Anyone who enters into the debate about transgender recognition can expect to become a target of activists and social media trolls. So I do not enter into this minefield lightly. Three recent events have prompted me to write this. The first of these was losing my livelihood. The second was the first minister's response to a journalist, when she was addressing the UN on human rights last month, in which she dismissed medical and scientific evidence. The third was the letter by a 'collective' of 70 women, describing the views of those who did not agree with them as 'archaic', without presenting one shred of evidence that substantiates this assertion.
I'll start with the first event. Following an overheard conversation in my workplace, I was accused of 'contravening equalities legislation'. This was because I voiced concerns to a colleague about, firstly, the adequacy of assessment of risk that had been carried out in relation to the proposal that 'self-identification' should become the only criterion for biological males to be legally considered females and, secondly, the wisdom of the guidance provided to schools by Education Scotland. Its website suggests that 'affirmation' rather than 'watchful waiting' should be the response to children whose preferences do not equate with the roles traditionally associated with their biological sex, when research and longitudinal data indicates otherwise.
The workplace in question was a charitable organisation where I had worked for 10 years. I previously had worked in public services with decades of experience in children's social care and education. Questions of equalities and rights were matters of which I had long and well-respected experience in Scotland, the UK and Europe. My personal commitment to human rights and to eradicating inequality has also been unwavering throughout my life. It was, therefore, a real body blow to be so unjustly accused and my health and wellbeing were seriously affected.
In essence, I was given an ultimatum. Either I left my post voluntarily, or action would be taken against me that, I was left in no doubt, would be seeking to dismiss me. The legal advice I had suggested that the case against me was flimsy at best – indeed I was advised that, had there been an adequate case to dismiss me, there would have been no need to offer any alternative. It was also pointed out to me that the disciplinary and appeal process would be protracted and stressful, and that 'victory' would mean I had to return to a workplace where I felt threatened and isolated and where, I am sure, there would have been continued attempts to get rid of me. This would probably have resulted in irretrievable compromise to my health and welfare. Clearly, therefore, I was in a 'lose/lose' situation.
Let me be clear – I have no wish to stick my head above the parapet and have done so very reluctantly. I have, however, felt it necessary to do so as I know of many other women who fear the consequences of questioning policy and legislative positions that fly in the face of known evidence. I also am aware of others who have been put through kangaroo courts or subjected to abusive name-calling for legitimate questioning of what seems to have become orthodoxy without any significant supporting information. A recent high profile case saw Martina Navratilova dropped as an equality organisation's representative for suggesting it was 'unfair' for biological males to compete in women's tennis and for voicing concerns about how self-identification could affect this.
The first minister's statement that '...it's really important that we also give recognition, and I'm not sure that I would quite as glibly talk about young people growing out of things,' when taking questions following her speech at the UN last month, I found profoundly worrying for several reasons. Firstly, it seems that several discrete and separate issues are being unhelpfully, though I hope not wilfully, conflated. Secondly, research evidence is far from 'glib' in relation to 'growing out of things'. It indicates that the overwhelming majority of children and young people who seek or are directed towards gender reassignment, if they receive no surgical or drug interventions and have not transitioned socially, are by the end of adolescence, content with their assigned biological sex.
There is no evidence that they are more likely in adulthood to be suicidal, despite this being asserted by several apparently reputable organisations. There is
, however, medical evidence that there are harmful long-term consequences associated with early use of medication such as puberty blockers. In addition, there appears to be some correlation between gender dysphoria and both autistic spectrum disorders and experience of sexual abuse.
A great deal of further investigation is needed before adopting approaches that may result in young people embarking on irreversible procedures. Many of the young people who are unhappy with their assigned sex are gay or lesbian as adults and their sexuality should be positively affirmed and supported. Such research as has been carried out with both adults who have undergone gender reassignment and with those who have embarked on, but desisted from, reassignment procedures should also signal caution. A concerning proportion of those who experienced mental health difficulties before reassignment continue to experience them afterwards. And we know very little about those who have commenced then desisted from gender reassignment, or those who have undergone it and later regretted their decision.
A respected clinician in England who wished to conduct some robust research with people who had desisted had his proposal turned down by a university on the grounds that it was 'politically incorrect' and might result in criticism of the university on social media. For these reasons, elements of the guidance provided by Education Scotland are concerning, particularly as they also seem to 'over-egg' what the law actually says. It advises teachers that they are not obliged to inform parents that the school has encouraged and activated their child's 'social transition'.
It is also worrying that a senior politician who describes herself as 'an ardent, passionate feminist' appears happy to ignore the justified concerns of many women and to promote a world where traditional social roles and behaviours are equated with biology – an 'archaic' and unscientific perspective that seems akin to flat-earthism in its logic. Denial of biological reality also seems quite at odds with the Scottish Government's aspiration to 'international best practice'.
Finally, there is the letter from the 'over 70' women, who claim that those who promote knowledge and evidence in relation to this matter 'do not speak for them'. Sweeping assertions are made without reference to any supporting evidence. Let us be very clear on a few things here. Sex and gender are not synonymous. Sex is a description of biological attributes and humans, apart from a very few individuals who are born with indeterminate characteristics, are either male or female. This, however, is nothing to do with preferences in friendships, sexual partnerships, activities, clothing or anything else. Gender is a sociological term that describes behaviours and roles. Confusing these two concepts leads to some very muddled thinking.
Humans should be free to express their preferences and should not be labelled for doing so. It is sad, given how far women's rights have come, and sadder, given how far they have yet to go, that we seem to be encouraging equation of biology with behaviour and outward presentation. This is not about 'phobia' or discrimination. I, and every other feminist worthy of the term, support the rights of all individuals to be positively included in society and to live a life free from prejudice and intolerance.
The right of biological males to be recognised as women is already enshrined in law, so long as they have lived as a woman for two years and have committed to medically supervised reassignment procedures. What this should not mean is a requirement to assert the untruth that they have thereby become biological women. It is also not a denial of the existence of gender dysphoria, though it certainly is about applying knowledge and evidence as to how we provide the best support and guidance.
It is seriously perturbing that the signatories to the letter seek to close down debate and to label and persecute women (and men) who disagree with them. I know of at least one workplace where the letter was circulated, by senior management, to all female staff inviting them to add their signature. I am not suggesting that any pressure was brought to bear on individuals but I imagine it is more difficult to dissent if one fears the consequences for one's future career.
Judging from the online comments and the fact that, several weeks on and with the benefit of extensive publicity, the number of signatories has risen from 'over 70' (by my calculation, around 0.003% of the adult female population in Scotland) to the somewhat underwhelming 'over 400' (around 0.018%), it does not appear that their position resonates greatly with the Scottish public either. Perhaps this is something of which the government should take note.
Maggie Morrison is a pseudonym