Gender Recognition Act reform: Both sides of the debate need to learn not to hate each other – Gina Davidson

Glasgow Shettleston MSP John Mason is a small-c conservative Christian, and often finds himself mocked for his views.

Members of the campaign group For Women Scotland demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament over the Gender Recognition Bill (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Members of the campaign group For Women Scotland demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament over the Gender Recognition Bill (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Yet it was he who, when responding to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the Programme for Government earlier this week, said what many have hoped to hear for so long – that the debate around reform of the Gender Recognition Act needs to be “civilised”.

It was a fascinating moment. Here was an opponent of the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill, which was passed in 2014 and which saw him vilified by many supporters of gay marriage, claiming that the parliamentary process in passing that law should be held as an example of how contentious Bills can be dealt with “calmly” inside the chamber.

Yet the very next day when Tory MSP Murdo Fraser referenced last week’s women’s protest against the government's Gender Recognition Bill, he was heckled by Nicola Sturgeon.

A generous take would be that she reacted to Mr Fraser’s contention that the Bill will be divisive, rather than his decision to stand with women who have concerns, but it was unedifying, and did not bode well for the months of debate and scrutiny ahead.

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This Bill is divisive. You only needed to look at the women’s rally outside Holyrood and the counter-protest by trans activists to recognise that; you only need to dip a toe into the stormy waters of social media to know how toxic it can be.

Many women are enraged the government aims to allow transwomen the ability to self-declare their new gender. To remove the gate-keeping of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and to reduce the time a person “lives in the gender” they wish to be, from two years to six months.

They believe that this move to self-ID could be abused by predatory men who will use any loophole to gain access to women when at their most vulnerable – in refuges, in toilets, in changing rooms, in prisons. The changes, they say, reduce womanhood to being an idea or a feeling in a man’s head rather then the lived reality of half the population.

Those on the other side of the argument say the change just streamlines a paper process and makes it less psychologically taxing and costly for transgender people. They say self-ID is already in place in society, if not the law. That transwomen can already access women’s spaces – and have a legal right to do so.

These arguments, and many more, were laid out in the responses to the government’s consultation on the Bill. A consultation which shied away from revealing just how many of the 17,000-plus responses were for or against the reforms. A vacuum of information which only breeds more speculation and toxicity.

So when the Bill comes before our MSPs they need to ensure debate is respectful – that there’s no throwing around of accusations of transphobia at women who worry about their rights, or misogyny (internalised or otherwise) at those who think differently.

It also means saying emphatically it is more than okay for people to have an opinion and express it robustly. That campaigning for or against the Bill is not hateful. It is time for our elected representatives to rise to the occasion.

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