Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Equal Marriage Act and transgender rights. The prejudice below.

Angry doesn't do it justice. 

Initially, like many others, I was delighted that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act passed through the House of Lords in its Second Reading. 

I was delighted for gay and lesbian friends who are finally being given the right to celebrate their love on a basis equal to others - despite the poisonous and bigoted attitudes poured out all over them by representatives of Establishment, of Church and by sundry other bigots en route.

In one respect - as a side effect of the bill - there's been a general view that the transgender community (more specifically transsexual people) has benefited in its quest to be treated as equal human beings too. Previously, an individual who needed to transition and who was in a marriage that had - against the odds - held together, would be denied the chance to be legally recognised in his or her new (ie genuine) gender unless he or she got divorced. 

Transition is hard enough already on families, but this requirement (which existed because two people of the same gender could not be married - the outcome if legal transition of one took place) was for some a bitter pill indeed. Couples who could see further than the sterile pink/blue world many inhabit and who married each other for something deeper were being broken apart, with children amongst the innocent victims. And yet without divorce, the transitioning partner would simply have to carry on, unable to get their papers changed, unable to be recognised by the State, for who they really are. 

The Equal Marriage Bill will end that requirement, as couples of the same gender can now be married.

And that's good news.

But it wasn't long before some other provisions of the proposed bill -  now travelling fast towards Royal Assent - began to come to light. Provisions that are built in to ensure that whilst trans people benefit from (essentially) a side effect of the legislation, they should continue to understand that they are not actually equal under British law, and that their basic human right to claim and own their own identity does not take precedence over the 'needs' of the rest of the community to be 'protected' from them. 

Because under the surface of this legislation still lurks the odour of stigma and prejudice. 

This first whiff of this crops up in one particular clause. It indicates that if a married person wishes to legally transition and stay married, then that person needs to get the written permission of their spouse first.

If you are a cisgender reader of this blog, that might, perhaps, seem reasonable? No-one should be 'jumped' into a partner suddenly wanting to do something like this without your consent, of course (though with transsexual people being forced to 'live in role' for two years before even being allowed to 'ask' for surgery - it's not exactly likely). 

But let's take a look more deeply at some of the legal implications - and at the moral foundation below them...

Firstly, of course, the situation is unlikely to arise often - granted. If one partner in a marriage has a major difficulty with the other dealing with their gender needs in this way, it's pretty unlikely that they are going to be keen to stay married anyway. And if they are supportive of their partner's actions, then the 'permission' they are asked to give should be a formality?

Perhaps. But this is not the issue.

The legislation is making a legal point. The needs of one spouse shall - in law - take precedence over those of the other. Irrespective of other considerations. And specifically, the desire of one spouse to preserve the status quo of a marriage is deemed to be more important - in law - than the profound and central human right of the other to be who they are. To claim their own identity and to live it. 

The idea of needing another's 'consent' to be who you are is sickening - and it remains sickening even if cases in which it arises are rare. There are principles in play here - and the Bill's assumptions about whose rights should prevail should the issue ever make an appearance are clear. It's reminiscent of the era in which a woman needed to get the 'permission' of a husband to gain a divorce - whatever the circumstances of the marriage, the 'right' of one partner to remain married took precedence over the right of the other even to not be beaten to a pulp. Sometimes.

But there's worse to come.

It has now come to light that the Act sustains and refreshes a deeply problematic and legally obscure part of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The government, led by Minster Helen Grant, is aware of this. Could have supported a change, easily, in this major review of marital law. Has refused.  

Fresh on the heels of a case in which an individual was found guilty in a British court of 'obtaining sex by deception' because he (a trans man who was still biologically female) did not disclose his past to a partner, the Bill does nothing to change the legal requirement for a person with a transsexual past, who has a Gender Recognition Certificate (and potentially even an amended Birth Certificate - both documents that are supposed to be entirely private and held in very secure settings in civil service files) to disclose their gender history to a potential spouse. 

Failure to do this can constitute grounds for annulment. 

The failure to address this little piece of poison, which made its first appearance in the 2004 Act, reconfirms the law in a way which runs against the entire spirit of the equalities legislation some have been working so hard to bring forward. At the risk of being accused of Godwinism, I can't help thinking of the Nazi's 'Racial Purity' laws - laws by which your family history had to be disclosed before you could marry to ensure that no 'Jewish blood' inconveniently popped up somewhere in your genealogy. It's the last time I can think of in Europe when a law said that who you are, now, is not enough. And that on the basis of something about which you had no control, something profoundly, and morally irrelevant, you could be denied legal rights with no further recourse. 

