Comment: Cautious welcome for transgender prison guidelines

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News that guidelines are finally available for the treatment of trans prisoners is good. Not perfect. But definitely good.

First, the fact that we have guidelines at all is good news. As those who have been campaigning in this area for far longer than me will tell the world: we have been waiting nearly 15 years for the Home Office and then the Ministry of Justice to get their act together and sort out guidelines.

Technically, of course, these aren’t Ministry of Justice guidelines: they bear the MoJ crest because they emanate from the National Offender Management Service, which in turn is part of the MoJ – and only apply in England and Wales. But maybe that’s being a bit picky.

On the raw detail, I am going to reserve judgment. There were questions being asked today as to precisely who was consulted: whether the views of Press for Change and GIRES were taken on board; and Green MP, Caroline Lucas, has been poking the minister responsible with a number of finely honed questions.

No matter: rushed consultations do not always mean poor outcomes – and the central issue remains, as those with direct experience of this area get to grips with the fine print, whether what has been put in place is a sensible and humane response to an issue long overdue for sorting out. The feedback, from several activists today, has been one of cautious welcome.

As guidelines go, they appear to recognise the needs of trans prisoners. They accommodate the fact that transition doesn’t stop just because someone committed a crime and got sent to prison, and they put in place a framework that will allow trans prisoners to continue that process, except where there are compelling security reasons for them not to.

The guidelines also recognise officially the issue over where a prisoner should be sent: a prison corresponding to their birth gender will be more or less appropriate according to where they are in their transition. They further go some way towards recognising that the gender recognition certificate and accompanying process is not the be-all and end-all of transition.

Clearly, someone who is both post-op and who has a GRC is in a category of their own: almost certainly beyond the scope of these guidelines anyway, since in law they are now legally recognised for all purposes as possessing their acquired gender. So in a sense, their status in prison is the least interesting.

What the guidelines do manage, is to highlight the complications implicit in transitioning and the many and varied types of trans journey that exist, including post-op without a GRC, pre-op with, as well as pre-op and seriously committed. That is important, since a rigid GRC-focused approach to gender reassignment would always be bound to leave individuals out in the cold, unprotected and at risk of the very abuse that these guidelines are designed to avoid.

The basic outline appears sensible. Female clothing and make-up – as well as relevant prostheses – are permitted to MtF trans prisoners, while there will be no grounds for preventing FtM prisoners from residing in male prisons, once their GRCs have been awarded.

One of the other major good things about these guidelines is the fact that they exist at all: because over the years, one aspect of the press case against transgender has been that “trannies” have privilege. One such privilege, wholly not of our making, has been the way in which some courts have refused to jail trans offenders because of fear of the consequence of what would happen to them in prison.

This has, in large part, been motivated by a lack of guidelines, and hopefully such stories will now become a thing of the past. Not that it will stop the press from looking anywhere and everywhere for evidence of privilege. The Daily Mail was at it yesterday, focusing on padded “bras” for those behind “bars” (get it? It’s a word play!) and make-up for prisoners “with stubble”.

It’s all very predictable and will not prevent those who wish to see pro-trans discrimination from seeing it in any situation, no matter how tenuous. Because the issue, when it comes to prisons, is much the same as the issue that afflicts all (male) transphobic thinking.

First and foremost is a very limited view of what it takes to be one or the other gender. A shock-horror report in the Scottish Sun a couple of weeks back detailed the outrage of a trans woman being sent to a female prison. But, thundered the Sun, she “STILL has a willy”.

But of course: what else could there possibly be to being a bloke than having a cock? Being a woman is every bit as easy: it just means not having one.

Oh dear. A process that takes years, involves some seriously dangerous drugs and hormones, as well as a lengthy psychological adjustment process boiled down to one single act of surgery.

Somewhere in there too is a misplaced male chivalry: because poor defenceless women cannot look after themselves; so it is for men to stand up for them – and all too frequently, it seems to be that those shouting loudest about trans rights impacting upon women are not women themselves, so much as men, taking up the cudgels on their behalf, unsolicited.

To suggest that such chivalry is not just misplaced, but is actually about a continuing male desire to control women and women’s spaces, takes us into deep waters indeed.

We have drifted. The guidelines go into force on March 14th. They have few major cost implications – are likely, in fact, to reduce costs as the UK government doesn’t find itself sued by a procession of increasingly angry trans prisoners. And now that they are in place, they can be amended.

On the whole, they are a good thing.