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Finding the words: Interview with Andy Wightman

Photography by David Anderson

Finding the words: Interview with Andy Wightman

The febrile row that surrounds the reform of the Gender Recognition Act claimed its first political casualty just before Christmas with the resignation of the high-profile Green MSP, Andy Wightman.

Wightman, a Lothian list MSP, sensationally quit the Greens, accusing it of operating a culture of “intolerance” and censorship. 

In a letter to the co-leaders of the party, Patrick Harvie MSP and the prospective MSP Lorna Slater, he criticised a lack of “open and mature dialogue” on the questions of sex and gender, accusing party spokespeople of being “provocative, alienating and confrontational [on the subject] for many women and men”.

And this from within a party that would be assumed to be more liberal, collegiate and open to debate than most, was surely telling of what is going on in other parties.

But it is also just the latest salvo in what has become a bruising battle which goes way beyond the parameters of any proposed reform of the GRA and into esoteric questions about what even defines a woman. 

And despite the clear nuances inherent within the wider debate about sex and gender, the adopted positions by some have been ridiculously dogmatic.

Wightman’s resignation follows an argument within the MSP group over an amendment to the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill which sought to replace the word ‘gender’ with ‘sex’ regarding a sexual assault victim’s ability to choose who examines them.

The amendment passed by 113 votes to nine. All Lib Dem and Green MSPs voted against it, but in his resignation letter, Wightman admits he only did so due to a threat of “complaints and disciplinary action leading to possible suspension, deselection or expulsion”.

He later told me, in an extremely emotional interview, that he was ashamed, felt he had humiliated himself, and that he should have voted for the amendment. He decided to resign 12 hours after the vote and made that formal the following week.

Wightman had already faced the wrath of the party leadership for expressing some concerns about the lack of debate over the wider issues sparked by proposed changes to the GRA.

In 2019, he was reprimanded for simply attending a meeting at Edinburgh University on sex-based rights where a speaker, the feminist writer Julie Bindel was attacked by a trans activist. Wightman later tweeted that he hoped she was fine and that no attacks on a woman were OK.  

Reasonable, maybe, but the revelation that he had even been at the meeting, attended by other MSPs, academics, and interested parties, sparked enough internal complaints to mean that he could have faced disciplinary action. To his shame, he subsequently apologised for just being there.

Wightman is considered one of the most able MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and he believes that informed debate matters to sound policymaking. He has a record for speaking truth to power, championing complex causes, and for applying forensic skills of scrutiny to the law. And his resignation over this issue has not only hurt him, it has hurt his party, and the wider body politic.

The reaction on social media to his resignation was swift and at times brutal. It fell into two predictably polarised camps, those that saw him as a man of principle standing up for freedom of speech, and those that saw him as a bigot giving succour to transphobes.

However, while clearly pained by some of the abuse he has received, he is also bolstered by praise particularly from women who have been victims of assault. He also says that many long-established members of the Greens have contacted him and are so shocked by the issue his departure has exposed, they have quit the party.

We meet hours after that fateful vote and as Wightman prepares to resign. Tears roll down his face at various times throughout the interview and his pain at parting ways with the party he joined 12 years ago is tangible. As is his frustration at simply a lack of tolerance for debate.

I tell him that as I listened to his speech ahead of the vote, I felt sure that he was going to vote with Johann Lamont’s amendment to replace the word ‘gender’ with ‘sex’. Indeed, everything he said in his speech suggested that outcome until eventually, he said he would be voting against.

“Look, I’d written that speech to vote ‘yes’, with the amendment, but as I left the office to go to the chamber, we [the group] had some, let’s say, difficult discussions, and as you know, when I’ve been in and around this issue in the past, I’ve been the subject of complaints and discipline and stuff, so, it was quite a difficult afternoon. 

“But I was ready to vote ‘yes’, and I knew if I voted ‘yes’, I’d have to submit my resignation straightaway. The two went together. I’m not going to get drawn into discipline and stuff. I’m just not interested in all that, and honestly, I didn’t have time to process the consequences of all of that, like, do I have to make my staff redundant tomorrow, am I going to immediately lose my seat...

