Friday 20 July 2018

All in a name: The Gender Recognition Certificate and what it really does

As I read articles (usually wildly extrapolated) and social media messaging (hateful and determined to be more right than you) surrounding the current England and Wales Consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, one thing strikes me:  Very, very, few people have experience of what this act really achieves; with less than 5000 Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs) having been issued since they became available in 2004 (I know this, because my number is in the high 4000's).  While that sounds a lot, it's tiny compared with the current estimations for the numbers of trans people in the country (estimated anywhere from 65'000 to 300'000 people, depending on how you measure it).  Many simply don't feel the need to apply for one given how degrading and intrusive the current process is - for almost no practical return.  Every single article I read though, would have you believe it was a passport to all sorts of magical places and that if handed out willy-nilly could be dangerously wielded by any old troublemaker.  (Spoiler: it isn't a magical passport.)

I am, as it happens, one of those 5000.  Ooh, get me!  So I thought it might be useful to look, in really practical terms at what this trouble-making little document actually does.

I received mine in 2015, some 5 years after I first came out as trans and began finally living happily and fully as the only honest version of me that I know.  This is the first time in 3 years that I've had to dig it out of the filing cabinet where it has lived since I received it, along with so many similar documents that 'may be useful one day'.

Here it is, the mystical GRC:

Gender Recognition Certificate - (from the existing 2004 Act)

Exciting right!?

I rebel against bureaucracy and unnecessary admin, which is why when some is looming I try to get it done and out of the way as soon as I can.  That way, I get to feel all smug that the 't's are crossed and the 'i's dotted and I don't need to worry over it anymore.  To get this particular bit of paper, I needed to send off some evidence that I was me and not, you know, some impostor.  That sounds sensible, doesn't it?  Checks and balances and such.  Here are the key elements of what checks and balances amount to under the current system:
  • Pay £140
  • Letter from two doctors confirming a diagnosis of gender dysphoria (modern term: gender incongruence).
  • Proof that I've 'lived in my acquired gender' for at least two years.

What this amounts to, is having to prove and justify that I'm me to an unknown panel of people I'll never meet, seeking their validation against an unknowable standard.  I submitted all they asked for, only to be called back a few weeks later to suggest the proof I'd sent might not be sufficient for the panel.  So I ended up sending a pack of evidence two inches thick. It came back after a couple of months proclaiming that I'd succeeded.  It didn't feel like a success.  I felt dirty.

Don't get me wrong; having the state recognise me and correcting the name and gender on my birth and marriage certificates, meant an awful lot.  The GRC itself though - that document represented prostrating myself for approval and validation.  An anonymous group of people (I don't know their qualifications, nor am I able to find out) reviewed my supplied evidence and kindly agreed with me that I was valid.  I sure as hell didn't need their validation - I was valid long before they gave me permission to be.  That process, and the form proclaiming I'd 'passed' their tests is what left me feeling cold.

So after receiving the GRC, I could rectify my birth and marriage certificates* and finally inform HMRC to do the same, as they are the only government department that requires a GRC to alter the gender marker on their system (this is primarily for the purpose of pensionable age, which is itself proven legally unnecessary).  That's it.  All said documents were sent into a filing cabinet where they, presumably, still are.  When was the last time you needed a birth certificate?  Do you even know where your birth certificate is?  Or the last time you needed it?  It actually says on the bottom, "Warning: A certificate is not evidence of identity".  In fact, the GRC says the same thing.  If it's not a form of ID (unlike a passport which is ID and is pleasantly easy to change your gender marker on long before you consider a GRC), then what nefarious use can it be put to and what special locations does it grant access to?

Actually, now I think of it, the last time I needed to present my birth certificate was for a DBS check when I began work for the police and I think I may have needed to send it off to my solicitor for purchasing a house.  A DBS check is in-depth and can be dealt with by a sensitive applications team to preserve privacy.  However, for the house purchase or similar, if my birth certificate didn't match my passport - well, I don't feel I should have to randomly disclose that I'm trans, but without a corrected birth certificate matching my easily-corrected passport, I'd have to.  That's deeply personal stuff and bears no relevance to my eligibility for buying a house.  For someone else, perhaps someone much younger than myself, having lived their entire young lives in their affirmed gender and not public about being trans, this tiny lack of state recognition holds serious potential for infringement of privacy and personal safety.  And for what purpose?

This is all a GRC does.  This is the cause of all the spin-off and over-hyped concern about invasion of gender-segregated spaces and services.  Incidentally, the thing that does enable someone to be protected in a single-gender space is the Equality Act 2010 and that, the government says, is very much not up for amendment.  The protection of gender identity under this existing law comes not from a panel or a diagnosis, but entirely from the individual.  We've had effective self-determination for 8 years already and most people have barely noticed.  Yet to the trans people it affects, it means safety and dignity.

