It sounds innocuous enough: The Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill. However, the proposed law change within it has proved to be anything but. The bill would make it easier for transgender people to have their identity officially recognised. It allows adults to change the gender on their birth certificate by way of a statutory declaration — without the need for medical evidence. At present, a Family Court declaration is required and medical evidence must be provided of steps taken toward permanent physical change.

Coverage in the mainstream media of the proposed law change has been limited. The issue entered the spotlight amid the discussion over Auckland's Pride Parade, and whether or not to allow uniformed police officers to take part. Labour MP Louisa Wall was recorded saying: "I don't want any f***ing terfs at the Pride Parade." This introduced a new term to the wider public — terf, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist.



Big Read: A matter of identity

Wall's comment prompted an opinion piece by Herald columnist Rachel Stewart, which in turn fuelled a passionate — and sometime vicious — debate, much of it on social media. The divisive reaction has shown how difficult it is to raise the issue in mainstream media — but also the importance of doing so.

A similar discussion is under way in Britain, where proposed reforms to its Gender Recognition Act to allow people to self-identify have been the subject of far greater media coverage.

Today, Herald senior writer Claire Trevett takes a more in-depth look at the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill — and canvasses opinion on both sides. The only political party to comment for this feature are the Greens, whose MP Jan Logie expresses strong support. There was no response to requests for comment from the Prime Minister, while National leader Simon Bridges said it was up to the Government to front up. We can expect to hear more from our politicians early next year, when the bill goes back before Parliament for another vote.

The Herald believes that trans people should be recognised and respected according to the gender by which they live. The proposed law change removes potentially discriminatory processes which make it harder for those without the resources to meet the medical criteria and go through a Family Court process. In principle, we support the bill.

However, those opposed have understandable concerns about what it means for women's-only spaces, such as prisons and women's refuges, and what the changes mean for children. Their voices should also be heard.

New Zealand is facing law reforms on several difficult issues, including abortion, cannabis law and euthanasia. These conversations will be painful as there are deeply-felt, entrenched positions.

Society is changing but for progress to be made there needs to be open — and respectful — debate. Those with legitimate concerns, especially our politicians, should be free to speak their minds.