Changing Rooms

I’ve stepped into this minefield before, but given that I have the time and that my opinion on this like so many other matters these days is continuing to evolve, I thought I’d return for another hop, skip and ka-boom!

In a report published in 2016, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee recommended reform of 2004’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to accommodate the principles of gender self‑identification.

The GRA was genuinely life-changing for me as a trans person. I transitioned years before without the protections, freedoms, equalities and dignity it has since afforded. I am a passionate protector of the act. That said, I think it is right that legislation should be regularly reviewed. Society changes, morphs, and hopefully develops (even if geo-politics suggest otherwise) and laws must adapt.

(Side note: As the Gender Recognition Bill that later formed the GRA was moving through parliament, I along with many other campaigners lobbied my then local MP. I was thus granted an audience with my parliamentary representative – one Boris Johnson. After the meeting he wrote to me advising that he would indeed support the bill. Three days later I received another letter advising that he was ‘considering’ the bill. Make of that what you will).

The GRA review seeks to examine the implications of those who self-identify their chosen gender. Self ID as the term suggests, requires no discussion, professional diagnosis or recognised treatment – it is simply a statement by an individual. The burden to accept and adapt is thereafter required of wider society.

All transitions effectively begin with a statement that first takes in the privacy of one’s own head but must eventually be said out loud. Such statements should be respected, but I don’t believe can in themselves be an end.

Personally, I found having my gender change managed by those trained in medicine and psychology to be not only comforting, but also validating. It gave me strength to know that I wasn’t alone and that my own absolute conviction was backed by those who had spent more time studying the issue than I had. After all, the only thing I had guiding me in those pre-internet days was pure instinct. I didn’t even understand the surgical implications at that stage – I’d have almost let any quack with a scalpel have at me if it released me from genital jail.

The counselling services weren’t just helpful – they were essential. There may not have been too much in the way of expertise on the subject available in those times, but I was able to benefit from the best that there was – and it made a real difference.

Chemically, I was trialled on several types of hormone and anti-androgen drugs in those early years before the right balance was found. It was a bumpy ride. I dealt with weight gain, skin eruptions, nausea, headaches and emotional swings that often left me confused and feeling hopeless (see again, benefits of counselling). Google didn’t exist when my journey began, but even if had I don’t think it would have helped quite as surely and effectively as the support network of specialists I had. As trans people, we may be able to self-ID our personal dilemmas, but we’re just not qualified to self-treat in a way that can safely lead to an effective gender transition.

Another of the key issues raised by a GRA review, is that of how a free-to-self-ID community works with single-sex spaces. Now, this may not be a popular view among the more political of trans folk, but I do see a problem here. Generally speaking, bathrooms offer only binary options – male or female. If those who have self-ID’d are to have their rights to enter one or other such rooms extended, those already occupying these spaces must have their position compromised. Nobody can gain here without another losing.

I feel that this does put women in particular, in a difficult position. I am certainly not of the belief that there is a queue of sex offenders just plotting their opportunity via the GRA route to enter a female-only space for the purposes of pestering or assault. To me, anyone bent on that aim won’t have been waiting for parliamentary permission. I’m referring more to a space being safe in character.

Not too many people get to experience male and female-only spaces in the course of a single life. I have. And I have observed that men use space in a very different way. They are usually purposeful and always seem to own the air through which they pass. There is less inclination toward compromise or consideration. I don’t state this as a criticism – there’s plenty to be said for getting in and out of a public toilet as quickly and efficiently as possible. But women in my experience use these facilities differently. The Ladies loo is a more complex and wider-functioning environment. More privacy and understanding by fellow users is needed as a matter of course. Female hygiene for starters requires more of a space than a wall urinal and a single cubicle might offer. But these are also often rooms in which to pause and breathe; to gather oneself, perhaps preparing for the return to a situation outside. Sometimes these are places of discussion or consolation. Children or the less abled are often brought into these spaces by women too. An air of calm is necessary.

So all bathrooms are not equal. The principle of a functional space is not the same for both genders and trying to compromise these through blending self-ID transitioners will be at the cost of those who are simply not being given an option.

My own workplace transition took place in a building occupied by around 400 other people. There was no handbook. I was the first trans employee to work there. Personnel had almost no input at all. Remember, there were no laws obliging them to provide any kind of service or guidance and they were certainly not obliged to act on my behalf. It was left to me to consider issues like bathrooms and to work out the most practical solution. Timing was so tricky. At a certain point in transition, going into a male-only space didn’t just feel weird, it began to look it too. I had become the wrong in ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’.

I chose at this point to consult directly with the female co-workers on my floor to explain my situation. I effectively asked for their permission to enter these female-only spaces. This was already of course putting them in an awkward position, but with no advocacy option, it had to be at my initiative. I did suggest that if they should have any reservations, they may wish to relay them anonymously to the personnel manager who could then let me know that such an objection had been raised. (Scarily, my only plan in this instance would have been to leave my job).

I chose this route because it mattered to me that my transition not only work for me personally, but cost those around me nothing. I didn’t want my gain to be anyone else’s cost. Being sensitive mattered hugely to me – even if looking back, I pretty much just bumbled through this part of my transition.

Fundamentally, I think we as trans people do have to understand the gulf between what we’d like and what is possible and practical. Not every problem has a perfect answer. Not every square hole gets an appropriately shaped peg to fit.

But I don’t just want to comment on a problem without offering a possible solution. If we are to move to a society of multiple gender positions – including those who may move back and forth according to their own inner voices – then gender-fluid facilities could also be available. These would be the correct rooms to be used by those during the period of transition. Had such an option been available to me in the 1990s, I’d have definitely been glad to make use of them. I wouldn’t have had to explain myself to anyone or risk making a colleague feel discomforted.

Beyond transition, I don’t believe single-sex spaces would risk being compromised and so with respect to opinions voiced recently by the likes of JK Rowling and Graham Linehan, I just don’t see the problem.

I know that this might seem like a rather old-fashioned perspective – but I’m an old-fashioned kind of trans. As always, this is just an opinion – one I don’t rule out revising.