Write Up: Will gender self-declaration undermine women’s rights and lead to an increase in harm?

This blog post was written by Aimee Merrydew.

Aimee is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English Literature at Keele University. Her work focuses on re-presentations of gender and sexualities in contemporary experimental poetry and the US more broadly.

Her biography, research interests, social justice projects, and publications can be found here.

Twitter: @a_merrydew

On the 23rd October 2019, Professor Alex Sharpe gave a talk on gender self-declaration in order to challenge the notions that reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) will undermine cisgender women’s rights and lead to an increase in harm.

Alex is a Professor of Law at Keele University. Her biography, research interests, and publications can be found here.

Gender norms affect everyone

Alex opened her talk by emphasizing the fact that women-only spaces (e.g. binary gendered bathrooms) can cause issues for trans and cis women based on the policing of normative gender markers.

Before continuing further, it’s important to note that Alex was not suggesting that women-only spaces should be abolished.

Rather, she sought to point out that women-only spaces can be used to hold people to narrow standards based on whether they perform gender in a normative manner and whether their morphology meets social expectations.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010

Alex gave an overview of the GRA and the Equality Act 2010 (EqA) in order to challenge the view that amendments to the GRA will harm cisgender women and girls.

The GRA enables trans people to change their legal gender to reflect their gender identity. In 2018, the UK government held a consultation to reform the GRA.

Alex argued that reforms to the GRA would not only make gender recognition more accessible and cheaper, but would also destigmatise the process.

You can find out more about the GRA here.

The EqA is a UK discrimination law which protects individuals with protected characteristics from unfair treatment in the workplace and in society more generally.

Alex explained that the EqA protects trans people from gender discrimination by private and public organisations.

Exceptions to this rule apply in a small number of cases, including women-only services, parentage, and competitive sports.

That is to say, sex-based exceptions (e.g. women-only services) will remain in place and won’t be undermined by changes to the GRA.

Gender self-declaration will not lead to an increase in harm

Alex argued that the claim that trans women pose special risk to cis women is both ‘offensive and without empirical merit’.

While there may be cases of trans women causing harm in women-only spaces, this is very rare and should not be used to justify the exclusion of an entire group of people.

Wholescale exclusions are unethical and discriminatory.

Furthermore, Alex addressed the gender-critical feminist argument that cis men will exploit the GRA to gain access to cis women and girls.

She argued that there’s little evidence to suggest that cis men ‘pretend’ to be trans women to gain access to women-only spaces in order to harm cis women and girls.

This view that cis men will exploit gender self-declaration overlooks several factors.

This view that cis men will exploit gender self-declaration overlooks the fact that this narrative of harm ignores the reality that there’s very little privilege in being trans and brushes aside the discrimination that trans individuals face everyday.

We must remember the vulnerability of trans women to cis male violence, which is to say that scapegoating trans women by excluding them from women-only spaces on the basis of ‘harm’ means they are at risk of becoming doubly victimised.

Alex concluded by arguing that debates about ‘harm’ are not really about risk, but rather about discomfort with people who do not conform to misogynistic and cisnormative standards.

She reiterated her opening point by maintaining that discomfort with gender presentation means that both trans and cis women who do not present in gender normative ways experience discrimination and hassle in women-only spaces.