The UK is marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Yet, transgender people are still fighting for legal rights. Is there hope for the queer community that was left behind?
In Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn caught even queer activists by surprise by demanding that the Gender Recognition Act is updated so that trans people can self-define. Both May and Corbyn have signalled their commitment to queer rights. The fight is not over for equality. Trans people are still bogged down in a legal quagmire unable to navigate through an overly complex system to have their gender recognised, but perhaps change is drawing closer.
“It’s interesting to see May’s and Corbyn’s comments come through while Brexit is going on,” says Tara Accalia Stone, managing director of Be: Trans & NB North. “I didn’t expect that. I expected that as an issue it would be buried probably for the next year to two years and then get picked up again.”
Be is an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of trans people throughout the North of England. Such voluntary organisations are vital when funding for trans services is rare. There are only a handful of trans specific support services in the UK, despite the numerous hurdles trans people face.
Writing for Pink News, Michelle O’Tool described trying to gain legal recognition of gender as harder than doing taxes and humiliating for those having to ask for basic rights. Yet, the law has not been updated. Trans people have been left in a holding pattern while society decides what human rights to grant.
Tara’s praise for the renewed focus from politicians is mixed with concern. Currently, trans people can only be recognised as either a man or a woman. There’s no recognition at all for genderfluid, agender and non-binary people. Even our ‘equal marriage’ laws are not so equal. Genders beyond men and women are not included. There’s no in between, and such binary thinking raises concerns about what laws might be on the horizon, and whether they will make the system even more complicated. Binary trans people can also find their relationships erased by partners as a result of the ‘trans spousal veto’ amendment which states when a married trans person seeks gender recognition, their partner must give permission. The marriage laws passed autonomy over trans lives to cisgender people.
“The devil is in the detail,” says Tara, “and if they’re going to alter the Gender Recognition Act and they alter it, for example, to get a Gender Recognition Certificate but they don’t make it so it’s for any gender then that is just not good enough. We want an Act like the recent acts that have come through in Malta and Argentina which basically allow trans people to self-define. I’m not certain whether the government has got the taste for that.”
‘We want an Act like the recent acts that have come through in Malta and Argentina which basically allow trans people to self-define”
In 2015, the Ministry of Justice claimed that there was no “specific detriment” to non-binary people for not being legally recognised. This is a long running issue that trans people have had to battle against. Young trans activists though have helped draw attention to non-binary identities, even at the expense of being forced to share a studio with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain and to be subjected to his ignorance on the matter.
“It’s easy to think we’ll see changes come quickly but that’s possibly because we have some very loud young activists who are very good at their activism, but they’re still very much a small minority,” acknowledges Tara.
“Anyone involved in rights movements, if they’re in it for the short term win, [then] they’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s a long haul process.”
Ashleigh Talbot is spokesperson for Action for Trans Health, an organisation committed to improving access to healthcare for all trans people .
“One area of concern is that any changes may or may not include non-binary, agender and genderfluid people,” says Ashleigh. “I think this is something we need to pay close attention to because currently there’s just no recognition at all. I wouldn’t say I’m totally confident that this would be included without some watering-down or level of resistance in public discourse, but maybe I’m just a cynic. But again the community has provided a lot of evidence to the government about lived experience by this point already and to make sure that non-binary people are included in whatever changes may be in the offing, we have to keep talking about it and putting that pressure on the government to listen to the trans and non-binary community.”
Society’s sluggish effort in accepting trans people was highlighted with Stonewall reporting this year that eight out of ten trans young people had self-harmed. When cultural and legal changes are slow it is marginalised people who pay the price.
Trans and human rights activist Anna Michaels praised Corbyn’s actions but agreed that there were reasons for concern.
“I’ve been around on trans issues for so many decades, but it was breath-taking that Corbyn, who so gathered the hope of generations at the recent election, laid down such a forthright challenge to the Tory government to move swiftly on reform of Gender Recognition,” says Anna.
“Quite how well Corbyn’s Labour will press for a really well tuned new law remains to be seen. Labour has an active LGBT Labour section, that did a lot of work on a trans manifesto three years ago. It is unclear if the current Labour front bench have read that.”
“Quite how well Corbyn’s Labour will press for a really well tuned new law remains to be seen”
Labour has come under scrutiny around its dedication to queer rights. Caroline Flint has publicly opposed gender neutral toilets. Access to toilets is a fundamental human right. Corbyn himself committed a gaffe even worse than when May announced she was going to preventing tourism. At the start of LGBT History Month, Corbyn expressed support for those who choose to be gay, framing queer identities as a lifestyle choice. It was a mistake that not one of the Labour team had spotted in the speech.
“It was devastating that the only event the leader’s office has organised on LGBT issues, last year, only invited Lib Dem trans activists to speak, and didn’t even invite their only lesbian MP, who is beyond the pale for having challenged Corbyn for the leadership.”
Corbyn’s focus on equality has been primarily on class but his words on trans rights offer reluctant hope to activists. However, the legal situation is so complex for trans people that there has to be an understanding of the legislation that exists for it to be properly challenged.
“It isn’t at all apparent whether Corbyn – or the government understand, or intend to deliver all that is needed. Recognising the gender of non-binary, genderqueer, agender, or any but “man”, “boy”, “girl”, woman” would create people unable to marry by the strictly gendered England and Wales marriage laws, which are separate for same-sex and opposite-sex couples – the UK in its arrogance decided it couldn’t not follow the example of most other countries in simply removing “man and woman” from its marriage law and letting any consenting adult marry any other.
“It would be a devastating shame if yet another unsatisfactory law were to result.”
Corbyn may be trying to push for positive change, but if it isn’t handled in the right may then trans people may end up facing an even more complications on the path to recognition.
This article featured in issue 2 of Stand Up magazine, which you can download here.