In 2014, the United Kingdom topped the Rainbow Index, an annual ranking of LGBT equality published by a European human rights group.
As of May, the UK has fallen to fourth place.
To understand why, one need only consult the many broadsides being issued against transgender people in the British press, as the government weighs reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, a piece of legislation that allowed those who transitioned from one gender to another to apply for a certificate that formally certifies the change.
The months-long backlash to the idea of reforming the GRA was one of the only negative factors that the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association cited in their evaluation of the UK for the Rainbow Index this May.
The Index notes that, after the UK government announced last July that it would seek public input on modernizing the GRA, there was “a rise in transphobic commentary across traditional media platforms and online.” That transphobic discourse got so bad that, as ILGA-Europe noted, one British transgender woman successfully sought residency in New Zealand “after facing years of discrimination” at home.
The transphobic commentary finally reached fever pitch this month, as the public consultation process nears its Oct. 19 end date. To give one of many recent examples, the UK newspaper Metro, as Pink News reported, published a full-page advertisement that raised the specter of “fully intact male-bodied prisoners” being allowed to “live with women in prison” if the GRA were reformed.
That’s not to mention the several opinion pieces and newspaper columns that position GRA reform as a threat to women’s rights—a common anti-transgender talking point that has been leveraged successfully in the United States to swat down LGBT-inclusive legislation in Houston and pass a “bathroom bill” in North Carolina, among other things.
But fears about GRA reform aren’t confined to the press, either: As The Sunday Times reported this past weekend, Conservative MPs in Parliament would be overwhelmingly opposed to making changes to the GRA that would bring the UK’s policy in line with countries like Norway and Ireland, which both allow citizens to declare their gender with minimal gatekeeping.
The outcry has gotten so severe that the UK government itself published what was effectively a fact-check this past weekend, saying that there had been “inaccurate speculation in the media” over what the consultation was meant to accomplish.
“The Government Equalities Office wants to ensure that the legal gender recognition process works well for the people who use it which is why a consultation is currently underway,” the announcement read. In other words: the point of the consultation is to figure out how to make it easier for transgender people to legally change genders because, as the government noted, “many [of them] find the current requirements overly intrusive and bureaucratic.”
The point is not to entertain a broader debate over the humanity of transgender people. But that’s precisely how it’s being presented: as a “both sides” issue, with LGBT rights groups on one side and anti-transgender groups on the other.
The Sunday Times, for example, in a recent summary of the issue for its readers, said that “some transgender groups say the process is bureaucratic and intrusive” but “a number of women’s rights groups” posit that “the change would give men access to female-only spaces such as lavatories and changing rooms, putting women in danger,” with no attempt to assess the truth value of either claim.
This is misleading: There is no evidence that transgender-inclusive reforms endanger women’s safety. And transgender women, under existing UK legislation, can already use women’s restrooms legally.
The specificity of the GRA consultation should have been clear from the outset: In the original announcement of the consultation, the UK government noted that “only 4,910 [transgender] people” had taken advantage of the GRA’s provisions, even though there were more transgender people than that in the country. Respondents to an LGBT survey said that the process was “too bureaucratic, expensive, and intrusive,” the announcement noted, and the government “therefore seeks your views on how to reform the legal recognition process.”
The announcement of the consultation even seemed to anticipate the deluge of misinformation that followed, specifying exactly what the consultation would not be about. The consultation, the government said, would not be about “whether trans people exist,” whether they should be allowed to “change their gender” or whether “a person of any age” can identify as any gender, including “no gender.”
“Trans and non-binary people are members of our society and should be treated with respect,” the announcement said. “Trans people already have the right to legally change their gender, and there is no suggestion of this right being removed.”
LGBT rights groups in the UK have been wearied by the incessant attacks in the press since the consultation was announced. With headlines like "Children Sacrificed to Appease Trans Lobby" and "This Transgender Madness Is Now A Danger To Women," columnists have been laying into the transgender community as the GRA brings the topic into public view.
Laura Russell, Head of Policy for the organization Stonewall, told The Daily Beast: “There have been daily articles and social media threads that question trans people’s right to exist,” citing the recent slip in the UK’s ranking on Rainbow Index.
“At the moment, discussions about trans people are being driven by misinformation and hate pushed out by a few loud voices to make it feel ‘controversial,’” she added. “Which is why the law needs to change.”
Russell says that reforming the GRA would alleviate what has been a “humiliating” and “dehumanizing process” for transgender people to date. As the BBC reported last July when the public consultation was announced, legally changing gender under the current GRA “can take more than five years,” with many transgender people facing delays because of how long it can take to get an appointment at one of the few gender identity clinics in the UK.
Furthermore, a “gender recognition tribunal” has to approve each transgender person’s bid for a legal certificate; by comparison, in the U.S., a transgender person need only submit a letter from a licensed physician to change gender with the Social Security Administration and on passports. (Neither country requires sex reassignment surgery for these processes, but a letter takes less time than a tribunal.)
But the prospect of removing those obstacles has brought out all of the usual anti-transgender rhetoric about men invading women’s spaces—as evidenced by the full-page Metro ad.
The UK government was forced in its fact-checking post to make it clear that the GRA consultation process does not impact the Equality Act 2010, a piece of non-discrimination legislation which already allows transgender people to use facilities that align with their gender, with limited exceptions.
Major players in the British press have fed into the idea that the GRA reform will somehow impact the Equality Act 2010. This June, The Times reported as if it were new information that the Act, which protects transgender people from discrimination, has some exceptions in place for single-sex spaces.
In an early paragraph, the piece says that there “have been difficulties” since the GRA reform was announced, with “men identifying as women” being “allowed to swim in [a] ladies’ pool”—as if the two events were directly correlated when, in fact, the Equality Act 2010 remains in place with no revisions planned.
Mermaids, a UK charity that supports transgender children and their families, told The Daily Beast in a statement that the uproar about transgender women in changing rooms and other women-only spaces is “in effect, a shadow debate” given that there will be “no changes” to the Equality Act 2010.
Mermaids is especially concerned that transgender children have been roped into the GRA uproar, with critics questioning the impact of allowing transgender people under 16 to attain legal recognition.
“Calling a transgender child a risk on the basis of them being transgender is prejudicial,” the group said, “And treating them less favorably because of this (unfounded) risk is discriminative.”
In the midst of the controversy, Mermaids advised on a new TV drama, Butterfly, about a transgender child, airing on the terrestrial commercial network ITV.
The generally well-reviewed show, which premiered this past weekend, was labeled “a game-changer” by British transgender advocate Paris Lees—but it also, as the Manchester Evening News noted, sparked intense social media outrage from those who don’t believe—in spite of what major medical associations attest—that children can be transgender.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates the state of transgender equality in the UK better than that: A groundbreaking step forward followed by backlash. Whether the UK will be able to keep pace with other countries on LGBT equality, it seems, will depend in large part on whether it is able to move more steadily toward transgender acceptance.