An SNP politician’s lonely fight in the gender identity debate

7 May 2019 3:07 PM

Joan McAlpine

Joan McAlpine is an unlikely rebel against the Scottish political establishment. The SNP MSP is chair of Holyrood’s culture and external affairs committee, a former parliamentary aide to Alex Salmond and a past editor of the Sunday Times Scotland. She has a reputation as a firebrand Nationalist and, in the interests of full disclosure, I have previously been disobliging about her in print.

Her exile has been quick, brutal and, inevitably in these days of viewpoint-patrolling, the result of voicing an incorrect opinion. McAlpine is gender-critical, or, in the prosecutorial terms of her detractors, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). Recently she began asking awkward questions about the campaign to give force of law to relatively new and largely untested theories about sex, gender and identity. Worse, she has now invited Meghan Murphy to the Scottish parliament. Murphy, a Canadian feminist, was banned by Twitter in November for using a masculine pronoun when referring to a trans woman (i.e. a natal male who identifies as a female) and is suing the social network in response.

The invitation has seen McAlpine denounced by SNP councillor Rhiannon Spear, chair of the LGBT education lobby, Tie (Time for Inclusive Education). She accused McAlpine of ‘stoking a fire’ and ‘wilfully ignoring the advice of service providers who have been working in the industry for decades’. Michael Gibbons, head of the SNP’s student wing, said: ‘There is nothing socialist, brave, or feminist about giving a platform to a transphobe under a pretence of debate and discussion. It’s disingenuous and wrong.’

It is not the first time McAlpine has fallen foul of the gendermerie who police the views of feminists and other gender dissenters. In February, her committee recommended that the sex question in the Scottish census ‘should remain binary’ and she later posted a Twitter thread outlining her concerns:

McAlpine feared including a ‘non-binary’ option risked devaluing the data on a protected characteristic (sex) under the Equality Act. The ONS has made much the same point. She also wondered why so many women’s groups, especially those in receipt of taxpayers’ money, had dogmatically adopted the transgender ideology while failing to represent women who disagreed. This prompted an extraordinary 1,400-word open letter in which some of Scotland’s leading third-sector groups took an MSP to task over a Twitter thread. Signatories to the statement, which rebuked McAlpine for ‘shar[ing] such an inaccurate, partial, and negative assessment’ of their work, included Close the Gap (which received £205,000 from the Scottish Government in 2018/19), Engender Scotland (£225,350) and Equate Scotland (£331,019).

Even in the unforgiving world of Scottish politics, the backlash against McAlpine has been vicious. She told the Scotsman: ‘They try to shut you up by labelling you and othering you, by using extremist language. This isn’t just about trans people’s rights; they have the same human rights as everyone else and extra protections in the Equality Act and hate legislation, and that’s quite right. This is about women’s rights and how the changes being pushed for impact women.’ McAlpine may be a Nationalist bomb-thrower but on gender she has been moderate and measured. No one sincerely interested in a debate can credibly dismiss her thoughtful interventions or her temperate tone, including on proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act to abandon medically-supported gender recognition certificates in favour of self-identification.

For the most part, her campaign has been a lonely one, at least in public. Other MSPs agree but have hitherto been reluctant to invite controversy. No wonder. Two weeks ago, the contents of private messages between three female SNP MSPs were leaked, exposing them as critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s breathless enthusiasm for the trans agenda. The backlash served as a warning to other women not to step out of line if they don’t want their political careers jeopardised.

The gender wars are an academic symposium conducted by means of a cage fight, and I try to steer clear. I am not a feminist and have fundamental disagreements with feminist doctrine. McAlpine’s critics might use interventions like mine against her, but I’m agreeing with her, she’s not agreeing with me. I hail from one letter of the ever-expanding Countdown conundrum that is LGBTIQA+ (I daren’t even ask what the ‘+’ stands for) and I resent being dragooned into efforts to ‘wokescold’ radical feminists and others into compliance. The trans movement has co-opted the gay and lesbian struggle to convince doubters they are on ‘the wrong side of history’. The tactic is a parallel of their ideology’s efforts to conflate sex and gender but the two are not the same. Maleness or femaleness is a fact of biology while masculine or feminine identity is the product of social conditioning and performance. Sex is data, gender is narrative.

This is not a theoretical debate between people who read too much Judith Butler at university. Changing legal and social norms will have practical consequences for women and girls, their rights and their ability to keep themselves safe from men who would harm them. This is not scaremongering. Vancouver Rape Relief, Canada’s oldest rape crisis shelter, has been stripped of public funding for not accommodating men who identify as women. Five clinicians have resigned from the NHS’s Gender Identity Development Service over what they claim is the misdiagnosis of children. Transgender prisoner Karen White was jailed for life last October for sexually assaulting female inmates at the women’s prison she was sent to.

Yet trans activism seems geared towards denying opponents a platform to debate these matters. Gender-critical views are characterised as ‘hate speech’ and the pernicious fiction peddled that reasonable opponents voicing reasonable objections will drive young trans people to suicide. Some display extreme aggression towards women. In March, the star performer at Dundee Trans Pride was dropped and charged by police after allegedly encouraging Twitter users to ‘throat punch’ members of a gender-critical feminist group.

Gender may be a social construct but gender dysphoria is very real and a painful and frightening experience for sufferers. Trans people deserve respect and dignity, their services provided and rights upheld. But women, not least elected parliamentarians, must be free to ask questions about gender and reject this ideology outright if they wish. Most are not being exclusionary; on the contrary, they are trying to include the trans movement in a conversation and being vilified in return. The trans movement, as distinct from individual trans people, is fostering a culture of intimidation and self-censorship.

Political speech is not harm. Disagreeing with an intolerant orthodoxy is not incitement. Saying that, yes, trans people have rights but women have rights too is not ‘phobic’. When you can only defend your ideology by making the other side disappear from the debate, you are engaged in discursive Stalinism. Joan McAlpine is a lonely warrior denied reinforcements by the demagoguery of her opponents. Those who secretly agree with her ought to join her in the trenches.