Just over a week ago, I posted a picture of myself wearing a T-shirt printed with the words “Nicola Sturgeon: Destroyer of Women’s Rights” on Twitter. I did this to show my solidarity with women who were protesting outside the Scottish parliament against the proposed Gender Recognition Act reform bill.
Some of the women, like Maya Forstater and Helen Joyce, have public profiles, but most of the women protesting do not. They also knew they might be taking a risk in demonstrating. It takes guts for Scottish women to stand up for their rights these days — not, I should emphasise, anywhere near the same guts as Iranian women are currently displaying, but guts nonetheless. They risk being targeted by activists, police complaints being made against them and even the threat of a spell in jail for posting what are seen as “transphobic” comments or images by their complainants.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, believes the protesters outside parliament on October 6 have nothing to complain about. The woman who calls herself a “real feminist” said to the BBC that her proposed new Gender Recognition Act “doesn’t give any additional rights to trans people nor does it take any rights away from women”.
I disagree. So, to name just a few who were also protesting that day, do Rhona Hotchkiss, the retired prison governor with a masters in law and a qualification in research methodology; Isabelle Kerr, former manager of Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis Centre, who was awarded an MBE for her international work helping rape and sexual assault victims; all-female independent policy analysis collective Murray Blackburn Mackenzie; and For Women Scotland, a grassroots feminist group that has emerged as a leading voice for Scottish women over the past few years.
If Sturgeon’s new act passes into law, a person will be able to change their legal gender as long as they’ve lived in their acquired gender for three months, and made a statutory declaration that they intend to keep doing so. Remarkably, nobody seems able to explain what living in an acquired gender actually means, so how those granting certificates can judge whether the criteria has been met is anyone’s guess.
Under the current act, those who wish to change their gender need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, ie, persistent distress and discomfort with their natal sex. However, all medical gatekeeping has been removed from Sturgeon’s revised bill. I presume this is in response to the strong push from the trans activist lobby to “depathologise” trans identities. The argument is that trans people aren’t mentally ill: being trans is as natural as being gay. As Rachel Cohen, campaigns director of Stonewall wrote in 2017: “Being trans is not about ‘sex changes’ or clothes, it’s about an innate sense of self.” You may ask how anyone can assess the authenticity of somebody else’s “innate sense of self”. I haven’t a clue.
Soon, then, in Scotland, it may be easier to change the sex on your birth certificate than it is to change it on your passport. In consequence, intact males who are judged to have met the meagre requirements will be considered as “valid” and entitled to protections as those who’ve had full sex reassignment surgery, and more male-bodied individuals will assert more strongly a right to be in women’s spaces such as public bathrooms, changing rooms, rape support centres, domestic violence refuges, hospital wards and prison cells that were hitherto reserved for women.
In 2019, The Sunday Times made a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice that revealed almost 90 per cent of sexual offences committed in changing rooms happened in those that are unisex. Nevertheless, Sturgeon loftily dismisses anyone who fears her new legislation could be wide open to abuse. “It is men who attack women [feminists should worry about] and we need to focus on that, not on further stigmatising and discriminating against a tiny group in our society that is already one of the most stigmatised.”
In saying this, Sturgeon is employing no fewer than three arguments beloved of trans activists.
The first is that trans women are extremely vulnerable, far more so than biological women. This is in spite of the fact that no trans woman has been murdered in Scotland to date, whereas 112 women were murdered by men in Scotland between 2009 and 2019.
The second argument is that men who transition, uniquely among all other categories of those born male, never harm women. Yet there is no evidence to show that trans women don’t retain male patterns of criminality. According to Jo Phoenix, professor of criminology at the University of Reading: “Sex is the single strongest predictor of criminality and criminalisation. Since criminal statistics were first collected (in the mid 1850s) males make up around 80 per cent of those arrested, prosecuted and convicted of crime. Violent crime is mostly committed by males . . . This remains the case regardless of stated gender identity.” The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that there are proportionately more trans-identified men in prison for sexual offences than among incarcerated males taken as a whole.
The third argument Sturgeon uses is that it’s transphobic to suggest any man would fraudulently claim a female identity. This claim is extraordinary. Nobody but the very naive can fail to be aware that predatory men are capable of going to great lengths to gain easy access to victims, and have often sought out professions or special status that offer camouflage for their activities. Sex offenders have historically been found among social workers, teachers, priests, doctors, babysitters, school caretakers, celebrities and charity fundraisers, yet no matter how often the scandals break, the lesson appears never to be learned: it is dangerous to assert that any category of people deserves a blanket presumption of innocence. Incidentally, it seems that prison is the perfect space in which to discover your innate sense of self: half of Scottish prisoners currently claiming a trans identity only did so after conviction.
This shouldn’t need saying, but in the current climate, it does: literally no feminist I’ve ever met claims all trans women are predators, any more than we believe that all men are predators. As I’ve already stated publicly, I believe that some trans people are truly vulnerable. That, though, is not the point.
I’ve spent much of the past 25 years campaigning for and funding initiatives to help women and children. These have included projects for female prisoners, campaigns for the rights of single mothers, the funding of safe spaces for victims of rape and male violence, and the fight to end child institutionalisation. I’ve also learned a huge amount about safeguarding from experts, both in relation to vulnerable children placed in institutions, who’re often abused or trafficked, and in the context of sexually abused women.
I say all this to make it clear that concern for women’s and children’s safety isn’t something I’m pretending to be interested in to mask a deep hostility to trans people. The question for me and all the feminists I know is, how do we make trans people safe without making women and girls less safe?
One of the most damning things I’ve heard about the consultation process for Sturgeon’s new bill is this: Murray Blackburn Mackenzie identified five female survivors of male violence who were prepared to meet with the committee and explain what had happened to them, the severe impact it had upon their lives, and why they fear the government is making it easier for violent or predatory men to get access to women and girls. The committee declined to meet the survivors, telling them to put their concerns in writing. Susan Smith, one of For Women Scotland’s founders, told me: “These women were prepared to parade their trauma and were rebuffed.” The committee did, however, find time to meet 17 trans-identified individuals.
In 1983 Andrea Dworkin wrote: “No matter how often these stories are told, with whatever clarity or eloquence, bitterness or sorrow, they might as well have been whispered in wind or written in sand: they disappear, as if they were nothing. The tellers and the stories are ignored or ridiculed, threatened back into silence or destroyed, and the experience of female suffering is buried in cultural invisibility and contempt . . . the very reality of abuse sustained by women, despite its overwhelming pervasiveness and constancy, is negated.”
Nearly 40 years later, Rhona Hotchkiss says that vulnerable women in Scotland are being told “their concerns, their fears, their despair, must take second place to the feelings of men who identify as women. Politicians who say there is no clash of rights have no idea about the lives of women in situations they will never face.”
Rarely in politics is it easy to draw a direct line from a single policy decision to the harm it’s done, but in this case, it will be simple. If any woman or girl suffers voyeurism, sexual harassment, assault or rape in consequence of the Scottish government’s lax new rules, the blame will rest squarely with those at Holyrood who ignored safeguarding experts and women’s campaigners.
And nobody should be held to higher account than the first minister, the “real feminist” who’s riding roughshod over the rights of women and girls.
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