Plans to make it easier and quicker for people to change their gender could be approved before next year’s election, the cabinet secretary responsible for the reforms has said.
Shirley-Anne Somerville said the Scottish Government is “determined” to press ahead with the controversial proposals, which include removing the requirement to provide medical evidence to a panel before you can switch gender.
The draft legislation would also lower the minimum age of applicants from 18 to 16, and reduce the time an applicant has to spend in their new gender before being legally recognised from two years to six months.
Speaking to STV’s Scotland Tonight, with around a month to go of a public consultation on the government’s plans, Somerville insisted she aims to build “maximum consensus” around them.
The draft Bill would keep the stipulation that applicants must make a solemn statutory declaration they have been living in their acquired gender for three months and intend to do so permanently.
A minimum three-month period of reflection between applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and confirming the application would also be introduced as part of the draft legislation.
It would mean applicants must have lived in their acquired gender for a minimum of six months before a certificate is granted – just a quarter of the time people have to wait under the current system.
The Scottish Government insists its proposals are in line with international best practice, but stalled its plans last summer to conduct further consultation amid controversy and resistance, including from within its own ranks.
Chief among the concerns of opponents is that a system of so-called self-identitication, or self ID, will be abused by predatory men to get into women’s spaces, with examples frequently cited including women’s toilets and prisons.
But Somerville said there had been “a lot of misunderstandings” – raised alongside legitimate concerns and questions – about the government’s proposals.
‘We have women’s rights and we have trans rights – I don’t see those aspects as mutually exclusive.’Shirley-Anne Somerville
She told STV: “I absolutely appreciate that women’s rights are exceptionally important.
“They have been long-fought for and long-campaigned on and there is absolutely nothing I would do as a member of this government to jeopardise any of that.
“So that’s why I really do make sure that I listen to the concerns that are out there on the issue, because we not only want to protect what we have as women but we want to make sure our rights are extended.”
She added: “We have women’s rights and we have trans rights – I don’t see those aspects as mutually exclusive.”
The minister emphasised the legal right of people to change gender has been enshrined in law since Westminster passed the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.
“That right has to exist. We are required to have that and I think that’s quite right,” Somerville added.
She continued: “What we’re talking about here isn’t something that’s new. These people are in our community, they’re part of our community.
“But they talk to us very specifically about how the current system deeply impacts on them, about the state of their mental health and particularly the high suicide rates within the trans community because they can’t be recognised for who they are.”
Somerville added: “These may be a small number of people in our Scottish population but their rights are very important.”
The cabinet secretary pledged to “move forward” with the government’s plans despite accepting they had “generated a lot of heat”, and urged people with an interest to contribute to the consultation which ends on March 17.
Asked if the legislation would be passed by the end of this parliament, Somerville answered: “Yes – it can be done in time for next year’s election.”
But one vocal opponent of the plans within the government’s own backbench ranks, SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, claims the measures are “ideological”.
McAlpine said: “It’s a really profound change because you’re expanding the group of people who can change their sex from a small group of people who have gender dysphoria, which is diagnosed, to a much larger group of people who have no medical diagnosis and who could be changing sex for all sorts of reasons.
“It’s an ideological move, not an administrative move.
“We’re just saying this change in the law which says sex is a feeling in your head is unscientific, wrong and dangerous.”
But the Scottish Government officially has support for the principle of self ID from all of Holyrood’s opposition parties except the Scottish Conservatives, despite notable internal divisions on the issue within Scottish Labour.
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “Those battles are not going to be won for progressive values if we see the equality movement fragmented.
“We know that there are forces, particularly on the religious right, who see this issue of trans people’s rights as a wedge to fragment and split an equality movement that is too strong for them to oppose when we are united.
“To see some of the rhetoric that I remember so weirdly from the 80s and 90s, from the Section 28 era, it was directed at gay men, lesbians, bisexual people in those days.
“It is now being directed at trans people with exactly the same venom, and it’s being done in a way that risks fragmenting our community.”
Analysis: ‘This debate has sparked bitter divisions’
By STV political correspondent Ewan Petrie
Few measures have provoked the levels of division, anger and abuse as plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act.
This is a debate that has polarised opinion and split campaign groups.
It is also one where abuse has become a prominent feature.
Much of it is online. Both sides say they are on the receiving end, and both sides condemn it.
It has also become a highly sensitive political issue, with the proposals seeing bitter divisions within different parties – including the SNP which is pushing forward the reforms.
Around 50 of its members set up the Women’s Pledge last year to uphold women’s rights.
It has the support of senior members, who are urging the First Minister not to rush ahead with the plans.
If the new bill becomes law, Scotland would follow countries like Argentina, Malta, Canada and Ireland which have adopted self-identity systems, while changes to the law in England and Wales are being considered.
A public consultation on the proposals ends next month
The Scottish Government would then have to have legislation passed within the next year if it is to avoid this becoming an election issue next May.
‘The current system is offensive and intrusive’
James Morton began his transition as a teenager in the 1990s, before legal rights protecting trans people were put in place.
It was also back when Section 28 was still in force and prevented teachers from providing any information on LGBT issues.
He went on to manage the charity the Scottish Trans Alliance.
“I’m one of the people who has applied for a GRC and I found it really offensive and really stressful trying to get that birth certificate changed,” said James.
“It just felt really humiliating to give that to a panel of strangers for them to decide if I was distressed enough to merit getting my birth certificate changed.”
“What we are asking for is for it to be closer in alignment to how you change your passport – and not have the same level of intrusive medical evidence and psychiatric reports and length of time you have to wait from when you’ve changed everything else.”
‘Trans community is being damaged by self-ID’
Seven Hex transitioned more than 10 years ago.
She feels the removal of a medical diagnosis for people going through the gender recognition process robs them of the chance to have other underlying issues addressed.
“For me the medical process was very appropriate. It worked for me, and I don’t see there is anything particularly wrong with it,” Seven said.
“The original Gender Recognition Act was specifically written for and made for transsexual people, and now that’s being carved up to include anyone and everyone.
“There has been a huge resistance to this and rightly so.
“Self ID isn’t even law and yet many principles are currently in practice.
“We can’t then as transsexuals, with this transgender umbrella over us, escape the criticism.
“We take that flak too, and our reputation has been and is being damaged by self ID and its proponents who seek to use transsexuals as the gateway to legitimise what they have done.”
‘Sixteen is too young to decide to permanently switch gender’
Sinead Watson transitioned to male in her early 20s, believing it would solve many of her issues.
But after a few years living as Sean, she realised she had made a mistake and is now trying to reverse the process.
“I’m not just speaking for myself at this point any more, I’m talking to a lot of other detransitioners,” Sinead told STV.
“There are people who can be so certain in their 20s or their 30s who can still make a mistake.
“The idea that a 16-year-old can sign statutory declarations saying that they intend to permanently live as their acquired gender – I mean, they’re not old enough to smoke, they’re not old enough to drink.
“I find it really concerning that they would deem a 16-year-old emotionally mature and developed enough to have the foresight to say they are going to identify this way for the rest of their lives.”
She added: “I can’t undo what the testosterone has done to me, I can’t undo the double mastectomy.
“I’m only 29 and I need to live with this for the rest of my life, so there is bitterness.”
For more on this debate, tune into Scotland Tonight at 7.30pm on Thursday.