Transforming legislation

11 Dec 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Dec 2015

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan at this week's event
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan at this week's event

Representative groups say Northern Ireland is not an impossible place for transgender people - but it is very difficult. Here are legislative requests from a leading support group, launched at Stormont this week.

Transgender issues are on the fringes of Northern Irish public consciousness.

While LGBT concerns generally are one of the major discussions of our times, the specific needs of the trans community have not received wide consideration.

Focus, the Identity Trust, is a support group for transgender and intersex people that also lobbies for their interests. In a recent interview with Scope they outlined why they feel trans matters should be split off from lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns.

This week the group held at event at Stormont to outline some of their legislative requests.

The broad context for their asks is that transgender people – in simple terms, people of one gender who were born in the body of another – will have a lifelong knowledge of their own situation and, despite Northern Ireland having a pathway for people to both have their correct gender recognised and also to undergo physical transition, the system is not designed with the needs of trans people in mind.

Instead of helping them find an official acceptance of their true gender identity, all the processes are effectively antagonistic and, put at its kindest, designed primarily to filter from the process any people who are not genuinely transgender.

Five asks

Focus has five requests for policymakers in Northern Ireland:

  1. Have people’s gender recognized in law simply based on self-determination
  2. Enable gender non-conforming children, and transgender and intersex adolescents, to have their true gender recognized on the same basis of self-determination
  3. Enable Intersex and other individuals who do not self-identify within the gender binary as currently legally recognized to have the right in law to be recognized in their unique gender identity as they determine it themselves
  4. Remain in whatever legally recognized relationship they are currently in (which would mean no requirement to be single to access gender recognition procedures) during and following recognition
  5. Enshrine the right of transgender and intersex children, and indeed all children, to have access to the full range of rights contained in the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child (in particular, in respect of Transgender and Intersex children, the right to informed consent to their own permanent medical or surgical interventions to align their bodies to best fit their self-determined and expressed gender identity)

Scope had a talk with a spokesperson for the Focus Trust – who did not want to be named to maintain their confidentiality – who explained the rationale and context behind each of these proposals.

"An individual can obtain legal gender recognition; such legal status will be recognised in two situations: “living in the other gender” or “having changed gender under the law of another country or territory outside the UK”.

"Individuals seeking legal gender recognition must apply to a Gender Recognition Panel and provide: evidence from a medical practitioner of psychologist that they suffer from gender dysphoria; a statutory declaration that they have lived in the “acquired gender” for the previous two years and intends to live in that gender until death; and a statutory declaration as to the applicant’s marital or civil partnership status."

"Applicants who satisfy the evidential criteria must be granted legal change of gender by the Panel and are issued with a Gender Recognition Certificate.  Section 9(1) provides that where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person that person’s gender becomes "for all purposes" the acquired gender.  While this provision says “for all purposes” the legislation does go on to make certain caveats to that general rule.  These exclusions relate to things such as parenthood, succession, peerages, sport and gender-specific offences.

"Since the 2004 Act became law in the UK, approximately 3,500 people have successfully availed of its provisions. It is only when the Panel issue you with your Gender recognition certificate do you at that point own your Gender."

The spokesperson point out that, in five different countries in the world including the Republic of Ireland being, you can now self-determine, i.e. you can tell the state what gender you are and have it officially recognised as such. There are also some countries – including Malta and Argentina –  that already allow children to self-identify their gender.

They expressed doubt about the potential for any child to sustain such a view incorrectly, or even to think such a thing if they were not genuine, while stating that for transgender people childhood can be an immensely difficult time.

Point three would cater for intersex people generally. There are a number of circumstances where this would be important. Some people born with both sets of genitalia might not know which gender they want to choose – but current law compels everyone to do so – while others might not want to, opting instead to remain as they are.

“It can be done. In Australia already you can put an X on your passport, as opposed to M or F.”

There are also various reasons why existing relationships, such as marriages or civil partnerships, should not be necessarily annulled – as per the current requirements - before a change in recognised gender is allowed.

Both partners might want the relationship to continue, which raises questions as to why they should have to see their status taken away, while another strange aspect of current legislation is the effective spousal veto - whereby if the partner of a transgender individual who wants to pursue transition chooses not to allow any annulment they can then block their partner from changing their gender.

“Introduced as part of The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act discussions, this has been one of the most harmful pieces of legislation for Transgender people. There is no justification for giving one party a right to veto another party’s human rights and preventing someone from obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate. This only leads to further discrimination in an already disproportionately affected community. ”

On the fifth ask, the spokesperson was clear that no-one should be able to go through a physical transition without informed consent, but that this should be able to happen before the age of 18, according to Focus.

"There are some shockingly high statistics of transgender children that have become depressed and self-harmed or attempted suicide. In a recent study, 78% of trans people said they had thought about ending their life, and 40% had attempted it. You don’t want your child to become a part of these statistics. Gender dysphoria is very real and very distressing for children and without parental support can have terrible consequences.

"If a child definitely wants to eventually transition, and their care team agree, then they can choose to suppress puberty with hormone blockers. This is still completely reversible, so if they change their minds, they can stop taking the hormone blockers and puberty will commence as usual. In January 2011, the age at which hormonal treatment can be offered to children was brought down from 16 to 12 years old. The change was based on a study by the Tavistock and Portman into the effects of hormone blockers earlier in puberty.

"Going through puberty when you have gender dysphoria can be a very traumatic experience and can trigger mental health difficulties such as depression. It is the most distressing time for gender variant adolescents so anything that can aid them through it is welcome.

"It must be said that Transgender and intersex individuals ask only for the same Human Rights and Equality afforded everyone else in society; we want to be a part of society not apart from it."


Despite these concerns being largely outwith the public consciousness, these issues to have civic support.

The main speaker at Focus’ event in the Long Gallery was Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, while OFMdFM Junior Minister Jennifer McCann and Justice Minister David Ford also leant their support.

Like so many rights concerns, some or all of these changes could be made very quickly, and at negligible cost.

All that is required is enough political will.

Speaking at the launch, Junior Minister McCann said: “My department is responsible for the Gender Equality Strategy and Transgender is one of the issues identified which we need to address. The development of a new strategy is currently underway and it is essential we listen to the experiences of transgender people and learn from them.

“Evidence shows transgender people are still one of the most marginalised groups in our society and can face many lifelong challenges. Transgender people often face victimisation, including physical and psychological abuse and also have an increased risk of suicide.

“We must all work together to ensure they feel supported and valued. The work which Focus carries out is to be commended and we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure equality for all members of our society.”

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