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A year on from the SNP trans row, has anything changed?

Crisis funding and promised reforms feel hollow in the face of weak leadership and institutional attacks

By Aidan Bridgeman

Image courtesy of Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office via Flickr


It was almost exactly a year ago that the SNP was rocked by an internal civil war scandal over proposed overhauls to gender identity laws in Scotland. Large numbers of members decided to cancel their subscriptions and leave the party for good over increasing reports of transphobia rife within the membership, with bigoted rhetoric climbing fairly frictionlessly to the front pages and top headlines across the entire UK — and indeed internationally, at that — solidifying many members’ decisions to leave. Proposals to make it easier for trans people to change their legally recognised gender have been put on hold time and time again in Scotland, and SNP cabinet ministers have been amongst those rallying up support against any improvements in trans issues. Back a year ago was around the time that Nicola Sturgeon was forced, essentially, to address the issue publicly. She put out an unedited, unscripted video on Twitter explaining her non-tolerance approach towards any sort of bigotry within the party. And while, sure, I can appreciate the honesty such a stunt can show, it’s not a secret that there lies a political decision behind the unbureaucratic look. It was a decision to come across as more grounded, more ‘from the heart’. Speeches like that, to me, come across as either very open and honest, or weak and uncaring. Truth be told, it’s the actions that follow such a stunt that will determine how we reflect on that video today. And truth be told, the non-apology put out a year ago from the First Minister (FM), in retrospect, seems weak and uncaring.


The ’gender critical’ faction of the SNP, and wider society at that, like to scope their philosophy as concerning solely language, definitions and the rights of women. The caveat crusaders, always pushing for more consultations and delaying further. With this consistent stalling and protesting, whether on purpose or not, comes a minimising of trans people on an institutional scale. It slows down development in, for instance, trans healthcare reform. Were we to continue to be blurry on the definition of ‘transgender’, or whatever else, they seemingly believe that this will deter policymakers and the public from moving the needle forward on the wider issue. Surely, they think, we can’t discuss access to healthcare if we don’t even know who they are first! The health issues that trans people face will continue to exist regardless of changes to footnotes in lengthy legislation documents. To have your marriage or death certificate correctly identify you and your gender isn’t going to have much of an impact on physical wellbeing. Trans exclusionary commentators and policymakers know this (or are stupidly ignorant, anyway). Continuing to deny trans people the ability to easily change their legally recognised gender is the first step in making it more difficult for them to access important healthcare, often life saving. I don’t mean in a way that creates some backwards authoritative system of gender dysphoria diagnosis via gender recognition panels, I mean in a way that stops debate about improving access to trans health care at the door by disfiguring the entire progressive movement towards trans equality as a whole with, what with menial debates over menial details about issues that are not being contested in the slightest. The erosion of existing protections are not on the table. Self-ID laws, or even laws that streamline the GRC process, aren’t creating new rights at the expense of anyone else’s. That is to say, women’s issues and trans issues are the same fight.


Within the last year, the SNP-Greens budget announced £2 million in ‘crisis funding’ for trans healthcare in Scotland from an overall £9 million 2022-2024 action plan. Mainly, though, to just cover for the backlog created by the coronavirus pandemic, like with extended wait times which are stupidly lengthy. While welcome, more fundamental changes are needed. Not just extra funding, which honestly, isn’t much.


Most recently, the Parliament Committee of the Council of Europe expressed their concerns about the erosion of LGBT+ rights in Europe, namely in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey and the UK. Noting that hate speech, violence and hate crimes against protected groups have been on the rise, particularly as a result of prominent political figures. Police Scotland have said that transgender-related hate crimes have increased by 77% in the past year here alone.


Much of the infighting in the SNP has rallied around one prominent figure, MP Joanna Cherry. Whose out-and-out disregard towards the scientific bases for transgenderism, such as with issues relating to biological sex, have gone mostly unchecked by the leadership in her party. Self-ID laws, a small but important step for trans people, have never come close to entering Cherry’s personal manifesto. She stops way before that. Outright denial of their existence, such as seemingly justifying conversion therapy for trans people, make her easily the second most prominent Scottish transphobe, after you know who.


Proposals to put a stop to the current invasive and traumatic system in which a panel determines someone’s legal gender is where Cherry focuses her protesting efforts. In opposition to improvement, obviously. Whether it’s Self-ID laws or even a streamlined version of the current process, she is at the top of the top in speaking against any gender reforms that pass through Holyrood. This is all despite the First Minister’s supposed commitment to a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to transphobia in the SNP. Aberdeen North MP, and SNP colleague, Kirsty Blackman has rightfully supported calls for Cherry’s behaviour to be checked, as has the North East’s Green MSP Maggie Chapman.


Most recently, however, you can add another tick mark to the times the SNP leadership hasn’t spoken out against transphobia within its own party considering MSP John Mason’s use of a transphobic dog whistle in Holyrood just the other day. Currently, the only party-related calls to discipline him, to the best of my knowledge, have come from the SNP LGBT+ wing itself.


Almost like clockwork, unbelievably honestly, and almost exactly a year after the SNP’s trans row, a damning letter from the EHRC (Equalities and Human Rights Commission) has been sent to the Scottish Government urging for restraint on proposed reforms to gender recognition laws. In an ill-informed, dangerous message littered with transphobic rhetoric and dog whistles, and against much of the existing science and many government consultation findings on the reform (as well as against the will of the devolved power of Holyrood), it has attempted to frustrate the already slow developments towards improving trans healthcare in Scotland. From a body that is supposed to fight for justice in the UK, this letter does the very opposite.


As the First Minister noted in FMQs in a response to MSP Meghan Gallacher’s question (in no way a scrutinous question, by the way; it was very supportive of the letter), that the new position of the EHRC is inconsistent with their previous stances — ones that have been supportive of reform. The sudden change in attitude cannot be considered much of a surprise seeing as the EHRC board is directly appointed by Conservative and UK Secretary of State, Liz Truss, quite honestly. But the FM’s response, in parallel with her response last year, will have its strength determined perhaps another year later when actions do or do not follow her words. She defended the proposed reform regardless, and expressed her concerns over the misrepresentations of the bill that the letter lays out and the inconsistencies in the EHRC’s position, but didn’t go much further. The outspokenness against transphobia is of course welcome, but it doesn’t at all eclipse the ruthless bigotry that the other side spouts in the argument. It doesn’t come close.