Equal recognition: How the law on gender recognition is impacting on trans lives

Three voices backing the campaign to change the Gender Recognition Act share their stories with CommonSpace

“THE acceptance by the government of my self-declared gender represents an important validation that my truth is my right to determine, and that the foundation of my life as a woman is secure and protected. I am yet to achieve such validation.” 

Eleanor, aged 61, feels that the current law is one more arbitrary barrier in a life where coming out and being accepted as a woman has been a continuous struggle. Without legal recognition, Eleanor argues, “the government remains an obstacle to overcome, an enemy that causes me fear, rather than an ally that supports me”.

The Scottish Trans Alliance and other LGBT organisations are campaigning for the Scottish Government to update the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The three overarching changes being sought, which relate to changing the gender on a person’s birth certificate, are: to remove the requirement of a psychiatric diagnosis; to lower the age limit from 18 to 16, and allow parental consent for those under 16; and to introduce the option of a non-binary gender (not male or female).

READ MORE – Explainer: the campaign for equal recognition for trans people

Eleanor, Leo and Ezra have all experienced difficulty in their own lives as a result of the restrictions of the law on gender recognition, and have highlighted how the three changes being proposed would benefit them.

Psychiatric diagnosis requirement

Eleanor, a trans woman, has known that she identified as a girl since she was a child. Born in the 1950s, Eleanor recalls being “profoundly harmed by psychiatric pathologisation” of her gender identity.

“The first time [I came out] was when I was just 14 years old. I was threatened with electroshock treatment, so, in terror, I promised never to mention my female gender identity again. This made me feel so awful that I attempted suicide,” she says.

Eleanor didn’t come out again till she was in her 30s, but again she was firmly discouraged by the experience. “[I] was regarded as a sexual deviant by a psychiatrist and was so traumatised by his attitude that I contemplated suicide and went back in the closet for another 20 years.”

This history is why Eleanor finds it so troubling that an in-depth psychiatric report is still required to change the gender on a birth certificate, creating the sense that her identity and records are being “held to ransom”.

“The harm caused by transphobic psychiatrists denied me the ability to be Eleanor to others for 40 years of my life.” Eleanor. 

“I have always been Eleanor to myself, but the harm caused by transphobic psychiatrists denied me the ability to be Eleanor to others for 40 years of my life. It disgusts me that in 2017 my basic human right to legal recognition of my gender identity is still dependent on a psychiatrist assessing me in relation to gender stereotypes.

“The government doesn’t demand a psychiatric report before allowing a person to get married, it trusts that their marriage vows are truthful and carefully considered.”

The law creates a catch-22 situation for those who don’t want to, or can’t, receive a diagnosis, because, without it, they are unable to maintain their privacy. “Every time I have to interact with government agencies, such as the DWP or the Inland Revenue, their computer systems out me as trans because they list my birth certificate gender,” Eleanor explains.

“Someone’s momentary glance at my body when I was born is currently seen by the government as more important than my own deep self-understanding. I just want to be able to live in dignity and finally have the government respect my identity and privacy.”

                                                                                        

Age restriction

Leo, aged 20, is the NUS Scotland trans representative and identifies as a genderqueer trans man. Leo grew up in Germany and started to explore transitioning when he was 15. “I took the typical steps, like cutting my hair short and shopping in the men’s section,” he recalls.

“Understanding and expressing my gender identity was a gradual process for me, as growing up there was little terminology around trans identity, and there was little support around LGB identities, let alone trans people.”

It wasn’t until last year, when Leo realised that he wanted to transition physically, that he came out to his parents. “It didn’t go very well,” he says, “but, given that I spend very little time back home, thankfully it doesn’t have a huge impact on my life, and they’re definitely adjusting to it as time goes on.”

Leo’s experience of coming out in Glasgow, where he moved for university when he was 17, has been more positive. “I had the support of my new friends from the LGBT+ society at the Students’ Union, and I really valued the chance for a fresh start.”

“I look very little like the photo on my ID and having to come out to a variety of people in any of these instances is uncomfortable.” Leo. 

This “fresh start”, Leo feels, can be great for trans young people, but the age restrictions on legal gender recognition can instead turn this into a “distressing and humiliating experience”.

“I engage with a lot of trans students, many of whom start college when they are 16 and are already ‘stealth’, meaning that they do not want their previous gender to be revealed to anyone,” he explains. “Not being able to change their birth certificate until they are 18 is a huge barrier since that contradicts the details on other documents, such as school and medical records, and needlessly outs them as trans to various people.”

Leo has experienced this first-hand, because while he has changed his name and gender on his university and NHS records, his ID states that he is female and includes his birth name. “When it comes to job applications, voting, and travelling, I still need to use my German ID,” Leo explains.

“This is a very stressful experience since, by now, I look very little like the photo on my ID and having to come out to a variety of people in any of these instances is uncomfortable.”

                                                                                        

Non-binary gender recognition

Ezra, who identifies as non-binary, is 23 years old and can’t remember ever associating with the gender they were assigned at birth. “Over the past few years, I felt myself slipping away from it even more, but I didn't feel either male or female,” Ezra explains.

“When I first met another non-binary person a couple of years ago, I knew I'd finally found something I could hold onto and relate with. I knew I didn't have to fit into the traditional binary roles of man or woman and could just be, well, me.”

The journey to this point hasn’t always been easy. “Even working up the courage to tell my closest friends has been extremely difficult for me,” Ezra admits. “There's a lot of misunderstanding about non-binary people which makes it even harder to fit in, in a world obsessed with putting people in labelled boxes. I've even lost a close friend over this, who couldn't fathom that I'm still the same person I've always been.”

Ezra says that, for them, “being non-binary hasn't really been a transition in the traditional sense. I'm not changing as a person - I'm just allowing the ‘me’ that's been there all along to actually exist.”

“That sense of not belonging in the country in which I was raised, have studied and worked in, and which I love, is heartbreaking.” Ezra. 

That existence, however, is not legally recognised in Scotland. “This is perhaps the hardest thing to deal with for me. That sense of not belonging in the country in which I was raised, have studied and worked in, and which I love, is heartbreaking.

“I can't fully explain how alienating it is every time I'm forced to pick between male or female to access even the most basic services from my local council, or how crushing it is when my place of employment won't let me change my gender record without legal proof, when no such proof is available for me, or how demoralising it is when I can't even apply for a job without being forced into choosing a binary gender option when it's not even relevant to the position I'm applying for.”

These are all issues which could be avoided if legal recognition of non-binary gender was introduced. This is what campaigners are currently calling for in relation to birth certificates, although for non-binary people the issue spans across all official documents.

Ezra explains what legal recognition would mean for them: “I would be able to just be me, without being dragged back down by my assigned gender at birth every time I need to do anything that involves any organisation, public or private sector. It feels like it's holding me back, and even though I'm living every day as Ezra, I'll never be able to escape the gender that someone decided I was.”

You can find out more about Equal Recognition at the campaign website.

Pictures courtesy of the Scottish Trans Alliance

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