Transgender history in the UK

Melanie Bartlett

Throughout February, we’re celebrating LGBT History Month by publishing Need to Know articles raising awareness of some of the issues facing the LGBT community.  This week, Melanie Bartlett, who is an ambulance care assistant based in Peterborough, shares some thoughts on transgender history in the UK.

“The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was a watershed for the gay community. For the first time in four centuries, ‘homosexual acts’ were no longer a criminal offence.

“But for trans people, it backfired.

“In 1961, several tabloid papers had ‘outed’ the Vogue model and socialite April Ashley as having had a ‘sex change’. The publicity didn’t deter the aristocrat Arthur Corbett from dating and marrying her – although he wasn’t quite so keen to pay maintenance when they separated in 1966!

“Then along came the Sexual Offences Act, which allowed Corbett to argue that his wife was ‘really a man’ without convicting himself as a sex offender. The judge agreed and declared the marriage void.

“For the small but growing trans population, the case set a devastating precedent. It meant that they could never marry, or be issued with amended birth certificates. And no one could be prosecuted for raping a trans woman, because – according to the law at the time – only women could be the victims of rape.

“That precedent was overturned in 2002 by the European Court of Human Rights. Two years later, the Gender Recognition Act was passed, which gave trans people the right to change their ‘legal sex’ and be issued with amended birth certificates.

“Another milestone had been passed in 1999, when the Sex Discrimination Act was extended to protect anyone who ‘intends to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone gender reassignment’. And when the 2010 Equality Act combined all of the anti-discrimination laws into one, gender reassignment became one of its nine protected characteristics.

“But the Equality Act is not a silver bullet. Five years later, Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee reported that:

“… discrimination is a part of daily life for trans people – a reality which many feel they have no alternative but to accept.”

It was especially critical of the NHS, saying:

“… the NHS is letting down trans people, with too much evidence of an approach that can be said to be discriminatory and in breach of the Equality Act.”

“Nothing much has changed. The committee’s recommendations have been largely ignored. Proposals to simplify the Gender Recognition Act have been delayed, and 13,500 people are trapped in three-year waiting lists for first appointments at NHS Gender Identity Clinics. While real life hate crime and online abuse are snowballing, stirring up hatred against trans people has still not been made a criminal offence.

“Maybe I’ve been lucky, because from the moment I walked into Peterborough Ambulance Station wearing my ‘interview dress’ and uncomfortable shoes, I’ve felt welcomed and accepted by my colleagues and patients alike. I’ve been misgendered occasionally, but have never suffered deliberate abuse or violence. Maybe the uniform helps. Or maybe, as more people meet real trans people, they realise that we are really just ordinary human beings who are trying to live ordinary lives.”

Published 12th February 2020

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