Peerages And Gender

The Government revealed today that it has no plans to create gender-neutral peerage titles for non-binary individuals.

As part of a wider question about the impact of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 on appointments to the House of Lords, Green Party peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb asked what titles would be given to non-binary individuals. The Cabinet Office spokesman in the Lords, Lord Young of Cookham, replied that

The style and titles of a peerage are determined by letters patent. Although based on traditional forms, these are adapted to reflect the individual circumstances of the person on whom the peerage is conferred.

The Government does not have any plans to introduce gender neutral titles for peers or members of the House of Lords at the present time.

Lord Young’s answer glosses over several problems with the status quo. For example, he says that the Letters Patent are “adapted to reflect the individual circumstances.” It’s true that prospective peers do have some input into their titles. The most common example of this is probably the territorial designation. All life peerages are nominally linked to a geographic location (e.g., Baroness Jones is “Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, of Moulsecoomb in the County of Essex[1]”), and people are generally free to choose whichever place they wish.[2] But as far as I’m aware, a person can’t choose whether


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they become a baron or a baroness. If they have already changed their gender under the Gender Recognition Act before the peerage is conferred, they will presumably receive the title appropriate to their current gender. But if they change their gender after they receive a peerage, their title will not change accordingly–once conferred, a peerage title can only be altered by Act of Parliament.[3]

Furthermore, it’s unlikely that the Crown could unilaterally create a new, gender-neutral title at the behest of a non-binary individual. Because life peerages confer seats in the House of Lords, any attempt to create a gender-neutral title would probably have to be authorized by Act of Parliament. In the nineteenth century, the Lords Committee for Privileges held that the life peerage given to Sir James Parke didn’t allow him to sit in the House since the Crown couldn’t unilaterally alter the composition of Parliament.[4] Later, life peerages would be authorized by statute.[5]

Ultimately, unless the law is changed, transpeople and non-binary people face the prospect of being stuck with inappropriate titles.

Although British law has become more LGBTQ-friendly in recent years, successive governments have failed to update the law governing peerages and other titles accordingly. For example, when the Justices of the Supreme Court received new courtesy titles in 2010, LGBTQ activists expressed some dismay that the rules governing these titles discriminated against justices in same-sex unions. While the wife of a male justice receives the courtesy title of ‘Lady,’ no equivalent provision is made for the husbands of male justices or the wives of female justices (the husbands of female justices are out of luck, too). While this approach is consistent with tradition, one could argue that the Government should have taken a more forward-thinking approach in 2010.

Instead of ignoring the issue, the Government should arguably work to find a way to make titles, including peerages, as LGBTQ-friendly as possible. This will require some creativity, but it is achievable. This certainly isn’t a life- or death-issue, but the Government can’t simply relegate it to the ‘Too Difficult’ bin forever.


[1] There are actually two components to a title. There’s the nomen dignitatis (in this case, “Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb”) and the territorial designation (“of Moulsecoomb in the County of Essex”). Generally speaking, the territorial designation is only used in the Letters Patent creating the peerage. But because each peerage title must be unique, a peer with a common surname will often include the territorial designation within the nomen dignitatis (e.g., Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Lord Young of Cookham) to create a distinct title.

[2] There are, however, some constraints. According to Sir Colin Cole (Garter King of Arms from 1978 to 1992), the proposed territorial designation can’t be something that would “engender criticism, lend itself to ridicule, be prone to controversy, or militate against the Crown as the fount of honour.” Ultimately, the Sovereign (advised by Garter King of Arms) decides whether a territorial designation is suitable. For more information, see Sir Colin Cole, “Introduction of peers into the House of Lords,” in The House of Lords: A thousand years of British tradition (London: The Manorial Society of Great Britain, 1994) 129-133.

[3] I’m not aware of any Acts which changed a title, though there have been Acts to vary the terms of a peerage’s descent. For example, legislation was passed to allow the Dukedom of Marlborough to pass through the female line after the first Duke’s son predeceased him.

[4] See The Wensleydale Peerage Case 5 HLC 958. Sir James subsequently received a standard hereditary peerage.

[5] The Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 allowed the Crown to confer life peerages on senior judges who were to carry out the judicial work of the House of Lords. Later, the Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed the Crown to confer life peerages on anyone.

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