Learning from Self-ID
Last week the government announced that they would not progress with proposed reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act which would have allowed people to change their legal gender and obtain a new birth certificate through self-identification. The announcement is the long-awaited response to a consultation ran back in 2018. Unsurprisingly, there have been mixed responses to the news.
At the moment those who want to legally change their gender have to meet certain criteria (such as a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, two years living in the new gender, and the intention to live in this gender for life). Some people feel these criteria are unnecessary and unhelpful and they therefore support a system of self-ID, where an individual can change their legal gender based solely on their own testimony and intention (as is already the case in several countries, including Ireland, Norway, and Argentina).
The government’s consultation on the possibility of introducing a self-ID system received more than 100,000 responses, with 64% saying that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria should not be necessary to change one’s legal gender. However, ministers decided against proceeding with the reform because they believe that the balance of responses was skewed by responses from trans rights groups. (Interestingly, a more recent survey found a decrease in public support for transgender women having access to single-sex spaces.)
The government’s decision is quite surprising, both because ministers, including then Prime Minister Theresa May, had seemed to be in favour of the change and because self-ID has been introduced in several other countries over the past half-decade.
Regardless of the final outcome, the fact that many of those responding to the consultation were in support of the change is revealing. It shows us how approaches to transgender experience have changed over time. As in so many situations, it is worth stopping to think more deeply about what the results demonstrate.
The Journey to Self-Identification
The last few decades have seen several stages in the journey to support for self-identification. Each contains a different understanding of transgender experience and in the process reveals changes at a deeper level.
Up until 2013, medical professionals used the term ‘gender identity disorder’ to describe the experience of those who today would be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Although there were ongoing debates as to whether the experience should be classed as a mental health condition (and the UK government had declared that it is not), the use of the term ‘disorder’ clearly implied that there was something wrong when an individual’s biological sex and sense of internal gender don’t match. To an extent, this approach valued both the body and the internal self. If there is something wrong when they clash, both are deemed important.
With the publication of the DSM-V in 2013, gender identity disorder was replaced with the diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’. This new diagnosis placed the emphasis on the distress caused by a mismatch between sex and gender. (Distress was one of the diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder, but it wasn’t the dominant feature.) This shift in focus to the distress accompanying transgender experience suggested that the disconnect between biological sex and internal gender isn’t, in and of itself, a problem. It is the effect the disconnect has that is a problem. The generally accepted treatment for gender dysphoria was (and is) to transition to live in line with the internal self, rather than biological sex. The body must change to align with the internal self. This change in emphasis and the treatment option supported was a step towards devaluing the body, but the experience was still understood in medical terms.
Support for Self-ID shows a significant next step in this journey. If self-ID is accepted, then anyone can define their own gender, without any consideration to the body or even their internal sense of gender. (No doubt many would make use of self-ID to change their legal gender to match their internal sense, but an internal experience wouldn’t actually be a necessary criterion for the change.) Self-ID rejects the body as a source of authority, but it also allows us to reject our internal feelings as a source of authority. The only authority left is our own choice. There need be no supporting evidence or experience, external or internal, to defend our choice.
Self-ID also marks a significant change in perspective: transgender experience isn’t a medical issue; it’s an identity issue. And it no longer need be an internal identity, based on desires and feelings we find inside. It can now be a self-created identity, based on our own choice and declaration. We are who we say we are.
The high level of support for self-ID among many of those responding to the government’s consultation reveals the next step in our culture’s understanding of gender. It’s a shift from, ‘We are who we feel we are’ to ‘We are who we say we are’.
We’re already seeing the outworking of this in some of the non-binary gender identities that are becoming particularly popular among young people. In some cases, these young people do not experience gender dysphoria, and their chosen gender isn’t particularly rooted in strong internal feelings; it is purely rooted in a personal decision. Who do I want to be? Or even, who do I want to be today?
Learning from the Journey
These are ideas among which many people—especially young people—are swimming. How do we help Christians to swim against the tide?
We need to talk about identity. A lot. (Regular readers of Think will not be surprised to hear me say that!) The clash between Christianity and culture on sexuality and gender centres on the issue of identity. We must help people to see this and show how God offers a better answer to our search for identity. We are not how we feel (which can change, be unclear, and be bad) and we are not who we say we are (which puts an almost unbearable weight on us, asking us to make our own choice (out of nothing) on one of the most fundamental and life-impacting questions of life). We are who God says we are (which offers a solid, stable and life-giving identity and takes the pressure off us and puts it onto him). We can’t do too much to help people understand and live out this truth.
We need to affirm the goodness of authority. Self-ID rejects the authority of the body and of medical professionals. Abuses of authority have created a huge distrust of all authority. Many people, especially young people, can’t fathom how any external authority can ever be a good thing. We need to help them see that when used well, authority is life-giving not oppressive or destructive, and we need to introduce them to the one who has ultimate authority and yet laid aside his own rights and position to serve them. This is an authority we can trust, an authority that is good for us.
We need to affirm the goodness of the physical world and especially the body. In a world where life is increasingly lived in the non-physical world that is the internet, we must continue to affirm and demonstrate the goodness of the physical world and of our own bodies, the very place in which God speaks to us about who we are as men and women.
Self-ID has been rejected as law in the UK, but the fact that many supported it helps us see how ideas about gender are continuing to change in the culture around us. As Christians, we need to recognise these changes and equip ourselves and others to stand firm in God’s truth in the face of them. We do this not just because we know God’s truth to be true, but also because we know it to be good, and we get to demonstrate that goodness to the world around us.