It has been a long road to the UK's Gender Recognition Act reform. Now, according to a Sunday Times leak, the government is scrapping proposals that would make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender without undergoing a costly and time-consuming medical process.
Plans to introduce this system of self-identification have been shelved in favour of safeguards to "protect 'safe spaces' for women", including domestic violence refuges and public toilets, national guidelines to counter the rise of "gender-neutral" bathrooms and a crackdown on "quack" doctors who are approving applications for gender recognition certificates. A ban on conversion therapy will be introduced to "placate LGBT people", the Times reports.
It is unclear what these safeguards or guidelines will consist of and how they will be applied in practice. In the US, similar attempts to pass "bathroom bill" legislation that barred trans people from using the restroom that aligned with their gender identity have ended up stuck in various legislatures or saw local governments end up sued by LGBTQ organisations.
It is also unclear how safeguarding single-sex spaces will work, given that the Equality Act 2010 already states that organisations such as women's refuges must be trans-inclusive. A 2018 study of 12 national and local domestic and sexual violence organisations found that many had been supporting trans women in their women-only services for some time.
There are no clear indications as to how many "quack" doctors are signing off on applications for legal gender recognition. Currently, those applying must send their evidence to a Gender Recognition Panel made up of three legal and medical panellists – a process already criticised by LGBTQ groups as being unnecessarily medicalised and bureaucratic.
According to the government's own statistics, there have only been 4,910 successful applications for a certificate since 2004. This is out of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 trans people in the UK.
When asked for comment on the authenticity of the leak, a spokesperson for the Gender and Equalities Office told VICE News that it was "not going to pre-empt the findings of the review".
The leaked plans come after two years of limbo for those who responded to the Gender Recognition Act consultation. According to the Times, more than 100,000 responses were received, with 70 percent backing the introduction of self-identification – but the government believes that the results were "skewed by an avalanche of responses generated by trans rights groups".
However, Stonewall chief executive Nancy Kelley believes that data from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey illustrates that transphobia is unpopular among the British public and that 49 percent of Brits feel that transphobia is always wrong.
"Of course, trans-inclusive organisations like Stonewall encouraged that half to respond to the government’s consultation, just as anti-trans organisations encouraged the 6 percent who think that prejudice against trans people is ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ wrong to put pen to paper," she wrote in a blog for Stonewall.
"But if this story is an accurate leak of current plans, and the government is assuming that the consultation responses are seriously out of step with public opinion, then it might want to take a long hard look at the data first."
Other human rights organisations have warned that the rollback of these proposals will cause the UK to slip further than the LGBT equality ranking.
Chiara Capraro, Amnesty International’s women’s rights programme director, said in a statement: “Reports that the government intends to scrap plans to bring gender recognition laws in line with human rights standards are extremely worrying.
“More than two years ago, the government rightly set out a plan to reform the out-of-date Gender Recognition Act – a U-turn on this would send a chilling message that the UK is a hostile place for trans people.
"The UK is already slipping further and further down the European rankings for LGBT equality – falling from third to ninth place over the past three years. The proposed move would no doubt see the UK plummet even further."
A spokesperson for the Gender and Equalities Office told VICE News: "We will publish our response to our consultation on the Gender Recognition Act this summer. The Minister for Women and Equalities has also made clear that she will be bringing forward plans to end conversion therapy shortly."