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14 September 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:03am

Liberal Democrats decide to remove the controversial trans ‘spousal veto’

A moving debate culiminated in the party conference backing a boost to trans rights.

By Ailbhe Rea

The Liberal Democrats have today made it their party policy to remove the controversial spousal veto, a clause in the Gender Recognition Act that allows a trans person’s spouse to block their partner’s gender recognition.

Under current legislation, trans people who are already married need the written consent of their partner in order to have their gender recognised in law, due to a continued legal distinction between “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” marriages. This means a trans person cannot gain gender recognition until either their spouse consents, or they get a divorce.

In a moving debate at the party’s conference this morning, Joanna Belcher, the wife of Helen Belcher, the Liberal Democrat’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Chippenham, told the conference about her own experience of the spousal veto during her wife’s transition.  

“Sixteen years ago I was living with a depressed husband who had recently stood over a railway bridge and seriously contemplated jumping. We had two young children,” she told the room.

“We were both trying to work out the ramifications of the realisation that she needed to live her life openly as a woman. It became clear that in order for my spouse to change her legal gender, and for us to remain in our marriage, I would be asked to sign a consent form.

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“I didn’t want to sign anything that said this was what I was choosing. I was supporting my other half, while trying to hold myself and our family together, but it wasn’t my choice.

“It wasn’t my choice and I knew this had to happen, that a second female parent was way better for our kids than a dead male parent. But shouldn’t have been my decision to make. This was a burden I didn’t want. Only my other half knew who she truly was.”

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Belcher added that the law as it stands allows spouses to “use this veto as a weapon to hurt their exes and prevent them from moving on in their lives”.

Layla Moran MP said: “You shouldn’t be defined by anyone else other than you. That’s what makes the spousal veto such an injustice. The fact is your identity has nothing to do with anything else. No spouse should be able to veto who you are.”

This was the first day of the Liberal Democrat conference, where members debate and vote on what will become party policy. The decision to adopt the policy of removing the spousal veto was backed almost unanimously, as part of a wider motion to strengthen equal marriage legislation, including introducing equal marriage in Northern Ireland and recognising humanist marriage ceremonies.

The debate also saw flashes of anger from delegates about the party’s new MP, Phillip Lee, who has defected to the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives and who abstained on the same-sex marriage vote.