Is a ‘woman’ an adult human female or a person who identifies as such? This is the question I asked Nicola Sturgeon at the United Nations earlier this year. But, oddly, she wouldn’t answer it. Instead the first minister of Scotland explained that, as ‘an ardent, passionate feminist,’ women’s concerns about how gender self-ID laws might harm them are ‘misplaced.’
The day after Sturgeon’s UN address, in a leaked online conversation, three female SNP MSPs complained that Sturgeon’s remarks proved that she was ‘out of step’ with the party. ‘FFS [for f***’s sake]’ one wrote, sharing a tweet from ‘Engender’ (a self-described feminist policy and advocacy group) whose director had praised the first minister’s supposedly ‘positive feminist analysis of trans rights.’
And today the Sunday Times reports that ‘several SNP figures, including a minister, are understood to be deeply worried that plans to make it easier for individuals to switch gender could damage the party’s performance at the Holyrood elections in May 2021.’ Which is why the Scottish government may have decided to delay their reform of the Gender Recognition Act for at least two years.
Perhaps one reason for the delay, and why ‘women’ are upset by the first minister’s unwillingness to define them as a category worthy of legal protection is that her gender policies have very real consequences.
Scottish women have been busy organising themselves at the grassroots to raise awareness about this. And in June a Holyrood committee, chaired by the SNP’s Joan McAlpine, pushed back against the government’s move to replace questions about sex with ‘gender identity’ in Scotland’s 2021 Census. Sex will now remain binary in the poll and a person’s trans status and sexuality will be voluntary additional information.
‘They [the government] seem to have understood some of the wider concerns,’ McAlpine told me by phone:
“'For example, [...] statistics. In the UK self-ID increasingly underpins how you gather statistics on things like crime, for example. And I asked a question about that in parliament because I discovered that, not just in Scotland, but elsewhere in the UK, crime is recorded according to self-ID, so, you end up with a situation where someone could commit a sexual offence as a male, call themselves female and it becomes a female offence.
Then there’s other things, like if people are self-identifying in the workplace and you’re trying to monitor for equal pay and so on. It’s also getting to some of the wider issues. That this is not just about safety, but about issues to do with privacy and dignity as well as women’s right to say "no".'
McAlpine also noted another concern: that gender extremism may ‘really backfire’ for the LGBT movement in the long run and lose the gay community ‘natural allies'. This is already happening. In the United States, where I live, the annual GLAAD Accelerating Acceptance report shows a noticeable drop in young people's acceptance of LGBTQ people. In 2016 the number of Americans aged between 18 to 34 who felt comfortable socialising with LGBTQ people was 63 per cent; in 2017, it was 53 per cent; and in 2018, it was 45 per cent.
And guess who the report finds to be ‘driving the dilution of acceptance’? Surprise, surprise – it’s ‘young women whose overall comfort levels plunged from 64 per cent in 2017 to 52 per cent in 2018.’ It turns out that being displaced in our own sports and being forced to give up our spaces, scholarships, shortlists and more is bit off-putting. Who knew?
Even the words we use to describe ourselves seem to be under attack. A recent BBC video intending to raise awareness for cervical cancer did not even mention the word ‘women’, but instead explained ‘this is for anyone with a vagina.’ And in the US, a Democratic presidential candidate said in the primary debates that he wants to champion reproductive rights for... um, trans women (who, being male, are incapable of being impregnated).
The GLAAD report also notes that the number of young men who consider themselves ‘allies’ of LGBTQ people has almost halved. Which recalls the recent video of a teen boy at a school in Aberdeenshire who claims he was thrown out of class for saying there are only two genders.
In the video, the teacher explains that a prohibition on expressing that view is ‘national school authority policy.’ So, is it?
Remarkably, nobody seems to know for sure. Official guidance produced by the publicly funded campaign group LGBT Youth Scotland in conjunction with the Scottish government seems to imply that it is: ‘teachers should educate young people about transgender identities so that everyone in the school knows about respecting transgender people.’ (Certainly, that was my impression when I trained as a teacher in Scotland three years ago.)
However, when I recently asked for clarification, a Scottish government spokesperson referred me to ‘the technical guidance for schools on the Equality Act’ which refers to ‘a person’s sex refers to the fact that he or she is male or female. In relation to a group of people, it refers to either men and/or boys or women and/or girls.’
But does the government mean sex? Or does it mean gender? And at any rate, is sex gender or is gender sex? If this peculiar verbal gymnastics is obfuscating, it is so by design. As these terms continue to be used inconsistently and interchangeably, and as activists try to force their radical unscientific agenda into law, women especially will continue to push back.