Transgender debate in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon cannot ignore concerns of Equality and Human Rights Commission about Gender Recognition Act reform – Susan Dalgety

I found myself in the awkward position earlier this week of agreeing with Nicola Sturgeon.

Women protest outside a court hearing where a feminist campaigner, Marion Millar, faced hate crime charges that were later dropped (Picture: John Devlin)
Women protest outside a court hearing where a feminist campaigner, Marion Millar, faced hate crime charges that were later dropped (Picture: John Devlin)

The First Minister told The Shift podcast that the world would be a “much, much better place if it was run by menopausal women”.

Women have to work twice as hard to get taken even half as seriously as their male peers, she asserted, which I cheered.

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I almost gave her a standing ovation when she described how she still struggles with imposter syndrome, a claim that her ministers and backbench MSPs, over whom she has complete control, may take with a pinch of salt.

But there was an air of authenticity when she said that many women, no matter how successful or senior they have come to be, “have that sense of not entirely ever feeling that you’ve earned it, or that it’s justified”.

And when she threw some intersectionality into the mix, adding, “partly I think it’s gender, and partly it’s a working-class background”, I almost cried out, “Hallelujah sister!”

As a post-menopausal woman from a very working-class background, I could not disagree with a single word she said. So why, after the initial euphoria of listening to her second-wave feminist rhetoric, did I feel so deflated?

Simply this. For the last few years, the First Minister has made it very clear that the views of the majority of (post) menopausal women in Scotland about sex, gender and intersectionality are not valid, indeed verge on the bigoted.

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I refer, of course, to the debate about reform of the Gender Recognition Act (2004). Nicola Sturgeon and her government want to change the rules so that a man (or woman) can change their legal sex without a medical check. All a man will have to do to be considered female in law and in society is to make a self-declaration that they will now live as a woman. No hormones, no operation, no diagnosis of gender dysphoria will be required. Just a feeling that they were born in the wrong body.

The draft bill is to be published in a few weeks’ time and, despite a well-organised campaign by women from all walks of life, and of all ages, it looked set to get the parliamentary seal of approval.

Until that is, another senior, middle-aged woman intervened. Step forward Baroness Kishwer Falkner (born 1955) – a former Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs, Justice and Foreign Affairs and a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University – now chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

In a letter to Shona Robison, the Cabinet Secretary responsible for steering GRA reform through Parliament, Baroness Falkner, speaking on behalf of all the commissioners – including the Scottish one, Dr Lesley Sawers – said that the ECHR considered that “more detailed consideration is needed before any change is made to the provisions of the Act”.

And in a paragraph that neatly summarised the concerns of women across Scotland, she cited issues such the collection and use of data, participation and drug testing in competitive sport, measures to address barriers facing women, and practices within the criminal justice system, among others.

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief coming from women across the country. Women who, in recent years, have been arrested, cancelled, lost income, and bullied for holding these exact same views.

Women who had been told they were bigots, racists, white supremacists in thrall to the Christian right-wing, fascists even. Women who had found themselves having to defend their biological reality, from their sex at birth through to the menopause and beyond.

“The adults have re-entered the room,” a friend messaged me, while dancing round her kitchen.

“A measured and sensible letter. Thank you,” tweeted For Women Scotland, who have helped spearhead the campaign against self-ID.

“We will consider the ECHR’s views, which have changed since 2019,” said a Scottish government spokesperson. And Sturgeon underlined her government’s concern at the “significant” change at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday.

But she cannot dismiss the commission’s views. The ECHR is not a charity like Stonewall, the organisation that has been so successful in promoting self-ID, nor a self-appointed campaign group. It is the UK’s national equality body, the statutory regulator of the Equality Act 2010, and has been awarded ‘A’ status as a National Human Rights Institution by the United Nations.

Its advice matters, and no government minister, even one as single-minded as Nicola Sturgeon, can simply ignore it.

She faces a dilemma. Press on with the introduction of self-ID, which will win plaudits from the Scottish Greens, trans activists and the SNP’s youth wing, but bring her into direct conflict with one of the most respected human rights bodies in the world, or find a compromise.

Surely, she has enough on her to-do list without adding a battle with Baroness Falkner to it. Scotland’s schools and NHS need her urgent attention, as does the cost-of-living crisis that faces millions of Scots, to say nothing of the second independence referendum she has promised will take place by next year.

Baroness Falkner’s letter offered the First Minister a way forward: more detailed consideration of the reforms before any changes are made to the 2004 Act. The Baroness stressed the importance of protecting trans people from discrimination and improving gender identity services, while maintaining the established legal concept of sex, and offered to work with the Scottish government to achieve that aim.

Nicola Sturgeon now has the chance to show that Scotland really is a better place when it is run by middle-aged women. All she has to do is pick up the phone to Baroness Falkner.

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