Why Trans People Need The Right To Self-Identify

Photo: Stephanie Gonot
Later this year the government is set to review the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The review will look at, among other issues, the legal concept of 'transgender self-identification', more simply known as 'trusting trans people to know their own minds rather than thinking that they are lying, manipulating, dangerous pranksters who love to dress up as cowboys and cowgirls and who are seeking to destroy and create havoc in gendered spaces' – toilets, women-only spaces, the school curriculum, for example.
Currently, trans people have to make an application to the Gender Recognition Panel, a judicial body which sits and makes judgements on individual cases based on evidence gathered which proves that the applicant:
– has or has had gender dysphoria;
– has lived in the acquired gender throughout the two years immediately preceding the date on which the application is made;
– intends to continue to live in the acquired gender until death.
The evidence has to prove the above and must include medical reports. The process currently costs £140, although there are some exemptions. The applicants never meet the panel, therefore it is an exclusively paper exercise. It is humiliating, outdated and unnecessary.
Some sections of society find the whole idea of us speaking our truth, of our truth being heard and respected, terrifying because apparently it has the capacity to undermine womanhood, female safety and perhaps even masculinity. We have been pitted spitefully against feminist history and feminist potential without doing a thing. Meanwhile we are still being consistently harmed.
Worldwide statistics for trans murders, HIV infection rates, and trans healthcare are all deplorably high and depressingly low in quality, yet somehow, as a group without much structural power, we are apparently rolling up our sleeves to damage others. One of my work roles is as a trustee for the Sophia Forum; our work is entirely centred around women living with HIV, women who are at risk from gender-based violence, intimate partner violence and women who are victims of trafficking. I know all too well the impact of misogynistic violence on women, yet in all that work I have never come across a single trans perpetrator. I've seen the global data and I have never seen a growing or existing trend of trans women harming cis women.
Never. Not in countries with self-identification and not in countries without. It is a myth conceived by people caught up in conceptual pondering about different structures of feminism – Marxist, essentialist, or just plain hate-filled.
When I was 8 years old, the boys at school called me a pansy. I loved the name. I identified with it and from that day on at school I asked everybody, friend and foe, to call me Pansy. I identified with my friends, who were mainly (but not exclusively) girls and at breaktime we looked after the hamsters, pretending they were babies. I dreamt of having babies.
That summer – we'll call it the 'Summer of Pansy' – was simple, straightforward and nourishing. Even my teacher agreed to call me Pansy during carpet story time, and my love of books and words was born. I identified naturally with so many aspects of my life: words, people, books, ideas and dreams. When my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied without hesitation: a mother, like my mother. I wanted to grow up to have a belly full of babies.
I self-identified with the support of those around me. Somehow that very simple act, which could now be translated into a kind, inclusive law, is seen rather as an act of aggression and potential danger. The ease with which I became Pansy was lost when I approached my father and asked him to call me by the name, telling him it felt right.
From that slap onwards I was taught, conditioned and bullied into being unnaturally male. I learnt how to walk, talk and act to try to avoid harm, my life going from natural bliss to conditioned harm-reduction. I've met many young trans kids who have self-defined and self-identified naturally and quite brilliantly until the systems tell them they should feel shame at doing so, and that they should learn to live a life based around pleasing others.
When that section of feminism – the section we sometimes see referred to as 'radical' (nothing radical about peddling hatred) – presents the notion of self-identification as an act of war against biologically essentialist-identified womanhood, they are attacking the basic human right to self-define and to self-identify. It's something that every living, breathing human does. Every cis person declares their identity by setting out on life with a natural ease; only the trans person has had to jump through hoops and hoops and hoops again, then walk through rings of fire to prove their capacity to self-define.
The GRA review, which comes as a response to the Women and Equalities Committee's transgender equality inquiry, is seeking to reform the Act in order to remove the demeaning process to which we are still subjected.
This cannot be a philosophical or academic debate. This shit really matters. It's life and death for some, and a delaying of life for many others. Turning this basic human right into a conceptual panel debate is an act of aggression and a movement away from decency. If you do this, you are on the wrong side of all that we as people should aspire to: kindness, inclusivity, support for others and love.
We teach young people to be authentic, to be themselves, to not be fake, yet some people are seemingly happy to deny this right to trans people. They say we should be tested, be examined and when this insidiousness ripples down to young trans kids in schools, they must look to their futures and despair; we are denying them their dreams, we say we will not believe them.
The Stonewall School Report (2017) found that 64% of trans pupils are bullied in school, more than four in five young trans people have self-harmed and more than two in five have attempted to take their own life. To them we owe a kinder, safer world; one in which the act of saying who you are should be heard, received as truth and supported.
When I think back to young Pansy, I see her sat on the carpet listening to stories and dreaming about what her life may be, her adventures and the stories she would write. It saddens me to be here now, over 40 years later, still witnessing some adults debate whether someone like Pansy, someone like me, ever knew her own mind.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series