This text, lifted straight from the government's consultation page, is seemingly overlooked by most reporting on it, but is absolutely excellent in describing the limits of this consultation:

"This consultation seeks your views on how best to reform the process of changing one’s legal gender. The consultation focuses on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. We are not proposing any amendments to the Equality Act 2010.
 "This consultation does not consider the question of whether trans people exist, whether they have the right to legally change their gender, or whether it is right for a person of any age to identify with another gender, or with no gender. Trans and non-binary people are members of our society and should be treated with respect. Trans people already have the right to legally change their gender, and there is no suggestion of this right being removed. This consultation simply asks how best Government might make the existing process under the Gender Recognition Act a better service for those trans and non-binary people who wish to use it."

Changing birth and marriage certificates isn't changing much for trans people on a practical level day-to-day - it certainly didn't for me.  It just feels right that my country is able to acknowledge who I am and to know that there's less chance of conflicts in documentation or public record into the future.  Could I perhaps have got that tiny but personally important bit of admin sorted through some form of legally-accountable declaration, perhaps through a local solicitor?  Something like that is a key improvement that GRA reform is proposing.

So what of the existing outdated and presumed-important checks and balances anyway? What controls me being able to get that bit of paper that is ultimately cast to the 'that's probably important' drawer at home, never again to see daylight?

The diagnosis of gender dysphoria is itself a bit of a misnomer - in every practical sense we generally diagnose ourselves.  I didn't catch it; I just am.  The few doctors I spoke with (and they were few) took just a few minutes to say, "Nothing wrong with you is there?" before writing a letter that ruled out confounding issues to support my being gender dysphoric.  In one of my referral letters, the psychiatrist actually states, "I do not believe that I can be considered a specialist in gender identity."  That's the thing we rarely say about gender incongruence - no one else has spent time in my head, so I effectively diagnosed myself.  The doctor's assessment was based on what I told them over a 30-minute consultation and how they perceived me in that short time.  Because assessment is in no small part subject to social stereotyping by the individual doctor, it's hardly by itself a watertight element of a legal application.  We've not even mentioned that not every trans person feels they suffer from a form of gender dysphoria.  

One of the documents I submitted was a letter from the surgeon who performed my 'lower surgery'.  A really lovely and very experienced Thai doctor.  I included this in my evidence because, while not an official prerequisite for a GRC application, it is presumed that THE SURGERY (TM) provides some sort of final approval to be you (both reductionist and untrue).  Either way, this lovely chap included the line at the end of his discharge letter, "She may now assume female gender."  Thanks love, that's extremely sweet of you to say... but I already was and would have continued to be even if I'd decided I didn't need this particular medical intervention.  I included this letter because I presumed that it would help convince strangers that I was valid enough.  I can't begin to explain how degrading and belittling it is to feel you must do that.

The two years living in your affirmed gender is a better check, surely?  No cheating that.  In fact, that can work against someone like me and the system itself, primarily because we do not know what qualifies as 'woman enough' or 'man enough' to the GRC panel.  I had heard from friends who'd been turned down for a GRC because, despite living honestly as themselves for many years, they had put gametes into storage (something I have also done).  The reasoning was given, that wanting to preserve your ability to parent (in this case, father) your own children displays a lack of 'commitment'.  What about my love of engineering and tech, or my wearing jeans and no makeup most days - am I 'committed enough'?  I hid these details, including my planned hope of being a parent someday, just in case it harmed my case.  I just provided them the stereotype I thought they wanted.  I provided only the evidence they wanted - without even a face-to-face meeting.  Not the surest defense against ne'er-do-wells.  A demeaning hurdle for the likes of me.

And the cash; well that's a lot for a replacement document.  Even a marriage certificate or replacement birth certificate cost far less.

In the end, I felt no great joy from receiving my GRC beyond the relief that any administrative loose ends had been sorted out.  It was a means to an end and had almost no impact on my day-to-day life before or since.  It certainly didn't grant me sudden access to places I'd found myself barred from before.  I continued to use the ladies loos, as appropriate.  I would find myself placed in the women's ward in hospital, as appropriate, all without having to present a document to prove I'm woman enough.  If heaven forbid, I found myself in need of a refuge from domestic violence or sexual assault, I would find help with any number of women's shelters that have been caring for all women, including trans women, for years.

Enough of the nonsense proclaiming the GRC does something special - because it barely does anything at all.  But the little bit that it does, might mean the world to someone like me.  We can afford to make that process a little dignified.

