Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Mandy Rhodes
08 March 2020
On reform of the Gender Recognition Act


On reform of the Gender Recognition Act

And so, last week, to Aberdeen, where I was to talk on ‘politics, power and journalism’ at an event to mark International Women’s Day.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in 21st-century Scotland, a woman talking to women about women in politics, has become a lightning rod for protest around the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – no matter how nebulous the connection.

And with the police notified to a possible protest outside the university venue, a risk assessment done, 999 on speed dial, and campus security on alert, it was left to me to decide whether I wanted to carry on. I did.

This policy has all the hallmarks of the Named Person and the Offensive Behaviour at Football Matches

And while the potential risk felt frightening and I was hyper vigilant to what might happen, the event was uplifting, genuinely life affirming, and importantly, without incident. Just as any women’s event should be.

But my tenuous brush with the Orwellian practices employed by campaigners to silence women is nothing compared to the wider madness that is going on right now.

Glasgow Women’s Library banning a feminist organisation from holding an event to discuss women’s sex-based rights.

Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre changing their toilets to be gender neutral. And their assistant director asserting that sex is not binary.

Labour leadership contenders saying babies are assigned a gender at birth, or worse, born without a sex.

The civil service avoiding the use of the word ‘women’, even when talking about menstruation.

And with academics being threatened with the sack, pioneering feminists barred from speaking at women’s events, journalists no-platformed, politicians called Terfs and doughty equality campaigners accused of bigotry, there is something very rotten at the heart of this debate. And it will take a long time to heal.

That isn’t transphobia, that is the lived experience of a lifetime of male oppression because of biology, not gender

If the Scottish Government believed its own rhetoric, that the move to self-ID for trans people was simply an administrative change that would affect only trans people, then they have seriously misjudged the harm that their naivety, and the ensuing wider debate, has inflicted.

The GRA consultation – the second now to be held – closes in just over a week’s time and the nature of the deliberations has only got worse.

More than half of Nicola Sturgeon’s ministerial team privately admit the proposed reforms are a complete mess, unlikely to stand up to legal scrutiny, never mind get through the committees or win a parliamentary vote. One told me that the hope was that the coronavirus would overtake events and any bill would be kicked into the long grass. Others have just said they ‘can’t go there’.

And in the wider SNP membership, there is the threat of revolt with a widescale loss of support and people already abandoning a party that they see as having been captured by a group of activists who care more about gender identity than they do about independence.

But it isn’t just an issue for the SNP. MSPs across the house are frightened to talk. Little wonder, when Green MSP Andy Wightman was vilified by his own party and made to publicly apologise for attending a university event on sex-based rights. Wightman was left in no doubt that he could be thrown out of the Greens for the crime, it would appear, of educating himself.

Labour is in a similar quandary, with women like former leader Johann Lamont, Elaine Smith and Jenny Marra keeping up the good fight and refusing to bend to a mantra of ‘trans women are women’ which threatens much of what their feminism is about.

And already in the parliament, the Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh, has had to intervene in a row about whether it was appropriate for Patrick Harvie, the co-leader of the Greens, to use the word ‘cisgender’, which he even acknowledged some women found offensive [so why use it?], during a debate for International Women’s Day, after women MSPs complained.

How have we got to this place? There is almost wholesale consensus that equality is a good thing. There is recognition that trans people are a terribly oppressed group and an acknowledgement that they shouldn’t need to suffer to prove who they want to be. There seems to be a societal desire for everyone to live their best life, free from harm to themselves and unto others, and we truly appear to be a progressive country.

But this proposal, no matter how well intentioned, has ignored the sensitivities and ethos of hard-won women’s rights and the way issues of equality can butt up against each other and have serious consequences. It is currently unpopular, unworkable, potentially illegal, and could be dangerous to women and trans people. It is a cheap and quick fix to a complex issue that can’t be resolved by a simplistic approach to what being equal really means.

Policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that appears to be what the government wants us to believe.

There is no room here for sense, nor reason. We have been on a dangerous journey where shutting down debate, silencing detractors and steam-rollering on has simply trumped science, history, legislation and logic.

And at its heart is women’s fear of male violence. That does not mean that women believe trans women are predators, but they do, quite justifiably, have questions to ask about the risks associated with male bodied people self-identifying as women and having access to their protected single-sex spaces.

That isn’t transphobia, that is the lived experience of a lifetime of male oppression because of biology, not gender. It is what has shaped many women’s feminism and how they live their lives. They should be allowed to raise concern.

The UK Government has already called a halt to its move towards self-ID amid concerns about the medical interventions being made around children. And the Scottish Government needs to find a way to do the same.

But Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Cabinet Secretary responsible, has made clear that she believes that the GRA reforms proposed by her government are the right thing to do and that the role of the consultation is simply to persuade those that do not already agree, to agree. That is not listening.

This policy has all the hallmarks of the Named Person and the Offensive Behaviour at Football Matches and will be a political bloodbath for the SNP if it ever gets as far as the floor of the parliamentary chamber.

Given everything else she is currently facing, Nicola Sturgeon will need to decide whether this is the hill worth dying on.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - The SNP doesn't need another 'reset', it needs a complete rework.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top