Sturgeon trans rights support prompts calls for reform

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Nicola Sturgeon has been challenged to include meaningful reform of gender recognition legislation in her party’s spring manifesto, after she made her strongest statement yet in support of transgender rights.

Scotland’s first minister posted what she described as an unplanned and unscripted statement on Twitter late on Wednesday evening in response to reports of significant numbers of mainly younger people leaving the SNP because of the leadership’s perceived failure to tackle transphobia.

Sturgeon said: “It grieves me deeply that you have reached this conclusion because you consider at this stage the SNP not to be a safe, tolerant or welcoming place for trans people. That is not acceptable to me.”

Insisting that transphobia should be treated with the same “zero tolerance” that applies to racism or homophobia, Sturgeon added: “Yes we have differences of opinion on gender recognition reform, we should debate them openly and respectfully but no debate can be a cover for transphobia.”

An increasingly toxic online environment has caused some younger people to question their commitment to the SNP in recent weeks, the Guardian understands. But after the posts, women’s groups that were formed to challenge transgender rights reform accused Sturgeon of failing to criticise online abuse of their own membership.

A number of prominent LGBT activists told the Guardian there had been fears that the party’s commitment to gender recognition reform would be watered down in its manifesto for May’s Holyrood elections, but Sturgeon’s video message had given them some cause for optimism.

Out for Independence, the official LGBT+ wing of the SNP, four of whose executive committee have resigned in protest over the past week, said the most important action to follow must be an overhaul of internal disciplinary procedures, which “have not been used to protect people where they should have been”.

The Scottish Trans Alliance said: “We hope that [Sturgeon’s] words will be followed up by the meaningful actions she says she is determined they will be.” It called for those actions to include improving delivery of trans healthcare, with a priority of reducing waiting times, hate crime protection and reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

Plans to allow people to officially change gender without a medical diagnosis by reforming the GRA were paused in Scotland at the beginning of the pandemic, and similar plans were dropped by the UK government last September.

The Scottish proposals had attracted criticism from some feminist groups as well as from senior SNP politicians, including the finance secretary, Kate Forbes, and the MP Joanna Cherry, who has repeatedly challenged the party leadership over gender rights. Cherry won a coveted seat on the SNP’s national executive committee at the party’s conference last November.

At the time, the Guardian reported on how a cohort of activists, councillors and MPs similarly critical of transgender rights policy were elected to the national executive to the shock of the SNP’s leadership. A number of prominent Sturgeon supporters believe some rebels are using the row over transgender rights to undermine her authority.

While GRA reform has been paused, the row has since spilled over into other policy areas, including the reform of hate crime legislation.

For Women Scotland, which describes itself as the largest women’s rights organisation in Scotland, said Sturgeon’s video was intended to “placate younger, fiercer members of her party, but she has an equal responsibility to listen to her female members and to denounce the young party members who openly abuse women on social media”.