I watched the debate and voting of Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in the Westminster Parliament with envy. As the rainbow flag flew proudly over the main building of Cardiff University, I wished for the same to happen in my home country of Singapore.
The first same-sex marriage ceremonies will be taking place next summer. It’s a great step forward for the United Kingdom as a whole. But this move isn’t as inclusive as we would generally believe it to be.
Just before I left Cardiff I had the opportunity to meet and then carry out a phone interview with Jenny-Anne Bishop, a trans woman who has been heavily involved in the campaign for trans rights for over a decade.
Jenny-Anne Bishop (far right) at the Unique booth at Cardiff Mardi Gras.
For trans people, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act takes away the problem of having to get divorced when seeking to transition. In the past, married couples would have to get divorced before entering into a civil partnership as a same-sex couple, thus losing certain rights and benefits. With same-sex marriages recognised in the country, this will no longer be necessary.
(That said, if one member of a civil partnership is seeking to transition, the partnership would have to be dissolved, as the UK still does not recognise opposite-gender civil partnerships.)
It’s an overall positive development, but the trans community has been left feeling neglected and disappointed by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. It’s easy to understand why: the amendments they had put forward for debate were removed by the Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, and never got a chance to make it into law.
“What we were told was if they had all those amendments in the House of Lords would take a long time debating it all and it might be lost in the current session,” said Jenny-Anne. “We have been told that they will try and sneak some of this back as part of non-controversial legislation so while they’re legislating for something else they’ll just slip those bits in. I’m afraid I don’t believe that.”
Among these amendments was the proposal to remove a clause in the Matrimonial Clauses Act stating that failure to declare one’s trans status is grounds for instant annulment of a marriage, leaving the trans person with none of the rights of a divorced spouse. This isn’t the case with convicted sex offenders, people who are HIV+ or domestic abusers.
Jenny-Anne explains why this clause is so worrying: “That’s somehow saying trans people aren’t real people, they need to tell you they’re not really real people.”
Couple this with stories of trans people being convicted of having obtained sex by deception just because they did not tell sexual partners that they were transgender. Jenny-Anne’s concern is that trans people will continue to be dehumanised and othered by society.
“I’m very worried that it will lead to the severity of crimes being reduced and people claiming the trans panic excuse; that they didn’t know this person was trans and they were so affronted by it that they went mad and murdered them. We got rid of that some years ago and we don’t want it coming back. In times when people were more homophobic and transphobic certainly in America and to a degree in the UK courts would accept that that was a contributing cause and would reduce, for instance, first-degree murder to contributory manslaughter, which is a much less charge and says the victim was partly to blame.”
It’s important to counter this trend. More awareness of trans and gender identity issues is needed. And the community can’t always count on LGBT groups to push their cause; Jenny-Anne points out that many LGBT groups often forget the ‘T’, or are even transphobic themselves. It’s therefore up to trans people to mobilise, organise and get involved, working with existing groups or starting their own.
Capitalising on media publicity can also be helpful. The most recent example would be that of Chelsea Manning, which brought plenty of media attention to transgender and gender identity issues. “Like any publicity, generally if it’s used properly it is good for raising awareness,” Jenny-Anne said, citing the case of Chaz Bono, whose transition attracted a lot of attention and helped to grow the public’s awareness of trans people.
The Marriage (Same Sex) Couples Act has brought its disappointments, and there is plenty to worry about when it comes to trans rights in the UK. But with dedicated advocates like Jenny-Anne plugging away in campaign groups, advisory boards and steering groups, the fight is not over yet.