I wanted to marry my trans girlfriend in the U.K. I can’t

How archaic laws across the pond fail to recognize trans-affirming marriages

There’s a small box in the back corner of my underwear drawer that I get out sometimes. It contains an engagement ring. The ring belonged to my paternal grandmother, whom I’m named after, bought for her by my British Navy captain grandfather who died before I was born. After my grandmother died, the ring spent seven years in my mother’s jewelry collection. Dad based Mum’s own engagement ring off the same pattern, three diamonds and two sapphires mounted on a gold band. My mum says it’s too ostentatious, that she would have preferred something simpler. (“You tell me this 29 years later,” Dad says, rolling his eyes in a facsimile of exasperation.)

The first time my parents visited me in Vancouver, I asked them to bring me the ring.

My girlfriend and I are from the U.K. We moved to Canada in 2017 when I started my master’s degree at the University of British Columbia. We have work permits, and are jumping through hoops to try to get permanent Canadian residency. For now, we’re temporary residents with British citizenship.

I’m not going to ask my girlfriend to marry me anytime soon: We’re in our mid-20s and can barely cover rent. But we’ve been together for five years, across two continents, and love the idea of making a patriarchal institution something undeniably queer. She tries out her first name with my last; I google white wedding pantsuits; we debate the merits of walking down the aisle to Kesha’s “Die Young.” Our potential future marriage is simultaneously a hope and a pipe dream—something we kid about precisely because it’s currently impossible.

“Where should we get married?” I asked one day. “Here, or back at home?”

“Canada,” she said. “I’m not even sure if we could get married in the U.K.”

“What do you mean?”

I was confused: Same-sex marriage has been legal in England and Wales since 2013, in Scotland since 2014 and in Northern Ireland since 2020. Civil partnerships, the equal-but-different precursor, were legalized in 2004.

But “marriage in the U.K. is done based on birth certificates,” she said. My girlfriend is trans. We are both still U.K. citizens, and she hasn’t updated her birth certificate. That means if we get married at home in England, I’d be technically and legally married to a man.

In everyday life, nobody looks at a birth certificate. It’s not that simple to update your passport or driving licence to the correct gender, but it’s something many British trans folks will do. Birth certificates are only ever used in formal, legal circumstances—and that might explain why they’re so much harder to change.

Rainbow rings section break representing LGBTQ marriage

In the U.K., in theory, medically transitioning is free and available to everyone through the National Health Service (NHS). But in reality, the process is heavily restricted.

First, you need to get your family doctor to refer you to a gender clinic, which requires your doctor to understand what gender dysphoria is (many don’t). Then, you need to have two separate appointments with two separate psychologists to make sure they both diagnose you with gender dysphoria. It can take two years from referral to first appointment, and another indeterminate amount of time between the first appointment and the second. You have to prove your trans-ness is not caused by another medical condition, that it isn’t being forced upon you nor is it a result of trauma or abuse. You’re not allowed to start hormones until after that second appointment.

My partner was referred in November 2015. At the time, the gender clinic closest to us, in Leeds, had an estimated wait time of five years from referral to first appointment, so she chose Charing Cross clinic in London instead. She had her first appointment in January 2017. Her second was scheduled for July 2018—a year after we’d left the U.K. for Vancouver. The NHS says the maximum wait time is supposed to be 18 weeks.

One trans friend in the U.K. recently posted on Facebook that it’s been 700 days since they were referred to a gender clinic and they still haven’t had their first appointment scheduled. They’ve decided to go private and pay more than $400 per consultation—and they’ll still need two diagnoses from two psychologists to get their hormone prescription. There’s a reason not many people take this route: $1,200 is a lot of money for a service that’s meant to be free.

Another friend started her medical transition while living overseas. She was originally registered at a London clinic, but assumed she’d be abroad longer than she was and missed her scheduled appointment. Now that she’s back in the U.K. health system, her doctor will carry on prescribing her hormones but won’t change the dosage without an appointment at the gender clinic. She had to start her referral again from the beginning, joking that her schedule for January 2027 is open.

Once you have your diagnosis and have lived as your “acquired” gender for two years, you can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). If you got married before December 2014, that trebles to six years—even if you get divorced or your partner dies.

“In the U.K., you are called ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ based on a single piece of paper. It’s the law”

When GRCs were introduced in 2004, they were considered revolutionary because they didn’t require surgery. But because equal marriage wasn’t yet legal, there were some stipulations. Any trans person married or in a civil partnership had to annul their marriages to prevent cases of same-sex marriage or opposite-sex civil partnerships. If a trans man transitioned after his legal marriage to a cis man, for example, that marriage would be struck from the record because it went from an opposite-sex partnership to a same-sex partnership. When the trans man changed his gender on his birth certificate, the couple would have to pay to have a civil union. Officially, their marriage never happened.

Even now, there’s still a trans spousal veto: A spouse has to give permission “for the marriage to continue” if one partner transitions, and the GRC cannot be granted unless the couple divorce.

GRCs are the only way to change your birth certificate to reflect your gender identity. You gather the necessary documents, pay about $200 and send them off to a panel of people you never meet. They can deny your application for banal reasons, like for your doctor being too vague in your surgery details. You can’t appeal the decision except on a “point of law”—like proving, for instance, that you have lawfully fulfilled the requirements for a GRC and the panel has acted unlawfully in denying it.

