GRA Reform and Non-Binary People

When I did the explanatory post on single-sex exemptions I briefly mentioned the issue of non-binary people and said that it deserved a post all of its own. Here is that post.

I should start off by reminding everyone that there are more than two genders. Most cultures throughout history have recognised this, and many governments around the world today recognise non-binary people in some way. The list includes, but is not limited to: Australia, New Zealand, parts of the USA and Canada, Germany, India and Pakistan.

Also there are more than two sexes. Biological sex is a social construct which, in theory, is based on a collection of physical characteristics (some of which are fairly recently discovered). While most cisgender people exhibit the full collection of characteristics associated with their gender, many do not. Nor do a large proportion trans people. In practice, biological sex is assigned to babies on the basis of their external genitalia; and assumed in adults on the basis of gender presentation and secondary sex characteristics. Neither of these methods is very scientific.

So non-binary people definitely exist, both socially and medically. But in the UK they do not exist legally. This is a problem, both for them, and for the rest of society. We need to fix this, and we can’t do that by pretending that they don’t exist.

The argument for providing spaces that cater to non-binary people should be obvious. Just like men and women, they need spaces of their own. In some cases that can be solved by having all-gender facilities, and we do that quite happily with toilets in our homes, and on trains and aircraft. In other cases, non-binary people might want, or need, separate treatment.

There is a particular problem with spaces like rape crisis centres and domestic violence shelters, because currently almost all of the burden for supporting non-binary people is being placed on women’s services. Those non-binary people who have more feminine physiology are sent to women’s shelters because they are seen as women, and non-binary people who have more masculine physiology, but more feminine presentation, also get sent to women’s services because it is assumed they won’t be safe in men’s services.

Obviously this is a very new thing for such services, and they will need to work out procedures for risk assessment and safeguarding, but at the moment non-binary people are being failed by the social services.

Provision of spaces for non-binary people can also be of assistance to binary-identified trans people early in their transition. Because it can take several years for hormones to work their magic, and to work your way through waiting lists for surgery, almost all binary-identified trans people go through a period of worrying about being accepted. Whether we like it or not, most people make judgements based on appearance. Going into single-sex space when you feel that you don’t look right can be a very scary thing. The advantage of non-binary spaces is that there is no stereotypical appearance for being non-binary. So people in the early years of transition may feel safer using non-binary spaces.

Non-binary spaces may also be of help to people who are gender-non-confirming. For example, if you are a butch lesbian you may present in a very masculine style. The current panic over trans women in toilets is causing significant problems for masculine-presenting women. While I think it is outrageous that people who have lived as women all their lives are being thrown out of women’s toilets because of a misguided moral panic, it may be that such people will find it safer to use non-binary spaces.

Finally I want to note that legal recognition for a non-binary gender may have potential benefits for intersex babies with ambiguous genitalia. The fashion for “corrective” surgery on such children is rooted in the erroneous belief that there are only two genders, and only two sexes, and that anyone who does not conform to that model is a deviant who much be “fixed”. Creating a society in which non-binary gender is recognised should lead us away from such harmful ideas.

Please note that I am not advocating that all gendered spaces become non-binary. While we still have patriarchy, women will always need space spaces to go. Women’s toilets in pubs and clubs, for example, are not just used as toilets. They are a safe space where women can go if they feel unsafe. Non-binary people will doubtless need their own such safe spaces.

Looking at the responses to the Scottish Gender Recognition Act Reform Consultation it is clear that almost all of the anti-trans lobby is also anti-non-binary. I’d expect this from the religious right, but it is very disappointing to see the same conservatism from self-identified feminist groups. Which just goes to show that such groups are not really interested in protecting women. What they are interested in is forcing everyone to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth.

So when you fill in your GRA response, which I hope you will all be doing, please encourage the government to start along the path of non-binary recognition. They are reluctant to do this, because sex/gender is deeply ingrained throughout our legal code. But, as other countries have shown, we do not have to change every law at once. We can make a start, and every little helps.

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