When I transitioned in 2004, and before that while I was working out whether transition would be right for me, use of women’s loos and women’s changing rooms was essential.
Access to public toilets is vital for basic everyday tasks like shopping or meeting friends.
Access to changing rooms is vital when you’re fitting yourself out with a new wardrobe. And changing gender usually requires a whole new wardrobe.
Going to the gents wearing a dress or a skirt – well, I won’t even go there, because I didn’t.
The whole idea, when you’re feeling fragile and vulnerable, of knowingly walking into a place where you are, at best, going to “get looks”, is just so outlandish that it doesn’t bear consideration.
For me, in the early days when I was considering transition, clothes shopping was always with a female friend. They provided good company as well as essential style advice.
Stepping beyond the ‘specialist shops’ and experiencing the whole variety of clothing choice out there was liberating beyond belief. I felt I could, at last, fit in rather than stand out.
The impact will remove trans women from public life
But last week the UK parliamentary equalities committee interviewed the government’s senior minister for equalities, Liz Truss. The select committee’s job is which is to hold her and her team to account.
Truss started with a preamble, during which she made the following dog-whistle:
“… and make sure that wherever people live, wherever LGBT people live, they’re safe to go about their daily business without fear of crime and harassment.
‘There are three very important principles that I will be putting [in] place [when responding to the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act]. First of all, the protection of single sex spaces, which is extremely important.’
It was the first warning trans people may not enjoy access to single sex spaces in future.
The UK media has been awash with a toxic debate over trans rights and their supposed conflict with women’s rights.
Extremists want to exclude trans women from women’s single sex spaces (ie toilets and changing rooms). And those calls have grown louder and louder for the last three years.
Truss raised it under the pretext of reforming the Gender Recognition Act.
But the reality is that Truss is looking to strike out the existing protections of trans women within women’s spaces, the impact of which would be to remove trans women from public life.
If you can’t use public loos, you can’t travel or go shopping anywhere. It drives trans people underground.
No case for change but it could still become law
Some are assuming there is no way the law Truss is proposing could actually get through Parliament.
She would have to make a strong case for reforming the Equality Act in this way.
That would be difficult for her to do. There is a lack of evidence that trans people are abusing the existing law in a sustained way. However, there is strong evidence of the mental and physical health benefits to allowing trans people access to single sex spaces.
Moreover, policing any reforms effectively would present very real difficulties. So making a strong case for change is very unlikely. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t become law.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is removing trans people’s existing rights to gender recognition at a stroke. He’s doing it under dictat using his emergency coronavirus pandemic powers, despite public outrage.
How discriminatory do you have to be before you’re called out?
For some time trans people have understood the current media debate in the UK isn’t actually about the Gender Recognition Act. Instead, it is about our basic rights to live and move as full members of our society.
It’s only natural for people when defending their existing basic rights to become angry and heated. It’s not a level playing field when only one side has skin in the game.
Moreover, Truss also announced another threat. She wants to remove medical treatment from trans people who are under 18.
Currently the UK looks at ‘Gillick competence’ for adolescents. This is an assessment of how able they are able to to consent to their own medical treatment.
If Truss goes ahead, that competence will apply to all teens as long as they’re not transgender. How discriminatory do you have to be before you’re called out on it?
Most trans people are now absolutely terrified
The lack of nuance in Truss’s statement did make me wonder how much consultation she has undertaken with the LGBT+ community. After all, she has a whole LGBT Advisory Panel to call on.
If she’s relied solely on media coverage, which would be a dangerous thing to base any policy decisions on, she needs to understand the mainstream British media has generally removed trans people from being able to have any voice on things that directly affect us.
While she’s made a statement of intent, to become clear government policy Truss would need to spell out a whole bundle of things.
For example, she’ll have to explain how the removal of trans people from single sex spaces would be policed.
She will also have to outline how removal of appropriate medical care from trans children would not adversely impact on other areas of medicine.
And doing this during the most severe medical crisis in a century must raise questions about her judgement on priorities.
Most trans people I know in the UK are now absolutely terrified.
They understand an arcane procedure for changing legal gender is probably going to be maintained in some form.
But they realize their ability to function in any meaningful way as members of our society is about to be removed, despite the lack of evidence of any real problem.
Helen Belcher is a British Liberal Democrat politician and LGBT+ campaigner. She co-founded leading UK trans organization Trans Media Watch in 2010.
Read GSN’s report on Truss’ statement and the list of questions the government must now answer here.
Photo by Mitchell Orr, posed by model.