09 Nov 2018

UK gender reform debate -- transgender rights are not a threat to women

The UK government proposes reforming the Gender Recognition Act (2004) to simplify gender changes for trans people. But allowing transgender women in single-sex services is being presented as a risk for domestic and sexual violence support services.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
UK gender reform debate -- transgender rights are not a threat to women - NewsMavens
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In a climate that has repeatedly been called toxic, the proposed self-identification of trans people came under scrutiny of groups who claim to protect women’s rights by being “gender critical”. The most prominent has been “Fair Play For Women” a women’s group which campaigns against the proposed changes under the slogan “Hands off my rights”. The arguments against self-identification have been made by others, such as tabloid journalists and conservative columnists.


The center claim of the campaign is that reforms will put cisgendered women at risk (“cis” is a term for a person whose gender identification matches his/her biological sex) by allowing predatory men to access women-only spaces if they change sex on their birth certificate. This post by Fair Play For Women is an illustrative example of how the conversation has been shaped by the campaign, moving from transgender rights to the supposed dangers of “adult males in female spaces”:

“Do you think adult males should be able to enter female-only sleeping and changing areas or domestic violence refuges?”

The question was posed in a tweet alongside a campaign leaflet encouraging people to oppose self-identification. In an audio posted on Twitter, Fair Play For Women goes further, saying refuge staff will be:

“...forced to admit male-bodied people into shelters for women who have been traumatized by males”.

The campaign conflates similar claims (“men will pose as women”) with statistics of violence against women, to drive home the point that self-identification will endanger women.

Women in domestic violence refuges do need safety. But are these concerns based on evidence?


First, let’s look at what self-identification means in this context.

The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) legislates that transgender people in Britain have to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) if they want to change the sex on their birth certificate. To do so, they don’t have to undergo either gender reassignment surgery or other medical treatment. They do have to prove they have been living as their preferred gender for at least two years, and have this recognized by two medical professionals.

The problem is that the current system doesn’t fit the real needs of trans people and is therefore not used to a significant extent. While the number of trans people in the UK is estimated at 200,000 to 500,000, only 4,910 GRCs have been issued so far. And it’s not because people don’t want it -- they’re either not familiar with it, or face too many obstacles in the process. In a National LGBT Survey, only 7% of trans respondents who don’t have a GRC said they would not be interested in getting one. The survey found 38% of trans people who want a GRC said it was too bureaucratic; 34% said it was too expensive. Some describe it as “intrusive, humiliating and administratively burdensome”.

“Whilst many trans people want legal recognition, too few are able to get it,” reads the government consultation document.

This is why the current process is being reviewed as part of the British government’s plans to advance equality for trans people. Allowing them to self-identify their gender on their birth certificate would mean lifting the burden of complicated, costly, lengthy and, for many, humiliating medical scrutiny currently required to obtain GRC. The British government closed the consultations on October 22 and a conclusion is to be made in Spring 2019. So the debate is still ongoing.

Let us now go back to the original claim, which shifts the conversation from advancing the legal status of trans people, to alleged danger for women. NewsMavens asked Fair Play For Women to confirm on what basis they make the claim that abusive men will be able to access refuges. They responded by sending two documents: a report on the reforms, which outlines how the reforms could make women less safe; and a campaign guide on how to respond to the consultations.

We also reached out to several representatives of service providers who agree that the presumed threat is not nearly as concerning as this campaign presents it. Moreover, they don’t think that GRA reform will bring any significant change to the way they operate, for several reasons.

Access to domestic violence refuges already does not depend on someone being able to show a birth certificate. Sisters Uncut, an activist group of domestic/sexual violence survivors and people who have worked in domestic violence services, confirmed to NewsMavens that shelters don’t usually request to see the birth certificates of those seeking shelter. Regular ID checks are performed -- but trans people can already change their gender on their ID documentation, such as passports and driving licences, whether or not they underwent reassignment surgery. The reform will have no effect on the existing conditions in this respect.

Another fact is that some refuges are already “allowing self-identification”, treating trans women with gender recognition certificates the same as other women accessing single-sex support services. Others, like RISE in East Sussex, offer specialist LGBT+ refuge and support services.

“Some of our member organizations have already made specific changes to their service in order to be as trans inclusive as possible, including in some instances offering services to women on the basis of self-identification,” said a representative of Women’s Aid, a federation of 180 domestic abuse organizations and refuges in England.

Research by LGBT charity Stonewall has also found that most services believe that GRA reform would have no impact on how they deliver their services:

“While respondents were aware of a view that gender recognition reform could allow violent men to pose as women to access their services, with one participant expressing a concern about this, there was otherwise a clear consensus that services’ thorough risk assessment procedures would safeguard against this.”