I am a woman with a transsexual past. I am fairly open about that - to those who are sensitively interested and whom I judge worthy of my hearing the information - in situations in which it is appropriate for me to discuss it. 

It's a choice I make. My choice. Perhaps there are things about your past you choose to share with others, or choose to withhold? 

Often I choose not to talk about my trans past - it is simply irrelevant. At work it plays no role at all. Sometimes I feel that it could stimulate a misunderstanding I do not want, or get in the way by taking the focus off other, more important, things. 

There are times in my life when I just get bored by having to explain it all over again. Sometimes I don't say anything because I don't want to be laughed at, or beaten up. 

Critically these are decisions I take, and the 2004 Act is supposed to protect me in these decisions. Or so most of it said. I am quoting directly from it - it tells me that I am "for all legal purposes" of the gender indicated on the documentation I waited all my life to get.

Frankly, I don't need a piece of paper from Whitehall, or from anyone, to tell me who I am, but my new Birth Certificate and the GRC which allowed me to get it has been an important tool in claiming my right to be treated with respect and dignity 
by British society - by its officialdom and bureaucracy.

But the 2004 Act left one issue ambiguous, and it has sat like an unpaid bill on the statute books for almost a decade. The matter of disclosure around marriage. 

The Equal Marriage Bill restates that I do not actually have the right to be treated in my legal gender under all circumstances.  It is going to say I am not for all legal purposes female, because it confirms another's right to make a judgement for themselves - and for their conclusion to be automatically supported in law if they disagree with mine. 

It is going to confirm that the authenticity of my gender is once again NOT for me to decide, but, in this case, for a prospective spouse to have the final word. 

Once again, let me be completely clear. This is not about how often this might, or might not, happen. Though actually, a person wanting to leave behind decades of prejudice, abuse, or violence and not share hard memories with someone they love is not a situation so difficult to imagine. Especially in the world in which we live. 

Speaking for myself, single, interested in forming a relationship with a man, I think it very likely that I would share my past with a prospective partner - a relationship of trust, for me, needs to be founded on such things.

But I thought that this was something for me to decide. I thought, in a civilised, progressive society, with an Act passed nine years ago which purported to give me legal equality as a human being, that I owned my past. If you are cisgender and are reading this you have this right. 
I was wrong. 

And when that bill passes, it will specifically and directly reinforce an unpleasant irony - uniquely for people like me. Because I actually have a GRC. I have been through the 'system', like the 2004 legislation said I should. Had I not done so, I would not have to share my life story in this way, it seems. 

So much for the Gender Recognition Act.

Thus I am part of an absolutely unique club. A club you cannot join even if you are a convicted paedophile. Or a murderer. Or if you beat up your last partner. The club of those people who are required by law to share something about their previous life to a prospective marriage partner. And I haven't even committed a crime.

Good law has its basis in a good, moral foundation. And it doesn't take long to track the principles which underpin this thinking in the Bill, and in the governments unwillingness to review it, back to a very familiar prejudice - now having light shone on it as the legislation passes though Parliament. 

That prejudice continues to say that we, as transgender people, might just be making all this up. 
That we are not actually who and what we say we are. 

Or at least, that our word is not enough. The final judge must be another person, on whose mercy we must publicly, humiliatingly throw ourselves. The implication is clear. Another must be allowed the chance to say "Ewwww, I don't want to marry you if you're once of those". And protestations that we are simply who we say we are, that we are being honest, are not enough. And nor, it seems, is that new Birth Certificate I have been given, anymore. 

Thus, when I say to the world the simple phrase, "I am a woman", as other women are permitted to, I am reminded now more than ever that there are still relatively few in positions of power in our society who are prepared to accept that, unequivocally, and on the basis simply of my saying it. Society endlessly puts in front of me hurdles to jump, 'proofs' to provide. I thought that the Gender Recognition Act and my completion of all the tasks it set me would be enough. I was wrong, as I now see - again. Women who were born - lucky them - with a physiology which reflected their own internal notion of themselves - do not have this problem. Do not endlessly have the burden of proof of who they are placed on them. Do not have to clear one set of obstacles in front of them only to be given more . Are not called liars.

