I’m currently writing up a section of my thesis that describes trans people’s experiences of navigating the public health system in the UK. A large part of this is related to the “real life test”, a stage of treatment which patients are required to live for a period of time in their “acquired gender” in order to demonstrate that they are suitable candidates for hormone therapy and/or surgery.
This requirement (which, incidentally was absent from the latest version of the international World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care) has a lot of issues. These include the prioritisation of cisnormative standards, little-to-no recognition of non-binary identities, white-centric cultural insensitivity, and the frequent demand that patients hold down “an occupation” as part of the test (particularly pernicious in a time of high unemployment).
It was therefore very interesting to see MPs questioning the idea of the real life test during the fourth and final session of the UK Parliament Women & Equalities Committee’s inquiry into transgender equality earlier this week. The conversation, in which MPs quizzed Ministers and NHS England representative Will Huxter, went as follows:
Jess Phillips MP:
“I think I’d like to go back again to this idea of living in one gender identity: I wonder if you can tell me – clinically – what ‘living like a woman’ – or alternatively, man – actually means?”
“I’m not a clinician I can’t tell you what that’s – ”
Jess Phillips MP:
“Do you think that there is a clinical way to live as a woman? Or a man?”
“The point I am making is that we are guided by specialists who work in this area, the clinical consensus among gender identity specialists about how services should operate. We are absolutely open to looking at how that might change, but I’m not in a position to make a change to the way in which those services are commissioned without having gone through a clinical process”.
Maria Miller MP:
“Mr Huxter, sorry, I think we’re going to have to press you on that. Is – this is just factual, we have read that people have to ‘live like a woman’ or ‘live like a man’, we as a committee have struggled to know what that looks like in a day and age where men and women live in very similar ways. What do you – factually – what does that mean?”
“Well in terms of what is required by the clinic I’d be very happy to provide some details from clinical colleagues after this because it’s not – I don’t deliver the services nor am I a clinician. I feel I could give a better representation to the committee if I provided that outside.”
Maria Miller MP:
“Is the Minister comfortable with the fact that the government requires this information to be available, or that individuals have to live ‘like a man’ or ‘live like a woman’ in order to be able to change their identity?”
Jane Ellison MP:
“Well, I mean, put as you put it to us, I mean obviously you know it gives cause for concern in a sense that, you know, who wouldn’t have sympathy for someone put in that situation etc , clearly the committee has heard I know some really difficult evidence and I quite understand why you wish to reflect that. I mean I think that as Will has said you know there is actually currently a review going on anyway about this very issue, which is essentially about looking at the current guidelines, about understanding that represents current better practice, about giving some challenge to that. There are a number of – compared to even five years ago – there wasn’t a mechanism for the NHS to receive that sort of, you know, feedback from critical friends or otherwise. Those now exist, the transgender network has been set up, the various stakeholder groups that are, you know, really locked into the process. So I think what I’m saying is I don’t think there is ever, you know, clinical understanding of situations is rarely completely frozen in time, I mean this one particularly isn’t, because for a lot of people this is a very new speciality, and therefore I would imagine over the next ten years for example, the next few years, you will see an evolution. And that process is underway, which is exactly why the NHS is consulting and is looking at, particularly at its clinical, you know, specification. That process is actually going on at the moment and, as Will has said, very open to the committee’s recommendations being fed into that. But I know I’m not a clinician too, and I know from other areas of my portfolio perhaps better than this one because I’ve been doing it longer, I do know that you do need to test. Because once you commission to a standard, once you’ve got that, you know you do, you need to make sure you’ve tested your views, and that you actually capture a clinical consensus, because that’s the only way you can move forward. But that consensus will evolve.”
Jess Phillips MP:
“Okay, I just – from the Minister – just, I suppose, what I’m looking to hear, is that you recognise that there is not a single list of attributes that represents what it is to be a woman and/or a man; and therefore, there cannot be a clinical list of things that a person can be told to do by a doctor in order to tick those boxes. Do you recognise that fact?”
Jane Ellison MP:
“Well I understand what you’re saying and I think that it would be very helpful if we – subsequent to this hearing – write to the committee with some – with an example from a clinician operating in the field as to what they would mean by that, because obviously you know people are sitting down with individual people and saying, you know, requiring them to do that and they must have an idea of what that requirement is, what that looks like. So I think we should ask the question of clinicians and supply the committee with some, perhaps some examples, obviously anonymised, of where that’s already happening in clinical practice, and what that looks like.”
You can watch the footage here.
All of this is relevant to the law – in addition to clinical practice – because of the current functioning of the Gender Recognition Act. In order to gain “full” legal recognition as female or male (non-binary options aren’t available) people who have transitioned are required to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). In addition to £140, a whole load of paperwork and scrutiny from the national Gender Recognition Panel (no, really), individuals wishing to acquire a GRC need clinical approval. It’s no wonder that many trans people simply refuse to play along, leading to consequences such as the Tara Hudson case.
As it turns out, there is an answer to be found in the clinical literature. Charing Cross GIC clinical lead James Barrett has the following to say on the subject of the real life test in his book, Transsexual and Other Disorders of Gender Identity: A Practical Guide to Management:
“The question immediately arises of what constitutes ‘success’ in a chosen gender role. In essence, ‘success’ amounts to occupation, sexual, relationship and psychological stability. Of these, the first can be measured by whether or not the patient can manage to hold down a full-time (or equivalent part-time occupation in the chosen role for a year, in the course of the real life experience […] ‘Success’ in an occupation is achieved if the patient is treated by most others as if they are of the assumed sex. It is not necessarily that those around the patient believe that they are that sex […] Rather than being believed to be the assumed sex, the goal should be taken as an treated as that sex.”
“Some patients fiercely maintain that they do not care what others think of them, and that their own conviction of their gender is what matters. This position is at odds with the philosophy of a real life experience and if followed seems not to be predictive of a good longer-term outcome.”
Barrett further qualifies that “success cannot occur within a “purely transvestite or transsexual environment”, because “others may be supranormally accepting”.
So there you have it: “living as a woman” or “living as a man” means being taken as such within a cis environment. A very postmodern basis for clinical excellence!
And some examples of questions which James Barrett’s clinic feel are necessary to ask patients, presumably either as a diagnostic tool or so that they can establish sexual “success” in “chosen role”: “how often do you masturbate?” and “does your partner caress your penis?”
(Examples from recordings of consultations at “the largest GIC in Europe” in an academic paper – sadly the paper was looking at how sexual questions are asked, and does not address the question of why the GIC needed this information at all)