By Naked Politics Team
Scotland has just voted to simplify the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate – the legal recognition of a trans person’s gender identity. What has been hailed as a positive step for trans rights, has been quickly challenged by the UK government who are claiming the draft law would conflict with equality protections applying across Great Britain.
Trans rights have become a regular site of culture-war debates, often thriving on misinformation and sensationalism. Naked Politics decided to spoke to 23 year old Ellie Gomersall the current president of the Scottish National Student Union, an activist and campaigner, to find out what the actual legislation changes are, why the current system isn’t fit for purpose and why trans rights matter not just for trans people but for everyone.
Tell us a bit about the new bill in Scotland; how will it change the lives of Scottish trans people?
In 2016 the leaders all five main parties, including the Conservatives committed to reforming the UK Gender Recognition Act (2004). This bill makes the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate easier; when you think about all the different identity documents most people have like a passport or a driving licence there are different processes for updating them. A gender recognition certificate is about being able to update what it says on your birth certificate.
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Your birth certificate comes into play not necessarily on a daily basis, but during those really important life moments. If you’re getting married it will determine whether you’re recorded as either a bride or groom. When you pass away the only way you can have dignity in death and have your gender recorded correctly on your death certificate is with a gender recognition certificate. The certificate actually was introduced in 2004 because a European Court of Human Rights case in 2002 decided that the UK was violating trans people’s human rights by not allowing us to update what it says on our birth certificates.
The bill doesn’t change anything that a gender recognition certificate does, it just updates the process for getting one. It currently requires undergoing a psychiatric assessment and a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which hasn’t been recognised as a mental illness by The World Health Organisation for quite some time now. Even if I wanted that diagnosis, the state of gender identity clinics in the NHS is so bad that I’ve been waiting for four and a half years just for an initial appointment. If I wanted that document my only option would be to go private and I personally can’t afford that.
This bill removes those very significant barriers. The process currently is not dignified, it’s dehumanising and impossible to access for many trans people.
What do you make of the criticism that has come from Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer that 16 or 17 is “too young” to decide to legally change your gender?
That critique is nonsense. When it comes to updating your passport, there’s no legal age limit, you have to get parental permission if you’re under 18 and in some circumstances that can be waived anyway. 16 year olds in Scotland can get married, join the army, or vote in our elections. This is about updating a small bit of paper that doesn’t come into your life very often.
I don’t think Keir Starmer knows what he’s talking about or has even read the legislation. When you think about for instance Scotland for centuries has had more lenient marriage laws than England; you currently don’t need parental permission at 16 or 17. It resulted in 16 and 17 year olds from England coming to Scotland to get married, and the UK government has never said they won’t recognise marriage certificates in Scotland because the process is different.
The new bill in Scotland requires that you must prove you are permanently living here in order for it to be granted. The fact that the UK government is clamping down now that it’s trans people, it’s really clear that this is an attempt to stoke the flames of the culture war and use trans people as a political weapon in their fight against democracy, and devolution. This is the same Conservative government that is fighting against the democracy of trade unions. It’s clear they are happy to use trans people as a political weapon.
What do you think about the suggestion that the U.K. government is looking to block the bill, and the impact that has not only on trans people in Scotland but also to the relationship between England and Scotland?
Speaking in a personal capacity and not for the NUS which is neutral on issues of independence, I’d say the UK government has a couple of options if a law is passed in the Scottish parliament that they don’t like. They can use section 33 of The Scotland Act which means any legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament that the UK Government doesn’t like can be brought to the Supreme Court to decide if the Scottish Government has the right to legislate on that issue. This has been used a few times before.
But what they’ve done with this bill is use section 35 of The Scotland Act which allows the UK Government to automatically veto the bill. That makes it clear to me that the UK government knows it’s not about whether Scotland has the right to legislate on this issue for Scotland, it’s because they are politically against the legislation. This bill has appeared in the 2016 and 2021 manifestos of four of the Scottish parties so there’s a clear mandate of cross party support. 69% of all members of the Scottish Parliament voted for the legislation, including some conservatives.
It’s an example of clamping down on Scotland’s democracy. There are parallels between who tends to support trans rights and Scottish independence, often younger people. This act will for some in that undecided middle will sway them towards independence because it’s clear there is a democratic deficit for Scotland as a member of the U.K. I think it’s also going to make the case for those who already support independence even stronger.
Trans rights and women rights seem to being framed as though they are in opposition to one another, rather than both part of the same demands for justice. What would you say to people who are insisting that trans rights are somehow a threat to cis women’s safety?
Trans rights and women’s rights are the same fight – they are in harmony and not in opposition to one another. I think the discussion around this particular bill comes down to an issue of bodily autonomy. It’s not a surprise that many of the groups vocally opposed to this bill like the Scottish Family Party for instance are the same groups protesting outside abortion clinics and harassing people trying to access healthcare.
You only have to look across the pond at some of the anti-trans legislation and the impact it’s having not just on trans people but cisgender women too. There are bills going through that require young girls or women partaking in sports to undergo genital checks to prove that they are “really women”. The hostility around this bill and safe spaces feeds into women who aren’t feminine presenting being threatened and assaulted in women’s toilets because people think they are trans. Transphobia doesn’t just hurt trans people, it can hurt everyone in the end.
How has it felt over the last few years as a trans person having to listen to sometimes quite hostile debates about your identity?
Ultimately I’m so much more than just trans. All trans people are just people, we get up each morning, brush our teeth, go to work. The past few years being trans has become something that is being talked about unavoidably- I’m tired of my identity being a political football and being used to fan the flames of this culture war from the Conservative government. All I’m asking for is to live my life and participate in society like everyone else.
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