Will gender self-declaration undermine women's rights and lead to an increase in harm?

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

This blog post was originally published on the Women of Keele Educate's (W.O.K.E.) website and can be accessed here. W.O.K.E. is an intersectional feminist activist group at Keele University. They do amazing work to empower cis and trans women and non-binary people at and beyond Keele. Check out their website and Twitter page for info on upcoming events.

Image of Professor Alex Sharpe's PowerPoint Slide

Photograph: Women of Keele Educate

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

Alex has since published an open access article on this topic, which you can read here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1468-2230.12507

Gender norms affect everyone

Alex opened her talk by emphasising 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 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

Gender-critical feminists claim that trans women pose special risk to cis women; yet, as Alex reminded us in her talk, this claim 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. Such wholescale exclusions are unethical and discriminatory.

Alex also 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 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.

First, it’s illegal to misuse the GRA in this way, meaning that anyone who exploits the GRA will be committing a criminal offence. Second, this narrative of harm ignores the reality that there’s very little privilege in being trans and brushes aside the discrimination that some trans individuals face on a routine basis. Third, 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.

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

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© 2023 by Aimee Merrydew