Editor’s note: This article was written before the recent resignation of the Scottish First Minister and provides background information to that resignation. The uproar at the proposed legislation was the unstated cause of the Minister’s resignation.
Last year, Mridul Wadhwa, the chief executive of the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre – and a trans woman – argued that women who objected to being counselled by someone who was born a man should “expect to be challenged on your prejudices” as part of their journey towards building “a new relationship with your trauma”. Doing so would require women in distress to “reframe your trauma”. That was the moment a seed was sown for J.K. Rowling. That seed flowered, as the author revealed she was funding a new crisis centre for women in Scotland’s capital. Beira’s Place – named after an ancient Scottish goddess of winter – will provide counselling and support for women in need. Trans women won’t be allowed in. “We believe that women deserve to have certainty that, in using our services, they will not encounter anyone who is male.” Trauma is not for reframing.
For some, this was further evidence Rowling is a transphobic bigot; for others a reminder that she is one of the foremost feminist campaigners of our time. The author is too successful to be cancelled and she is determined to use her platform to speak out against those people she considers a threat to women’s rights. Foremost among her critics is Nicola Sturgeon, leader (now former leader) of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and first minister of Scotland. Sturgeon is, in Rowling’s view, a “destroyer of women’s rights”, and her government’s proposed gender recognition reforms are “the single biggest assault on the rights of Scottish women and girls in my lifetime”. Noting that most of the bill’s provisions were opposed by most voters, last week Rowling suggested that “this is Nicola Sturgeon’s poll tax”. In the conflict between Scotland’s most famous woman and its most powerful, it appears celebrity will cede victory to pure politics.
Sturgeon’s bill is guaranteed to pass, albeit at some unusual cost to the first minister’s credibility. Although it has prompted the largest SNP rebellion since the party came to office in 2007, it also has the support of most Labour, Lib Dem and Green MSPs. Scotland will, therefore, introduce self-identification for anyone who wishes to change gender. Previously a person seeking a gender-recognition certificate required a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, but they will now be entitled to become legally a man or a woman simply by declaring that this is who they are. And whereas they were hitherto required to “live in” their new sex for two years, they will henceforth be required to do so for only three months. It will be a criminal offence to make a false declaration of this sort, but no means by how this might be determined has yet been outlined.
Sturgeon insists this is simply a means of tidying up and improving existing processes, ensuring that a marginalised and much put-upon minority have an easier path towards living their best, true lives. The bill, she says, grants no new rights to trans people. “All it does is simplify existing processes,” she says. Reform has progressed at a glacial pace. The bill has been the subject of two public consultations. Sturgeon insists that “there are significant safeguards in the bill”, even as her government has rejected almost every significant amendment. She told the Scottish parliament that, “of course, there are concerns that men may abuse provisions relating to trans people to harm women” – a key concern for Rowling and other critics – before insisting: “The point is that if any man was to seek to do so, the bill does not increase their ability to do that.”
This is the kind of argument that infuriates Sturgeon’s opponents. In their view, this is precisely the basis for their objections to the proposals: predatory men will be enabled by this legislation to access previously single-sex spaces more easily. They accuse Sturgeon of elevating the rights of trans people above those of women, with little to no regard for how these new entitlements might be abused by people who would not previously have been considered trans but, under the terms of the legislation, must be considered to have changed their sex. In a slightly different world, Rowling and Sturgeon might have been allies. They are on the centre left and their political preferences are, for the most part, orthodox. Sturgeon’s past insistence that much more needs to be done to improve the lot and life chances of young people in care chimes with much of Rowling’s charitable work.
Rowling’s Volant Trust – a foundation with £75 million ($135.5 million) in assets – typically donates up to £10 million a year to charities, chiefly in Scotland, that work with and for women, single parents and children. The first Minister insists she is “a feminist to my fingertips”, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her self-identification, even if Rowling also sardonically refers to Sturgeon as “the first feminist”. “It’s not a political thing to me; this is personal,” Rowling says, but the line between the personal and the political is, as feminist history demonstrates, precious thin.And the politics of the controversy cannot be wished away. Rowling has previously donated significant sums to the Labour Party but is unlikely to do so again until such time as the party ceases to be, at best, agnostic on the trans issue.
Rowling was not alone, however, in observing the order of the first minister’s priorities. “I’ve spent much of my life campaigning for women’s rights,” Sturgeon has said. “We don’t have to look very far to see the real threats to women’s rights right now. They come from men who attack, sexually and violently, women, who try to abuse women in a misogynistic way. “They come from lawmakers in parts of the world trying to take away reproductive rights and access to abortion. They come from oppressive regimes … These are the threats to women’s rights, and feminists should focus on them, not on trans women, who are not the threat to women’s rights.” But Rowling, like many of Sturgeon’s critics, has never claimed trans women are a threat. She agrees with Sturgeon that men are the danger to women but is convinced that making it easy for men to identify as women is in effect an invitation for some men to infiltrate spaces that were reserved for women born female.
More broadly, Rowling says, “I have no irrational fear of or hatred towards trans people in the slightest – as, God knows, I’ve said so many times. But if you’re going to say it’s ‘hate’ not to believe in a gendered soul then we cannot have a discussion. We can’t. There’s nowhere to go.” Sturgeon has dismissed her critics’ views as “not valid”, echoing the “no debate” mantra beloved of trans-rights activists. No discussion; no compromise. “I feel we’re currently waging a cultural war between what I would see as authoritarians and liberals,” Rowling says. “And those categories seem to cut across the old left/right divide.” Sturgeon will win the immediate political battle, but the manner in which she will do so all but guarantees the gender wars in Scotland will rage for some time yet.
Editor’s note: As it turns out Sturgeon did not win the political battle and today, she is no longer the First Minister of Scotland, another victim of attempted wokeness. Whilst winning the vote in the Scottish Parliament, Rishi Sunak’s British government used provisions in the Scotland Act to block the legislation which would have introduced a self-identification system for people who wanted to change gender.
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