In an age of controversy, it has become one of the biggest. The aim, says the Scottish Government, is to make it easier and less traumatic for trans people to change their legal gender. The result, say its critics, will be to undermine sexual equality and possibly put women in danger. And, as it often does these days, the debate has sometimes turned ugly.

But now the argument is moving to the next stage. The Government has now tabled a bill that contains its proposals. Currently, trans people must apply to a panel to obtain a gender recognition certificate and they must have a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill would remove the need for such a diagnosis and allow people to make their application after three months of living in their acquired gender. They would be able to “self-identify”.

Supporters of the reform, including the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, say the change will make the process less traumatic and inhumane for a stigmatised minority. Others have vigorously defended the reform to the law, including Scottish Greens minister Lorna Slater who was criticised this week for comparing the critics of reform to racists.

The other side of the argument, however, say that changing the law in the way proposed is a threat to women’s rights and specifically that allowing people who have self-identified into single-sex spaces would put women at increased risk from men. The most famous proponent of this argument is the Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who was pictured the other day at a lunch with other leading figures in the campaign against self-identification.

Sometimes the argument between the two sides has turned angry with the worst parts of the debate - the insults and the abuse on and by both sides - being conducted on social media, so The Herald asked two people on different sides of the argument for their views. Ellie Gomersall is a student and young trans woman in Glasgow who would like to obtain a gender recognition certificate; Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a former civil servant who is worried about the implications for women’s rights. This is what they had to say about the proposed new law.



Ellie Gomersall, 22, is chair of Scottish Young Greens and a candidate in the forthcoming local elections in May.

“My life as a trans woman in Scotland is not really different from anyone else’s life in most ways - for the vast majority of my life, it’s actually completely irrelevant, it doesn’t matter. Where it does start to matter is when you go on the internet and what we see there is that a lot of the vitriol and abuse is really aggressive and uncomfortable. But in the real world, when you’re walking about, day to day, the vast majority of people you come into contact with couldn’t care less if you’re trans. They won’t even know or realise or care. Trans people are just normal people going about our lives.

The Gender Recognition Act is essentially about making it easier for people to obtain a gender recognition certificate. The certificate essentially means that you get a new birth certificate that accurately reflects the gender you identify as and what that really means, when you look at the nitty-gritty of it, is that if you’re getting married, it’s reflective of the actual genders of the people getting married and when you die how your death is recorded. Those are the key things that are different and that’s essentially what the gender reform looks to do: make it a wee bit simpler to get one of those certificates.

It's so difficult to get a certificate at the moment that I haven’t even done it and I’ve been out for four years now. I think I probably will do it eventually but at the moment it’s too inaccessible - you have to submit your application and that’s reviewed by a panel of experts and I put the words “experts” in inverted commas because essentially it’s a panel that’s trying to tell you who you are.

And so, when we’re talking about self-ID, we’re actually saying you should be able to say who you are rather than having a panel of experts say it. You need to prove for instance that you intend to medically transition and we have horrific waiting times for identity clinics - I’ve been on the waiting list for an initial appointment for nearly four years now. It’s atrocious and I need to have that appointment to have a medical professional sign me off as having gender dysphoria to show that to the panel to get a gender recognition certificate. I am going to wait for the legislation to pass - there’s no point in going through the stress of doing it at the moment.

Women-only spaces have become an issue in the debate about the reform because of the misinformation and misunderstanding of what the GRA actually does. I’ve been using women-only spaces for years and I’ve never had an issue and no one has ever had an issue with me being there. To be completely honest and to put it bluntly, all we want to do is pee - to pee in peace.

There is a genuine fear among some people that by improving the lives for trans people, that takes rights away from women but we know that’s not true. We know that trans people are able to access single-sex spaces along with their gender as per the Equality Act - trans women have been accessing women’s toilets and spaces for many, many years. We don’t see the attacks, we don’t see cis men pretending to be women to access women’s spaces and we also know that if a cis man wanted to be predatory, they would not go through the hassle of changing their birth certificate in order to do so. They would just do it. That does not happen at the moment and the law does not change that.

We also see around the world that when we move forward with trans equality that moves forward women’s equality and the feminist movement as well. What we don’t see is self ID being implemented and all of a sudden a massive spike in attacks on women in women’s toilets.

On the argument that your biological sex doesn’t change, my argument is why does it matter? When I want to go to the toilet, no one has ever asked to do a chromosome test on me and actually sex and gender, both of those things, they are categories that we like to put humans into because humans really love categorising things but they are really just loose categories. Not everyone does fit into one or the other - some people might go about their entire lives as a man, identify as a man and have the body parts you might typically expect but actually they don’t have XY chromosomes.

I see a strong parallel between the current situation and gay rights. A lot of the talking points are exactly the same and the same arguments come up and the same homophobia from a couple of decades ago is applied to trans people. Around things like equal marriage legislation and the repeal of Section 28, what you saw at those times was an increase in homophobia around those pieces of legislation because there was friction - if you’re moving forward, there’s going to be friction and that’s what we’re seeing right now with GRA reform. Because we’re getting a lot closer to the legislation going through, we’re seeing an increase in the opposition and we’re seeing a rise in transphobia. But what you see is that once those pieces of legislation have gone through, the opposition to it very quickly - it doesn’t go away - but it very rapidly decreases because it’s gone through.

