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CommonSpace spoke to a range of women’s and gender-based violence organisations about their views on proposed legal changes

IN LIGHT OF the Scottish Government consultation on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004), much debate has arisen over the potential impacts for gender equality efforts and for organisations working solely with women.

The proposals would remove the need for a psychiatric assessment prior to legally changing the gender on a person’s birth certificate, lower the age at which this can be done from 18 to 16 – or younger with parental consent – and create a third, non-binary gender category.

At present, the former two changes can already be made to documents such as drivers’ licenses, passports, and school and medical records, but based on the once progressive 2004 legislation, the requirements for changing a birth certificate are more stringent.

To find out how Scotland’s gender equality and gender-based violence sector feels about the changes and what their current policy and practice around trans people looks like, CommonSpace spoke to key national organisations and local service providers.

The following organisations were interviewed: Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, the Young Women’s Movement (YWCA Scotland), Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre, Forth Valley Rape Crisis, Edinburgh Women’s Aid, and Shakti Women’s Aid.

Positive impacts for trans people

All of the organisations interviewed were keen to stress the positive effects which the proposed changes would have for trans people. Indeed, a range of prominent national organisations have co-signed a statement and FAQ in support of the legislative reform: Close the Gap, Engender, Equate Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Women 50:50 and Zero Tolerance.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Engender’s executive director, Emma Ritch, said: “We support the Equal Recognition campaign and broadly welcome the reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

“Enabling trans people to smoothly change their birth certificates at the same time as they change their other identity documents is a positive step forward.”

Ashley Thompson, children and young people’s team leader for Shakti Women’s Aid, which works with black and minority ethnic (BME) women and children, said that the organisation supports the changes “wholeheartedly” as part of its commitment to challenging all inequalities.

In particular, Thompson suggested that the current requirement for a psychiatric assessment was unfair. “It is very wrong that individuals who want to change their gender are treated as having a mental health issue rather than an identity,” she said.

Sexual violence prevention worker for Forth Valley Rape Crisis Loraine Williams, who works in secondary schools to improve young people’s understandings around sexual violence, said she felt the changes would be important for this age group.

Williams said: “The feedback we get from young people about that is that – in terms of rights they have at 16, being able to be married or have a job but not being able to have their gender recognised – it would make such a big difference to them [for the age to be lowered].”

Digital media officer for the Young Women’s Movement Jemma Tracey agreed: “I can see the value in changing the legislation because that’s what the trans and non-binary people we work with are saying they want – it would make their lives so much easier to have the correct documents that they feel represent them.

“I think when it comes to people who are navigating any kind of gender identity at any point in their lives it’s a really difficult thing to go through, especially when you’re not seeing that elsewhere in society and don’t feel represented in media or anything like that.

“It’s as simple as people having access to basic human rights and I think that’s what feminism is about.”

The right to access to domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault services

All of the organisations were also clear that they are inclusive of trans women, and emphasised that most Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis services already operate on the basis of including all self-identified women, while many Rape Crisis services are open to people of all genders.

Chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland Sandy Brindley said: “I think the most important thing to say is that [the proposed legal changes] should make no difference to the provision of women-only services – that’s where some confusion has arisen.

“There isn’t any Rape Crisis which would ask to see documentation of gender.”

CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid, Marsha Scott, said the national organisation was not aware of “one incident where there has been any problem for services” around the self-identification policy, but said that a survey of Women’s Aid services was being conducted to gather their views and experiences to inform its consultation response.

Linda Rodgers of Edinburgh Women’s Aid noted that “there are concerns out there that our service could in some way be abused” by allowing people to self-declare their gender, but said this wasn’t something she had heard from the organisation’s staff or board.

“The reality is that any service has the potential to be abused, and we would deal with that, whatever direction it came, from on a case by case basis,” Rogers said. “I don’t think this should be used as a reason to restrict the rights of a particular group.”

