In conversation: The shadow minister and Europe’s only transgender MP
By Jane Fae
As the UK equal marriage debate heated up, I sat in on a meeting between Anna Grodzka, at present Europe's only known transgender MP, and Kate Green, Labour frontbencher with responsibility for equalities.
Both were elected recently – in 2011 and 2010, respectively – but went to national parliaments following very different paths. Grodzka arrived at the Polish parliament for the left-liberal Palikot party while Green sat in Westminster. But while the passing of a gay marriage bill suggests British MPs are far ahead of their Polish counterparts, the challenges facing the legislatures are broadly the same.
Grodzka was in the UK to give the 2013 lecture for the annual Kaleidoscope Trust IDAHOT event. Back in Poland, she's been active on two fronts: attempting to introduce measures to provide for equal marriage and for recognition of gender identity, akin to that achieved in the UK the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Both, however, are currently blocked.
In respect of the latter, she is, she says “influenced strongly by the UK legislative model”. But she adds, pointedly: "This is not ideal. If I had free range in this, I would introduce the Argentinean model".
The difference is significant. The UK model, emerging from a view of transgender as a medical condition, is hemmed in at every point by medical and psychiatric gatekeepers, who determine whether an individual is genuinely 'trans' and allow access to the next stage in the transition process, but only subject to stringent conditions. Gender is determined by 'experts'. The Argentinean perspective, because it has emerged more recently, is also based on more recent thinking, which sees transgender as a condition that most individuals understand far better than so-called experts – not something in need of such fierce external control.
"In Argentina, it is the right of every human being to be themselves: your identity, including your gender identity, is your property and it is not up to the state to set rules and regulations around it," Grodzka says. "The system now in place is based on individual self-awareness, and is not subject to psychiatric intervention.
"Equally, the demand for intervention through gender re-assignment surgery is not subject to such stringent medical conditions: it is far more a matter of managing funds relative to demand."
Would the UK Labour party be prepared to adopt a similar route? Green, who was not in parliament when the original Gender Recognition Act was drafted, accepted that current legislation was not perfect.
Some of the objections are historical and mesh closely with debate around equal marriage, not least because it was agreed in 2004 that same sex marriage was not on the cards. Those acquiring a gender recognition certificate (GRC) were forced to divorce before they could do so.
The problem? One block on acquiring a GRC was the objection of an existing marriage partner – and the odds of such an objection cropping up were seriously enhanced by the fact that in the event of such a "conversion" of marital status that individual's survivor pension rights were drastically reduced.
Those, though, are technicalities – alongside the cost, the difficulty and the trauma brought about by such a procedure. Green introduced a number of amendments in committee to deal with these issues, which she dropped last week when, finally, the government saw sense and tabled amendments of its own.
More fundamentally, though, there is a growing disquiet within the trans community that one's gender should be subject to partner objection, payment of a fee and a bunch of faceless bureaucrats and medical personnel with no direct experience of the individuals involved. Would Labour now be prepared to adopt the Argentinean position on gender identity?
Green wasn't giving any commitments, but she did have this to say: "Public opinion has moved very fast on equal marriage. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that we would be seeing anything more than civil partnerships for same sex couples for the foreseeable future: yet here we are now, on the eve of passing legislation to allow same sex marriage. It seems likely that the day will come when we look more closely at the Argentinean model."
For Grodzka, having only such problems to deal with would be a welcome change. While she says she's learned from the problems in UK legislation, neither of her proposed bills seems likely to make any progress any time soon. The marriage bill in particular is mired in constitutional debate, as opponents claim that Article 18 of the present Polish Constitution, which provides state protection for marriage, also has the effect of expressly forbidding same sex unions.
Hers is a lonely struggle. Just two months ago, along with the only openly gay member of the Sejm, Robert Biedron, Grodzka occupied the parliamentary front benches. They were protesting at remarks by former president of the Republic , Lech Walesa, that homosexuals belonged on the backbenches – at best.
She said: "There is much talk of tolerance, and how that is growing in Poland. But I am not interested in tolerance. I want acceptance: for that, above all else, is key."
Change may – or may not – be coming. Elections in Poland, as in the UK, are scheduled for 2015. The choice is likely to be between left and right, with a victory for the left meaning both bills are likely to find parliamentary time. Success by the right means her efforts will have reached a dead end.
"Events in the UK over the past ten years – legislation on civil partnerships, gender recognition, and now the heart-warming progress to recognise same sex marriage – remind us never to give up on the fight for equality," Green assures her.
"Society is ready to move forward; this is a tide that can't be stopped."