Ash Regan’s surprise resignation from the position of community safety minister was announced just hours before Thursday’s vote, with the Edinburgh Eastern MSP saying her “conscience” would not allow her to support the plans.
And despite the SNP being whipped to vote in favour of the reform, a total of seven of the party’s MSPs voted against the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill – Stephanie Callaghan, Fergus Ewing, Kenneth Gibson, Ruth Maguire, John Mason, Michelle Thomson and Ms Regan.
A further two SNP MSPs – Annabelle Ewing and Jim Fairlie – abstained.
The Bill passed the first stage in the Scottish Parliament despite the division, with 88 votes in favour, 33 against and four abstentions.
It is not yet known what action the SNP will take against the rebels MSPs. An SNP spokesperson said: “As is normal practice, SNP MSPs are expected to support government legislation." It is understood issues involving the party whip are treated as an internal matter and dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
The legislation is aimed at making it easier for people to change their legally recognised gender.
The Bill will amend and “streamline” the way in which a trans person can obtain a gender recognition certificate (GRC). The reform is intended to make the process less intrusive, less bureaucratic and less medicalised, according to the Scottish Government, and will remove the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria from the criteria to legally change gender.
The minimum applicant age for a GRC will also drop from 18 to 16.
The Bill would also cut the applicant’s need to live in their acquired gender from two years to three months, with a further three month period of reflection.
Ms Regan had been one of 15 senior SNP politicians, including finance secretary Kate Forbes and business minister Ivan McKee, who signed a letter in 2019 calling for the Scottish Government not to “rush” into legislation they claimed could change the definition of what it meant to be male and female.
In her resignation letter, she said: "I have considered the issue of Gender Recognition Reform very carefully over some time. I have concluded that my conscience will not allow me to vote with the government at the stage one of the Bill this afternoon.”
Nicola Sturgeon said in a statement she accepted the resignation, but added: "I note that at no stage have you approached me – or indeed the Cabinet secretary for social justice – to raise your concerns about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill or the vote.”
Mr Mason, the MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, voiced his long-standing opposition to the reforms in Parliament as he said he could not back the legislation.
During the debate, Mr Mason noted his "admiration" for Ms Regan's resignation and said the legislation would "blur the distinction between men and women". He said: “We may disagree as to the best way forward on gender recognition, but I hope we can all respect each other for genuinely held beliefs as to what is best for all of our society and for the people who have questions about their gender.”
After referring to his Christian faith, Mr Mason added: “Certain things we need to accept as scientific or medical facts. The Earth goes round the Sun once a year, days are shorter in winter.
“These are facts, whether we like them or not, and we have to accept them. And as I understand it to be a fact there are two sexes, male and female.”All of Scottish Labour, Scottish Lib Dems and Scottish Green MSPs, of whose votes were recorded, voted in favour of the motion. The only Scottish Conservative MSPs who voted for the motion were Jamie Greene and Dr Sandesh Gulhane.
Scottish Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton said the changes could put vulnerable young people at risk and undermine protections for women and girls.
But Mr Greene said while he "has some reservations on the Bill" and some concerns had not been "fully considered", he gave his support to the passing of stage one as he stressed being trans was not a mental illness and "predatory men are the problem", not trans people.
Labour MSP Pam Duncan Glancy said the existing gender recognition process was "dehumanising" in explaining why Scottish Labour members were voting in support of stage one.
Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the process caused "unnecessary anxiety and pain" and stressed his party had long been in favour of reform.
Previously, several prominent SNP politicians - including Ash Regan and government ministers Kate Forbes and Ivan McKee - signed a letter in 2019 urging the government not to "rush" the proposals, arguing that "changing the definition of male and female is a matter of profound significance".