The current EHRC Code of Practice on ‘Services, public functions and associations’ says that whether or not any given trans-identifying man should be admitted to a women-only space is something that should be decided on a “case-by-case” basis, and it has been argued in court that this is what the law requires. It sounds quite reasonable, in the abstract: people should make nuanced decisions tailored to the individual circumstances, rather than blindly following blanket rules. What’s not to like about that?
The Equality Act 2010 isn’t as clear as it might be on this question – and as a result, the forthcoming EHRC guidance is eagerly anticipated. While we wait for that, I want to walk through how “case by case” might work in practice. I’ll take one everyday example, a gym.
I want to think about Louise. Louise is a 25-year-old gym employee, sometimes running fitness classes and sometimes doing a stint on reception. She has an industry-recognised Level 3 qualification in Personal Training. She’s a keen competitive windsurfer, and she plays for a local women’s rugby team.
One day Jill, a trans-identifying male arrives at the gym to take out membership. Jill is wearing make-up and women’s clothes, but has a deep voice and a hint of stubble, and is obviously male. After completing membership formalities, Jill says “You may be able to tell I’m trans. I assume there’s no objection if I use the women’s changing room?” The women’s changing room has a main space with pegs along the walls, communal showers, and a wall of lockers; and a few curtained cubicles for women who want more privacy. Most users change in the main space.
What’s Louise to do? What are the criteria on which she should decide whether Jill should be allowed to use the women’s changing room? Should she ask whether Jill has a GRC? Or what treatment Jill has had – hormone treatment, or surgery? Or should she treat that as intensely personal information that she can’t possibly ask about? But if so – how else is she to decide? Is she supposed to make an assessment of how successfully Jill “passes” as a woman? Or perhaps how much effort Jill has made to “pass”? Is she supposed to try to guess how likely it is that other users of the changing room will realise that Jill is male? Is her decision just about Jill, or should she also take into account considerations about the demographics of the gym’s membership – how many of the gym’s female users are middle-aged, or members of religious faiths in which modesty is particularly important? Is she supposed to be able to make this assessment on the fly, or should she ask Jill to come back another day after she’s had a chance to consider all the relevant circumstances and ask for any evidence and conduct any follow-up investigations she thinks necessary? And once Louise has made her assessment, are all the other receptionists supposed to abide by it – or do they have to do their own assessment each time Jill visits the gym? Is the “case” in question Jill, or this particular visit by Jill on this particular occasion?
Suppose Louise agrees that it’s ok for Jill to use the women’s changing room. Suppose Richard, who’s been a member of the gym for some years, overhears the exchange and says “Oh! I didn’t know that was allowed. I’m a woman too, actually, so I assume it’s also ok for me to use the women’s changing room?” Richard is dressed – as usual – in male business attire; he pops into the gym in his lunch-hour from the bank over the road where he works.
Now what? If Louise says yes to Jill but no to Richard, why’s that? Is it because she knows Richard, and has always known him as a man? Is it because Richard is dressed as a man, and is making no effort at all to “pass” as a woman? Should her decision be different if Richard confides in her that he has already transitioned in his home life, and his real name is Madeleine, but he’s still trying to get up his nerve to transition at work; but because he is really a woman – even though presenting as male for work purposes – he should be allowed to use the women’s facilities? Or suppose Richard says he’s genderfluid, and sometimes comes to work in “girl mode” – and asks if it’s ok for him to use the women’s changing rooms on those days?
It’s obvious – surely – that it’s not fair to put Louise in this position. She can’t be expected to make a “case by case” assessment. That conclusion doesn’t depend on any particular assumptions about her level of education: it’s no different if she’s working part-time in the gym while she completes her PhD in gender studies.
So now suppose you’re the gym owner – or if the gym’s part of a big chain, the chain’s general counsel. Louise is still at the sharp end of this: you’ve got to decide how to help her out. What policy are you going to tell her to follow? Are you going to take the decision out of her hands and give it to someone more senior? You could ask trans customers to fill in a form explaining their particular circumstances, and making a case for why they should be allowed to use the facilities provided for the opposite sex. You could ask them to provide evidence; maybe a copy of their GRC; a GP report; testimonials from friends or relatives. And then a manager could make the “case by case” decision on the basis of that information.
Good luck with that. Your trans customers will complain – with some justice – that the process is slow, humiliating and intrusive. They may object to being asked to produce documentation that other customers don’t have to produce – they may say you have no right even to ask whether they have a GRC. You don’t ask your other customers to fill in a lot of paperwork to explain why they should be allowed to use the facilities they want to use.
It’s not going to work, is it? Once you go to the trouble of imagining the practicalities on the ground of a “case by case” approach, you can see what an impossible thicket of difficulty it presents.
You can run a parallel thought experiment with any other single-sex space you care to think of: the practicalities of attempting a “case by case” assessment don’t get any easier. In some cases they get harder. If it’s admission to a women’s refuge in the middle of the night, then necessarily the decision is urgent and has to be made in a hurry – and the consequences for other traumatised users of the service are more serious if you get it wrong. In a gym, some of your female users may simply self-exclude if you let males use the female changing rooms. That’s bad enough – a service they value and that is good for them is effectively put out of their reach. But female inmates in prison don’t have the luxury of being able to vote with their feet: if your case by case assessment admits a trans-identifying male, you may be exposing them to chronic fear for the duration of their sentence. If it’s the ladies’ toilets at the nightclub, there isn’t even any plausible moment in the “customer journey” at which a case by case assessment might be made.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. What you need at your gym is women’s facilities, for women only, with no exceptions; men’s facilities, for men only, with no exceptions; and a sufficient number of single-user changing rooms for anyone who for whatever reason – and no-one need inquire what that reason is – isn’t comfortable using the facilities provided for their sex. That way no-one is excluded, no-one is asked intrusive questions – but also, no naked or half-dressed woman will be surprised by the unwelcome presence of a man. Everyone can get changed in peace.
Note: not all the LFs are comfortable with the use of male pronouns for even a hypothetical a trans-identifying male. But they haven’t censored this blog, because we don’t all agree on everything, and we value dissent.