SCOTLAND is set to become one of the first countries in Europe to give legal recognition to people who are neither male nor female.

Nicola Sturgeon pledged to reform gender recognition law to "bring it into line with international best practice," if the SNP returns to power after the May 5 election.

The pledge signals the law will be changed to recognise people who are neither male nor female, known as "non-binary gender".

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They will be able to change their birth certificate to recognise their gender status and use it on official documents such as passports.

The reforms will also allow transgender people, who switch from the gender recorded at birth, to change their birth certificates without having to seek approval from a tribunal of lawyers and doctors, as at present.

A third change will give legal recognition to transgender young people under the age of 18. In future, 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to change their birth certificate with the permission of their parents.

Campaigners warmly welcomed the pledge and urged other political parties to follow suit.

However, it was condemned in the strongest terms by the Free Church of Scotland.

"It is a policy that will bring untold disaster and harm upon Scotland's children," said Free Kirk moderator, the Rev David Robertson.

Around 300 people in Scotland identified themselves as non-binary gender in a recent survey conducted by the Equality Network campaign group.

However, the group believe the true figure could be 10 times higher.

A "gender fluid" teenager, Gaela Hanlon, described some of the problems facing non-binary people during a speech to the SNP conference earlier this month.

They said they had experienced bullying at school and had been "stumped" by filling in a form asking whether they were male or female.

The reforms will make Scotland only the third country in Europe, after Denmark and Malta, to recognise people who are neither male or female.

Around the world, the status is accepted in Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Argentina.

In India, 490,000 people described themselves as "third gender," at the country's last census.

Campaigners said the reforms marked a step forward from the existing Gender Recognition Act, which was seen as groundbreaking when it was passed in 2004.

Prior to the Westminster legislation, which was adopted by the Scottish Parliament, transgender people were unable to change their birth certificates.

Ms Sturgeon announced the plans during an election debate on equalities issues.

She also promised new guidelines for teachers and extra training on hate crime for police.

She said: "Tolerance, respect, inclusion – these are attitudes and principles we want to encourage and foster in modern, fairer Scotland."

James Morton, manager of the Scottish Transgender Alliance, welcomed the end to "intrusive" medical checks for transgender people who wished to change their birth certificate.

Nathan Gale, of pressure group Non-Binary Scotland, said: "By making a commitment to reform gender recognition law the Scottish Government is ensuring that all trans people, no-matter what their gender identity, will be able to be themselves, in all aspects of their lives.

"Trans people who don’t identify as men or women have just as much right to have the gender they identify as recognised and respected as everyone else.

"I hope that the next Scottish Government will truly aspire to international best practice and provide for a third gender, alongside male and female, to be recognised in Scottish law."

The Free Kirk moderator, the Rev David Robertson, said: "The SNP seem to be working on the unproven and somewhat bizarre notion that children get to choose their own gender and sexuality.

"We believe that this will result in confusion and brokenness amongst our children rather than fulfilled potential.

"It is a policy that will bring untold disaster and harm upon Scotland's children."

He added: "What is to stop someone deciding to change gender if they think it will enable them to further their careers and job prospects?

"This is nothing less than state-sponsored indoctrination of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society."