Alex Massie: SNP must recognise gender reform pitfalls The Sunday Times 27.09.20
It is a fact of political life that what happens in England does not stay in England. It spills over into Scotland too. England is the Great Other by and against which we measure much of our politics. If matters are even marginally better arranged than in England, happiness ensues; if marginally worse, crisis.
Not all policy is subject to statistical measurement, however. Sometimes the spill-over effects are either exemplary or cautionary. One such occurred last week when Liz Truss, the minister for equalities in the UK government, abandoned controversial reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) that would have permitted people to self-identify as a man or a woman on the basis of having lived for just six months in their “preferred” gender.
I suspect Nicola Sturgeon would have preferred the UK government to press ahead with reforms that have, in many cases, radicalised previously apolitical women who find themselves wondering if the definition of woman is now so flimsy it is to be regarded as essentially meaningless. For the first minister, and her party, support the same “reforms” that have just been abandoned south of the border.
The row in Scotland over reforms to the GRA proved so hot it could not be handled in this parliament. Accordingly, the Scottish government’s response to the consultation on its proposals has been punted beyond next year’s Holyrood election. Fancy that. The argument, however, has not disappeared and the first minister’s eventual ruling must disappoint either trans-rights organisations and their allies or some women’s groups and their feminist fellow-travellers. In the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, Sturgeon insists there is no clash of rights here.
As always, certain ground rules need establishing. Nobody engaged in this process wishes, I believe, to make trans lives more difficult than they may sometimes be at present. Nobody wishes to strip trans men and trans women of the rights they quite properly enjoy. Indeed, if one thing has become clear in this debate, it is that trans people need better access to healthcare and better support than they have hitherto sometimes received.
The UK government’s abandonment of self-ID has been accompanied by updated guidance issued by the Department for Education. It tells teachers: “You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear.” You may think this a statement of obvious good sense but in the current climate, and on this issue, good sense — and truth — has a radical quality.
The guidance quite properly reiterates the importance of treating individual pupils sympathetically but teachers “should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing”. A boy in a dress is not necessarily clamouring to be a girl any more than a girl who enjoys playing with toy soldiers is expressing an inner conviction she is actually a boy.
So it would be useful to know, I think, if the first minister agrees with this, just as it would be useful to know if she believes it appropriate for primary schoolchildren to be referred to specialist gender reassignment clinics? And does she think it appropriate to prescribe puberty-blocking drugs to children about which NHS England now concedes, “little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria”? Most of all, perhaps, does Sturgeon believe there is a difference between gender and sex and, if so, what is it?
For these are large and important questions. As Gendered Intelligence, a trans activist group, once helpfully explained: “A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow jobs.” Does the first minister agree with this? Her government certainly appears to.
Evidence from elsewhere suggests the Scottish government remains deeply confused about these issues. Last week Humza Yousaf changed course on aspects of his government’s now notorious Hate Crime Bill. Prosecutors will now be required to show that the alleged perpetrators of hate crime intended to “stir up” hatred, not just that their behaviour was “likely to” do so. A significant, and welcome, surrender to common sense.
But other aspects remain instructive. The bill, reasonably, offers protection to transgender people but its definition of “trans” is remarkably broad. For in addition to non-binary people and those who have transitioned, the hate crime bill also defines “a person who cross-dresses” as a “transgender” individual. Well, at the risk of being blunt, just as wearing a kilt does not make you a Scot even if you think it does, so a man in a dress is not transformed into a woman simply by his choice of clothing. To support that proposition, one must believe there is nothing particular, or essential, about being a woman. The word must be stripped of all meaning.
And, again, there is a distinction to be drawn between a person’s legal gender, which is a malleable concept, and their biological sex, which is rather less so. Socially, too, we may properly afford trans men and trans women their preferred pronouns and wish them the happiest of lives without at the same time being required to ignore certain other realities. Thus trans women are not women in precisely the same way natal women are women. Their “lived experience” — to use a fashionable term — is important, and worthy of respect, but it is not identical or even typical.
At some point, even a Scottish government that dearly loves procrastination, will have to make a final decision on its gender reforms. The issue cannot be shunted into the future forever. Until now, Sturgeon’s government has argued for a “compromise” solution, which is nothing of the sort. The first minister has argued that once the issues are explained and properly understood, her opponents will appreciate they are mistaken. The “compromise” requires their capitulation and so is no kind of compromise at all.
But for all that the Scottish government is relaxed about drawing distinctions between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom it wishes to be no part of, is it really prepared to insist that “woman” has one meaning in Carlisle but quite another in Dumfries?