British scientist Frank Little (also known as Franz Little) and his wife, at their home in Rosyth, Scotland, circa 1957. In November 1957, Little announced his desire to live his life as a woman and to remain with his wife, only as her sister, to raise their children together. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive)

Til trans do us part

Trans widows deserve legal protection for their right to consent

Artillery Row

Transwidows just aren’t sexy enough to get public sympathy — they’re the (usually middle-aged) women left in the shadows when their husbands transition to become their “wives”. Few politicians will even deign to acknowledge that such women exist, let alone fight in their corner. But last week the government afforded them a shred of recognition by rejecting a recommendation that would have seen transwidows trapped in marriages to which they didn’t consent.

Under the chairship of Conservative Caroline Nokes MP in December 2021, the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) released a report into the reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). The committee called for the removal of spousal consent from the GRA. Thankfully for transwidows, the government effectively told them to wind their collective necks in.

The function of the clause was summed-up by WESC: “The spouse of the transitioning partner has to complete a statutory declaration stating that they agree to the marriage/civil partnership continuing after the applicant has completed their legal transition. Applicants who do not have their spouse’s consent, may be awarded an interim GRC which can be used by either party as grounds to annul the marriage.”

Transwidows are known as such because they are almost always women

This does not prevent anyone from undergoing medical procedures, changing their clothes or name it simply means that both parties have to agree before the status of their marriage is changed on the issuing of a gender recognition certificate. It is worth remembering that transwidows are known as such because they are almost always women. Just as with the purchase of a boat or sports car, it tends to be men who hit middle age only to discover their “inner-woman” lurking in a pair of six-inch stilettos. The partners and children of such men are generally relegated to the role of accessories, expected to suppress any misgivings to prop-up their husband’s new identity as “wife”.

One small crumb of comfort is the clause allowing wives to exit the marriage, which is particularly important for those from communities where same-sex relationships are frowned upon. But this mutual agreement has been widely misconstrued as a “spousal veto” thanks to the campaigning efforts of transgender advocacy groups. Moreover, transwidows who don’t joyfully embrace their spouses’ new identities are all too frequently portrayed as spiteful, bitter harpies.

The reasoning is rooted in the idea of nagging wives as ‘chattels’ undeserving of pesky rights

In its December report, WESC argued that it should only be necessary to “notify” a transwidow rather than to gain her consent. The rationale for this was colourfully described by Cat Burton from trans lobby group GIRES who said the “spousal veto” could be used “to hold the trans person hostage”. Similarly, Dr Jane Hamlin from the Beaumont Society argued that “someone else should not be able to shackle them in this sort of way”. The right of a transwidow to not have her relationship (and by extension her sexuality) legally changed is apparently not only irrelevant, but potentially abusive. There’s a dark echo of the patriarchal past to this the reasoning is rooted in the idea of nagging wives as “chattels”, undeserving of consideration or pesky rights.

And yet the campaign to remove transwidows’ rights has been popular across the political spectrum. As the founder of the Trans Widows Voices told The Critic:

“A very effective propaganda war has been waged by trans rights activists who created the myth of the spousal veto. Politicians of all parties have taken their word about the law, rather than go to the trouble to read it themselves. Jess Phillips MP called it ‘awful’, Crispin Blunt MP said it gives us ‘extreme control over our exes’ autonomy’, and Baroness Barker submitted a bill in the House of Lords to abolish it.

“Surely they must realise that there are two parties in these marriages? But it is as if trans widows do not exist to them. It is only recently that we have begun to be seen as stakeholders in a situation that should be at least 50 per cent about us.”

Thankfully the government agreed. In its response to the WESC, it was clear: “A marriage or civil partnership is a contract between two individuals, the nature of which cannot be changed without the consent of both parties. For this reason, we consider it is equitable for the ‘spousal consent’ requirement to remain in place.”

Additionally, it addressed the misconception that the spousal exit clause is a veto:

“Spousal consent does not mean that a spouse can prevent their partner from securing a GRC. It is a safeguard for the non-transitioning spouse to decide whether they want their marriage or civil partnership to continue before their partner is granted a GRC. It is right that both parties should have an equal say in the future of their marriage or civil partnership, given transition can fundamentally change its nature.”

Underscoring airy discussions about rights is a hard reality. The desire to change one’s identity is personal, but taking steps to do so is a social matter requiring the participation of others. Families, friends and colleagues are socially obliged, and in some cases legally compelled, to play along. For the comfort of the person who identifies as trans, language must be changed, opinions left unspoken and misgivings buried. That a legal contract based upon mutuality, a marriage, could be changed at the behest of one party does not speak of oppression, but of privilege.

When politicians champion a legal change to strip women of their rights, it demonstrates how trendy causes can push worthy ones from the political agenda. That even self-identified feminists, like Jess Phillips MP, pushed to remove this most basic right of transwidows, calling it a “spousal veto”, shows how effective transgender lobby groups have been at reframing women as abusers.

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