Keir Starmer last week ruled out allowing trans people to self-ID, abandoning his previous support for the change.
It means if Labour wins the next election, trans people will still not be able to legally change gender without a medical diagnosis.
During the 2019 leadership campaign, Starmer said he would stick to the party’s previous manifesto commitment to de-medicalise the process.
“Trans rights are human rights and I support the right to self-identification,” he said during the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn.
This was formally abandoned last week following a meeting of the party’s National Policy Forum in Nottingham.
Starmer told the BBC: “We don’t think that self-ID is the right way forward.”
One Labour MP who expressed disappointment at the shift said the leadership was understandably trying to neutralise the issue within the party.
“The whole debate has become sort of two very entrenched positions,” they said.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian, shadow equalities minister Anneliese Dodds said keeping the requirement for a medical diagnosis would uphold “confidence in the system”.
Under the current law to legally change gender, people have to be granted a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).
This requires them to provide a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from two doctors, evidence they have been living as the gender they identify with for two years and then receive approval from a medical panel.
Starmer’s new policy would see this simplified. But not ditched.
To legally change gender under a Labour government, people would need a diagnosis provided by one doctor, with approval from a registrar instead of a panel.
The slow motion U-turn from the Labour leader has been met with disappointment if not surprise by many LGBT+ activists in the party.
Disquiet at the leadership’s approach has been rumbling away for months if not years.
LGBT+ Labour – which holds its AGM this evening in central-London – has criticised the decision.
“It is very concerning that the Labour Party are signalling a retreat on their policy of de-medicalised self-ID for the trans community at the next general election,” the group said.
“As a campaign we will continue to lobby and fight for the rights of all LGBT+ people and push the Labour Party to continue to go further for our trans siblings, including on de-medicalised self-ID, and to build on their legacy as the party of equality.”
It has also split the party in Westminster from Scottish Labour, which is sticking to its policy of de-medicalisation.
Starmer – who is clearly uncomfortable with the topic – has faced repeated demands during interviews to define what a woman is.
A backbencher observed: “They [Starmer’s office] are fed up of being asked if a woman has got a penis every time they go on LBC.”
Starmer has also cited the row over Scotland’s attempt to introduce self-ID - backed by a majority in the Scottish parliament but legally blocked by Rishi Sunak - as one reason why he rowed back on his previous stance.
“It gave us a chance to reflect on what happened in Scotland recently in relation to gender recognition,” he told a BBC radio 5 Live phone-in.
Labour MP Dawn Butler, who served as shadow women and equalities minister under Corbyn, said she would be seeking “clarification” from Starmer on the change in the party’s policy.
“My position on the trans issue has not changed since 2020,” she said. “We must not fall into the trap set by the Tories.”
Trans rights are seen by some in No.10 as a useful wedge issue. The prime minister is expected to double-down on culture war issues in the run-up to next year’s general election.
There are at least two flashpoints looming in parliament for the issue of trans rights.
Sunak had promised to publish new guidance for schools on how to treat trans pupils before the summer break, but it was delayed until at least September.
It followed reports ministers had been told their plans to ban pupils from socially transitioning would breach equality law.
The government has also yet to publish its long-awaited Bill to ban so-called conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity.
There are concerns among advocates of the legislation that exemptions may be carved out by ministers to allow the practise to continue in some circumstances.
Another MP says the party should not get distracted by the issue. “This just isn’t a thing that comes up when you talk to people,” they said.
“No one says: ‘I’m going to stay with the party [the Conservatives] which means I can’t pay my bills and have no future because the Labour Party is a bit too equivocal for me on trans rights’.”
Stonewall has condemned a medical diagnosis process as “inhumane and undignified”.
The campaign group has warned legal gender recognition was “one of those rights where the UK has gone from leading to lagging” given international leading practice “has moved to a model based on legal self-determination”.
One international comparison is with the United States, where Joe Biden has taken a much more aggressively pro-trans position in the face of anti-LGBT+ rhetoric and laws from Republicans.
A Labour MP, who had hoped for a similarly ardent defence of trans people in the UK, said: “You look at the Democrats. They’re not even a left-wing party.
“Even they can say what we seem too afraid to say here. It’s just cowardice.”