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9 September 2021updated 10 Sep 2021 10:18am

Nicola Sturgeon is refusing to back down on trans rights – but resistance is growing

The First Minister wants to make Scotland a global poster child for progressive, tolerant government. But is she doing the opposite?

By Chris Deerin

Depending on where you stand in the debate, Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the reform of trans rights is either brave and principled or a blinkered betrayal of women. 

Whichever one’s view, there is little sign that the First Minister will relent in her determination to liberalise the laws around trans self-identification. It is a central plank of her governing agreement with the Scottish Greens, who are enthusiastic supporters of reform. Outlining her Programme for Government (PfG) at Holyrood this week, Sturgeon said she would introduce a Gender Recognition Reform Bill in the first year of the parliament.

The price she might pay is as yet unclear. Many women and feminist groups have responded to the proposals with fury at their potential impact on women’s rights. There have been organised as well as less formal gatherings in communities across Scotland, and there are regular reports of aggressive confrontations between the two sides of the debate. Video emerged from a protest at Holyrood last week by the For Women Scotland group, where trans rights campaigners had organised a counter demo, which showed a protester from the latter screaming “witch” in the face of a woman. It was not the first such incident, and it won’t be the last.

Nor do the reforms enjoy universal support within the SNP. The MP Joanna Cherry has perhaps been the most outspoken critic of the First Minister’s plans, for which Cherry, like others, has been subjected to horrific abuse on social media. In their relentless denunciation of women’s rights campaigners as “fascist transphobes” and worse, including threats of violence, the trans community and its supporters do themselves few favours. It has made a more measured and conciliatory debate on the issue all but impossible.

[see also: Shon Faye wants a “deeper conversation” about trans liberation]

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There were signs during the PfG statement that the First Minister is concerned about the electoral impact of her measures. She tied the reforms to an increase in financial and other support for organisations that support vulnerable women. This will include £100m to tackle domestic abuse and violence and support the front-line organisations who help victims. The Scottish government, said Sturgeon, will also “take account of” the findings of a Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice, which is due to report next year.

But in truth Sturgeon has not moved an inch in her intention to rebalance the law in favour of trans people. Acknowledging “sincerely held concerns” about the proposed changes, she said: “It is therefore worth stressing, I think, what it will do – but also what it will not do. It will make the existing process of gender recognition less degrading, intrusive and traumatic. In other words, it will make life that bit easier for one of the most stigmatised minorities in our society.” She insisted it would not remove any of the legal protections that women currently have.

Sturgeon added: “We should never forget that the biggest threats to women’s safety come – as has always been the case – from abusive and predatory men; from deep-seated sexism and misogyny; and, in some parts of the world, from lawmakers intent on taking away basic freedoms and removing the rights of women to control our own bodies.”

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[See also: Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling, and living in “anti-intellectual times”]

But women’s rights campaigners argue that the First Minister is, deliberately or otherwise, missing the point. Arguably, the most thoughtful critique of her position has come from MurrayBlackburnMackenzie (MBM) – a formidable collective of female policy analysts.

In its response to the PfG, MBM argued there were “serious questions that currently remain unanswered”. These included “a failure to address the interaction between self-declaration and the operation of single-sex exemptions under the Equality Act 2010, and a failure to define ‘acquired gender’, making it impossible for this to be demonstrated, or the system to be regulated”. Other concerns include “cross-border effects and the potential misuse of privacy provisions”.

MBM said that the Scottish government has failed to produce evidence to support its view that the proposed changes would not have a negative impact on women and girls. “To build consensus in this area, the Scottish government needs to listen to and engage with the specific concerns raised by women and be open to working constructively during the legislative process,” it added.

The question facing Sturgeon is whether the public displays of protest against her plans are only the tip of the iceberg. My own experience is that this issue has provoked and radicalised many women whose engagement with politics is otherwise occasional. Having fought for generations to secure greater equality and support, and protection from predatory men, many feminists now feel these achievements are under attack and that female safety is being put at risk. That the science and ethics around sex and gender, the approach to children, and the use of drugs are still heavily debated only adds to their belief that Sturgeon is heading down a dangerous path.

The First Minister is determined to make her nation a global poster child for progressive, tolerant government. There are many women in Scotland today who would argue she is doing precisely the opposite.