What’s going on with the UK’s Gender Recognition Act?
The UK government is currently holding a public consultation to reform its 2004 Gender Recognition Act.
Currently, trans people wishing to legally change gender have to provide extensive documentation to a Gender Recognition Panel.
The documentation must show the applicant is at least 18 years old and has been living as their preferred gender for over two years. They must also have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. If they are married, their spouse needs to also give consent for them to change gender.
If they have all their documentation in order, the panel – who they don’t meet – grants them legal recognition of their true gender.
However, trans people want to be able to change their gender by ‘self-identification’.
They say the current process is long, costly and overly-bureaucratic. They say too many get turned down by the panel, and appealing any decision is near impossible. The process has put off many trans people from even applying for legal recognition.
On the other hand, self-identifying would be a far simpler process. It would not require a medical diagnosis, could include recognising non-binary identities and be accessible to 16–17 year olds.
‘Having known since I was two that I was male,’ says trans activist Jake Graf, ‘being forced to gather “proof” to that effect felt demeaning. The considerable financial cost and the knowledge that if I “failed” there was no appeal process made the experience unpleasant, stressful and time consuming.
‘That was ten years ago, and as neighboring countries embrace the right to self identify as trans, the UK is falling behind in terms of transgender rights and needs an update.’
UK government advised to update the act
In 2017, the UK government carried out an ‘LGBT survey’. It concluded current legislation is not adequately serving trans people. Indeed, only 12% of trans respondents who had started or completed their transition had used the Gender Recognition process.
A cross-party advisory group advised the government to allow trans people to self-identify. To the surprise of some, Prime Minister Theresa May, leader of the Conservatives, said she was in favor of updating the act. The Government launched the current consultation.
Yet some critics are unhappy with these plans. They argue it will give men who are sexual predators free reason to enter women’s only spaces such as changing rooms and toilets.
However, although the plans might seem radical to some, several other countries have already implemented such legislative change without incident. They are as follows.
• Ireland – Gender Recognition Bill (2015)
A person over the age of 18 can change their gender by way of a ‘statutory declaration’. A report published in 2017 found 297 trans people had been issued with gender recognition certificates since the bill was updated in 2015.
• Malta – Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (2015)
A person over the age of 16 can change their gender by way of a ‘statutory declaration’.
• Norway – Legal Gender Amendment Act (2016)
Any person over the age of 16 can change their gender and name by submitting a short document to the local tax office. Young people between 6 and 16 can access the process if at least one parent consents to it
• Argentina – Gender Identity Law (2012)
A person over the age of 18 can change their name and gender by submitting a document to the National Bureau of Vital Statistics. The law also gives adults access to sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy as a part of their public or private health care plans.
• Portugal – Gender identity law (2018)
A person over the age of 16 can change their gender by making a statutory declaration. The legislation also makes it illegal to perform unnecessary surgery on intersex babies.
• Belgium – Legal Gender Recognition Law (2017)
A person from the age of 16 can change their gender by submitting a document to the civil registry. The process includes a three-month waiting period.
Clearly, for some countries, the proposals being debated in the UK are not new or controversial.
Not allowing people to self-identify
When a person’s legal documentation does not match their preferred gender it can cause significant harm. In 2015 Vikki Thompson, an English trans woman, was sent to a men’s prison in Leeds. She died by suicide in November of the same year, after warning authorities that being placed in a men’s prison would be detrimental to her health.
Not only does the current law harm trans people but advocates for updating the GRA says services that cater to women would be largely unaffected by the changes.
In Scotland, which is covered by the act, a collection of organisations, including Zero Tolerance, Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland, published their views on updating the Gender Recognition Act.
In regards to how proposed legislation will affect their services, they collectively state: ‘We are not aware that any women’s organisation or group currently in our networks requires sight of a birth certificate in order to grant access to services or membership. All access to membership and services is based on self-identification.’
‘Single sex spaces are protected by all sorts of laws,’ says Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch. These laws include the Equality Act, public order acts and acts around gross indecency.
‘None of these will change. No one is advocating for single-sex spaces to be eliminated.
‘Single sex spaces, like women’s refuges, undertake risk assessments to determine who is safe to enter. They have to do this, otherwise they could unwittingly unleash an abusive or violent lesbian on their female partner who is seeking refuge. That won’t change.’
The deadline to participate in the UK’s government’s consultation is 11pm this Friday (19 October).
Any members of the British public can respond. LGBT advocacy charity Stonewall has published advice about how to complete the consultation. The consultation is particularly interested in hearing from trans people or those from organisations who provide gender-specific services.