What The Heck Is A Spousal Veto?

With LGBT History Month coming up, people are taking an interest in LGBT politics again, and I have been asked to explain this weird “Spousal Veto” thing that trans people keep yelling about. Well, it is a strange piece of legislation added to the England & Wales Marriage Equality Act which is profoundly homophobic in nature, and yet which only inconveniences trans people. Bear with me.

Generally the Marriage Equality Act is a good thing, even for trans people. It takes away the requirement that we have to get marriages annulled prior to transition so as to avoid a same-sex marriage, though it still rankles that no restitution was made for those people who were forced to destroy their marriages in previous years.

However, the government added a new requirement to the Bill to the effect that, if a trans person is married, and wishes to get a Gender Recognition Certificate, then they must supply a letter from their spouse giving permission, otherwise no GRC can be granted, hence the “Veto”.

Note that getting a GRC is generally seen as a basic human right for trans people. Indeed, the whole Gender Recognition Act was forced on the UK by the European Court of Human Rights. Ireland is going through a similar process at the moment. Getting a GRC is, I believe, the only human right in UK law which you can only get if you have your spouse’s permission.

I should make clear that this is nothing whatsoever to do with the actual process of transition. You can’t actually apply for a GRC until you have completed that process. You can’t normally get a GRC until you have been living in your preferred gender for at least 2 years. You may well have had surgery, though it is not a requirement. Mostly what the GRC does is changes your legal gender.

Nor does his have much to do with the majority of marriages. As you can imagine, if your spouse is unhappy about the direction your life is taking, they will probably ask for a divorce long before you get anywhere near applying for a GRC. And if you and your spouse do want to stay together, then getting the required letter should be a formality. Who, then, is the Spousal Veto there to protect?

The only case in which the Veto makes any sense at all is if your spouse is in denial about your transition and is determined to preserve a marriage to your pre-transition self. Said spouse is likely to be angry and vindictive, and doing their best to derail your transition in other ways too. The nice people at Westminster felt that spouses like that needed more ammunition with which to pursue their vendettas.

But why? What is so horrible about the GRC? Other than simple joy in causing further distress, why would anyone want to wield the Veto? Well, the thing about the GRC is that it doesn’t just change your gender now, it retroactively changes your gender. I have a birth certificate saying that I was born a girl. I am very proud of it.

But consider. Suppose you are in a heterosexual marriage to someone, and that person then gets a GRC. That means that history has been changed to say that you were party to a same-sex marriage. You have been retroactively made gay. And that is why people are prepared to fight tooth and nail to prevent their spouses from getting GRCs.

A few people at Westminster recognized what an injustice this was. As Sarah Brown explains here, people like Julian Huppert and Liz Barker lobbied passionately on our behalf. But the Civil Service adamantly refused to budge on the issue, and ministers took their advice. In stark contrast, although a similar clause was introduced into Scotland’s Marriage Equality bill, as soon as the issue was explained to them the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee voted unanimously to scrap it. The important difference, of course, is that in Scotland the trans community has the support of LGB lobbyists, whereas in England & Wales the usual tactic by S’onewall is to offer us up as a bargaining counter: the sacrificial lambs to be persecuted at will so as to give the bigots a victory to cheer about.

So that’s what’s what a Spousal Veto is: a nasty piece of homophobic legislation allowed to pass in Westminster because it only affects trans people.

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2 Responses to What The Heck Is A Spousal Veto?

  1. Cathy Butler says:

    Excellent piece. Quite so.

  2. Erica says:

    I’m a US citizen and resident (and sadly, we’re still behind Europe and the UK in making human rights universal for citizens who are transgender, gay and lesbian), but I’ve been wondering why the spousal permission clause. For all the reasons you mentioned, it seems so pointless, in addition to being pointlessly intrusive and disrespectful of privacy and autonomy. I think you nailed the motives behind this issue well. It’s something that will certainly come up over here as we continue to work out these basic human rights issues in our typical patchwork “one state at a time” way.

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