* I actually waited a couple of years to submit my application for a GRC, while the UK's same-sex marriage act came into effect.  Nothing changed in practical terms throughout the equal marriage debate and establishment of law.  I lived with my wife the entire time, we stayed married and we loved one another throughout. All that changed were the words on one bit of paper to enable a change to another bit of paper.  The whole thing wasn't about lived reality of who we love and who we are, simply the nomenclature we give it all!

Sunday 5 March 2017

Are you real? No, really?

Another weekend, another debate about the validity or 'realness' of trans people across the mainstream press (led by the Sunday Times rather than the Mail this time, but even the BBC get in on the act with alarming regularity - it matters not).

My trans friends will get it, as they too are taking another blow to their self-worth, but I wonder if my non-trans friends really understand the impact seemingly innocuous debates like this have?  To use myself as an example; I'm doing okay in life now I think, with a wonderful loving family (on both sides), a wife I love with all my heart and a great and exciting life we continue to build together. I have a stable job that I love plus I get to fly helicopters (which is cool!) while helping protect our communities alongside the Police Forces I work for.  I'm proud of all I am and think myself resilient to nonsense and very public debates such as, "Am I a real woman?"

But it's like Chinese water-torture as it feels like every week we're subject to it.  Are trans kids real, or all made up?  Are trans women real, or just made up? The arguments can be torn apart in moments, but crop up again all the same. Always with the angle... are trans people real? Naturally I, like all trans people, translate this personally - am I real?  Don't forget, we've often spent a lifetime battling that very question before having the courage to come out in a society that is going to question us. Constantly.

I feel real. The things I do, how I think, how I live, how I love... all feels real.  I don't spend my time wondering how I'm going to fool the world into believing my little act, I just am.  For the first time in fact.  Prior to coming out as trans, every day really did feel like an act, but now, not at all.  I feel honest and real for the first time.  I have freed up all that angst and conflict and am able to put it to far better use. To living.

Yet, I've spent this afternoon in tears.  My sense of self-worth torn apart again by a nonsense and dehumanising 'debate' around whether I am real or not.  The natural extension of which is that I don't deserve to feel right about myself.

Think about that. I don't deserve to feel right about myself.

This is not an innocuous debate.  All trans people and those in their lives are deeply affected by these debates. And for what purpose?

My main concern, is if I feel like this (as I know all trans people and their loved ones do in these moments), with all the resilience and foundation I feel I have, what the hell chance does someone already finding life harder than I do have?

Please, if you are a friend of mine or of any trans person, or friends with anyone with a trans family member, or if you simply want to care, take a moment to consider the effect of these debates and these public conversations. Just consider it. Then consider how you'll react the next time a casual debate like this happens in front of you.

I'm just me. And I'm trying my best.

Sunday 12 February 2017

Vision for Change - why I'm #ByTheirSide

In summer 2016, Stonewall launched their #ByYourSide campaign, encouraging consideration of solidarity and support, particularly within LGBT networks.  That year I experienced the meaning of that simple phrase and how it works both ways.  Not only are Stonewall by my side, but I am also by theirs.

Six months earlier, Stonewall recruited for their Trans Advisory Group – a group of 18 individuals, each identifying as transgender in their own way.  I was delighted to be one of those individuals.  Quite an unlikely bunch, as many teams are, we came from very different backgrounds and experiences, all shapes and sizes.  That I now feel incredibly close to each of them (as they, I hope, also do!) is testament to the amount of work we’ve done together in the past year.

We have produced a vision, but we are just 18 individuals.  This is a starting point, and we now need your input and your critical analysis to make sure this is also your vision.

We need you to be critical if you can.  It's worth stating that it feels unnatural to me being in the position of 'accepting' feedback from people who are far more knowledgeable than I am in many subjects. The point of the Stonewall Trans Advisory Group though, is to listen to and interpret an extremely diverse community, not to pretend to have all the answers already.

Getting to this stage, from a blank sheet of paper, has been as challenging as it has been rewarding for all of us.  But this was just a warm-up.  Its value will come from this most critical phase of consultation.  To capture and get right as much as we can, directly from the trans community and formulate that into something coherent we can use.  If just 18 people had got this right first time around, with no gaps or need for amendment, would be near-impossible.  What have we missed?  What should we change?  How can this help Stonewall help you better?  That's precisely why we need this phase.

Stonewall have been of huge assistance with facilitating, but they were adamant that they wouldn't just do it for us (at times, when it felt like wading through treacle, I think all of us had moments of wishing they would!).  In that, Stonewall have kept their word.  What's in this document, including any errors and gaps, are ours to take ownership of and to remedy.

