Cis centrism and the Equality Bill

May 24, 2009

government portcullis logoWhen I came across it a couple of weeks ago, I really wanted to like EqualityBill.com; but I came away from these exchanges with the site’s Theo Grzegorczyk feeling annoyed and frustrated in equal measure. I was left with the impression that I was being subjected to yet another cis person telling me what’s best for trans people; someone who will brook no dissent to his cis-centred worldview. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my earlier post, “Cis women who explain things”.

So I approached Mr Grzegorczyk’s most recent article, “Challenging the conventional thinking on transgender provision in the Equality Bill” (link here), with very low expectations – and I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t disappointed. I decided against posting this response in the comments to his piece partly because it’s rather long and partly because I really don’t consider EqualityBill.com to be a safe(r) space – I find Mr Grzegorczyk’s manner quite intimidating, to be honest, and have no wish to antagonise him further. But I really couldn’t let his post pass by without comment; it’s been bothering me since I first read it three days ago and I need to get my thoughts down.

So then…

There are two main objections from those who believe that the Equality Bill does not do enough to cover transgender rights.

First, the case is put forward that harassment provisions require ‘outing’ and ‘categorization’: something which is obviously undesirable for anyone whose very identity is all about rejecting ‘being outed’ or ‘categorizing yourself’.

[…]

The first point is simply wrong. The law does indeed require identification – but it is identification of the nature of the harassment, not the identity of the victim.

[…]

Point 1:

If you are the victim of transphobia, then it does not matter whether or not you are transsexual (medically or otherwise): it only matters that in the mind of the perpetrator you were affiliated with the trans community. This means that a butch schoolgirl who is bullied does not need to identify as transsexual in order to benefit from the protection of the law. It is enough to argue that she was discriminated against for affiliation. Again, this affiliation is not something that will have to be verified – because it is the perpetrator who made the affiliation, not the victim.

First, Mr Grzegorczyk uses transgender and transsexual interchangeably here; to me they have very different meanings. But regarding the content, he seems to be saying that transphobia is a thought crime. If we accept that definition, then how is it likely to play out in reality? To take his example:

Agitated schoolgirl approaches teacher:

  • Schoolgirl: “Miss, Miss – those boys over there have been bullying me for being trans.”
  • Teacher: “Well, are you trans?”

Schoolgirl looks at teacher, speechless.

  • Teacher: “Right then, either I do a panty check or you clear off and stop wasting my time.”

The onus is always – always – on trans people to justify our existence. And the justification demanded inevitably focuses on what’s inside our underwear. To suggest that it’s somehow all “in the mind of the perpetrator” misses the point entirely and erases the reality of living as a trans person in this cis centred world.

Second, it is argued that you are simply ‘not covered’ by the Equality Duty, the discrimination provisions, and others, unless you are either undergoing medical supervision, or “living” as a transsexual.

The scare quotes around the word living are revealing. “Living” as a transsexual. That reads like a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the tired old trope that our identities are less valid than cis people’s: they’re not.

Point 2:

This second point is more complex, and it seems that it is something that would need to be tested in court. The bill gives an example: that if someone born physically female “successfully ‘passes’ as a man without the need for any medical intervention”, then for the purpose of the law, they will be considered to be undergoing gender reassignment, which would allow them all the benefits of the bill – coverage by the Equality Duty, Positive Action in employment, and so on.

If that really is how the Bill interprets being trans, then I despair. Would it have been so difficult for the state to allow for self-identification instead of imposing definitions on us; definitions so poor that they require testing in court? If I say I’m a trans woman, why is that not acceptable? And where are the corresponding definitions of what constitutes a cis person? My guess is that they were deemed unnecessary because cis is the default; trans is the Other.

So if, for example, I were born physically female and “woke up one morning”, and declared to myself: “I am a man” […]

That could only have been written by a cis person. Seriously. I don’t know one single trans person who doesn’t have an innate sense of their gender, or gender variance if you prefer, often from an early age. To my mind, it’s one of the benchmarks of the condition. In that regard, the example fails – but for the sake of argument let’s press on:

[…] there would be nothing a court could do to dispute my self-identification. Equally, there would be nothing they could do to dispute me if the following day, I decided that I was a woman again. Because by my own standard, I had successfully ‘passed’ as whichever gender I chose. And similarly, I could change my identification hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute – without a court ever being able to prove that I was not ‘successfully passing’ as whatever gender identity I wanted.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how the Equality Bill would not provide for anyone, of any gender identification, to be covered by the legal phrase “undergoing gender reassignment”.

Just… no. This conflates ‘passing’ – in itself a contentious term – with self-identification and serves only to underline that Mr Grzegorczyk’s understanding is sketchy, at best. I doubt that even the most gender fluid person changes hir identification “hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute”, and the writer’s use of such reductio ab absurdum is frankly offensive.

Look, it’s not the site itself that I’m disappointed with – it’s not even Mr Grzegorczyk’s lack of comprehension of what it means to be trans in an overwhelmingly cis centred society – rather, it’s the apparent blind faith that such a poorly drafted piece of legislation is suddenly going to bring an end to the transphobic discrimination, bigotry and extreme violence to which trans people are routinely subjected: it isn’t. This legislation wouldn’t have prevented the murder of Kellie Telesford, that’s for sure. I don’t believe that any legislation alone could have done that.

What I would like to know is how it’s possible to legislate the thought crimes described in the Bill out of existence, while leaving intact the attitudes behind them. We should not have to justify our existence any more than cis people do – and our lives are no less important, or meaningless, or worthless simply because we are trans.

And I’d like to know why there’s no corresponding initiative to raise awareness and begin the long, slow process of changing the attitudes of cis people. Because ultimately, that would be a far more positive achievement than a law in which the needs of trans people seem to have been bolted on at the last minute, and which seems to have little or nothing to say on the penalties for breaching it – assuming, of course, that the provisions are indeed enforceable.

Maybe I’ve just experienced the hateful attitudes of too many cis people towards me on too many occasions, but it seems to me that this bill simply doesn’t address the realities of the day-to-day, lived existences of trans people. Transphobia, bigotry and discrimination happen to us each and every day: on the street, in the workplace, in our schools and colleges – and it always happens out of sight of the authorities who say they want to help us. That is the nature of this cis supremacist society in which we have to live, and it is that which this Bill fails to address.

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3 Responses to “Cis centrism and the Equality Bill”

  1. GallingGalla Says:

    this.

    this is one example of why i cannot fully trust cis people, no matter how hard they “try”. there will always be that small doubt, that waiting for the other shoe to drop.


  2. I am very depressed when reading this post…It makes me sad that this is the person we have in charge of the General equality bill lobbying group.

  3. Helen G Says:

    Shaded Spriter: Is he indeed? I didn’t know that.
    …*le sigh*…

    ETA: So with a little Googling we find that our man is “the Political Advisor to Waheed Alli, campaign manager at Equality Bill.com, and a Business Consultant at Chorion Ltd“. (Via LabourList)


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