I’ve tried to write this post dozens of times. Trying to explain why I, as someone who is broadly opposed to the entire concept of “legal gender”, spend so much time and effort trying to get the UK to recognise the genders of myself and my friends without first subjecting us to invasive and institutionally transphobic questioning. Why is this even important?
If no one were given a “legal gender” in the first place, I’d not want anyone to be given one. Since people are given gender assignments at birth and those are recorded and have legal consequences, I want them to be as easy to change or update as any other piece of information attached to an unwitting infant at birth is. It’s *assumed* that the name, race, ethnicity, religion, and, yes, gender ascribed to a newborn child will remain the same for most or all of that child’s life – yet these can and do change or are updated based on new information. All of these have important legal consequences (as do other ascribed “facts” such as the disability status and sexual orientation of a person) but updating your name, race, ethnicity or religion in government and non-government records is just as easy as updating your address – you don’t have to “prove” the accuracy of your new information to anyone, just tick a different box or write a new answer on a form and it’s done. You can update these things as frequently as you need to and you’re the sole arbiter of their accuracy. If you say you’re White British, Christian and called Jonte Abellard then you are. Yet if Jonte Abellard is trans, it doesn’t matter what gender he says he is – the government want to insist he’s whatever gender he was assigned as a baby unless he convinces a panel of government appointed strangers that he’s done enough to earn his gender.
And that’s the crux of the matter for me. Any system of gender recognition that automatically accepts genders handed to newborns as accurate until rigorously proven otherwise makes gender into something that people can’t be trusted to figure out for themselves. It takes autonomy away from people and gives this part of their identity away to others to determine for them. It takes the genders of cis people as well as trans people and makes them into something requiring an external opinion – your gender isn’t yours to determine in any place that treats gender as something that needs medical “proof” of any kind.
Your gender is yours. Mine is mine. Nobody else should get to decide it for us. Almost everywhere in the world, including the UK, you don’t have the final say on what your gender is – some combination of doctors and bureaucrats do. And that’s not okay and shouldn’t be acceptable, never mind normal.
There have been times and places where doctors and bureaucrats have been allowed to decide what race people were – with legal consequences such as who they can marry. There still are places where bureaucrats get to decide what religion people are – with legal consequences such as who they can marry. Here in the UK, I can’t marry *anyone* unless I either call myself a woman (which I’m not) or I get the UK government to agree that I am a man first (by subjecting myself to medical and bureaucratic scrutiny and consenting to be listed in a government list of the current and former identities of transgender people). By not only recording but also deciding these parts of people’s identities, states more or less assert ownership and control of people’s identities – controlling who you are allowed to be and who you are allowed to become.
The more difficult it is to change the identities we are handed as children, the more fixed and “natural” they appear. Making it difficult to assert an identity that we have claimed for ourselves while simultaneously making it easy to keep the identities ascribed to us by needless bureaucracy gives the bureaucratic identity a sheen of permanence that it has never earned. Even while I live 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year as a man, with “he” pronouns, socially accepted by my peers as a man, my gender listed as Male on the census, my NHS records, my academic records, my benefits records… the government of the UK doesn’t see that as a reason to think I’m a man. I don’t get to be a man in their eyes until and unless I apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate and my application is successful. This effectively means that there is nothing I can do myself to change the “Female” gender assigned to me – even being a man doesn’t disqualify me in any way. Yet if I apply for a GRC, use of names or pronouns deemed not sufficiently masculine could prevent my male gender from being recognised. So could things like being pregnant or breastfeeding, not wanting surgeries, having a “feminine” job… any little thing that suggests that I might not aspire to cis male masculinity. Being a man apparently isn’t reason enough to alter the records to show I’m not a cis woman but any sign of woman-ish qualities could prevent me being recognised as a man. This is a hugely unjust double standard.
I write about gender recognition a lot and I don’t doubt that I’ll continue to do so. Until gender is recognised by self-definition alone, allowing everyone free and equal access to a simple process to change or update their gender information as often as they need to (whether that’s “never” or “a hundred times”) I’m going to keep insisting that we deserve better. Because we do.