In Depth

How hard is it to change your gender in the UK?

Scotland puts transgender reforms on hold following outcry

The Scottish government has delayed controversial plans to make it easier for transgender people to have their identity legally recognised.

The Times reported last week that Holyrood was “poised to introduce laws enabling transgender people to decide their gender without medical certification”. The new law was expected to be announced this month, but now the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) has backtracked, saying more consultation was needed to build “maximum consensus”.

The row over the plans in Scotland reflects a deeply divisive debate across the UK on the issue of gender recognition. Last year, a UK government consultation on changing the law on gender recognition received more than 10,000 responses. 

Equalities Minister Baroness Williams told Pink News that the “sheer strength of feeling” among those objecting to the reforms “took me aback”, while The Daily Beast describes the debate in Britain as “poisonous”. So how hard is it to change your legal gender - and should the process be simpler?

What is the current procedure for changing legal gender?

Under the Gender Recognition Act (2004), transgender people across the UK can legally change the gender that they were assigned at birth to reflect their preferred gender identity. To do so, they must satisfy a panel that they have, or have had, gender dysphoria, reports the BBC. Two medical reports confirming the diagnosis are required.

In addition, the applicant must prove they have lived as the gender they wish to have recognised for at least two years, and make a formal declaration that they intend to continue to do so for the rest of their life.

What was Scotland proposing?

According to the BBC, the Scottish government views the current process as “outdated and intrusive”, and wants to move to self-declaration. Applicants would no longer need to have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria nor to prove they have lived as their “acquired gender” for two years. Instead, they would have to live in that gender for just six months before being granted recognition.

The plans would have brought Scotland in line with nations including Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Argentina and Iceland, which all recognise self-declared gender identity.

What do opponents of the plan say?

Former Tory vice-chair for women Maria Caulfield has argued that the concerns of women’s groups are being ignored. These allegedly include worries that men who had not had gender reassignment surgery might end up in women’s prisons or “invading” other women-only spaces. It has also been claimed that men might be able to get onto all-women shortlists for jobs simply by declaring themselves to be female.

Caulfield says that attempts to debate the implications of liberalised gender identity laws have been shut down - an accusation repeated by dozens of academics in a letter to The Guardian last October.

However, The Daily Beast insists that many of the concerns cited by critics of the plan are “shadow arguments” rooted in overblown fears rather than facts. The US-based news site notes that under the 2010 Equality Act, transgender people in Britain already have the right to use their preferred bathroom – apparently without issue.

In Scotland, politicians have voiced concerns that “conflating sex with gender identification affects a wide range of policy and service delivery, including data collection, education, health and social care, justice and sport”, and therefore should not be “rushed”.

Meanwhile, Ireland introduced legislation to allow people to self-declare their gender in 2015. Although there is no quantitative research yet on the outcome, anecdotal evidence from activists suggests the reforms have had “the significant knock-on effect of a reduction in mental distress”, writes Libby Brooks writes in The Guardian.

The newspaper has not found any evidence that the law change had led to “individuals – in particular teenagers – being pressured to undertake medical transition, or men falsely declaring themselves female in order to invade women-only spaces, as some feminist activists have feared”, Brooks adds.

What next in England and Wales?

In November 2018, Minister for Women Victoria Atkins promised that a government response to the consultation would be ready in “spring next year”, Pink News reports. No such has report has been released as yet, however.

In March, Equalities Minister Williams said the Government was still considering its response but would move forward with plans to change the law “in the next 12 months”.


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