“So, by voting ‘no’, I essentially bought myself some time. Not much time. I decided on the Friday morning to resign and we – the MSP group and I – allowed some time to elapse to, you know, make sure we could handle it and sort out some practical stuff, which is fine, because we both need to come out of this in as good a place as we can, so, that’s what happened. I wanted to vote ‘yes’ but couldn’t bring myself to do it and yeah, I’m ashamed I didn’t but that’s where we are.  

“This matters because language matters. I mean, it matters not just in this bigger debate about gender and sex, but it matters in legislation. I mean, that’s our job. We’ve got three jobs as politicians, we represent our constituents, we hold the government to account, and we make laws, so words matter. 

“This is all very dry, but I’m quite clear that the circumstances surrounding the 2013 bill, which became the act in 2014 – section eight, the right to have an interviewer of your chosen gender – that must be respected. That follows from an EU directive, which uses the word ‘sex’, but the drafters chose to use ‘gender’. Section nine then introduced the right to request, which is a very weak power, the right to request, which I hope in time will be strengthened to become a mandatory choice and to use the same terminology. 

“Statutory interpretations are all about words, and ‘gender’ doesn’t have any real meaning in law. So, you look at the intent and the intent was to allow female victims to request the sex of their examiners, which is quite clear, no court case was going to find that it had any other meaning than that, right? But ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are now very contested terms. 

“So, for example, if section nine ever does get strengthened to give victims a right which must be respected in terms of an examiner, this argument will come again. So, there was a good argument to strengthen the 2014 act, to amend it to reflect the proper intentions of what we’re trying to do and the proper intention was trying to give victims the right to request who examines them, and typically, a female victim would like a female examiner.

“Actually, male victims, I’m told, often wish female examiners as well, and that being the case, males and females are our two sexes, so that was perfectly logical and sensible, just at a rational level. I also did want to vote for it because I would have liked us to have had this proper discussion, but we didn’t get there. 

“To my mind, it seemed a very straightforward way, politically, of demonstrating that we could acknowledge and respect the fact that people have got concerns about all of this. It was just six words, as they say, the legal effect was modest, if any, but just symbolically, we could have done that to show we can and are able to have this debate.

“At an intellectual level, this is a fascinating debate, utterly fascinating and the one thing that my resignation has demonstrated to me is that I’m still on a journey in this, I think, actually, everyone’s on a journey, right, but we are not nearly at the destination. And that matters. 

“And when you talk about what it is to be a woman, I can’t imagine what that is, it’s not the same as being a man, but I don’t know what it is to be a woman, because I am not a woman, and I know this stuff matters a lot to a lot of people and it deserves to be taken seriously. It deserves to be the subject of mature debate. 

“There are difficult areas in this, but there’s difficult areas in most of the stuff we deal with, and we get through it and what’s upsetting about this really is, as much as anything else, it’s just very, very, difficult to have a sensible conversation about it. 

“Most conversations about things that people might disagree about, or do disagree about, involve a level of tolerance and understanding on both sides, and you have to know what the other party’s meaning, right, and people will sometimes say the wrong things or use the wrong words by mistake and you must have a discussion where that can be tolerated. But this is a debate that is so censorious, that every word that comes out your mouth is examined for meaning. 

“And frankly, I’m a product of the Enlightenment, I am a rational being, I like critical thinking, I like to work out where I should get to, then often I think, well, how does that marry with Green politics and 90 per cent of the time, it’s in the same space, which is very comforting. If it wasn’t, I’d be in another party. 

“But I like to work it through because I like to be confident of where I am, and on this debate, I just haven’t been able to talk it through, I haven’t been able to work out what this is all about because in my party, there is a very, very censorious attitude. 

