certificate. There is a risk and need assessment that services have been using to help protect clients from same-sex abusers for years. So just as a lesbian fleeing violence from her violent partner has needed to be reassured that her female partner will not be granted access to the space, so can heterosexual women be reassured that their abusers will not automatically be granted access simply because they’ve changed their birth certificate.

This scenario is also very unlikely because there are simply much easier options for the determined abuser. If you know which domestic violence shelter your partner is in simply waiting outside the building until they leave is a much easier option than changing your birth certificate. It’s also really important to understand that no sexual violence or domestic abuse service is able to eliminate risk. None of them. All they can do is identify and mitigate risk where possible. Every system is open to abuse and little can stop a determined offender. I don’t feel that the GRA will tip the scale on this. In my opinion it’s not worth restricting the legal rights of a marginalised group in order to prevent these unlikely scenarios. Especially as the group in question experience so much sexual violence and domestic abuse themselves.

Back to the Scotland GRA consultation again, Linda Rodgers of Edinburgh Women’s Aid said “The reality is that any service has the potential to be abused, and we would deal with that, whatever direction it came from on a case by case basis. I don’t think this should be used as a reason to restrict the rights of a particular group.”

If people are able to change their birth certificates won’t this legislation have an impact on how we do research in this space because we’ll no longer be able to tell who is actually male and who is actually female?

I don’t think this could ever be used as a sufficient reason to deny a marginalised group the extra rights they are asking for. Whenever society chooses to adjust to the needs of a marginalised group issues that were previously invisible to us are brought to our attention and certain elements of our systems will need to adjust. So yes, if it’s been the case that our data collection and processing methods have blindly relied on the fact that all people are born into two biological sex categories and those categories never change over a lifetime then it is probably time to get more complex with our data, just as we have for gender identity. Of course we’re late to the party, the GRA is 14 years old so we have 14 years of people changing their birth certificates to take into account. But given that we’re concerned about the accuracy of our data when it comes to sex maybe it’s time to recognise that intersex people exist. It’s hard to measure how many intersex people there are precisely because we haven’t bothered to question our binary data gathering methods, but it’s estimated that 0.5% to 1.7% of people have intersex traits and don’t tidily fit into our male/female categories. The potential for over a million people in the UK to not tidily fit into our current measurements of biological sex presents a much bigger upset to the way we collect data than the GRA, but even if we decide it’s time to get more accurate about sex in order to ensure our data is accurate, the differences in sexual violence and domestic abuse data that are due sex are so extreme I don’t anticipate that we’ll lose sight of the overall patterns or trends.


And now a question from me…

When you feel that women-only spaces need to be kept ‘safe’ do you mean ‘sacred’?

When people talk about their additional safety concerns because of the GRA I find it difficult to see where they’re coming from. We’re already living with the vast majority of safety concerns most people have raised. People who identify as women, regardless of their biological sex, are already accessing women-only spaces. If a cisgender male wanted to claim he was a trans woman just to access a space for lesbians he can already do so. Generally speaking we don’t check at the door and I don’t want to live in a society where we do.

I think we do a disservice to the good work organisations are already doing around risk assessment when we act as if the whole system might suddenly come tumbling down as a result of the GRA. And we’re peddling a lie if we give the impression that it’s possible to guarantee that any space, service or person is safe. All organisations can do is risk assess the people entering the space as best they can, assume the space isn’t safe and so have good boundaries and a shared understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and have good reporting structures so that when things go wrong we hear about it. That’s about as safe as it gets.

The organisations that provide services to women reflect the society we live in. They’re there for people who identify as women. It’s especially important that sexual violence organisations are open to trans women because they experience higher rates of sexual violence than their cisgender sisters. There’s a reason for that. The bodies of trans women massively violate patriarchal norms and they are duly punished. As far as I’m concerned the epicentre of my work on sexual violence is the people who experience it the most. The people at the margins. That’s why being intersectional in the way we think is essential. That’s why the safety of women of colour, of trans women, of women who are disabled, of every marginalised group out there – is directly related to the safety of all of us. This isn’t a competition. The work isn’t over until we’re all safe.

But if you stop talking about safety and instead want to talk about how sacred women-only spaces feel to you then that makes more sense to me. I need my sacred spaces. I need my people. I need to be amongst people I don’t need to explain myself to. Places where I feel like I belong. I feel emotionally safe in those spaces because I feel understood, or that any misunderstanding could easily be resolved. Maybe for some people the women’s movement has always represented that kind of space. Maybe now those spaces feel less sacred because there’s more difference in the room. Maybe this is what people feel they are trying to defend when they attack the GRA.

Sacred spaces are essential, let’s talk about them. Let’s talk about feeling understood. Being seen. Being heard. Yes the women’s movement may have provided some people with those kinds of experiences, but let’s be careful about what we attribute that sense of connection to. Those same spaces might feel very different to other women. I’ve been in women-only spaces that have felt uncomfortably heteronormative. I didn’t belong. I didn’t feel seen (or worse, I was seen too much). The easy solution isn’t sameness. I’ve been in queer spaces where I’ve felt unseen and unheard. Not queer enough for these folks. And I’ve had experiences of connecting with the most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of places because somewhere in there we managed to find a shared part of ourselves.

The women’s movement is growing and changing. Our intersectional eyes are open and there’s no going back. I see the difference as a good thing. One of the best ways I can try to identify and shed the rich patriarchal inheritance I live with as a white, cisgender, able-bodied western woman is to be put into places where I don’t fit in. To feel the awkwardness of my difference and then learn to navigate my way back to connection because however different we may be we still have much in common. This is our shared work now. We should be welcoming increased diversity of spaces that might historically been places of sameness. The work of the women’s movement can’t be to put the barriers up, it has to be to help people connect across difference. How are we going to create a society that’s safe for all of us without that?

If feel sad that the current GRA consultation hasn’t been used as an opportunity to find connection across the difference. I feel sad that people felt silenced or chose to sit this one out because it’s all too toxic. I feel a sense of loss for the conversations that didn’t happen and angry at those who’ve accused me of letting down the sector I choose to spend my working life in. I hope that the trans community has had a chance to really talk about the issues. I hope that everyone who’s felt betrayed, angry, targeted, attacked, or misunderstood throughout this whole process can find healthy ways to heal. I’m off to find mine. Take care of yourself and each other.

Image by Alexandr Ivanov