Photo by Andy Buchanan
Artillery Row

Sturgeon on the hook

Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill promises a difficult year ahead for the woman who self-identifies as “feminist to my fingertips”

When Scotland’s First Minister unveiled her latest “Programme for Government” on 7 September, Nicola Sturgeon must have been hoping that her promise of a second independence referendum by the end of 2023 would be the main takeaway for her supporters and critics alike.

Newspaper editors obliged with headlines consistent with their editorial stance on the constitution, yet social media was ambivalent on plans for another poll. “It won’t happen” seemed to be the consensus. Boredom was the overwhelming response.

But there was one policy pledge that did ignite Scottish political Twitter, and it promises a difficult year ahead for the woman who self-identifies as “feminist to my fingertips”.

As expected, Sturgeon announced that her government would introduce a Gender Recognition Reform Bill to make “the existing process of gender recognition less degrading, intrusive and traumatic”. She went on, “In other words, it will make life easier for one of the most stigmatised minorities in our society. I think that is something any Parliament should feel a responsibility to do.”

In a half-hearted sop to the women of Scotland, she promised that the new Bill would not “remove any of the legal protections that women currently have”.

What she did not do in her speech was be clear about whether her government was still in favour of self-ID — the process promoted by Stonewall, whereby all a trans person has to do to change their legal sex is to complete a simple form and promise to live in their new identity until death.

Scotland’s earlier draft Gender Recognition Reform Bill, published in 2019 but put on ice prior to the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, did propose a process of self-ID by removing the current medical requirements for a legal change of sex. It also suggested an applicant would only have to live in their new sex for only six months before making a statutory declaration of their new identity.

Feminists argue persuasively that self-ID overwrites women’s sex-based rights, particularly in relation to single-sex spaces such as domestic abuse refuges and women’s prisons.

Indeed, Westminster politicians back-pedaled on self-ID after sturdy opposition from an informal, but effective, coalition of women’s groups, including Mumsnet, with support from prominent women such as JK Rowling.

The Equalities and Women’s Minister for England and Wales, Liz Truss, announced last September that while the process of changing one’s legal sex would still require a medical diagnosis and evidence that the applicant had lived in their new sex for at least two years, it would be cheaper and easier to get a gender recognition certificate.

Several national bodies act as if self-ID is already on the statute book

So far, the Scottish Government has not shown a similar mood for compromise, despite growing opposition to plans for self-ID. The recent addition of the Scottish Greens to the government’s benches, in an agreement described by Sturgeon as “groundbreaking”, suggests ministers will double down. The new Scottish Green ministers, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, are vocal supporters of queer theory and the notion that gender identity trumps biological sex. Whether in response to direct instructions from their government paymasters, or to curry favour with ministers, several national bodies act as if self-ID is already on the statute book.

Police Scotland state that they do not “need to know someone’s biological sex characteristics. What is important, is how they identify their gender”, leading to fears that rapists will be recorded as female if they so request.

The Scottish Prison Service allows transwomen prisoners to be housed in female prisons, based on their own declaration of being transgender. A much vaunted review of the policy has yet to begin.

Meanwhile the National Records of Scotland, the agency in charge of the 2022 Census, recently published guidance stating that people will be able to self-identify their sex in next year’s Census. A similar move by the Office of National Statistics for the 2021 Census in England and Wales was dropped after a successful High Court legal challenge by campaign group Fair Play For Women.

While support for self-ID may be popular with Scotland’s tiny, but influential, metropolitan elite, with Nicola Sturgeon their courageous Joan of Arc figurehead, opposition to the proposal is growing among the general public. A recent poll for The Times showed that 87 per cent of Scots did not think gender recognition reform was a priority.

A grassroots campaign group, For Women Scotland, set up in 2018, has been pivotal in galvanising support from across the political sphere. An independent policy collective, MBM, has provided rigorous research and analysis for the campaign, and a group of influential women politicians have spoken out, at some personal cost.

Former SNP MSP Joan McAlpine was central to raising public awareness of self-ID in a now famous Twitter thread where she dared to question the new orthodoxy that sex and gender are the same thing. She was later rewarded by being demoted in her party’s regional list for the 2021 elections, and she lost her parliamentary seat.

Another SNP politician, Joanna Cherry MP, has often stated her opposition to self-ID and is currently the defence counsel for Marion Millar, FWS’s accountant, who has been charged with sending “homophobic and transphobic” tweets. The case is ongoing.

Sturgeon seems determined to push through self-ID

The third member of the feminist trinity is former Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, who, in December last year, forced the Scottish Government to accept an amendment to the Forensic Medical Services Bill, so allowing survivors of rape to pick the sex (rather than the gender) of the person examining them after an attack.

Lamont stood down from frontline politics in May this year, but has lost none of the fire that led her to a career in politics. She is also an astute observer of human nature.

Pondering on why Nicola Sturgeon seems determined to push through self-ID in the face of growing opposition, Lamont says:

I think she thought it was a win-win situation. She could look radical, without actually doing very much. It’s a mark of her leadership actually, the message is more important than the substance.

She is a self-avowed feminist, but I am not sure how much she was engaged with the arguments around women’s rights in the past. She will never have wrestled with the challenge of making the case for, and providing, single sex spaces for example.

I do regret that her response to women who oppose self ID is to dismiss them — a response that suggests her feminism is shallower than she might claim.

She is even more dismissive of the Scottish Greens. “Sadly, Scotland has a Green Party that is run by self-regarding politicians who specialise in virtue signalling. Now more than ever we need a movement led by people with a steely focus on the climate emergency. We don’t have that in Harvie and Slater. Self-ID seems more important to them.”

It’s too early to say whether Nicola Sturgeon and her Green partners are prepared to work constructively with the Bill’s critics during the legislative process, but it is vital that they do. Self-ID may be the main focus of the reform, but there are other serious questions that need to be addressed, as MBM pointed out recently in a statement published on their website.

“Other concerns include cross-border effects and the potential misuse of privacy provisions. Nor has the Scottish Government produced any evidence to support its view that the proposed changes would not have a negative impact on women and girls,” it read.

Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon revealed more than she usually does in an uncharacteristically unscripted moment in Parliament recently. When senior Tory Murdo Fraser mentioned a protest attended by hundreds of women concerned about the “divisive” plans to introduce self-ID, the First Minister shouted “Shame on you!” at him.

It’s doubtful if Sturgeon’s heckle was a serious attempt to shut down debate, as Fraser later suggested, but it does hint at a politician under pressure. As does her recent assertion in a BBC interview that the views of women who are against major reform are “not valid”.

Perhaps the defining issue of her career will not, after all, be Scottish independence, but whether biological sex is real. Such is the surreal state of politics in Scotland today.

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