Beyond all this, the potential marital partner must, it now seems, give formal 'consent' to marriage - having heard this (presumably appalling) 'news'. How this is to be done remains unclear - a Statutory Declaration has been suggested (with visions of Solicitors offices and swearing oaths about 'not having a problem' with (what amounts to) their partner's dirty little secret). Whatever happens, there's much space for further humiliation, further invasion of privacy (something that the 2004 Act was supposed to eliminate), and for legal ambiguity. Look into the future not too far to see the case of an individual who seeks an annulment of a marriage because 'they weren't told'. It becomes a case of one litigant's word against the other, and a great opportunity for someone to get out of a marriage fast even if the real reasons lie elsewhere. It's also a great way of getting a trans person into the papers again, with their past shared everywhere. Or beaten up by angry relatives - and so on.

The Equal Marriage Act - with just a few weeks of lobbying time left - will right a long standing wrong against Lesbian and Gay people. Of course I still support it. But for my gay and lesbian friends now. And for my trans friend who has been caught by the requirement-to-divorce trap, despite, with her wife, keeping her family in one piece for years against the odds.

But I no longer support this bill for me. A few stoic MPs have begun to grasp the implications for transgender people of some of its provisions, and some of its pointed omissions. A few activists have tried to make the politicians hear us. But most MPs have little idea of the issues for us still. Some can barely spell transsexual. A few hate us, with some energy.

Unless something changes, soon - despite the valuable and important side effect of allowing continued marriage for some - it looks to me like the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act could be about to move my personal human rights, and those of many like me, nowhere. 

Worse, it will restate, in deliberate omission and in the unique and new introduction of the legal concept of control of transgender people by consent of another, a fear at the heart of British political classes which over the last nine years we had hoped was on the wane.


Minor edits made June 23 and 24 to reflect accurate situation re legal disclosure around the 2004 Gender Recognition Act

Saturday, June 8, 2013

It's not the size of your schloss that matters. It's what you do with it.

Some might say that it was only a matter of time before the Salzburg Global Seminar embraced its Inner Camp, and held a programme directed at issues facing LGBT people around the world. The Seminar is housed in the eye poppingly beautiful setting where much of 'The Sound of Music' was shot. The mountains, the schloss, the lake that everyone fell in, it's all there - one of those few places around the globe (the citadel of Carcassonne is maybe one, St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow another) about which one might paraphrase Voltaire and say that had it not existed Disney would have had to invent it. Or Rodgers and Hammerstein in this case.

Strolling about amongst the priceless art, suits of armour and fireplaces the size of my back bedroom, I was struck by another parallel. 'That movie' - the one about which everyone talks when there (inevitably reenacting cheesy musical numbers with the assistance of agreeable wine late at night) - covered themes like triumph over preconception plus the elevating power and resilience of the human spirit. It was about the unexpected blossoming of love, the right to it, and the escape from prejudice. With some running about on mountains of course. And dirndls. 

I don't know whether this connection played a role in the mind of the Chief Program Officer, appointed in 2012, when she developed the idea for a week of exploring the global human rights agenda for LGBT people. Perhaps knowing me, and my story, played a bit of a role - we have been friends for 25 years. Or maybe an overarching sense of the need to bring the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world into a setting like this - more familiar to UN diplomats or World Bank officials perhaps - recognising their critical importance on the front line of international debate and thus an issue with which Salzburg should grapple. Whatever blend of motivations, it was a big departure for the seminar, a decision taken with some courage, and she and her superbly professional team made it happen. Well done to her.

We didn't do a whole lot of running about on mountains (partly because the rain at the start of our week was on a Biblical scale - though one of the seminar team did rock up in local costume for our farewell dinner), but we did spend quite a lot of time exploring and unpacking some of the issues that we, as LGBT people from 33 nations have to face in our daily lives.

We talked about a world pulling in different directions - of notable success in some African nations in some areas, but also of the appalling state sponsored hate being imported into nations like Nigeria and Uganda and into their judicial systems. Of the forced sterilisation of trans people in Europe and elsewhere - the number of countries where you have to have your reproductive organs removed before you can even apply to have your authentic gender recognised in law remains sickeningly high. Of the relationship between religion and nationalism and sexual and gender identity rights, hearing of hard right or religiously sponsored sadism and abuse of an intensity that left the audience wanting to take the speakers, hold them, protect them. But also of - and from - thoughtful religious figures who were as appalled as we at this corruption of their faith - including a widely respected, female Islamic cleric from Indonesia who spoke with an open mindedness and sensitivity some in my country - the UK - would do well to acknowledge.

