Gender recognition & human rights: an interview with Elaine Gallagher

elaine photo ruth ej booth

by Cass Macgregor

Gender, sex discrimination, sexism are generally recognised as socially constructed issues which create a power imbalance and lead to inequality. The Scottish government has proposed to improve rights for trans people in the gender recognition process and to recognise non binary gender identity, where a person isn’t either a man or a woman. Gender is increasingly seen as more complex than simply male or female (binary). The Scottish government’s consultation on review of the gender recognition act is open until 1st March 2018 (link at the end).

I am a cis woman; my gender identity corresponds with the sex I was assigned at birth. I’m keen that other cis people understand what it’s like if you don’t identify that way, so my pal Elaine Gallagher agreed to meet up for a chat about her experience of being trans, gender recognition and the debate so far.

Cass: I wonder if you’d be happy to share some of your own experience of life before transition?

Elaine: It’s difficult to describe; it’s really personal. For me I suppose it was about not fitting in. We get given social roles based on our bodies: we wear the ‘right’ clothes and are basically brought up to perform ‘gender’ – you act, you have mannerisms which are coded as male and female and if you don’t fit, it’s difficult. When I was younger, I was socialised – well, people tried to socialise me – as male and I felt as if I was being forced into that role. If you’re cis then that’s OK for you, but if you’re trans or non binary then it’s not, and you reject it.

And then there’s dysphoria, when you reject your own body and the way you look. I’ve only had that really badly a couple of times but it’s terrifying when it happens. For me it was mostly discomfort, dissatisfaction, lying awake at night wishing I’d been born a girl. I realised that I was trans around the age of 25 and I knew I would lose my family if I transitioned so I didn’t do it until the discomfort had become unbearable.

What’s it been like since transitioning?

It’s like … imagine being left handed and you are forced to write with your right. Then eventually you take it on yourself to write with your left hand and it just feels so much better.

It’s still difficult. Sometimes I still wish that I had transitioned younger, in my twenties, and had the chance to be a young woman, to have a female figure, to wear clothes that suit my self-image. I’m still dysphoric; I don’t ever feel that what I want to wear looks good on me, or accept that I might ever be attractive.

What are some of the difficulties that you face at the moment?

Well, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender but you can’t legislate for what goes on in people’s heads. I’m self-employed because I’m finding I difficult to even get an interview.  Sometimes I might get contacted from my old cv with my old name. When I reply and say, by the way my name is Elaine now, I never hear back. I’m effectively unemployable in my old profession.

Some people can’t accept the transition. I didn’t lose many friends but I lost almost my whole family. I haven’t run into much harassment face to face, but I have on the internet, and there’s the whole ‘not a real woman’ thing.

As well, trans women get attacked by some feminists for reinforcing sexism; by wearing heels and dresses and so forth. But dressing the part is a way of reinforcing a self-image that is constantly under attack, and also it’s self-preservation. If you present consistent gender cues people are less hostile. I get ‘sir’d a lot less now that my hair is long.

I’m still trying to figuring out styles, fashion, and also relationships. It’s really like another adolescence in my forties.

The review that’s proposed of the gender recognition act, what would that mean to you?

Well, I wouldn’t have to shell out as much money! Currently you need a note from your doctor and from the gender clinic, your case has to go before a board, you’re given a certificate, and you pay for the whole process. Practically it only matters to me now if I were to want my birth certificate changed, but I had to have the doctor’s note for my passport and driving licence too, and for that I had to be going to the gender clinic and being seen by specialists and psychiatrists. For someone in the early stages of figuring themselves out, it would make a huge difference not to have to go through all that just to have the right label on their documents.

And is there an emotional impact of all this?

Yes, It’s about self determination. You’re having to ask permission from a whole lot of gatekeepers and be judged on your gender performance. You learn to give the answers that they will expect, to show that you’re doing it ‘right’, not tell the truth of yourself.

And it’s all or nothing; there is an attitude of you’re not doing it right if you don’t go all the way from one binary to the other. I didn’t even realise non binary people existed until 4 or 5 years ago, it wasn’t an option offered to me. As part of the transitioning process I was effectively bullied into choosing one or the other. I go by ‘she,’ now, mostly because I didn’t have a choice.

For some people that’s really not appropriate. The more that can get rolled back into a more non binary process, the happier people will be.

Do you have any concerns about the gender recognition act review?

None. All the proposals have been tried in other countries and shown to be successful.

Engender have a blog out (link below) and they state a concern about men in the criminal justice system saying that they are a woman to get into a woman’s prison. How would you respond to that? Have you heard of any cases of that?

I’ve read the blog but I haven’t heard of any of those cases. It sounds to me like the toilet scare story – where a man is trying to force his way into a female toilet – but if a man is so entitled as to try that, will he not be so into his own masculinity and power that he would never give up his gender?

However, I have heard of many cases where trans people have been savaged and raped because they are in the wrong prison. The criminal justice system is used to bad actors, I think that they’ll be able to work out guidelines to protect people.

Do you think there’s a danger associated with throwing up extreme stories like that?

Yes. It plays to minority concerns so that the views of the moderate majority are shifted over the extreme view and that is what gets amplified. The gains we have made are really fragile, the legislation giving trans people rights to decent treatment is all very recent and it’s important to bear that in mind. Trans people are often very careful not to be out as transgender because up until recently they could lose their job and they still fear for their safety.

And what would you say to the people who say that your gender is the biological sex you are born with?

They do a lot of harm. I personally think that these essentialist views of sex and gender are mystical, magical thinking and not founded in reality, or else over-simplifications by people only think in black or white, male or female. Some people just don’t fit into the categories these people have in their heads and they can’t deal with that.

Forcing people into boxes where they don’t belong is harmful. There are psychological implications, especially for young trans people where the attempted suicide rate is nearly 50%. When young trans kids are accepted as they are the outcome is the same as if they were cis kids. Suicidal ideation in the trans population is over 80% because of the hostility of society, and the rate of assaults and attacks on trans people is incredibly high. 1 in 8 trans women of colour will die violently.

So it’s really a human rights issue. And what do you think about the level of debate so far?

There is no consideration for trans people as people. The debate is all about, should they exist or shouldn’t they? There is a real lack of acceptance. Trans people are people and generally they just want to get on with their lives, but then there are those who want them to be rejected. I feel like it’s a persecuted population and I get upset about this. Gay rights is probably about 30 years ahead of trans rights, but now with the rise of the far right, all rights are being rolled back. And this is a concern. If you support taking rights away from a minority group then they’ll be after yours next.

(photo credit: Ruth EJ Booth)

The Scottish Government review:

Engender blog:

Trans mental health study: suicidal ideation in 84% of trans people

Stonewall schools study: 45% of trans pupils have attempted suicide



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