The primary services all stated that, despite being trans-inclusive, the numbers this represented in terms of their service users were, in reality, very low.

Forth Valley Rape Crisis prevention worker Loraine Williams said: “When we read some stuff around a threat to women-only spaces, the idea is that there’s going to be thousands of trans people knocking at your door – that just isn’t going to be the case from what we know.

“It’s estimated that around one per cent of the population are trans, and we’re not even seeing that from people accessing our service, and that’s with us being for people of all genders.”

Confidence to access services

In fact, most of the organisations expressed the view that more could be done to encourage trans women to access their services and that the proposed legal changes might support this aim.

Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre said that the organisation was continuously seeking to address “real and perceived barriers that exist for trans people looking to access our service”, and that they were “hopeful the consultation leads to legalisation that reflects the inclusivity we aim for in our own practice”.

Such inclusivity is important, they said, because: “Trans people are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and experience additional barriers in accessing support.

“Further, we recognise that trans people can often be specifically targeted because of their identity with hate crime, often in the form of sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

Loraine Williams of Forth Valley Rape Crisis said she thinks the legal changes would improve access to services. “Acknowledging trans rights and putting that support out in the open will give people confidence to come forward, like we saw with the Me Too movement,” she explained.

Edinburgh Women’s Aid chief executive Linda Rodgers agreed that there may be an increase in “self and agency referrals” as a result of the changes. “It gives the indication that Scotland is a society that recognises the rights of individuals and it should increase societal understanding around trans people and the fact that they may face domestic abuse,” she said.

Ashley Thompson of Shakti Women’s Aid noted that BME trans people can experience additional barriers to accessing services as it “may not be safe for them to come forward” as trans, and they may not be “exposed to the language to express what they’re experiencing”.

Raising awareness of the issue in the mainstream and within specific communities, she suggested, could play an important role in breaking down some of these barriers.


One of the areas around which concerns have been highlighted by women’s organisations relates to the criminal justice and prison system.

Since 2014, the Scottish Prison Service has operated under a published policy on respecting the identity and needs of trans prisoners. However, trans women are not automatically placed in women’s prisons, and decisions regarding placement are made on the basis of risk assessments.

The joint statement and FAQ published by Engender states: “Evidence from The British Psychological Society to the Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament has flagged its concern at the small number of men convicted of sexual offences who (in their words) ‘falsely claim to be transgender females’ in order to secure parole, explain their offending, or get increased access to women and children once they have been released from prison.

“They express concern that the GRA proposals will in some way enable this small group of perpetrators if mitigating action is not taken by criminal justice agencies.”

Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland explained: “What we know about sex offenders is that they are very manipulative. At the moment there is an assessment that takes place [before gender can be legally changed], so, potentially, I think there is an implication there for prisons.”

However, Brindley stressed: “There are no parallels at all with the trans community in general, so this should absolutely not be used to undermine the legislation, which we support.”

“I’m sure it happens in small numbers, so it’s important to keep it in proportion,” she added.

Brindley suggested that the issue could be “resolved through collaboration and discussion” and, for example, by ensuring that risk assessments within the Prison Service would prevent the legal change from being abused.

In light of this issue being raised in the joint statement, Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre commented: “We can understand how any prisoner may have to be kept separate from the women’s estate. This is about their risk profile and offending history, and not their trans identity.

“We have been a trans inclusive sexual violence service for 10 years. In our experience we have not encountered a male offender attempting to exploit our trans inclusive position in order to gain access to women’s spaces.”

Loraine Williams of Forth Valley Rape Crisis said that the organisation was worried that the concern around access to prisons was “perpetuating a myth which is used against trans equality”.

Comparing this to the focus on false accusations in sexual violence cases – which Rape Crisis has campaigned against by highlighting that only three per cent of reports are found to be false allegations – Williams said this could serve to confuse the issue.

“I’ve seen the press pick up on examples of such a small number where they’re not thinking about the rights of trans prisoners,” she said. “We are more focussed on that than anecdotal – as far as we know – examples.”

