Abolishing legal sex and gender statuses – new report examines the pros and cons

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A new report has set out the challenges and consequences associated with abolishing legal sex and gender statuses.

The Future of Legal Gender (FLaG) was a four-year project to explore the current British system which registers and assigns sex at birth and then treats that sex and corresponding gender as a legal status.

The aim was to explore whether the current system of assigning people a legal sex and gender status should be dismantled – or decertified – and the challenges and potential difficulties that posed.

Research included a survey with over 3,000 responses; 200 interviews with government officials, trade unions, regulatory bodies, community organisations, service providers, academics, lawyers, and general publics; and focus group discussions and workshops with lawyers, academics, legal drafting experts, NGOs, and public officials.

The findings have been published in a report, Abolishing legal sex status: The challenge and consequences of gender-related law reform - funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Benefit associated with decertification included:

  • Dismantling a legal system which formally places people, from birth, in unequal social categories of female and male
  • Supporting greater self-expression – free from gender constraints
  • Removing the legal burdens currently placed on people who want state recognition of a change in their sex and gender status

The concerns related mainly to gender and sex-specific services, data collection, violence, and positive action.

Some participants were worried that measures to abolish sex as a legal status would make it harder to retain provision and spaces based on distinctions between women and men (or females and males).

Professor Elizabeth Peel, of Loughborough’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities, who – as part of the project – explored what legal gender status means for the public, and whether it matters to individuals in their everyday lives, said: “Our research identified some ways of tackling these concerns.

“These strategies build on current practices of ‘soft decertification’ as public bodies and other organisations and agencies respond to users, staff, and clients who self-identify outside of a binary framework of gender anchored in the sex registered at birth.

“However, the hollowing out of legal sex has also faced opposition from groups who assert the importance of attending to women as a class defined by their sex.”

Declassifying gender could lead to a number of legal reforms, according to the report.

These include sex and gender status no longer being legally established or assigned – for example when registering sex on birth certificates.

Using gender-neutral pronouns (e.g. they, them, their) except when it leads, or contributes, to structural inequality, other injustices, or to lack of legislative clarity.

The report says that gender-specific provision, activities, and membership criteria should remain legally valid when addressing social subordination, unfairness, violence, or harassment – for instance, women’s domestic violence shelters, women’s sports, community provision for nonbinary and agender young people.

It also says that existing laws should be revised to align with the principles for the decertification of sex and gender. Marriage, for instance, should take a single unified form, merging the currently separate legal provisions for ‘same-sex’ and ‘opposite-sex’ marriage.

The research was Led by Prof Davina Cooper of King’s College London, Future of Legal Gender (FLaG) ran from 2018-2022, in collaboration with Professors Elizabeth PeelEmily Grabham, and Dr Flora Renz at the universities of Loughborough and Kent.

For the full report, visit: https://futureoflegalgender.kcl.ac.uk/final-report/