A revolution stopped in its tracks is an uncanny sight. After impatiently pursuing reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), the Scottish Government has suddenly hit the brakes. Shirley-Anne Somerville, SNP social security minister, announced the halt in a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday. Although Nicola Sturgeon, at her minister’s side for support, remains committed to ditching medical diagnosis in favour of self-identification, she has made substantial concessions to feminist dissenters.
The proposed three-month wait for a gender recognition certificate will be extended by a ‘mandatory three-month reflection period’. The 16-week public consultation held in 2018 will be superseded by a ‘full consultation on the precise details‘ of draft legislation, ‘including a comprehensive updated equality impact assessment’. Guidance materials prepared by LGBT Youth Scotland will be withdrawn from schools after ‘valid concerns’ over ‘potentially excluding other girls from female-only spaces’. The Equality Act right to maintain single-sex spaces was affirmed and the minister pledged ‘further consideration’ on lowering the transition age below 18 while rejecting calls to recognise non-binary identities.
Trans advocacy groups and third-sector organisations accused of ‘policy capture’ have reacted with frustration. One campaign warned of ‘the destruction of Scotland’s reputation as a leader on LGBTI equality’, underscoring how the T has come to dominate all the other letters of that acronym. The effort to cast the very existence of debate on these matters as harmful to trans people has been rebuffed. The Scottish Government’s volte-face is all the more remarkable since it has come about not thanks to a powerful or well-funded lobby but from a loose network of women causing enough trouble to get themselves listened to.
One woman in particular is credited by campaigners. Joan McAlpine, an SNP backbencher, was first to speak out against her own government’s policy, almost unheard of since the ultra-disciplined SNP came to power 12 years ago. McAlpine began interrogating the GRA reforms and contemporaneous efforts to conflate sex and gender in the Scottish census, quickly earning herself a backlash from trans activists. Nevertheless, she persisted in her questions and in February collected them into a series of tweets, the first Twitter thread to change Scottish Government policy.
The thread itself, like McAlpine’s other contributions to this debate, was respectful and measured. What blew it up into the political row that led to Nicola Sturgeon’s rethink was the vilification McAlpine suffered in response. Taxpayer-funded equality groups issued a joint statement denouncing her and she was execrated on social media, including by some in her own party. The full force of the Scottish political establishment was unleashed on a left-wing feminist and she was caricatured as a bigot for asking basic questions about women’s safety and sex-based data-gathering. As an earlier practitioner of radical feminism noted: ‘The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works.’
It didn’t this time. I wrote six weeks ago that McAlpine was ‘an unlikely rebel’ but she was also a lonely one. The bullying to which she was subjected inspired other women to speak out. Reinforcements came in the form of Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy and British activist Julie Bindel, the Thelma and Louise of terfdom in the eyes of the trans movement - a 'terf' being a 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist'. The latter played a pivotal role when she was the alleged target of a disturbance following an event at Edinburgh University. Pink News reported the incident as: ‘Julie Bindel misgendered a trans woman who she claimed “physically attacked” her’.
The inverted logic helped the concerns of gender-critical feminists break into the mainstream, as did the sorry sight of Andy Wightman, an independent-minded Green MSP, issuing an apology for attending the same event. His stilted statement, which might as well have been read blinkingly to camera while holding up a copy of that morning’s New York Times, sent a signal that something had gone very wrong. Labour’s Jenny Marra responded with a motion in defence of free speech which has now been co-signed by a majority of MSPs. In a bracingly short space of time, Joan McAlpine has gone from lone warrior to de facto head of a resistance coalition.
On Thursday McAlpine pressed the minister for more details, including whether men with a history of violence against women would be allowed to self-ID and conceal their previous identity. Somerville said trans people still needed to provide their past names when applying for an employment-related background check, though how this squares with the common assertion that ‘dead-naming’ is violence and provokes suicidal thoughts is not clear. What is clear is that, while the Scottish Government has provided an object lesson in how not to manage major policy change, gender-critical feminists have set a gold standard in how to challenge such a change.
They have for the most part avoided rancour and chosen language carefully. They have accepted allies from across the political spectrum while retaining total control of their purpose and message. They have been sensitive to the realities of gender dysphoria and the rights of trans people. Academics Dr Kath Murray and Lucy Hunter-Blackburn, the intellectual firepower behind this fight, have proposed the Scottish Government cut waiting times for trans services and lower the cost of gender recognition certificates.
Despite Scottish Government assurances that there is still time to pass a Bill, this parliament has less than two years left and, if Nicola Sturgeon is to be believed, will be holding a second independence referendum next year. The odds on GRA reform not making it to the finishing line are healthy but its opponents have sketched out practical ways of improving trans people’s lives in the meantime. Those interested in more than a culture war should take them up on it.