On the other hand, it is not fundamentally true that proposed changes will automatically bind refuges to accept anybody who has “female” on their birth certificate. They have -- and will continue to have -- the right to exclude trans women and men from women-only spaces if they pose a risk to other women. The Equality Act (2010) enshrines in law the ability to turn anyone away from a single-sex space such as a refuge “where the action taken is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. A representative of Women’s Aid told us that the refuges know that they can use these exemptions where necessary, on a case by case basis. Additionally, service providers can turn away anyone they think could cause harm to others in the refuge, regardless of their sex/gender.

Refuges have risk assessments in place to prevent dangerous people from gaining access to vulnerable residents.

Still, the law is complicated. The Equality Act also prohibits discrimination based on somebody’s gender identity. Therefore, a transgender person may have a case for discrimination if they are turned away from a refuge. It is unclear what the result would be, as this issue has never been taken to court, said Julian Norman, a UK-based barrister specialising in human rights. She has been vocal about the legal complexities of reforming the GRA:

“I don’t think [predators abusing self-identification] is likely to become commonplace, in the same way any assault is not commonplace. But I think the psychological effect of women who have sought a place of safety from male violence being placed in what is essentially mixed-sex accommodation is too often ignored or underestimated,” Norman told NewsMavens.

Service providers are not ignoring these concerns. “We’re satisfied that we’ve come to a place that is trying not to discriminate, to accept trans women but also to say that we have to be clear that this is single-sex space and we have to be careful about who we bring in… We don’t just open the door,” said Mary Mason, CEO of Solace Women’s Aid, a London-based organisation that runs 21 domestic violence refuges for 130 women and 300 families. Her organization  tightened up its risk assessment procedures in light of the proposed reforms.

Groups like Fair Play for Women, however, claim that refuges are under capacitated to properly assess risk and that it is “impossible to tell someone’s real intentions”. But in reality, this is not an everyday task which drains their resources. Risk assessments are only performed when a bed becomes vacant --– about one per month, Mason said. The hour-long process includes checking identification, asking for detailed accounts of their experience of domestic violence and performing background checks.

Also, some domestic violence refuges have called for more information on how to interpret the law. “We know that member services would like clearer guidance around the interpretation of the Equality Act and its intersections with the Gender Recognition Act, which we hope the government’s Gender Recognition Act consultation and proposed reform will provide,” said Women’s Aid.

It is not yet known what precise law will be introduced if self-identification is brought in, as the government has not stipulated this. But the Government Equalities Office, the department leading the consultation, reiterated in a statement on October 14 the fact that GRA reform would not alter existing protections in the Equality Act. “We have always made clear that any reform of the Gender Recognition Act will not change the exceptions under the Equality Act that allow provision for single and separate sex spaces,” it said.


The overt focus on predatory men accessing female-only spaces has falsely become a center of the conversation, ignoring the facts of GRA and GRCs implementation in practice. Additionally, as some of our sources told us, it overlooks the fact that trans women can need safe spaces too.

Emily Fields (Sisters Uncut) says that self-ID could in fact increase vulnerable survivors' access to support. “Increasingly, domestic violence services recognize that the priority is to support vulnerable women, whether they are trans, intersex or cis. There is no evidence that trans women as a group pose a risk to other women, and if individuals do -- for reasons other than being trans in itself -- risk assessments will take this into account.” She also points out that the alleged concern for women’s safety might not be genuine: “Whilst historically some UK refuges have denied access to trans women, and the radical feminists who may run those refuges are speaking very loudly in this debate, theirs is not an evidence based on a genuinely feminist position,” she said.

Finally, current practice in countries where self-identification has already been introduced does not support claims of supposed danger. Ireland introduced it in 2015 and hasn’t had cases of sexually-predatory men gaining access to female-only services, as journalist Una Mullally noted on BBC Woman’s Hour on October 16. However, an isolate case has been recorded in UK, but not in a women’s shelter. The case of Karen White, a transgender woman placed in a women’s prison who abused two inmates, is widely cited as a reason not to allow self-identification. There is no disagreement that White shouldn’t have been allowed there in the first place, as the decision-making board failed to take into account White’s history of sexual assault. But, unlike prisons which accept inmates based on legal sex, domestic violence refuges accept people dependant on their level of need for safety and wouldn’t have allowed a person convicted of repeated violent assault any access to its services.

Overall, the overblown argument that self-identification will lead to violent men accessing domestic violence refuges is not supported by evidence. The proposed reforms will not allow abusive men to access women-only safe spaces by default, even in the unlikely case they change the sex on their birth certificate. There’s also no evidence that the reforms will require shelters to accept anyone they assess to be a risk to others. Finally, multiple refuges already allow for self-identification and don’t see it as problematic, but rather as a way to provide service to more users in need.


For skewing the ongoing debate and falsely presenting advancement of LGBT rights as risk to women, we rate this claim as spin and a display of intersectional discrimination.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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