LONDON — The British government is considering blocking a new law that makes it easier for people in Scotland to legally change their gender – a move that would spark conflict with transgender rights advocates and the nationalist Scottish administration in Edinburgh.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Monday that it would be an “outrage” if Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government vetoed the legislation, which was approved by the Scottish parliament last month.
She said such a decision “will be using trans people – already one of the most vulnerable, stigmatized groups in our society – as a political weapon.”
Sunak’s office said no decision has been made but that it had concerns about the law, “particularly around safety issues for women and children.”
The law allows people age 16 or older in Scotland to change the gender designation on their identity documents by self-declaration, removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
It also cuts the time trans people must live in a different expressed gender before the change is legally recognized, from two years to three months for adults and to six months for people ages 16 and 17.
The law sets Scotland apart from the rest of the United Kingdom, where a medical diagnosis is needed before individuals can transition for legal purposes.
Several countries around the world have legalized gender self-recognition, including Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark and Iceland. Last month Spain’s parliament approved a bill similar to Scotland’s.
The Scottish National Party-led government in Edinburgh says the new law will improve the lives of transgender people by allowing them to get official documents that correspond with their gender identities.
Opponents claim it risks allowing predatory men to gain access to spaces intended for women, such as shelters for domestic abuse survivors. Others argue that the minimum age for transitioning should remain at 18.
Scotland is part of the United Kingdom but, like Wales and Northern Ireland, – has its own semi-autonomous government with broad powers over areas including health care. The U.K. government in London has the final say in some other fields, and is taking legal advice on whether the Scottish law conflicts with U.K.-wide equalities legislation, which guarantees women and girls access to single-sex spaces such as changing rooms and shelters.
Sunak’s government has until Wednesday, four weeks after the bill was passed, to decide whether it will veto the law. If it does, the case is likely to go to the U.K. Supreme Court.
Such a decision would mark the first time a U.K. government has blocked a Scottish law since the Scottish government and parliament were established a quarter century ago. It would provide fodder for nationalists who want Scotland to break away from the U.K. and become an independent country. They are likely to argue the London government is interfering in a Scottish decision.
Shami Chakrabarti, a Labour Party member of the House of Lords and former director of the rights group Liberty, said Sunak’s government might be trying to stir up “culture wars” by stepping in, but legally “they may have a point.”
“It is arguable, at least, that what’s happened in Scotland has a potential impact on the legislation as it operates U.K.-wide,” she told the BBC.
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