There is a tendency among activists and allies of the mainstream gay rights movement to treat marriage equality as the be-all and end-all of LGBT+ liberation. This is despite the fact that there are neighbourhoods across the UK where same gender couples risk violent assault if they dare to hold hands; some trans* people are still dependent on ignorant or unpleasant doctors for lifesaving medical treatment. But marriage equality, with immediate results, is easier to talk about! It comes with adorable photos of gay newlyweds, and by next summer it’s going to be happening every day throughout England and Wales. And all it took was a simple Act of Parliament, not a long-term educational drive to eradicate violence and shift cultural perceptions of vulnerable minorities. No wonder celebrities are so ready to tweet their support.
Don’t get me wrong. Equal marriage is a wonderful step forward and something to be celebrated; both in immediate terms for the people who will now be able to demonstrate their commitment on equal footing with straight couples, and for the progress it seems to promise in related areas. But I remember the day it passed as one of mixed feelings, especially in the trans* community, where jubilation took a back seat to bitterness over the shortcomings of the Act in its final form. Few of its high profile supporters seemed interested, but many trans* people still feel that that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 gave us the short end of the stick.
What exactly does equal marriage have to do with trans* people? Good question. After all, we may share a movement with gay, bisexual, queer etc. people – but our issues are very different, hinging on gender roles and bodily integrity rather than sexual and romantic relationships. But when your gender in the eyes of the law doesnít necessarily align with your gender in reality, complications arise. What about two straight, transsexual people in a relationship, only one of whom has obtained legal recognition of his transition – should they be denied marriage because the law regards them as a gay couple? Or a newly out woman who wants to remain married to her supportive wife? In the past she would be forced to go through divorce before receiving a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), the document formally confirming her female identity.
Fortunately, this year’s Marriage Act abolished that particular inconvenience, but it failed to fix other problems and even introduced some brand new ones. Refusal to disclose prior possession of a GRC is still considered grounds to annul a marriage – disturbing, given the supposed purpose of a GRC as the ultimate privacy seal on a trans* person’s history. One controversial part of the Act states that in order to convert a provisional GRC to a full and permanent document, a married applicant must now obtain written permission from their spouse. Given the unsupportive and obstructive attitudes of many partners who do not cope well when their spouses come out, this could cause untold misery for unhappily married trans* people in the future.
Same gender marriage is an achievement, but its implementation is tied to outdated, authoritarian notions of how gender works and who has the right to label it. Real equality will only come about when the law recognises gender as flexible, variable and above all irrelevant.