“Key people in the party have got some ideas about gender and sex that are not rooted in science and have moved to a space where sex doesn’t matter, and indeed, the minute you talk about it, you’re accused of being a bigot and a transphobe, which is, obviously, ridiculous. 

“So, yes, words have been bent and twisted to mean things that I don’t quite understand and there’s been lots of strange things said. Sex not being binary, that’s one, and I’ve privately asked what this is all about and if I don’t understand this, whatever are voters meant to think about this, and I haven’t got any answers. And that’s a curious thing as well. Where is this coming from? Well, I mean, it’s coming from queer theory or someplace but it’s not fully understood or explored.

“I am a Green, I will remain a Green. I am a member of the Global Green Movement; I believe in the four core principles of Green politics. I still share them and I always will, but we’ve got a tough struggle to persuade the world, and our electorate in the small world we’re in, that it’s in their interest to do certain things to mitigate, to reverse, to stem a pretty serious threat that we face, an existential threat, and that’s not something that people can readily grasp, right? 

“So, it’s a hard job and it’s made a little harder if we can’t communicate in language people can understand. So, even at that level, why are we saying things like sex is not binary? I really don’t know. I can’t answer the question. I genuinely don’t know. And when I’ve tried to interrogate it, it’s been made clear to me that these are questions you don’t even ask.

“Up to now, I’d not felt the need to push further on this, I mean, life’s busy, there’s a lot going on and you pick your fights and you deal with what’s in front of you. I was speaking to some colleagues in the party, longstanding ones, who’ve said there are quite a lot of people who’ve got some disquiet about elements of this debate, which is not what you would say a core policy, but it has never come to a head for them. Well, it came to a head for us that Thursday in Parliament, and we had a choice, and, in my view, we made the wrong choice. I made the wrong choice. 

“I know there are people in the party who have very, very fixed views on this and do not tolerate dissent, I’ve already been the victim of that, and I was absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, [sure] that they would come for me over this, and I didn’t want to give them a scalp. So, had I voted ‘yes’, I would have resigned straightaway, and as I say, I hadn’t worked out the consequences of that.

“I wasn’t true to myself and it’s really funny, because part of this is about my own integrity, and my ability to look myself in the mirror, and I guess in the past, I’ve had to make decisions to sort of accommodate my critics and ones where I felt that genuinely, on balance, were probably the best decisions to make, to try and avoid strife, achieve the greater good and where I had ambitions to do stuff and so on. 

“The difference on that Thursday was that we were faced with a vote in the chamber and we were faced with a vote on an issue that, never mind me being emotional about this, is about the most profound issue we could ever discuss. 

“It carried with it meaning and consequences for women who are daughters and mothers and sisters and victims, the like of which I can’t properly comprehend, and it seemed to be that the least I could do was to acknowledge that and agree. So that’s why, qualitatively, that was very different. Totally different. 

“But I voted ‘no’, exactly…and that vote, 113 to nine. What’s that all about? I can’t speak for others, but I do know there is a view that if you voted ‘yes’, you’re a transphobe and a bigot. Really, 113? There might be some bigots. We’re all bigoted, we’re all prejudiced. We all carry these things with us. The whole thing about this is to try and confront and understand our prejudices. And I think prejudice was on display, bigotry was on display, that day, but I don’t think it came from the 113.”

Wightman officially resigned from the Greens the following Friday.

“It is utterly, utterly bizarre that I resign over the meaning of a word. I mean, at a simplistic level, that’s what it is, but that word carries so much meaning, it is so important. 

“Yes, it affects all of us, but certainly for half the population, it is integral to their struggle for equality and I never expected to find an issue so fundamental in which it wouldn’t be possible for me to talk to people about, and I include close friends in that, mainly because in my political world, I was living in this kind of rather censorious environment.

“So, part of this has been about restoring my sanity, my freedom to talk about anything I want to, and while I feel sad, I am liberated.”

There have been overwhelming calls for Wightman to stand as an independent on the Lothians list in May. A prospect he is actively considering.

Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Love and Hate: Helena Kennedy on tackling misogyny

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