We heard of success with the funding of projects, shared ideas about how to get funded, though more often of the increasing difficulty of finding money to save lives - and not just (as one might assume) from those in the 'Global South' (as I, Conference Virgin, have now learned it's called).

We heard from someone who had seen a friend beaten to death in front of them, others who had been thrown out of families and communities, made unemployable, been nearly killed by the police, forced into exile, raped. Of legislative bigotry, but also of subtler, cultural prejudice - of countries where the judicial code suggests a level of equality but the reality on the ground is very different.

And we were there when the House of Lords in the UK approved the second reading of the Equal Marriage Bill, to applause. I shared in the moment, delighted too - though also explained that trans people still have to get 'written permission' from their partner if they both seek legal recognition of their gender and wish to stay married. Not something that will affect many, one hopes, but the legal supremacy and 'protection' of the cisgender remains deeply embedded - trans people's basic rights tend to appear only and when they are seen not to threaten that privilege. Even if they are couched in the most primal of human rights terms.

I also told my own story. It came early in the week, and we were yet to hear from many others. I was already humbled, knowing that despite the difficulties I had faced there were many in the room who had undergone things of which I could barely conceive. The group was kind to me, genuinely touched I think by what I had to say as I shared my experiences and how I came to be sitting in front of them, with the von Trapp's mountains looking on.

Later - this time at the very end of the week - I had the chance to expose some of the behaviour of the British media towards trans people - playing delegates a few minutes of deeply transphobic 'comedy' drawn from a range of UK panel, chat and stand up shows on tv, going on to discuss just a little of what the tabloids have been up to via a look at some typical newspaper headlines. I have always felt that accurate, respectful and dignified portrayal of minority groups - trans people are 'mine' - is ultimately about saving lives too. About helping innocent people not get beaten up, murdered or driven to suicide - as the media in any country has a profound role in shaping attitude. It can drive acceptance and understanding or fuel hate, as every government since Caxton has known (and the church even before). But I did wonder - after all we'd discussed, if this group - of all groups - might look at this theme with a little more distance. When you've almost been killed, or you have seen your friends killed, you might perhaps imagine matters media to be a little less pressing than some of the stuff on your personal plate. But the audience was shocked and angry I felt. As we sat there living through a few minutes of average Friday night British tv, I could feel the outrage in the room.

Film set ambience or not, it was a tough week. The powerfully personal was everywhere. So were some agendas that crept into the room from elsewhere. Some geopolitical, a few moments of identity politics. At times I saw pain erupting around assumptions - assumptions made about individuals because of their nationality, regionality, or perhaps because of what some of their fellow nationals were doing in the world. 

Luckily the reaching out to find the common spaces was the loudest theme. 60 people from 5 continents sat and worked together. Found our shared ambitions, found our shared goals. Amongst us were novices, like me, alongside politically connected and diplomatic figures who cared. One afternoon, I shared an observation with one delegate about a UN campaign soon to be launched. She took my point. Sent an email to someone in New York. The next morning the reply arrived - the UN team had agreed to the suggestion. You had the sense that it was That Kind of Week.

Of course whether it really was That Kind of Week principally depends on what happens next. The Salzburg Global Seminar was created after the Second World War to rebuild the intellectual bridges, shared purpose and common humanity of a world shattered by the ideology from which the von Trapp family were running in the famous movie. At the end of the week we hammered out a closing statement, framing our objectives and our basic rights, which we hope will hit important desks around the world and create a tangible response. This issue is now on the worldwide human rights agenda we were told, and having Salzburg's voice behind this community can add much - if the Seminar and those who hold it in high regard now maximise the exposure of our work. And if those of us who were there remain true to the aspirations we identified at the end of our week together, and act on those too.

The production of a nicely crafted policy statement to gather dust on a diplomat's desk was not the purpose of our week away. Our efforts need to make an actual difference to policy makers and governments. And we seek action from them, not mere gestures of support or sympathy. Actions which stop people being attacked, killed, sexually assaulted. Which help them get and keep a job, have a home, retain their right to a family (and the reproductive organs to do so). To love and to be loved.

As Julie Andrews might have said - surrounded by the immense baroque splendour and the snow capped mountains, perhaps in a scene which lies forgotten in the cupboard of an edit suite somewhere - it's not the size of your schloss that matters. It's what you do with it.