Reform of the Gender Recognition Act

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 16 Jul 2020

This month the UK Government has said they will publish the much anticipated outcome of the reform of their Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 consultation. In 2018, they asked the public 5 key questions about the current legal process for adults in England and Wales to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). A GRC enables trans people to have their gender recognised in law, and reflected on their birth certificate. The consultation elicited over 100,000 responses and has been hotly debated.

Before any reforms to the law are announced by Government, I am writing to reiterate our position as the nation’s equality body. We know that these are distressing times for many people who are concerned about the impact reforms may have on their lives.  I hope that clarity and openness will help address some of those fears.

Why do we need to modernise the Gender Recognition Act?

Since 2004, the GRA has provided a mechanism for trans men and women to change their legal sex. However, we know that relatively few trans people hold a gender recognition certificate (fewer than 5,000 in 2018 out of a potential which has been estimated as ranging between 200,000 and 500,000).

Like any other process, it’s important that changing the legal recognition of your gender is reviewed, modernised and simplified.

Since our submission to the UK Government’s consultation two years ago, we’ve reflected on the requirement for a spouse or civil partner to agree to their legal relationship continuing when their partner’s gender is legally recognised.

We have given careful consideration to the issue and accordingly slightly amended our previous position in England and Wales.  We’ve shared this view with UK Government. In our view, a full GRC should be issued in circumstances where a spouse or civil partner has been given the opportunity to lodge a formal objection to the legal relationship continuing on the issue of a full GRC but not done so before the lapse of a specified period of time. We believe this approach strikes the correct balance between the trans person’s rights and their spouse’s rights.  

Everyone’s rights must be protected

We know that people have concerns about the reforms of the GRA leading to the removal of single-sex services or women-only spaces. There is no reason why simplifying the process for obtaining a GRC should have an effect on these protected spaces and services, which are covered separately under the Equality Act 2010. That is because the special circumstances set out in the 2010 Act, which allow organisations to treat trans people differently, do not hinge on whether the trans person has a GRC or not. To provide reassurance on this important point, we have written to the Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch MP, to reiterate that GRA reform is needed but that the Equality Act provisions protecting the rights of women to access single-sex services and spaces must be preserved. We think there should be guidance providing more clarity on how single-sex services should work in practice to make sure the law is understood by service users and service providers without ambiguity.

Need for a tolerant debate

The divisive nature of the current debate means that some people feel they need to withdraw from discussions due to the strength of opposition to their views and the toll it takes on their mental health.

We must build an environment where the issues raised by GRA reform can be freely discussed, in an atmosphere of tolerance, dignity and respect. There will always be strong views and differences in opinion and this is the sign of a healthy democracy. But that must stop when it turns into speech that incites aggression or violence. The only way to ensure all our rights are protected in the long-term is to ensure we try to understand each other’s perspective.

We will continue to use our evidence base and listen to the views on all sides to understand the potential impact of reforms.