Colonialism, JK Rowling, and Lackluster Politics: How the U.K’s past and present are threatening the fight for gender equality.

By Sasha Novozhilova

Within the darkness of the past year, the movement for gender equality in the workplace within the United States has been quite successful in securing the protection of employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in a landmark Supreme Court ruling. Now, several months later, the movement has reached the other side of the pond – the United Kingdom – with a court case that marked a huge victory for the non-binary community, only to be brought down just one week later by a review of previous legislation that only slightly advances the fight for equality, focusing on the smaller grievances of the community rather than on its larger needs.

On September 16th, just a few weeks ago, a U.K. employment tribunal ruled that non-binary and gender-fluid people are covered against workplace discrimination under the Equality Act, a 2010 piece of legislation that “protects people from discrimination on the basis of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.” (Wareham) While the legislation has long supported transgender workers, it was not confirmed to apply to the non-binary and gender-fluid community until a gender-fluid engineer, referred to as Ms. Taylor, working at a JLR plant brought up the workplace harassment and gender-based discrimination she experienced, including difficulties with the use for toilet facilities and managerial conflict, to the employment tribunal. Upon hearing how the government referred to gender as a “spectrum” (Wareham) during the initial parliamentary debates regarding the Equality Act back in 2009, the court ruled in her favor, once again confirming that non-binary identity falls under the act’s protection. The ruling has been regarded as revolutionary as it not only confirms protection for one of the most vulnerable groups within the LGBTQ+ community but also creates hope for the future of gender inclusivity in the workplace. Having established a precedent for the protection of the gender-fluid identity, there’s hope that the ruling will extend to cover other more complex gender identities, such as agender, genderqueer, and others, clarifying any potential ambiguity over the Act’s contents. 

Unfortunately, riding on the heels of this incredible achievement is a different bittersweet ruling – a revision to the Gender Reassignment Act – prompting a wave of mixed reactions from trans-rights activists and charities. Originally established in 2004, the GRA is a piece of legislation that outlines the procedure by which a person can change their gender on their birth certificate, allowing for recognition of their preferred gender for certain ceremonies, such as marriage. The document, however, has faced a lot of criticisms since its inception, particularly for the requirement of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, considered by many to be far too invasive, and a steep price of £140. As a result, only a disproportionately small number of 4,910 out of over 200,000 people identifying as transgender have completed the procedure of obtaining a new certificate (Government Equalities Office). 

The public consultation launched in 2018 was supposed to address these concerns, however, after years of waiting, the response by the Women and Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, was quite disappointing. The much-debated existence of a panel reviewing the applicants’ paperwork, including the diagnosis, will continue, and the price will be dropped from £140 to “a nominal amount,” to create a “kinder and more straightforward” process, as stated by Truss herself. While reassuring at first glance, the changes will likely continue to prevent many from obtaining a certificate and financially burden those who choose to apply, particularly considering the difficulties transgender workers continue to face in the job search. Some other unaddressed concerns include the legal age upon which one may apply for a certificate, as well as the legal recognition for non-binary people, which the GRA does not provide. The changes, while perhaps made in goodwill, seem somewhat performative, particularly in a country that, despite many promises of achieving gender equality made by both May and Johnson administrations, ranks only 27th by the Gender Inequality Index (UNDP Report 2019).

So, why has the country’s progress in addressing gender inequality, transgender, and non-binary rights, in particular, has been so slow?

While it is the most recent events and comments that have shaped the struggle for transgender and non-binary rights, the beginnings of Britain’s issues with addressing gender identity can be traced back to its colonial history. The British Age of Enlightenment itself has been previously characterized as having “prized itself on scientific rationality, including with it strict taxonomies of racial and sex categorization,” (Al-Kadhi) subsequently forcing its beliefs upon nations where gender is a much more diverse concept that diverges from the idea of strictly binomial gender determination. An example of such gender erasure is the British treatment of the transgender Hijra people of India, a group almost completely erased by an 1871 law targeting them as a “criminal tribe” (BBC), restricted by police from “wear[ing] female clothing and jewelry or perform[ing] in public and […] threatened with fines or thrown into prison if they did not comply” (BBC). The Hijra have since been recognized under a “third sex” category by the Indian government, but the damage had been done, pushing the population towards extinction, and cementing transphobic ideals in the British society for years to come.

Despite several recent victories for the transgender and non-binary communities, transphobia and other forms of gender discrimination are still prevalent in the British society, as shown by both the administration’s lack of interest in substantial change, as well as the rise of toxicity within the “liberal feminism” movement, as shown by comments made by JK Rowling. Back in 2019, the influential author voiced her support for Maya Forstater, a researcher fired over transphobic comments questioning whether transgender women are women (Brown). Despite the huge backlash faced by the author, she has continued to defend her stance in a 3500-word essay on her blog, appearing to be arguing that transgender people are erasing biological sex and the needs and wishes of those identifying with their assigned gender. 

“When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman—and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones—then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.” (J.K Rowling)

While her comments have faced criticisms from every corner of the world, unfortunately, they are illustrating a problem of gender discrimination that persists in the U.K. today, revealing a sinister side of “liberal feminism” in the U.K. Oftentimes, followers of the British movement have sided with anti-trans views, more consistent with the far-right. A 2018 article by the Guardian illustrated the issue fairly well when it suggested that “women’s concerns about sharing dormitories or changing rooms with “male-bodied” people must be taken seriously,” causing criticisms from both within the country and overseas. 

Beyond that, the same problem persists in the British workplace. Currently, about 41% of trans people and 31% of non-binary people have experienced a hate crime because of their gender identity in the past year, and half of the trans and non-binary employees have hidden or disguised their identity at work for fear of discrimination (Stonewall UK). The government, unfortunately, has been of little help either, the Johnson administration had scrapped their plans for easier gender change in favor of “safeguarding female-only spaces, including refuges and public lavatories, to stop them being used by those with male anatomy.” (Shipman)

Threatened by both the implications of British colonial history and the political movements emerging in the U.K, the movement for gender equality in the workplace and elsewhere has a long way to go before making meaningful change. However, despite the many obstacles hindering its progress, change has already started, as seen by the victory against discrimination of non-binary and gender fluid workers. Perhaps, these small steps will create larger implications within the entirety of Europe, defeating the toxicity surrounding the fight for trans and non-binary rights

Works cited:

Wareham. “Non-Binary People Protected By U.K. Equality Act, Says Landmark Ruling Against Jaguar Land Rover.” Forbes. September 17, 2020. September 27th, 2020.

Trans People in the U.K.” Government Equalities Office. 2018

Truss. “Response to Gender Recognition Act (2004) consultation.” U.K. Parliament. September 22, 2020.

Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century.” UNDP. 2019

Al-Kadhi. “Opinion: How Britain’s colonial past can be traced through to the transphobic feminism of today.” The Independent. June 10, 2020. September 27th, 2020

Biswas. “How Britain tried to ‘erase’ India’s third gender.” BBC News. May 31, 2019. September 25th, 2020.

Brown. “JK Rowling accused of transphobia after backing Maya Forstater.” The Times. December 20, 2019. October 25, 2020.

Bachmann, Gooch. “LGBT in Britain. Trans Report.” Stonewall UK. 2018.

Shipman. “Boris Johnson scraps plan to make gender change easier.” The Sunday Times. June 14, 2020. September 26, 2020.

The Guardian view on the Gender Recognition Act: where rights collide | Editorial.” The Guardian. October 17, 2018. September 27, 2020.

Breznican. “J.K. Rowling Defends Trans Criticism as Harry Potter Stars Rebel.” Vanity Fair. June 10, 2020. September 27, 2020.

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