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How the Government and the Media Made the Debate on Gender Recognition Toxic


Two gendered figures standing together

Content Warning: This article will discuss current public opinions on transgender issues

Until 2020, transgender individuals had been making positive progress in society. In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act became law, giving transgender individuals the opportunity to apply to a panel to legally change their gender. In 2017, the government under Theresa May pledged to reform the Gender Recognition Act so that transgender individuals would be permitted to change their gender by self-identification. However, by 2020, the positive progress the transgender community had been making towards self-identification faltered as a campaign of new hostility began against the transgender community. First, the government under Boris Johnson’s leadership back-stepped from reforming the Gender Recognition Act. This was compounded when Rishi Sunak's government blocked the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in Scotland.


A wave of anti-transgender sentiment began because of a manufactured media culture. Negative news stories about transgender individuals have sharply risen, which has provoked increasing opposition to further progress for the transgender community.

While neutral and positive coverage has remained largely flat since 2013, the Mail and others have begun to publish a large number of critical pieces. Of the 115 Mail articles on trans issues in January 2023, 100 of them (87%) could reasonably be categorised as negative.

A significant portion of these stories specifically misrepresent the Gender Recognition Act to stoke anti-transgender sentiment, framing it as a danger to single-sex spaces; however, this argument makes little sense. The main function of a gender recognition certificate is to update a person's birth certificate as well as other legal documents and has nothing to do with entering single-sex areas. However, regardless of the factual nature of this argument, the media has continued to misrepresent the Gender Recognition Act to transform public opinion negatively.


In a government consultation in 2020, 70% of respondents supported self-identification. However, as recorded by YouGov, by 2022, only 40% of the public said they supported self-identification, comparatively, 37% were against the idea, and 23% were unsure. Which shows the power of the media to negatively change public opinion. Transgender discourse devolved because of a media culture which misrepresented the Gender Recognition Act, stoking anti-transgender sentiment, leading the government to take an unprecedented step by not only stepping back from reforming the Gender Recognition Act but also by blocking it in Scotland.


The way forward


What transgender individuals need is an honest media culture. Portraying the Gender Recognition Act as it is, as opposed to taking its opponent’s misrepresentations at their word and almost entirely portraying any transgender issues as inherently negative. Only then can reopen a constructive dialogue restart regarding the progression of transgender rights.

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