Transgender debate in Scotland has to be genuine debate. Using threat of prosecution to silence people is contrary to free speech – Susan Dalgety

Six months ago, Marion Millar was largely anonymous. A middle-aged mum and accountant from Airdrie, she volunteered for the grassroots women’s rights group, For Women Scotland, but her work was mostly behind the scenes.

Women, including some dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, protest outside a court where Marion Millar was facing charges of threatening or abusive behaviour aggravated by prejudice relating to sexual orientation and transgender identity until the case was dropped (Picture: John Devlin)
Women, including some dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, protest outside a court where Marion Millar was facing charges of threatening or abusive behaviour aggravated by prejudice relating to sexual orientation and transgender identity until the case was dropped (Picture: John Devlin)

Today, she is a reluctant public figure, known across the world. A symbol of a bitter battle that is raging across Scotland about the material reality of biological sex.

On 28 April, she got a phone call that changed her life. She was told to report to a local police station over allegations that she had posted “homophobic and transphobic” material on Twitter.

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On 31 August, with leading SNP MP Joanna Cherry by her side as her defence counsel, she emerged from Glasgow Sheriff Court having been charged with the crime of acting in a threatening and abusive manner, facing up to two years in prison. One of her offending tweets was said to be of a Suffragette ribbon tied round a tree outside a Glasgow studio. It had, apparently, upset a male soap actor.

And on Thursday, 183 days after the phone call that changed her life forever, she was told that the case against her had been discontinued by the Crown Office, pending a review. Her ordeal is set to end, but the debate about biological sex versus gender ideology is far from over.

At the heart of it glowers Nicola Sturgeon. A self-avowed feminist, she has, however, decided to spend her considerable political capital supporting the trans lobby. She has promised to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act to allow a person to change their legal sex simply by declaring that they are living in their new identity – self-ID. The current law requires a person to get a medical diagnosis and to live for at least two years in their adopted gender before they can obtain a gender recognition certificate.

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Trans activists and their allies, many drawn from Scotland’s small but very influential political and civil society elite, insist that a person’s sex is nothing more than a feeling, an inner essence, and that those who argue that sex matters are hateful right-wing bigots.

These so-called 'right-wing bigots' include novelist JK Rowling, former leader of Scottish Labour and feminist Johann Lamont, the aforementioned Joanna Cherry MP, as well as a growing number of ordinary women – and men – from all walks of life. A slew of grassroots women’s groups has also emerged. Some, like Labour Women’s Declaration, are aligned to a political party; others, like For Women Scotland, are independent.

All argue that self-ID triggers a conflict of rights between women’s sex-based rights, such as single-sex spaces in refuges and prisons, and those of a man who believes his gender identity is female, even though his body remains masculine.

Until recently the debate has largely raged on Twitter and festered in political circles, but it is now coming out into the mainstream. This month, a podcast by BBC investigative reporters, Stephen Nolan and David Thompson, revealed the extent of Stonewall’s influence on the Scottish government. At the LGBTQ+ charity’s insistence, civil servants agreed to stop using the word “mother” in the government’s maternity leave policies, replacing it with “gender-neutral” terms.

The podcast has seen BBC Northern Ireland, where Nolan and Thompson work, having its biggest week ever on BBC Sounds, suggesting a public appetite for discussion. And a Panelbase poll, published by the political blog Scot Goes Pop earlier this week, shows that only 20 per cent of Scots support self-ID.

Yet Scotland’s political elite, buoyed by the admiration of young trans activists, seems determined to make the new gender orthodoxy the law of the land. It is set to ignore the fact – that human sex is immutable – and instead root public policy in a belief that a person’s gender – how they choose to present themselves to the world – is what matters.

No discussion, it seems, is allowed. Nicola Sturgeon recently dismissed women’s concerns about self-ID as “not valid”, and on Tuesday, the STUC women’s conference voted against a motion in support of single-sex services, a move unthinkable a few years ago.

The mover of the motion, Fiona MacDonald from the Paisley & District Trades Union Council, later said that the trade union movement can’t keep on pretending that a rights conflict doesn’t exist between women and self-ID.

“Stop shouting TWAW (transwomen are women) every time we talk about traumatised women and their involuntary trauma response to male-bodied people. Solutions must be found,” she tweeted.

And she’s right. Solutions must be found. And if the Scottish government under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership does not want a mature, balanced debate then others must step into the breach. This toxic atmosphere, where the basics of biology, once undisputed, are now dismissed as hate speech and women risk prosecution and their livelihoods for speaking freely, is untenable.

In three weeks’ time, Labour women from all over Scotland will gather for their annual conference in Glasgow. Scottish Labour pioneered women’s rights – from equal pay to equal representation in Holyrood – and it campaigned for equal marriage and against Section 28, the Tory law which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by councils. Equality is embedded in Labour’s DNA. As is the right to free speech.

No doubt the sisters will be debating women’s rights and self-ID. They have a choice. They can, like the STUC and the SNP leadership, come down on one side or the other without a proper discussion, or they can show political courage and lead a national debate. As Labour Women’s Declaration said this week, “there’s a conflict which needs to be resolved through respectful, evidence-based dialogue as per the Equality Act”.

Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear she brooks no discussion. She has decided on behalf of Scottish women. Scottish Labour women have the opportunity to take this urgent issue out of the hands of the political elite and let the people decide. Sisters, courage calls.

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