Sex-based discrimination: an interview with Scottish parliamentarian Joan McAlpine

This article is part of a series of interviews featuring international perspectives on the ramifications of the concept of ‘gender identity’ within public policy. We are grateful to all the women who have agreed to be interviewed. Their perspectives will sometimes disagree, which enriches the series. Most importantly, thank you to Dominican newspaper El Caribe for its commitment to support women’s right to discuss public policy openly and without censorship.

This past December 3rd, a number of newspapers wrote about a meeting held by the Office for the United Nations, the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the United States embassy and the Attorney General’s Office with a number of Dominican legislators. The purported aim of the meeting was “to raise awareness among the legislators” about a number of modifications which, according to these entities, must be “urgently amended” within the Illicit Trade of Migrants and Human Trafficking Act 2003.

International organisations argue that “they are putting in the hands of all governments in the Latin American region” these same modifications, but it is rather odd that the proposed amendments have not yet reached either chamber of the Dominican Congress.

Quick question: if the modifications to such an important piece of legislation are a matter of urgency, but they haven’t even entered Congress, then who wrote them? Forgive me but, I was under the impression that it was legislators who were tasked with writing national policy on behalf of the people.

The pressure to introduce gender identity policies within the Dominican Republic has been going on for a while, but it has intensified over the course of these past two years. As of today, international organisations and several sectors of Dominican civil society have tried to hide them within the Equality and No Discrimination pre-law project, within the Prevention, Sanction and Eradication of Violence against Women law project, within a framework of “gender policies” which were meant to be implemented by the Ministry of Education and now as a set of modifications to the Human Trafficking Act 2003.

So far, each attempt has failed. The international best practice when it comes to imposing gender identity policies is to lobby silently and above all, avoid any scrutiny from the press. It probably hasn’t helped matters that in the Dominican Republic, there is a certain impertinent woman who has been writing about this issue on a national newspaper, non-stop, for the past two years.

Sadly, as has become the norm in other countries, the pattern to try force gender identity policies on an unsuspecting population has been to use the most vulnerable women in society (and children), as a human shield. In the face of such an antidemocratic artifice, I must ask the people engaging in these shenanigans: why not defend your policies explicitly, instead of trying to hide them within other, more popular legislation, which do have the support of the public?

Speaking of public policy impositions, today we are interviewing Scottish parliamentarian Joan McAlpine. A journalist, by profession, her career saw her fulfil the role of editor, reporter and columnist of a number of newspapers. McAlpine was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, as a representative from the Scottish National Party (centre-left).

Raquel Rosario Sánchez: Dear Joan, thank you very much for participating in this series. Could you please tell us briefly about your academic and professional formation?

Joan McAlpine: I was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011 to represent the South of Scotland for the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP are a centre left party who believe Scotland should be an independent state with a seat at the UN. Before entering parliament, I was a journalist for many years working as an editor, reporter, feature writer and opinion columnist for national newspapers in Scotland. I was previously the deputy editor of The Herald; a leading quality daily newspaper. I also worked for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times and Daily Record. I have a joint MA (Hons) Degree in Economic, Social and Scottish History from the University of Glasgow and a post grad Diploma in newspaper journalism from City University, London.

RRS: Now, on February 28th, you wrote a famous thread on Twitter in which you jumped straight into the sex and gender debate. It read, in part: “Sex and identity are not the same thing and require difference (census) questions. Biological sex is an important demographic variable needed to record and plan services and to understand different population trends.” What made you decide to publicly voice your opinion on this matter?

JMA: In the Scottish Parliament, I am convener (chair) of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee. The committee was tasked with scrutinising a piece of legislation on the the 2021 Census. During that process, it became clear that government departments and other public bodies were conflating sex and gender in their policy-making without any discussion, consultation or scrutiny.

