When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, pledged to reform gender recognition legislation at a gathering of LGBTQ+ leaders ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election, she had little idea of the escalating toxicity and political polarization that would eventually surround her plans, nor the personal toll it would cause. exactly.
The proposals to introduce a system of self-declaration for individuals seeking to change their legal gender have sparked multiple protests outside Holyrood parliament, with the openly feminist chief minister booed as a “destroyer of women’s rights”. It sparked the SNP’s biggest ever rebellion and Sturgeon took on another of Scotland’s best-known women, Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who on the eve of the final vote described the gender recognition reform bill as “the greatest rollback of women’s rights in our lifetime”.
When Sturgeon spoke about eliminating the need for intrusive medical diagnosis and streamlining the process of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), she was applauded by LGBTQ+ campaigners for recognizing transgender people as the experts on their own identity. Initial proposals were supported by Scotland’s leading women’s organizations including Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid.
Six years on, those organizations are being accused of fulfilling government obligations by other women’s groups, such as For Women Scotland, which has crowdfunded a succession of lawsuits to challenge other Scottish government laws related to their trans-inclusive guidance and successfully addressed concerns sparked about what they characterize as threats to women’s rights and spaces.
The Scottish Government and supporters argue that the legislation is a simple administrative change that neither expands transgender rights nor clashes with women’s rights. Sturgeon and Shona Robison, the minister implementing the measures, have repeatedly urged them not to change the protections of women under the Equality Act.
To be sure, the numbers affected seem small – around 30 gender recognition certificates are awarded each year to people born or adopted in Scotland, and the Scottish Government estimates that if the law is passed this could rise to 250-300 applicants per year.
But the bill has become a lightning rod for much broader debates about the meaning of the word “woman,” the nature of inclusion and the safety of women’s spaces, while opponents argue the simple change significantly increases the size and nature of the cohort of women. applicants for a GRC, with the potential for predatory men to exploit this to gain access to vulnerable women.
During the last few weeks of the bill, language around this point became increasingly overheated, as the UK government inquired about the risks of ‘gender tourism’, while former Prime Minister Jack McConnell warned that the new law would prove to be a ‘stimulant ‘. for predatory male sex offenders to come to Scotland”.
The progress of the bill showed Holyrood at its best and worst – there were strategic failures on the part of the SNP, not least in the loose and at times confused framing of the bill, which could have avoided much criticism.
Some observers believe the lowering of the age from 18 to 16 – a red line for the Scottish Greens in their partnership deal with the SNP following last year’s Holyrood election – opened the changes to further attack.
The progress of the bill also revealed shortcomings in scrutiny of the legislation, with serious complaints about the way witnesses were selected for the Equality Committee, which oversaw the trial, and the lack of time to pass amendments in all discuss stages.
But there were also genuine efforts to work cross-party, with MSPs from different parties putting amendments together in an effort to reach last-minute consensus.
In terms of longer-term political impact, transgender rights were certainly identified as a wedge issue in the last election in Holyrood, but they seem to have had little to no effect on the continued success of the SNP.
And it remains to be seen whether a deluge of applications will follow the law coming into force – and what response will come from the UK government, which has already threatened not to recognize Scotland’s GRCs or even challenge them in court.
When The Guardian interviewed transgender people about the proposals in 2016, many said they were less concerned with what they saw as a cumbersome and fairly unnecessary piece of personal administration than with health care improvements or increased monitoring of hate crimes.
As the bill made its final progress through Holyrood last month, many in the trans community were deeply disappointed by the attitude shown in Scotland, although ultimately the affirmation of state aid for people to live their lives as they wish, as one observer put it, is in stark contrast to the UK government, which caused consternation earlier this year when it decided to exclude transgender people from a ban on proselytizing practices.