Scotland passes law making legal gender change easier



Scotland’s Parliament passed a hotly debated law on Thursday that makes it easier for transgender people to legally change their legal gender, amid similar moves in some countries in Europe and the passage of anti-trans laws in the United States.

The law smooths the path for transgender people to acquire driver’s licenses, birth certificates and other official documents that match their gender identities.

With a vote of 86 to 39, Scotland became the 10th country in Europe to implement such a policy. Denmark was the first, in 2014.

Under Scotland’s previous law, transgender people had to wait two years and be diagnosed with gender dysphoria before applying to certify their transition. Thursday’s reform also lowered the legal age for a minor to request the legal change, from 18 to 16 years.

“Over the large arch we are seeing a huge movement toward a human rights based approach to gender recognition” in Europe, said Cianán Russell, a senior policy offer at ILGA-Europe, a LGBTI rights advocacy group.

Since 2010, they said, every effort at legal gender recognition reform within Europe has sought to advance protections — with the exception of Hungary, which expressly banned changing one’s designated gender in 2020.

Overall, opponents of the expansion of transgender rights in Europe have focused on thwarting legislative changes, Russell said. In the United States, in contrast, anti-transgender legislation aimed at rolling back rights has become a key agenda item for many Republican lawmakers.

Anti-trans laws are on the rise. Here’s a look at where — and what kind.

Thursday’s vote concluded three days of bitter debate and controversy. Lawmakers argued late into the night Tuesday and Wednesday over amendments proposed by the opposition, as dueling demonstrations squared off in front of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

As the results were announced, protesters filling the pews of parliament shouted “shame on you,” while others cheered and clapped, the BBC reported.

Opponents of the law, among them members of Scotland’s Conservative Party and some feminist activists, argued it did not adequately safeguard women and girls against predatory males in female-only places. British author J.K. Rowling, known for her anti-trans activism, has been among the most high-profile critics.

The British government’s Scotland minister, Alister Jack, said Thursday he had “concerns” about the law, including the impact on women and children’s safety, and signaled Westminster may try to block its implementation, which could spark a political tangle between London and Edinburgh. The decision by Scotland’s government does not affect the rest of the United Kingdom.

Proponents of the law argued the proposed amendments had little substance and were intended to stall proceedings.

“For trans people, being incorrectly referred to or recorded by names and genders that don’t match how we think of ourselves is not just incorrect or inconvenient, but can be deeply upsetting and hurtful … [and] can also cause us to face discrimination and harassment,” the Scottish Trans Alliance said in a statement.

Shortly before Thursday’s vote in Scotland, Spain’s parliament passed a similar bill, simplifying the legal gender change process for people 16 and older.

After an acrimonious debate, the Spanish bill passed 188 to 150, with 7 abstentions. Spain’s senate is expected to approve the legislation in the coming year. Spain currently requires that transgender people be diagnosed with gender dysphoria and undergo hormone treatment for at least two years before applying to change their legal gender.

In September, Finland’s government proposed legislation striking a requirement that people be infertile or sterilized before legally transitioning — the latter a practice that the European Court of Human Rights in 2017 ruled violated human rights.

Despite the ban, Finland is one of twelve European countries that still mandates sterilization, and the only Scandinavian country to do so.

While advances are ongoing, most European countries require a transgender person to undergo some sort of medical procedure — such as hormonal therapies, mental health assessments, medical diagnosis or forced sterilization — to legally certify their gender, according to a report by the human rights group Council of Europe in July. For many trans people, gender dysphoria — which is caused by a mismatch between someone’s biological sex and gender identity — is a stigmatizing diagnosis that can also be costly and complicated to receive, said Russell.

While there’s a “clear trend” of growing support for LGBTQ rights across Europe, the Council of Europe report said, in recent years transgender people have also reported a rise in experiences of discrimination and hate that appear to be coordinated continent-wide.

Back in 2002, the European High Court ruled that transgender people had a legal right to officially change their gender.

In addition to Scotland, nine European states — Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland — use the self-identification model, which requires only a statement by the applicant.

But eight European countries — Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Monaco, North Macedonia and San Marino — do not offer a path to change one’s legal gender. More than two dozen countries in Europe also mandate that a transgender person divorce their spouse before they can certify a gender change or already ban same-sex marriages, according to ILGA-Europe.

Only sixteen European countries have in place legal gender recognition procedures for minors, according to ILGA-Europe. Russell said expanding this possibility to transgender minors remains a key human rights concern.

“We trust that children know who they are and can tell us who they are, both cis children and trans children,” he said. The latter is “the one group of people systematically not trusted by the system.”

A 2019 survey by the E.U. Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 72 percent of transgender respondents knew they were trans by age seventeen.

Across the Atlantic, anti-transgender legislative efforts in the United States were at an all-time high in 2022. Though only a small percentage of bills introduced ultimately passed, lawmakers and governors proposed far-reaching restrictions touching everything from sports to health care.

Requirements for changing someone’s gender on a birth certificate or driver’s license, which vary by U.S. state, were also a target.

This year Oklahoma banned nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates — the first of such law in the United States. States including Oklahoma, Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee and Ohio had already prevented transgender people from changing the gender on their birth certificates.

Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., permit people to choose an “X” on their driver’s license, instead of male or female, and do not require any medical certification to change their gender marker, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a Colorado-based think tank.

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