Moving abroad is never an easy process, especially in the midst of a pandemic that casts uncertainty on all of our futures. But for a trans person like me, moving to a new city or country is filled with difficulties that cisgender people neither think about, nor anticipate. I have lived in the UK my whole life and have been living as an out and proud transgender man for over four years now. In the time since I came out of the closet, the British media has been filled with lies and vitriol about every single aspect of our lives, from accusing transgender men of being confused lesbians, transgender women of being predators and transgender adults of brainwashing children into being transgender. There has been a sharp rise in articles written by so-called ‘gender-critical activists’ – for those unfamiliar, this term is simply a smoke screen beneath which straightforward transphobia is hidden.
The uptick in transphobic articles in UK newspapers from the Sun to the supposedly impartial BBC was triggered by the 2018 government proposal to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in order to make the process fairer, less expensive and more straightforward. The Gender Recognition Act is a piece of legislation which allows transgender people in Britain to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) which in turn allows you to acquire a new birth certificate under your correct name and gender.
At present, the process is lengthy and invasive, requiring nine pieces of evidence of two years of living under your new legal name, beginning with your deed poll, a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria from an approved medical practitioner, a medical report detailing any treatment you have had and a statutory declaration that you intend to live in your acquired gender until your death, made before a solicitor. These documents and a fee of £140 are then sent off to the Gender Recognition Panel who decide whether you meet the criteria to get a GRC.
A diagnosis of gender dysphoria can be obtained at either an NHS or a private gender identity clinic, but the target waiting time of 18 weeks for the NHS is purely wishful thinking – in practise, getting your first appointment can take upwards of two years. For some, the alternative is spending hundreds of pounds to go to a private clinic and considerably speeding up the process, but not everyone has this option. Thankfully, a GRC is not required to change your name and gender on passports or driving licenses, nor does it impact our access to single sex spaces.
According to the consultation on GRA reform, trans people largely wanted GRCs in order to avoid being outed, to be able to marry under their correct gender and to simply feel legally validated in their gender. A majority of respondents were in favour of the removal of both the requirement for medical evidence, which is incredibly personal information on a highly individual journey, and the evidence of having lived in the acquired gender for a period of time. The last type of evidence proves to be an issue for many people who do not want to change their name separately to their gender marker – and changing documentation at different times requires a prolonged period of being consistently outed when showing documents.
The proposed changes would have made a world of difference to the quality of life for trans people in the UK, but thanks to transphobic individuals and organisations the conversation about GRA reform became conflated with the Equality Act. Through fear mongering, trans people were exposed to unprecedented levels of harassment. This was influenced by celebrities such as Graham Linehan, who has been outwardly transphobic for years, and JK Rowling, who has used her sizable platform to stir up panic surrounding trans women – who are, in fact, one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in the world.
Three years of uncertainty following the Gender Recognition Act drew to a conclusion around the same time I was preparing to move to Vienna. The consultation results were released and the government announced that they were moving the process online and that the cost would be reduced to an unspecified “nominal fee”. As a trans man, I find this frustrating – it changes very little except the cost. The required evidence remains the same and though there has been a pledge to open three new gender clinics, I have little faith that this government will follow through on something that will make a material difference to the trans community. Three years of increased harassment, transphobia and hate crimes has cost us a lot more than we have gained.
In Austria, the legal situation surrounding trans rights is not hugely different to that in the UK. Gender affirmation surgery is not necessary for a legal gender change, though a dysphoria diagnosis is needed. In some respects, the law is more progressive than UK law. For instance, there is the option for a third gender on an Austrian passport, but this is currently restricted to intersex individuals, which raises its own issues surrounding the gender binary. Worryingly, transgender individuals do not appear to be covered under anti-discrimination laws that apply to the LGB community and there are no laws on deterring transphobic hate crimes.
Despite this, I have felt safer living in Austria than I have in the UK. Living in a progressive city rather than a conservative village certainly has some impact on this, but beyond that, Vienna is praised for being an accepting city. There are visible signs of queerness in the streets, from traffic lights of same-sex couples holding hands to rainbow zebra crossings. It is easy for me to feel at home in this city. The lack of aggressive and negative media attention means I don’t have to be on my guard as much as I often feel I do at home. In my first month living in Vienna, I have already stumbled upon a queer bookshop and found a trans community. Coming out to my employer was one of the least eventful and stressful coming out experiences I have ever had. It came up in conversation and there was no awkwardness at all.
As a queer person, I will always be more cautious than a cisgender heterosexual man, particularly when wearing a visibly queer outfit. My hyperawareness of my surroundings is something I have lived with my whole life, whether it be due to fears of misogyny or transphobia. But while the situation in the UK is so fraught, I have a special appreciation for the peace and ease with which I can live in Vienna – in this unabashedly supportive and colourful city.