Examining the rights of transsexual people in the UK following the ECHR rulings in Goodwin -v- UK and I. -v- UK and in light of the recent case of Lucy Meadows

I was saddened yesterday to hear the news about Lucy Meadows. The primary school teacher who had recently transitioned from being male to female was found dead at her home in Lancashire. When the news about a male primary school teacher returning to school after the Christmas break as a woman first came to light the tabloid press (as one can unfortunately imagine) had somewhat of a field day demonising her.

The Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn wrote a column headlined “He’s not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job” in which he asked whether anyone had thought of “the devastating effect” on the pupils of the teacher’s change in gender. He wrote: “Why should they be forced to deal with the news that a male teacher they have always known as Mr Upton will henceforth be a woman called Miss Meadows?”

Lawyer and columnist at the New Statesman, David Alan Green, wrote a thoroughly thought-provoking blog post yesterday on the monstering of Lucy Meadows and other transgendered people by the press. His post can be seen here. It got me thinking of my own experiences of transsexual people and what they must unfortunately deal with on a daily basis in the UK.

I was incredibly fortunate in my second year of undergraduate study at the University of Kent to meet a fellow student of family law and somewhat of a legal celebrity (at least in my humble opinion). Back in 2002 Christine Goodwin and another woman referred to as “I” (my fellow law student) took the UK to the European Court of Human Rights in the two landmark cases of Christine Goodwin v UK no. 28957/95 and I. v. UK, no. 25680/94.

Christine and “I” complained about the lack of legal recognition in the UK of their post-operative sex and about the legal status of transsexuals in the UK. They complained, in particular, about their treatment in relation to employment, social security and pensions and an inability to marry. They relied upon Articles 8, 12, 13 and 14 of the Convention in their separate applications to the court in Strasbourg.

Christine claimed that she had faced sexual harassment at work during and following her gender re-assignment. Specifically she experienced difficulties relating to her national insurance contributions. As legally, under UK law, she was still a man, she had to continue to pay NI contributions until the age of 65. If she had been recognised as a woman, she would have ceased to be liable at the age of 60 as of April 1997. She had to make special arrangements to continue paying her NI contributions directly herself to avoid questions being raised by her employers about the anomaly. She also alleged that the fact that she kept the same NI number meant that her employer had been able to discover that she previously worked for them under another name and gender, with resulting embarrassment and humiliation.

The judgment delivered in the Strasbourg court unanimously held that the UK’s failure to recognise Christine’s and “I”s new identity in law breached their rights to respect for privacy and their right to marry under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court held, unanimously, that the finding of violation constituted in itself sufficient just satisfaction for the non-pecuniary damage sustained by Christine and awarded her €39,000 for costs and expenses. At the time the British press concentrated on only one thing in relation to Christine’s case – the fact that the ruling suggested that transgendered people would now be able to legally marry.

Christine Goodwin’s solicitor, Mr Robin Lewis said at the time of the judgment:

“The court has said that the government’s stance falls far short of the standards for human dignity and human freedom in the 21st century. Christine Goodwin’s victory will be seen as a milestone on the road to change. This judgment will require the government to change the law… and any government practice which could lead to the history of a transsexual being identified will also have to be changed so as to respect the individual’s right to privacy.”

In the “I” case the Strasbourg court held that there was a failure to respect the right to private life in breach of Article 8 in that there was a lack of legal recognition of the gender reassignment surgery. There was no justification for barring the transsexual persons from enjoying the right to marry under any circumstances in the UK. “I” was awarded €23,000 for costs and expenses.

As a result of these two important cases the Gender Recognition Act 2004  was brought into force giving legal recognition to transsexual people in their acquired gender. Under the law if an application to the Gender Recognition Panel is successful, the transsexual person’s gender becomes for all purposes their acquired gender and they receive a full gender recognition certificate. This certificate allows for the creation of a modified birth certificate reflecting the holder’s new gender. In specified circumstances the Act prohibits disclosure of the fact that someone has applied for a certificate or disclosure of someone’s gender prior to the acquisition of it. Such disclosure constitutes a criminal offence liable to a fine.

Why then might you ask were the tabloid press able to write articles about Lucy Meadows? Well under the Gender Recognition Act there are certain hurdles that must be overcome prior to gaining a full gender recognition certificate which it appears she had yet to complete. Lucy Meadows must have:

  • be diagnosed with gender dysphoria (unhappiness with her birth gender)
  • have lived in her new gender for 2 years
  • intend to live in her changed gender for the rest of your life

The courage and tenacity of both Christine Goodwin and “I” in bringing their cases all the way to the ECHR and in helping to change the course of the law in this country is incredibly admirable. Even ten years on from meeting “I” I cannot begin to fathom how much she must have gone through in order to win her case. It is cases like theirs that have paved the way for greater equality in this country which includes more recently Parliament passing its Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill – which MPs backed after its second reading in the House of Commons – the government proposes that couples who are the same-sex can now get married.

Still the coverage of transsexual issues in the mainstream media remains far from perfect as has been highlighted by Trans Media Watch’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry. And the recent death of Lucy Meadows further highlights that while the rights of transsexual people have come a long way in the last ten years we still have some way to go before all of society accepts an individual’s true and chosen identity.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.