Sex or gender: which term do you prefer? Can they be used inter-changeably?
These questions have now come into sharp focus as a result of an amendment to the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill.
Our understanding of the terms “sex” and “gender” may now have to evolve as a result of the debate surrounding aspects of the Bill, but before we discuss this Bill it’s worth looking at the current legal position surrounding gender recognition issues.
The Equality Act 2010
Section 11(1) of the Equality Act 2010 defines a person’s “sex” in the following terms:
In relation to the protected characteristic of sex — a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a man or to a woman
In other words, current UK equality law means that your sex is determined at birth when you will be categorised as ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ and this will be entered on your birth certificate. We, therefore, do not have a choice about our sex when we are born. It is a matter of biology.
What about a person’s gender? Section 7(1) of the Equality Act 2010 provides us with guidance on this matter:
A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.
The Gender Recognition Act 2004
In April 2005, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 came into force. This Act, which received the Royal Assent on 1 July 2004, currently provides people who have undergone gender reassignment procedures with legal recognition in relation to their newly acquired gender identity. The legislation applies across the United Kingdom and was passed by the Westminster Parliament.
Legal recognition of a person’s decision to reassign the sex or gender they have had from birth will follow from the issuing of a full gender recognition certificate by a Gender Recognition Panel. The individual applying for such a certificate must be able to satisfy certain criteria – the most important criterion will centre around the submission of medical evidence of physiological changes by the applicant.
The Scottish Government was intending to reform the 2004 Act, but in the teeth of strong opposition within the Scottish National Party, such proposals have been dropped for the time being.
Under the Scottish Government’s proposals, an individual would have been permitted effectively to self-identify as a person of the opposite sex without having to undergo invasive medical procedures and provide the evidence of this fact in order to obtain recognition from the Panel.
This meant that an individual wishing to undergo gender reassignment in Scotland would have to have met the following criteria:
- A statutory declaration to the effect that they have decided to change gender or sex;
- The declaration will contain a statement that the individual has been living as a man or a woman for at a minimum of 3 months;
- The individual will have to undertake a compulsory or mandatory period of 3 months to reflect on the decision to undergo gender reassignment (no gender recognition certificate will be issued until this period has been completed).
Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill
This Bill has proved to be another flashpoint in the often fierce debate over gender recognition.
The Bill, which passed Stage 3 in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 10 December 2020, has reignited the debate about the terms “sex” and “gender” and their use in legislation.
The purpose of the Bill is set out below:
“… to improve the experience, in relation to forensic medical services, of people who have been affected by sexual crime. It does this by providing a clear statutory duty for health boards to provide forensic medical examinations to victims and to ensure that an individual’s healthcare needs are addressed in a holistic way in the context of any such examination (or where such an examination is not proceeded with). As well as placing a duty on health boards to provide forensic medical examinations when a victim is referred for such an examination by the police, the Bill allows victims to “self-refer”. Self-referral means that a victim can request a forensic medical examination without having reported an incident to the police. The Bill provides a statutory framework for the retention by health boards of samples obtained during a forensic medical examination, which may support any future criminal investigation or prosecution. In self-referral cases, this allows the victim time to decide whether to make a police report.”
A controversial amendment?
At first glance, no one could possibly object to the aims of the Bill, but Johann Lamont MSP, a former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, saw an opportunity to introduce an amendment to the Bill.
Such a development is not an unusual practice for parliamentarians to introduce amendments to Bills proceeding through Parliament. The introduction of amendments to Bills often permit reform to earlier pieces of legislation. In this case, the Lamont amendment was directed towards changing the wording of Section 9(2) of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014.
As things currently stand, Section 9(2) of the 2014 Act states that:
Before a medical examination of the person in relation to the complaint is carried out by a registered medical practitioner in pursuance of section 31 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, the constable must give the person an opportunity to request that any such medical examination be carried out by a registered medical practitioner of a gender specified by the person.
This could mean, under current law, that a victim of a sexual assault e.g. a biological or cis woman might have to undergo an examination by a medical professional who is a transgender female.
The Lamont amendment (which has now been accepted overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament) will ensure that the word “gender” will be replaced with the word “sex”.
Johann Lamont’s amendment will remove an anomaly in the law which currently permits a transgender person who is a medical professional to examine a victim of a sexual assault.
When one flashpoint is resolved, another disagreement about sex and gender is never far away in Scotland.
An organisation called forwomen.scot is raising a legal action in the Court of Session in Edinburgh for the express purpose of challenging the Scottish Government’s attempt to redefine the word ‘woman’ (see below):
“… We are challenging the Scottish Ministers over the redefinition of “woman” in the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018 which we believe is outside the legislative competency of the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998 and in contravention of the Scottish Ministers’ duties under equality legislation… The new definition includes some men, while, remarkably, excluding some women. This cannot be allowed to stand… The Equality Act 2010 states that a woman is “a female of any age” and maintaining this definition is key to maintaining women’s rights and protections in law…”
forwomen.scot describes rationale on its website in the following terms:
– sex is immutable and is a protected characteristic;
– women are entitled to privacy, dignity, safety and fairness;
– women’s rights should be strengthened.
All quiet on the Western Front? Hardly … expect this issue to run and run.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 4 February 2021