At this stage, for this vision, we need to have the right balance of addressing pertinent issues, while being both accessible and meaningful to a wide range of people.  With so much content, we have felt it is important to retain a level of brevity for the sake of clarity.  By nature therefore, this may feel like a 'shallow dive' into these subjects - the detail coming in the form of focused projects, engagements and collaborations in the months and years to come.

I can’t lie, I like Stonewall.  A lot.  Their no-nonsense style, their reach, and from what I have consistently witnessed, their honesty in their mission – Acceptance without exception.  That Stonewall were late – in relative terms – to the trans-party was telling of their history on the subject, but also signaled to me that there was a conscious choice to not simply wade in and appropriate an entire community’s struggles.  Stonewall and Ruth Hunt in particular, have written extensively on this and I do thank them for the process they took to begin trans-related work.  I’m young (don’t laugh) and na├»ve perhaps and so wasn’t alert personally to the Stonewall-related issues of the past, but I am acutely aware of them and the echoes of this still heard and felt today.  Out of respect for history and those affected in this time, I retain a level of caution over Stonewall making even subconscious errors of judgement; though they have consistently proven to me that I (and we) can trust their judgement.  This process could have been easy for them, but was deliberately not so.  That would have been wrong, and destined to fail.  Given their commitment to the process, I’m committed to helping them.

I was asked in an interview recently what I loved most in life and the first thing that jumped to mind was a love of seeing complex systems truly working, to beautiful effect.  Whether that is the complexity of physics and engineering which allows my helicopter to fly as it does, or Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket to land vertically on a boat.  Or trying to understand how many tiny and seemingly chance interactions and events lead to the evolution of a species or the functioning of an entire ecosystem.  Tiny discrete inputs can create wondrous things.

People though, and politics are something I struggle with.  An effect of growing up on a farm with goats and Harris’ Hawks as my most immediate friends, perhaps?  I recognise this limit, so ask for help where I can.

Combining these things together, in a tenuous way, I find myself where I am.  Proudly stood with a group of 18 others, trying to empower many inputs from an amazing and complex community.  All with the goal of forming lasting foundations together for our future generations.

Individual inputs can lead to wondrous things...

Sunday 20 November 2016

A short note of solidarity - Transgender Day of Remembrance 2016

Transgender Day of Remembrance has, and always should have, a rightful place in the calendar of trans people and their allies, as a marker of respect and solidarity with those paying the ultimate price for simply being themselves.  The names on this list, those murdered around the world for being trans number nearly 300 this year and is a known underestimate.

These names do not feel foreign or distant, despite my absolute luck to be living in a country like the UK.  They feel like friends, or even family that I never knew and their loss felt as keenly.  Because we shared a deep kinship.  Despite the distances between our many cultures, a familiarity within the wide variety of transgender experiences permeates – simply seeking a place in the world where we can be ourselves, without apology; to live and love and succeed in life.  Simple, human, needs.

TDoR reminds me, and us all, of the great disparity around the world for trans people.  It leaves raw my own extreme privilege at being able to life my life, as fully as I do; while others in the world don’t just struggle for their basic human rights, but against violence and for their very lives.  If it weren’t for the sheer luck of the country and family I was born into, that would just as easily have been me, or any of us.

The silver lining, is the solidarity felt at this time of year.  The luck and privilege surrounding my trans experience, must be the default.  As an instinct, survival is a powerful one to draw us together and continue to make sure no one, in any country or culture, is left behind.

Mourn, remember and respect those kin on Sunday.  On Monday, we have work to do.

Much love at this time of year,

Ayla x

Thursday 31 March 2016

Pride and Visibility

- (originally posted on the Stonewall UK Blog - -

Last year I wrote a quick article about Transgender Day of Visibility.  I was sat in a bar in a hotel in Chicago at the time, visiting for a few days while doing a bit of engagement work for the trans movement.  I love traveling and exploring in general, so spent a day before and after the meetings seeing a bit of the city, feeling incredibly lucky to be there at all.  Actually, I’m often amazed just where the work I do with the trans community takes me, the places I never thought I’d end up and the variety of amazing people I never expected to meet or call friends.  I was also relishing the fact of simply living in the world at all and enjoying the beautiful details around me (large and small - the sunlight reflecting from a skyscraper, or the melting snow on the shoreline of Lake Michigan) which I often missed in the darkest times of my own gender dysphoria before I finally came out.