I’m fairly confident about the legislation passing. It has been tabled in parliament and it’s been a long time coming. It’s one of the most consulted-on pieces of legislation in the history of the Scottish parliament but now is finally the time where we’re going to see it happening and I think it will pass. The public also generally support gender reform and when people are informed about what the GRA reform does, people do tend to be very supportive.

The issue is the mis-information that is going about at the moment - a lot of people don’t understand what the GRA does and what it means in terms of self-ID and what a gender recognition certificate actually means and as a result there is a very loud and vocal minority - and they are a minority - who are buying into a lot of the misinformation and falsehoods and that’s creating a lot of negative discourse. When GRA reform passes through the parliament, everyone will see that actually it’s not had a massive impact on women’s rights or infringed on women’s safety and that transphobia that we’re currently seeing will slowly dissipate and we’ll be able to get back to living our lives.”



Lucy Hunter Blackburn, 55, is a researcher and former senior civil servant in the Scottish Government. She co-founded the policy analysis group Murray Blackburn Mackenzie in 2018.

“I suppose I first became aware of how transgender issues might affect women around the end of 2017. A friend of mine said ‘have you seen what’s happening with the Girl Guides? They have a policy that boys can join if they say they’re girls.’ I thought that sounds a bit weird but I looked it up and there it was. From the very first, my alert was triggered - I was really uneasy about a policy that ignores sex.

Over the next 12 months, I watched things bubbling up: changing the way we use language, changing what we’re allowed to use in certain contexts, and it’s alarming if you’re a woman. Feminism is interesting to me for one reason only: the body I was born in. This is not abstract for me. I was born before the Equal Pay Act, I’ve walked home with my keys in my hand, I’ve spent a lot of time aware of my sex because other people were aware of my sex. I haven’t been able to opt out of sex dynamics. So if someone says we’ve come up with this new way of looking at the world and it says sex doesn’t matter, I say none of the arguments look really good. It’s asking ‘can you please ignore some people’s sex?’ while we still have society which is full of people who are very busy not ignoring my sex.

What bothered me isn’t that some individuals want to change how they present themselves or describe themselves, or even how they present themselves to their friends and hope that their friends will respond in kind, what triggered it for me was denying sex. The demand is that I have to ignore some people’s sex and consequently change how I use language - that’s where it hit.

There are two competing narratives here - one is there are no effects if we change the law on self-identification or there are effects and we shouldn’t worry about them; they say trans people have been in single sex spaces for years. I have to make the obvious point that I’m 55 and I’ve been moving round the world using multiple single-sex spaces and the number of times a noticeably male person has been in those spaces, I can’t think of one. There may have been someone who “passed” but that’s the problem - self-declaration isn’t about that, it’s about anyone who declares. A person who passes so well that I couldn’t tell, that’s a different category of person from the ones you’re really arguing for because what you’re really arguing for is a much wider group.

Single-sex spaces matter because it’s a space where you can breathe. It isn’t just about safety as in maybe a sex offender might get in, it’s about going through that door and you can relax - you’re not looking at the people around you, your head space is different: there’s dignity, privacy, peace of mind. Women-only spaces work and it’s hard to be a ‘little bit women-only’. It’s like being a little bit pregnant. Once you let in people who are physically male, you’ve broken it.

Women have felt that their safety and ability to set boundaries has been given lower priority than the identity claim of some people they accurately perceive to be male. This is not a claim that trans people are more risky than non-trans people - that would be absurd - why would I think that a woman who identifies as non-binary is a higher risk? I’m not claiming that people born male who identify as women are more dangerous than other male people. We want to talk about male people and it will get translated into ‘you’re saying trans people are a risk’ - no, we’re saying that male people are a risk to women and I’ve been told that there is a sub-set of this group that I must accept are no greater risk to women than women and I must accept that this sub group of male people are defined by telling me they belong to it. Again and again it’s said that a trans person is being excluded from a woman’s space because of their trans identity, no, they are being excluded because they are male.

An analogy is sometimes made to gay rights but it’s a false one because gay men were not asking to come into women’s spaces. Gay rights didn’t make these claims; not at any point were the campaigns on gay equality tipped into a claim that seemed to me unreasonable. At no point did they say that in order for my rights to be recognised you have to stop having your women-only spaces; there is no analogy. It’s such an unreasonable demand on women to have to go into spaces and suddenly look at male people and judge whether or not they’re women. In most settings, you have a Male and Female door for loos and changing rooms and so on and I would take a lot of persuasion that you can argue for letting anyone who is male through the Female door without letting everyone who is male through that door. That’s my problem. We need to talk about other ways to make sure everyone’s safety, dignity and privacy is well catered for.

On the proposed changes to the law, the critical issue for us is the medical oversight, the gatekeeping if you like. At the moment we have a legal instrument, a legal route, which is open to a group of people who are identified on some objective criterion as having a pressing need or reason to be treated or live as if they’d been born in the opposite sex. Self ID completely changes what the law is and the government doesn’t seem to be able to process the concept

The Scottish Government has held the ring on this so badly - what it’s done is it’s grabbed off the shelf a prescription put to them by advocacy groups for legal change in the middle of all this complexity and said ‘we’ll do that then’. There’s little sense in parliament that the MSPs as a group have any desire to engage. Some women say that MSPs won’t engage with them on the subject because they assume that anyone who is opposed to self ID is a bigot. People I’ve worked with write about me being a hateful bigot. But others have had it much worse. When the abuse for women is bad, it’s very bad.”