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!


  1. Dear Ayla , Let Me Start with ,
    I fell in love with you , when you appeared on one plus one !
    Tell The Wife I'm Jealous .
    The Birth Certificate Question .
    Recently I Had To Produce Mine ,as part of a lengthy process to Renovate , Subdivide and ultimately sell , the now properties . The Point I'm Making is ,This Was A Very Stessfull Time For Me . The Birth Certificate was just the beginning . I Gambled I Won !
    I'm Struggling To Imagine What You Have Been Through .
    In Summary , I Feel As A Race , Were Lost in Shit , That's Irrelevant , While There's So Many URGENT Things To Do !
    I Feel High Acheivers, Such As Yourself , Can Lead The Way in getting the ball Rolling !
    Yours Sincerely

  2. IME the whole GRC process is flawed, inconstant and fiendishly bureaucratic with many panellists seemingly either unaware or ignoring of their own guidelines. I got the strong impression that there are those on the panels (there exist a number), rather confirmed by an unguarded comment from one of their own back office civil servants, that consider themselves to be a 'law unto themselves' with pedantry being part of their job description. Doubtless, their task is to cause applicants quite unnecessary aggravation, probably so as to better justify their position and the fee they charge HMG and as a consequence the £140 we pay for their dubiously worthwhile services. My advice, when asked by others whether to apply for a GRC is to say "don't bother" unless, 1, you can think of some good reason for really needing one either legally or emotionally. 2, you have a lot of time on your hands. And 3, you're up for what can be, essentially, quite a humiliating process justifying who you are to a bunch faceless, bureaucratic jobsworths. Just my 2p worth.

  3. shocking that the desire to have children one day could count against your gender congruence? after all both parents contribute 50% of the DNA so why would reproduction be a gender issue. that would be like arguing that someone who stores gametes before radiotherapy was not committed to getting well! even though i thankfully live in Scotland and this is a devolved issue i have still completed the UK consultation and shared it to help others.

    1. It may well be that this isn't a consideration by the panel now. It was for others years ago, but nothing written down. That's just the point... Nothing is written down as to the standards they assess individuals

  4. Very interesting post and will be useful to many. I applied for a GRC pre "the operation" and clearly passed as I was awarded the GRC first time round. Whilst I'd not had "the op", I did express intent to, including details of my surgeon. I did find the helpline staff to be very helpful and knowledgeable and easy to get hold of. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones? Finally, receiving the actual certificate was very emotional for me, which surprised me. I guess to be finally recognised by the State for who you are, after many years, meant more than I'd imagined. My advice? If you CAN apply for one, do it. Do it now if you're able. I know the Govt are looking to amend it, but I can't imagine that will be a quick process, so stump up the £140 if you can and get applying. Or at least send off for the application form and give it at read. It isn't as bad as it first looks as most sections aren't applicable to everyone.

  5. Without a "GRC" your legal gender is that of your birth certificate which in my case is that of a man. In recent test cases the governments legal teams have defended cases based in that fact. Another concerning indignity is being "reclaimed" by estranged family in death and buried in your original gender.
    A well written piece A❤

  6. the problem i have is that i cannot afford to get the GRC, not only is it a £142 pre payment just to get the form, My surgeon whilst now no longer in the NHS can charge what he wants for the note, same with the psychiatrist and when i last contacted Charing cross i was told even for a revision i would need to go through referal again just to see the doctor as i still have pain bleeding and loss of girth and depth, When i last spoke to Bellringer he wanted £150 for his letter and the Psych wanted £75. This is what the current check is about, I want it but cannot afford the huge amounts of funds needed to get it done.