London (CNN)Edinburgh native James Morton was 24 years old when his employers realized he was trans after he applied for a pension scheme requiring him to provide a birth certificate. He told CNN that a data protection error outed him to colleagues, who began asking Morton about his private parts and "made offensive jokes at my expense," he said.
The quest for trans rights has exposed a deep divide in the UK. Scotland may show a way forward
The traumatic time "very much made me think that I do not want this document (his birth certificate) undermining my privacy," Morton said of his decision to change his gender marker in the eyes of British law.
To do so, Morton applied to a tribunal, which issues a gender recognition certificate (GRC) that would in turn allow him to change his birth certificate. To be successful, an applicant needs to provide the panel proof of living in the "acquired gender" for at least two years and a detailed medical and psychiatric report, outlining a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and any relevant treatment or surgery. There is no requirement to undergo sex reassignment surgery to receive the GRC.
His petition was ultimately approved, but only after what he describes as a pedantic, burdensome process.
In a bid to be in step with some European countries, Scotland's government wants to ease the current pathway, criticized as too expensive and intrusive. The simplified self-declaratory system would shed away the panel and the medical reports. And where it has been a requirement for applicants to prove having lived in accordance with one's gender identity for 24 months, the new system would require just three months. It would also reduce the minimum age of recognition to 16, from 18.
The move has reinvigorated the quest for more rights for the structurally disenfranchised community, blighted by high rates of discrimination, harassment, suicide, and who report facing difficulty obtaining gender-affirming healthcare in the UK.
A consultation began on a new draft law in December, which has the backing of the country's biggest women's groups and major players in the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), including Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. But that law, along with other legislation, has now been placed on hold while officials work to contain the coronavirus pandemic. In an April 1 letter to activists with the Scottish Trans Alliance, the Scottish government expressed its "strong commitment to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and improve the current process for trans people."
Yet campaigners who spoke to CNN are wracked with apprehension after a UK-wide attempt at canvassing public opinion in 2018 manifested a toxic culture war. They say reform will create a more humane and equitable society, whereas critics have pitted one of the world's most maligned minorities against a historically oppressed group: trans women against cis-gender women -- that is, women whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.
Some opponents of the new draft law, who say that trans women are not women, believe trans women pose a threat in spaces that are for women. "The Scottish government is creating a loophole for predators and pretenders to exploit," Fair Play for Women, a campaign group that opposes the inclusion of trans women in women's sports, wrote about Scotland's draft bill on its website in March.
It warned male prisoners in Scotland could change their gender marker by obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and access women's prisons in England and Wales, adding that "your son or daughter could apply for a GRC" in their first week of university in Scotland and "have a new birth certificate by the time they start the next semester in the new year."
While the biggest opposition to transgender rights in the US is associated with the Christian right, a number of high profile journalists, radical feminists and academics are among the loudest dissenters to reform in Britain. And like the American legislators who debated so-called "bathroom bills" that restricted access to public accommodations for transgender people, British opponents argue that any new trans rights, such as the act's amendment, undermine existing protections for cisgender women and girls.
Trans rights activists say these are alarmist and transphobic narratives that scuppered reform in Westminster, and they have arrived in Holyrood. Reform in Scotland "now looks more uncertain," Morton said, adding that "the really ferocious anti-trans stuff in England" is having "dangerous impacts" on surrounding countries.
This was the last thing the government of former Prime Minister Theresa May expected to happen when it proposed in 2017 "to streamline and de-medicalize" the process of obtaining a GRC, helping those who wanted to change the gender markers on their birth certificates.
By the time consultations began in 2018, prominent columnists were arguing the de-medicalization of the law could lead to "male-bodied people" changing their gender only to enter spaces for women, like prisons, bathrooms and refuges -- citing the case of Karen White, a transgender woman who committed assaults on fellow inmates after being transferred to a women's prison.
Anti-trans pressure groups such as Transgender Trend branded the reforms a threat to girls, saying it was a "safety issue" and worried about the "implications for parents, schools and professionals in its acceptance of the diagnosis of 'transgender children' as fact."