There has been a great deal of debate within the left over the proposed consultation on, and potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act. This was sparked by an article by National Union of Teachers (NUT) Vice President Kiri Tunks in the Morning Star, claiming the changes will undermine the rights of cisgender women. She argues this against her union’s supportive position, which has been reinforced by a statement coordinated by the NUT LGBT group.
The changes aim to remove the dehumanising quasi-medical gender recognition process currently in place and replace it with a self-identity process such as that in place in Ireland. In two years, the new system in Ireland has issued 240 certificates and there have been no reported abuses. The trans community overwhelmingly welcomes the UK proposals as a step towards autonomy. The opposition to the proposals is mainly based in radical feminism, and the narrow view that women’s oppression is entirely caused by biological differences.
Radical Feminists argue that the result of self-identity gender recognition process will be the nullification of the legal protections women have fought for, the end of women-only spaces and the removal of specialist services. I have seen it argued that the “trans agenda” is a movement backed by the establishment to take effective tools and language from feminists. It is notable here that the Irish law has not diminished the Abortion Rights Campaign.
Biological essentialism assumes that “males” as a sex category/class are inherently more violent, and that trans women are male. Trans men are often excluded from this analysis, or used solely as proof that women are so oppressed that they would change gender to escape.
Workers' Liberty understands that women’s oppression is more complex than biology, and we have historically argued for trans women to be included in women’s self-organisation, for example in NUS. We also understand the limited nature of the changes being discussed. Many women’s-only services or spaces do not demand birth certificates before access and therefore can already be accessed by trans women. In those places where gendered birth certificates matter – prisons, shelters, interactions with employers or the state — trans women are at a disproportionate risk of violence and discrimination so also need access to safe spaces. Cisgender women will experience no change.
Increasingly, we also see a “materialist”, “dialectical materialist” or “marxist” objection, which borrows heavily from radical feminist discourse. This is promoted by the Morning Star. Here, it is argued that biological sex is the basis for women’s oppression, that gender is a value system designed to maintain the sexual hierarchy, and that trans people, in their rejection of their gendered socialisation, have deluded themselves into thinking they are a sex they are not, despite material reality. This view denies the autonomy of trans people to decide what they want for their own bodies, on the grounds that this is re-inscribing the perpetuation of gender. I believe that this is cruelty. Let us “state what is”.
There are people in our society whose sexed characteristics or culturally-influenced gender identification and social setting causes them a great deal of distress. For some, these feelings start at a very early age. This body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria, alongside the discrimination they face, results in phenomenally high self-harm and suicide rates. International research suggests that between 77-83% of trans people have considered taking their own lives, and between 32-54% have attempted suicide. American research has shown that trans and non-binary people who experience rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimisation or violence had even higher prevalence of suicide attempts.
Whilst working for the abolition of gender and women’s oppression, why must we increase the number of trans peoples' deaths? As socialist feminists, we aim for a society in which no person is restricted by gender roles. We support the bodily autonomy of all people. We want a world of human fulfilment. In a situation where minimal legal change can dramatically reduce the suffering of a section of people at no cost to others, we should support it. Women’s rights and trans rights are not in conflict with each other.
This discussion has been used to raise many broader questions about feminism, LGBTQ struggles, women’s organising and trans rights. We welcome letters about this.