Scotland’s proposed gender recognition laws explained

The Holyrood bill introducing a system of self-declaration for gender recognition has polarised opinion

Scottish government plans to alter how a transgender person changes the gender on their birth certificate will reach their last legislative stage this week, with amendments to a bill being discussed on Tuesday and the final debate and vote on Wednesday.

What is the gender recognition reform (Scotland) bill?

The bill will introduce a system of self-declaration for obtaining a gender recognition certificate (GRC). It will remove the need for a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria and reduce the time someone must have been permanently living in their gender before they can apply, from two years to three months – or six months for 16- and 17-year-olds. The age at which people can apply has already dropped from 18 to 16.

Proponents of the changes hope they will streamline a process that many transgender people find intrusive and distressing, but not affect the spaces or services they use in their day-to-day lives.

Critics argue that the simplification – also known as self-identification – will fundamentally alter who can access women-only services and leave them vulnerable to abuse by predatory male offenders.

Who supports the bill at Holyrood?

All Holyrood parties except for the Scottish Conservatives are committed to some version of change in their 2021 manifestos, but there has been growing disquiet among a number of SNP and Labour MSPs about the detail and impact of the bill.

The SNP suffered its biggest backbench revolt at stage one of the bill, but with the Scottish Greens making gender recognition changes a key plank of their cooperation agreement with the nationalists, and broad support from Labour and the Lib Dems, the balance of votes remains in the bill’s favour.

The first minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon – who describes herself as “a lifelong feminist” – has remained consistently committed to the changes, insisting that they will not affect women’s rights.

MSPs across all parties have worked on amendments to address concerns about abusive males taking advantage of the new system. But the Scottish Tories say too little time has been allotted to discuss more than 150 proposed changes to the bill, describing it as a “travesty of democracy”.

Discussions about the amendments went on past midnight on Tuesday night, thought to be the longest ever sitting of the parliament, and only half of them were dealt with. Talks will resume on Wednesday afternoon, and it remains unclear whether the final vote will be delayed.

Who else has spoken out about the bill?

The changes have attracted national and international attention and polarised opinion.

On Monday evening, a last-minute session of the Holyrood committee overseeing the bill heard from Reem Alsalem, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, who has previously said the changes “would potentially open the door for violent males who identify as men to abuse the process of acquiring a gender certificate and the rights that are associated with it”.

It also took evidence from Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, who has argued that UN bodies had consistently found “legal recognition of gender identity through self-identification is the most efficient and appropriate way to ensure the enjoyment of human rights”. He also cautioned that attempts to postpone or weaken it could be based on “unfounded negative stereotypes about trans women as violent or predatory”.

The author and campaigner JK Rowling, a longstanding critic of the plans, last week described the bill as “Sturgeon’s poll tax” and opponents are planning a “no to self-ID” demonstration on Wednesday as MSPs vote.

Fifty groups, including Stonewall Scotland, LGBT Youth Scotland and Leap Sports, signed an open letter published on Monday calling for MSPs to back the bill.

An extensive survey for the BBC from February found that the Scottish public were generally sympathetic towards the need for change – younger people far more so – but uncertain about the detail. For example, 51% opposed lowering the age of application to 16, compared with 31% in support.

What does the UK government say?

The UK government – which scrapped its own plans to change gender recognition laws in 2020 when Liz Truss was equalities minister – has made plain its unhappiness about the Holyrood proposals, with briefings warning of “gender tourism” and “legal chaos” should two systems for obtaining a GRC emerge across the UK.

On Monday, Kemi Badenoch, the UK minister for women and equalities, met Shona Robison, her Scottish government counterpart, reportedly to urge her to pause the changes. This bill is devolved, so it is not clear how the UK government could intervene without transgressing the devolution settlement.

There have been previous reports that the UK could refuse to recognise the Scottish certificates, but this would run counter to other international arrangements with, for example, Ireland, which introduced a system of self-declaration in 2015.

How many people will be affected?

About 30 gender recognition certificates are granted to people born or adopted in Scotland each year, and the Scottish government estimates that if the bill passes, this could increase to 250-300 applicants a year.


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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