Why it’s important we all have our say on the Gender Recognition Act

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Moya Crockett
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Friday 19 October is the last day you can respond to the government’s consultation on how transgender people’s gender identity is recognised. Here’s why it matters.

On Friday 19 October, the government will end its consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The Act was originally passed to allow transgender people to change their gender by applying for a document known as a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). At the time, this new legislation was seen as a hugely positive step forward for trans rights.

Fourteen years later, however, many people believe the Gender Recognition Act is seriously out of date. As a result, the government has been consulting on the Act for the last couple of months, asking the general public to have their say on how – or whether – they think it should be reformed. 

What is the Gender Recognition Act 2004?

The Gender Recognition Act allows transgender people to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), a formal document that recognises that they have been diagnosed as suffering from gender dysphoria by a medical practitioner, and that they have lived for two years as a member of the gender they identify with.

Once a person has received a GRC, they can apply for a birth certificate that shows them as being a member of their preferred sex. This then allows them to be treated as a person of that sex under most areas of the law. 

Why do people want the Gender Recognition Act to be changed?

Theresa May has backed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 

Many people, including trans rights groups, Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the government’s Women and Equalities Committee, believe that the current system laid out by the Act is in need of reform.

That’s because getting a GRC is a difficult and costly process. It costs £140 to apply for a GRC, and trans people’s applications must be considered by a panel, who then decide whether they should be given a new birth certificate. Critics of the existing process say that it is unnecessarily intrusive, distressing, bureaucratic and expensive.

The current procedure also forces people to be diagnosed with a psychiatric condition before they can get a GRC, perpetuating the idea that being transgender is a mental illness. (It’s worth remembering that being gay or lesbian was also considered a form of mental disorder for many years: it wasn’t until 1992 that the homosexuality was removed from the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organisation, something that now seems deeply shocking.)  

What is undeniable is that the Gender Recognition Act isn’t fit for purpose. Less than 5,000 people have successfully obtained a GRC since the legislation came into effect, just a fraction of the UK’s estimated trans population of between 200,000 and 500,000.

As a result, they may face difficulties when their birth certificate doesn’t match with their legal status and other identity documents. If the Gender Recognition Act was originally designed to make life easier for trans people, it’s clearly not having the desired effect. 

Why do some people oppose changes to the Gender Recognition Act?

Some people, including some feminist groups such as Fair Play For Women, are worried that introducing a system of gender self-identification could allow abusive men to access spaces where women are vulnerable, simply by declaring themselves to be women.

However, many others – including Labour MP Jess Phillips – have noted that there are robust and “very, very practical” ways to address these concerns without insisting that the Gender Recognition Act remains as it is.

For example, the issue of whether dangerous men could be transferred to women’s prisons by claiming to identify as female could be addressed by more thorough risk assessment procedures – rather than simply refusing to allow any transgender women into women’s prisons at all.

It’s also worth noting that the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act are unlikely to have much real-world impact on whether trans women are able to access spaces such as bathrooms or changing rooms. That’s because – subject to some exemptions, which we’ll come to – all trans women are legally able to access women-only spaces under Section 7 of the Equality Act 2010, regardless of whether they have medically transitioned or received a GRC. 

Women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt launched the consultation into the Gender Recognition Act 

Furthermore, changing the Gender Recognition Act will not affect other important elements of the Equality Act 2010 – such as the section that allows women’s refuges to legally turn anyone away if a risk assessment suggests they would pose a danger to other women in the shelter.

The government itself has emphasised that it has “no intention” of changing the law that allows single-sex spaces, and has stressed that the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act will not affect other legislation protecting women’s rights.

Per women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt: “This consultation simply asks how best government might make the existing process under the Gender Recognition Act a better service for those trans and non-binary people who wish to use it.”

How can I share my thoughts on the Gender Recognition Act?

Visit the government’s official consultation page to share your thoughts before 11pm on Friday 19 October.

Images: Getty Images