Alex Massie: Sturgeon’s trans action puts her credit at risk The Sunday Times 31.01.21
The original article is here.
From time to time Nicola Sturgeon notes she has answered more questions from journalists these past 12 months than any other UK politician. This is true, though not every question has been asked. Among these: “Can someone with a penis and testicles be a woman? And if so, in precisely what sense?”
No previous first minister has been asked this question, but then no previous first minister has made its answer a matter of public policy either. At some point, Sturgeon will be required to answer the question and tell the Scottish people what she actually thinks.
As a catch-all party with only one condition for admittance — a belief in independence — the SNP typically goes to great lengths to avoid disappointing anyone. So long as you keep the faith on the national question, other matters are up for negotiation. The party has a strikingly limited intellectual or philosophical hinterland. As such, it lacks first principles upon which to base its world view and, being devoid of these, it finds itself lost when warring principles or positions collide.
And my, how they are colliding now. Last week the government introduced an amendment to its already much gutted Hate Crime Bill that would increase freedom-of-speech protections when discussing “matters relating to transgender identity”. These arguments should not inherently be considered “threatening or abusive”. The standard reaction is to note that this is obviously true. But the reaction from a significant section of the SNP membership was rather different: some activists, most of them young, declared their intention to quit the party.
The SNP, the activists suggested, was now a “transphobic” party. In response, Sturgeon posted a video on her Twitter account, imploring the young activists to think again. “It grieves me deeply that you’ve reached this conclusion,” she said, adding: “I will do everything I can to change that impression”.
The party then released a statement in which it said: “We’re sorry that we’ve let you down and today pledge ourselves to change.” This weekend the party’s ruling national executive committee will discuss a new “definition of transphobia” so that “all SNP members know the standard of behaviour that is expected from them”.
In response to this, some other SNP members, mainly women, declared they would leave the party. The first minister hasn’t yet released a video assuaging their concerns.
So there are now two tyre-fires raging within the SNP. The first divides supporters between those who suspect the party has treated its former leader Alex Salmond deplorably, and those who view his thirst for vengeance against those he feels have wronged him as a grave threat to the movement.
The second is, if anything, even more toxic, and divides the party on the questions of trans rights and women’s rights. These divisions go all the way to the top: several cabinet secretaries are wholly unpersuaded that the government’s proposals to reform gender recognition laws are either prudent or, more importantly, wise.
Some see it as a distraction from the broader independence cause, but a still greater number of SNP partisans, most of them female, wonder what women’s rights mean if anyone can be a woman merely by declaring their intention to live “as a woman”. According to the party, “the protection of women’s rights is vital”, but, having cleared its throat, the party continues: “Transphobia under a guise of concern for women’s rights is still transphobia.”
If you think this stacks the deck against women who insist sex and gender are different things, you would be correct. If concern for women’s rights is defined as a mere “guise”, then concern for women’s rights is unavoidably also transphobic. This will be news to many women.
Actually, it is news to me, too. I am wholly happy to respect trans women’s sense of themselves while still insisting on the view that they are not, indeed cannot be, women in precisely the same way women born with female bodies are women. So, sure, “trans women are women”, but they aren’t women in quite the same way your mother is a woman. There is a distinction and an adherence to reality, to truth, requires one to recognise this.
Most of the time and in most circumstances this distinction may not, as a practical matter, amount to much. Most people will lead their lives as happily as they can. We should all wish trans women, and trans men, to lead their best lives, free from prejudice, scorn, intolerance, misunderstanding and bigotry.
And it is plainly true that many trans people live in the margins of society, neither fully understood nor, perhaps, fully accepted for who they are. Few people would choose such an existence if their sense of themselves did not compel it. It is not the easiest life.
I am not persuaded, however, that it is made easier by unhinged accusations of transphobia, the definition of which risks becoming so broad it loses contact with reality. Thus, according to TransAction, a prominent trans-rights group, the statement “woman: an adult human female” can, in certain contexts, be considered an example of what the group terms “tacit transphobia”. By that standard, perhaps 95 per cent of the population might be considered transphobic.
Words must have meanings, for without meaning there is no truth. And without truth, anything goes. But there are now prominent SNP politicians, including Kirsty Blackman, until last summer the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, who believe the party should adopt this maximalist definition of transphobia. Having done so, she tweeted: “We need to then use it to take action against the transphobia in our party. This is a start.” That action should be “taken against any SNP member who uses or has used transphobic language”. Let the retrospective trials for wrongthink begin.
No good can come of this. Astonishingly, though, the first minister has placed herself in a position where, if I understand her correctly, she must believe that it is transphobic to think trans rights might on occasion conflict with rights enjoyed by other groups, and transphobic to doubt that people with penises are actually women no different to the first minister herself. Which, should you care to dwell upon it, is quite a thing.