Hooking up with trans advocates in the US and hearing first hand about the battles they have fought, the incredible steps toward success they have had and witnessing the momentum that has built up in the fight for trans visibility, inclusion and respect, echoed the successes made in the UK and other parts of Europe by so many true trailblazers in the past 10-15 years.  Both there and here, I am always impressed by the talent and passion of those I meet and even those I haven’t and the work they do.  Great articles.  Great speeches.  Leaders, teachers, vloggers, writers, media celebs, artists, soldiers, firefighters, doctors… No one, surely, can argue that these people are in any way a drain on society.  It would take a work of defiant and determined ignorance to avoid seeing such glaring and wonderful humanity.  Or to believe that they made some sort of social choice to be trans, given the all too common backstory of pain and anguish so many experienced to finally be who they’ve always known themselves to be.  After all that, you’d expect the world to say, “Bloody well done,” and have utmost respect for their integrity, honesty, resilience and commitment.

I’ve agonised for days over what to write for TDoV.  I feel there’s so much to say, but that it’s all been said, somewhere, by someone and probably far more eloquently.  There are so many incredible and diverse role models out there that I wonder what extra I could add.  The successes the trans community have had though, have come about because of the number and variety of voices being heard.  From the mutual support and allies that generates.  I keep launching into great paragraphs of explanation and nuance, but ultimately it comes down to a pretty simple concept.

Life works beautifully when people have pride being themselves.

All the additional nonsense derives from how we either enable, or block, that simple thing from happening.  It’s why events like TDoV are so wonderful, amid a storm of negativity and serious concern about the future for trans people, which varies intensely from country to country and state to state and knowing that young trans people growing up now are playing a lottery as to whether they are surrounded by loving support and empowering messages leading to a happy and full life; or a daily drip-feed of crushingly dehumanising language and alienation, leading to a life that should have been.

The choice is our’s as a society, which option we’re going to make a reality.  It is that stark.

This is where visibility is critical and the sharing of confidence and honesty inherent with that act.  It smashes taboos, it provides language and a framework to what is possible.  What I would love to see, is moving that visibility ‘beyond trans’.  Seeing that gender identity is just a facet of humanity.  If you are able to, be proud of being or knowing someone trans, talk about it, and then talk about all the other things that make you and them amazing.  We all role model for those around us, including allies, many of who we as a trans community owe an impossible amount to for the changes they’ve helped enable.  Trans visibility and trans pride not only empowers other trans people, in particular the younger generation, but the friends and colleagues around them.

I gave a talk recently to the workers of a fantastic social housing organization in Hertfordshire.  Afterwards, a burly looking tradesman came to chat with me and said the biggest hurdle for him being an ally for any diversity element, is the feeling of treading on eggshells around these topics.  While being an absolute ally at heart, he felt uncertain being so proactively.  Someone who could naturally be a great great ally, is unnecessarily restricted.

If you’ve done any reading about gender identity or listened to someone try to explain it to you, you’ll know it can quickly become a tangle of terminology and caveats.  It turns out, this is because humans are a pretty diverse bunch who won’t fit neatly into labeled boxes.  Faced with a potentially daunting array of opportunities to get it wrong, most people I meet elect to avoid the detail and move straight to the simpler humanising solution – “She’s just doing her thing and that’s right for her…” etc.  That’s great for individuals.  They, as allies may even pass that on to a close friend or colleague and remember the experience next time they meet a trans person.  But, they’ll not have the confidence to discuss it any further.  In my experience, they’ll not often have the confidence to stand and challenge conversation or banter that perpetuates harmful and alienating stereotypes.  Their heart may well be in the right place, but they’ll not know what to do about it, or even if they need to.

Our greatest collective responsibility is in the simple daily actions to normalise and de-stigmatise – to build bridges.

I’ve benefited first-hand from the effects of positive visibility and the quiet effect this has on perceptions.  Within the UK military before 1999, being trans would have been the sole reason for discharge.  After European legislation and UK military policy changed around that time, trans people found themselves able to continue serving.  The genuine trailblazers of that time (note that they are not the new-wave ‘firsts’ – self included – the media so gleefully but incorrectly refer to over a decade later) set the standard, recognised as professional and equal to their peers.  They wonderfully and without undue fuss, humanised the entire experience.  By the time I came out, it was not a scary unknown and I found genuine and consistent support from military peers young and old (and old and bold!).  Frankly, we just wanted to get on with our role and didn’t need to make a big deal of this.  Perfect!

TDoV and the continuing work throughout the trans community is making that message heard by all that still need to.  Not just heard, but believed.  The message of pride and positivity needs embedding in our culture so that it’s there and ready to be heard by anyone who needs it.  We are all, whatever your gender identity, responsible for enabling that.

Relish your innate pride and that of those around you, then share it.  It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give.