Self-identification & the struggle for equal rights

The left should take care before assuming proposed legal changes will advance the equality agenda

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Trans rights were thrust back into mainstream politics this week when Jeremy Corbyn offered Labour Party support to government plans to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.

The law is in desperate need of reform, but introducing gender identity as a protected characteristic and allowing people total freedom to self-identify their gender may not be the best way forward.

While we should all applaud measures to combat discrimination, the law needs to be robust and enforceable. The current law protects actions — the right for someone to change their social gender role. The proposed shift to gender identity is problematic because our feelings about ourselves are impossible to verify externally. How do we protect thoughts and feelings?

The law also needs to be future-proofed. Since the House of Commons women and equalities committee consulted in 2015, non-binary identities have risen to prominence and our understanding of gender identity has moved with it.

A law written only two years ago might already be out of date in 2017; where we will be in another two years is a matter of speculation.

Moreover, by creating a class of people with a gender identity that needs protecting, the law plays into the hands of those who seek to discriminate against those people. It would be far better to protect everybody’s rights.

For example, rather than direct employers to make specific provision for trans and non-binary people, why not extend freedom of gender expression to everyone? If a man wishes to wear a skirt, or a woman wishes to wear a suit and tie then let them.

While trans and non-binary people would be the primary beneficiaries of inclusive policies like these, it is better to be able to claim those rights because we are human beings not because we identify with a specific minority group.

As a trans person, I am aware of the impact of gender on all our lives. I am grateful to earlier campaigners who made it possible for me to change an M to an F in a multitude of databases.

However, it does beg the question why those gender markers are needed in the first place. Why does a bank, for example, need to label me as M, F or something else?

All I noticed were changes in directed marketing, which perpetuated the unhelpful gender stereotypes that we are trying to overcome.

Gender, and gender discrimination, will not be abolished overnight so we need to monitor gender along with other characteristics such as race and disability.

But let’s move forwards and not backwards by creating new gender identities that will inevitably provide fresh grounds for discrimination.

In the rush to permit freedom to self-identify, we must not forget the rights of women.

The perennial toilet debate is largely a red herring but it would be very foolish to ignore genuine concerns about communal changing facilities, rape crisis centres, dormitory accommodation and the like. Should female facilities be open to anyone who declares themselves to be a woman, or should limits be set?

The debate over female sport has been rumbling since Renee Richards transitioned in the 1970s. Gatekeeping by governing bodies has maintained public credibility, but would this be allowed to continue?

While gender stereotypes prevail, girls and boys will be socialised differently and their opportunities in life will not be the same.

Female-only short lists and other protected places in society have been necessary to ensure that women are not overlooked. Should those positions be open to anyone who identifies as a woman irrespective of their socialisation and how they present in society?

There are lots of questions and they need answers. We can shut down debate but we do not shut down people’s thoughts, and any law offers limited protection if it lacks credibility.

A progressive government in waiting needs to take a look at the entire equalities agenda to develop workable, robust and credible legislation that defends all our rights because we are all human beings.


* This article was first published by The Morning Star on 22 July 2017: Self-identification & the struggle for equal rights.

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Author: Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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