25 May 2004: First Gender Recognition Act gives trans people a way to change their legal gender
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25 May 2004: First Gender Recognition Act gives trans people a way to change their legal gender

For the first time ever, trans people in Britain were able to amend their legal gender.

This huge and significant step was made possible by the work of Press for Change, founded in 1992 by Mark Rees, Stephen Whittle and others following a ground-breaking fringe meeting of the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference the previous year. A year later, political activist Christine Burns joined the group.

Using the courts – and European law in particular – the group sought better legal protections for trans people. By 1998, most other European countries had a way for trans people to amend their legal gender. That year, Kristina Sheffield and Rachel Horsham took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that having to disclose their birth gender in several official and professional contexts in the UK breached their right to privacy. The Court ruled against them – but only by a narrow margin. 

In 2002 Christine Goodwin, a trans woman, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that not being able to amend her birth certificate breached her right to privacy. This time, the complaint was upheld, and the UK was forced to give trans people a way of changing their legal sex.

The Gender Recognition Bill, passed on 25 May 2004, allowed trans people for the first time to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. This document instructed the Registrar of Births to issue a new birth certificate with the applicant’s correct gender as the sex marker.

A Gender Recognition Panel, who the applicant will never meet, decides if a new GRC should be awarded.  Criteria includes a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and two years of evidence at having lived in their ‘acquired’ gender.

The Act restricts gender recognition for all but a very select group people who have the means to navigate the incredibly complex and medicalised system. It also makes no provisions for children or non-binary people and makes the process for married trans people more complex.

The Act, although ground-breaking at the time, is now seen as outdated, medicalised and cruel. Stonewall is working with trans communities and organisations to reform the Act.

We have made incredible progress toward LGBT equality over the last 30 years, but the fight is far from over.