Williams added: “There will be, I’m sure, risk assessments in place and if someone is a threat to other prisoners that will be taken into account.”

Non-binary identity and equalities monitoring

The second of the two issues highlighted in the joint statement is a potential misunderstanding around the implications of the legal recognition of non-binary gender to gender equalities monitoring.

Emma Ritch of Engender explained: “This isn’t a concern connected with the Gender Recognition Act, specifically, but some public bodies have become a bit confused about whether or not the existence of non-binary people means there’s something wrong with gathering and analysing gender-disaggregated data.

“In fact, it’s a legal requirement, and we hope we can work with Scottish Trans Alliance and other LGBTI organisations to clarify this point.”

Sandy Brindley agreed that “it’s a misunderstanding that supporting trans women means not recording data by gender” and that it was important to ensure “we are still measuring sex related data for discrimination against women”.

Marsha Scott of Scottish Women’s Aid also noted that there were potential concerns around data collection and said that “more clarity” was needed on what the changes around non-binary gender specifically would mean for women’s services.

“Some have concerns that the government or Scottish Trans Alliance think that non-binary people should be lumped in with self-identified women,” she said.

That being said, Scott added: “We have been talking about trans inclusion for some time, whereas non-binary is newer, but we don’t have any big concerns about it.”

Trans women as staff and volunteers

Two of the organisations were keen to point out that they have trans women directly involved in their organisation and that this has been a positive addition.

Sandy Brindley highlighted recent negative media coverage regarding trans women refuge workers in England, and said: “I think it’s important to say we have a trans member of staff at Rape Crisis Scotland and it has been absolutely an asset and not at all a difficulty. It has been a really positive thing for our organisation.”

Jemma Tracey of the Young Women’s Movement also noted that the organisation has trans women on its board and advisory panel. She said: “Their voices are absolutely integral to the work that we do, and we wouldn’t have it any other way and we will always work like that.

“We proactively seek out people and organisations and anyone we’re aware of to have their voice be part of the work we’re doing because that’s what feminism is to us. From my experience working on that so far is that there is almost a sense of relief that we do that.

“There’s relief that there is a space which is accepting and open to people with a different experience or background, and that goes for everyone that’s a part of our organisation.”

Opportunity to open up conversations

Another key theme raised by the organisations was that the consultation was a good opportunity to allow conversations about trans inclusion, gender identity and gender equality more broadly to progress.

Ashley Thompson of Shakti Women’s Aid said that, while there were still considerable gaps in understanding and the potential for backlash from some of the organisation’s client group within BME communities, opening up the conversation on these issues was a positive way of moving this forward.

“We’ve found some of our clients have had concerns [around trans inclusion] and have maybe been hostile about it, but we find that when we have that conversation, they may not agree but they are respectful,” she explained.

Engender executive director Emma Ritch said: “I think that the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act consultation has brought to the surface some anxieties and concerns that aren’t necessarily thought about day to day. The question of what gender and sex are is vitally important to the struggle for women’s rights and the rights of trans people.

“I am always hopeful that more dialogue – as long as it avoids hate – will help us all get a better sense of the world and how to enable justice and equality within it.”

Indeed, Ritch said, the positive work which women’s organisations and LGBTI organisations in Scotland have done together over the past decade has “demonstrated that it’s possible for that conversation to be kind as well as challenging, and affirming of human rights and equality”.

Rape Crisis Scotland chief executive Sandy Brindley also highlighted the positive nature of the discussion between these sectors, and suggested that Scotland was “a very different place to England” in that regard.

“We have a really constructive, collaborative approach, and I think a lot of that is down to the Scottish Trans Alliance and the approach they take,” she said.

The Scottish Government consultation on the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act is open to responses from individuals and organisations and will close on 1 March 2018.

Picture courtesy of Scottish Trans Alliance