From 2004 to 2018, only 4,910 certificates were issued; a freedom of information request showed that, between 2014 and 2017, just over 300 were accepted per year. Though few were denied during that period, GRCs are such a pain to acquire that few trans people try unless they have to. Marriage is one reason. Discrimination is another: Sex-based discrimination only applies to the sex on your birth certificate. And the U.K. has historically had different ages for accessing your state pension—60 for women, 65 for men—that aligned with your birth certificate.

Similar to my girlfriend, British writer and activist Paris Lees has a female passport, which only requires self-identification of your gender identity and no GRC. Though gender reassignment has been a protected characteristic in the U.K. since 2010, GRCs don’t even necessarily protect you from being legally misgendered. Why would anyone go to the trouble of spending money to tell literal strangers their medical history, over and over again, unless they have no other choice?

Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2013, the legal definition of British marriage still relies on the genders listed on birth certificates. The General Register Office stated that the Registrar General “does not have any discretion at this point” in regards to language: You are called “husband” or “wife” based on a single piece of paper. It’s the law.

You can get a GRC while living overseas, but the requirements are confusing. If you live in British Columbia, like we do, the U.K. government says you can’t apply unless you’ve had surgery, in accordance with the province’s Vital Statistics Act, Section 27. But that exact piece of legislation has not required surgery since 2014, implying that the British legislation hasn’t been updated to keep pace with international changes.

Rainbow rings section break representing LGBTQ marriage

People have been rallying against the gender recognition process for as long as it’s been around. Most trans people are in favour of self-identification—having a system that trusts their word rather than that of medical professionals. It wouldn’t need two doctors to diagnose you, an extensive exhumation of your medical history or a panel to judge if you’re really trans enough, whatever that might mean.

In 2016, the U.K.’s Women and Equalities parliamentary committee published a report that included 30 recommendations on how to improve the system. It recommended replacing the “present medicalized, quasi-judicial application process” with one “centred on the wishes of the individual applicant, rather than on intensive analysis by doctors and lawyers.” Nothing happened.

Two years later, the government opened public consultations asking people for their thoughts on GRC changes. More than 100,000 people responded. Results aren’t up on the official website; media reports imply Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government quietly shelved the reforms after coming to power in 2019.

Self-identification isn’t impossible. Ireland, Britain’s closest neighbour, became the fourth country in the world to introduce self-identification in 2015; 277 people applied in the first two years—about a third as many applicants per year as the U.K., in a country with less than one-tenth of the population.

“Some British writers and pundits say that streamlining the gender recognition process is inherently dangerous to women’s rights. What they conveniently forget is that the government was in favour of updating legislation a mere four years ago”

In Canada, there’s no such thing as a Gender Recognition Certificate, either—you get your documents updated provincially. In Ontario, if you are 16 years of age or older, you fill out three forms and submit a letter from a doctor (on their official letterhead) to change your birth registration. British Columbia has one form for the applicant to fill out, and one for the doctor’s declaration. Manitoba makes the doctor’s note part of a single form, signed in front of a witness. The Northwest Territories only introduced a way to update sex designation in 2017, but it comes the closest to self-identification. The form doesn’t need medical proof—just a sworn statement by someone who’s known the applicant for longer than a year.

Some British writers and pundits say that streamlining the gender recognition process is inherently dangerous to women’s rights. They say that trans women will target women in shelters and prisons; that men will pretend to be trans to access bathrooms and changing rooms; that trans men are confused lesbians who are being pushed into heterosexual boxes. Other arguments inherently assume all trans women are actually predatory men. These people spew vitriol and claim that those who disagree are part of a shadowy “trans lobby” trying to force children to transition and shut down free speech.

There’s no evidence that any applicants in Ireland are actually cisgender people who use gender self-declaration to access single-gender spaces. Why would there be? The suggestion that self-identification lets male predators into women’s spaces is a tired myth. But the fact this argument is so prevalent in parts of the U.K. shows how much sway transphobia has in the country’s collective discourse.

But what these naysayers conveniently forget is that the government was in favour of updating legislation a mere four years ago.

Rainbow rings section break representing LGBTQ marriage

As immigrants, my girlfriend and I have become proficient in navigating two sets of laws.

My partner has an F on her passport; her work permit recognizes her as a woman. When we jump through the hoops we need to become permanent residents, the residency card will record her as female. That counts as a primary ID for a marriage licence in British Columbia, so when we get married in Canada, the marriage will be recognized under British law. It turns out that all trans people from the U.K. need to do to get married is upend their lives and move to another country—and it’ll still happen faster than going through the whole GRC system.

One day, I’ll propose to my girlfriend with my grandmother’s ring. When we say I do—her in a flowing white dress, me in a crisp white tux—we’ll be wives. We found a loophole to fix a problem that shouldn’t exist. We shouldn’t have to be messing with international law to do it.

V.S. Wells

V. S. Wells is a British writer living in Vancouver, B.C., with bylines in Slate, VICE and Autostraddle. Please stop asking them about Brexit.

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