Gender: we need more than self-identification

Issue section: 

Sally Campbell’s article on the Gender Recognition Act (September SR) raised important issues, but I don’t think accepting self-identification is the answer. Gender reform must seek women’s consent, not their deference.

It can take up to five years to go through the process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate. This is monstrously long for people wishing to transition and leaves them abandoned in a legal limbo and more vulnerable to misogynist violence.

The current system is deeply flawed in other ways. It is overly medicalised and reinforces gender role stereotypes. People who do not conform to rigid notions of masculinity and femininity can be taken less seriously, demeaned and risk being refused the recognition and treatment they could benefit from.

On the positive side the system has enjoyed relatively widespread public credibility including among women. That is crucial to our situation as a small and vulnerable minority.

It has also been able to protect some people for whom gender reassignment could easily have caused further problems and been a source of misery and regret — people who have certainly been gender-conflicted but also confused, perhaps with primary presentations of schizophrenia or primarily fetishistic feelings. Gender is complicated and confusing even for people with severe gender-conflicted emotions.

The system needs reform and it needs resources but we do still need a system which both protects confused or mentally unwell individuals and maintains widespread support, particularly among women, where hard-won spaces may be impacted by reforms — and when even the right of women to have a central role in the language and definitions of their own biological reality is under challenge.

It is not in the interests of transgendered people to have a system which gives right wing tabloids ammunition to bring our rights into disrepute, at the same time as marginalising women. We need a process which recognises that gender is an oppressive social construct.

In a misogynistic society with a deeply entrenched gender binary enforced by discrimination and violence, many people who find their given gender straitjacket too tortuous to live in will inevitably identify with the only other “legitimate choice”, especially when it looks like a kind of liberation.

As socialists, we must go beyond gender roles. The genuine liberation we seek involves the free expression of all, regardless of gender. We need legal changes to reinforce the right to free expression of gender, for instance to protect men who want to wear skirts at work.

We need a permanent, serious campaign involving feminists, LGBTQ and progressive straight men specifically opposing gender-role ideology and the systemic forces that underpin it. With substantial trade union backing this could build events and action, systematically intervene in this ideological battleground and develop solidarity and ideas.

The Tories’ cheap and easy option is “self-identification”. We need so much more.

Kristina Harrison