The census legislation tried to change the definition of ‘sex’ in an amendment to the bill which the committee criticised and the government later dropped. The evidence gathering done by the committee allowed parliament to discuss the conflation of sex and gender for the first time and to take written and oral evidence from feminists such as a Professor Rosa Freedman and Professor Kathleen Stock, as well as from the grassroots organisation For Women Scotland which advocate for sex-based rights. We also took evidence from organisations supporting change, such as Scottish Transgender Alliance and data-using academics who use census information.

I was aware that across the United Kingdom, feminists were being shouted down and even assaulted when they tried to discuss their sex-based rights. Parliament is a safe place for them to do so. Nothing these feminists said was controversial. Biology is not bigotry.

RRS: Why go public on social media? Did you try approaching fellow legislators and policy makers to express your concerns? If so, what was their response?

JMA: I knew a number of fellow MSPs shared my views but there was no obvious opportunity to discuss them in parliament. The Committee’s report on the census had already achieved some publicity but this was confined to the narrow area of data gathering. Even so, I found myself already subject to some unpleasant social media attacks simply for doing my job in committee and allowing women to speak on the parliamentary record.

I felt that the interest here meant we should take the wider issue to the public on social media, where I already had a lot of followers. Social media also allowed me to control how my views were expressed. I was overwhelmed by the positive response to my thread, which later won Tweet of the Year in the 2019 Holyrood Magazine Political Awards.

RRS: Speaking of Holyrood, you’ve been instrumental in setting up the Women’s Pledge, which has been quite successful in galvanizing women. What is the purpose of the pledge and how did it come about?

JMA: The campaign for women’s sex-based rights needed to move beyond Twitter to organising within political parties, in order to influence members who perhaps do not use social media. Organising within parties is also a way to influence policy development. It shows you have both strength and numbers. It is important to come together within parties because it is easy to feel intimidated if you feel you are alone.

Those pushing for sex self-identification are already well organised inside political parties under the LGBT umbrella although, of course, there are many LGBT people who disagree with sex self-ID too.

RRS: As a parliamentarian, how would you describe the state of women’s rights in Scotland? Many in the Dominican Republic would think that as a Global North country, women’s right must be quite advanced over there.

JMA: The Scottish Government has introduced a number of policies to improve women’s lives, including an increase in the hours of free childcare, world-leading domestic violence legislation and a number of anti-poverty measures that benefit women. That being said, in terms of equality, women are paid on average 15% less than men. This gap is falling and there is a Scottish Government Action Plan to tackle it.

However, like everywhere else women still suffer as a result of male violence. In 2018/19, 2,293 rapes and 133 attempted rapes were reported to the police in Scotland. In that same period, 13,547 sexual offences were reported – this was an increase of 8%, from the 12,487 sexual offences recorded the previous year. While figures for many crimes in Scotland are going down, the opposite if happening with sexual offences which continue to rise. Sexual crimes have been on a long-term upward trend since 1974, and have increased each consecutive year since 2008-09. Sexual crimes are at the highest level seen since 1971, the first year for which comparable crime groups are available.

The census debate showed much policy making and delivery was becoming “gender neutral” or, more precisely, was ignoring sex as a protected characteristic. So, crime is now recorded according to the self-declared sex of the perpetrator. This means that some male crimes, even rape, will be recorded as being committed by females.

Across society, many institutions have destroyed women’s single-sex spaces, including hospital wards, refuges or female-only organisations by embracing sex self-ID. Against a background of rising sexual crimes, this clearly makes women more vulnerable.

RRS: But the irony seems to be that, worldwide, the task of dismantling women’s sex-based rights is executed by established feminist organisations who appear determined on imposing ‘gender identity’ policies. Why is it feminist organisations pushing for this issue?

JMA: This came as a surprise to me as well but it is true. At the start of the growth of women’s support organisations in the 1970s and 1980s, they were self-financed and lead and run by volunteer activists. Now these organisations depend on state funding which is often conditional on accepting gender identity beliefs.

Those leading them, tend to be professional campaigners who have third sector careers moving between different campaigns, governments and lobby groups. Some will have taken university “Gender Studies courses” which long ago replaced the nascent “Women’s Studies” courses and which are heavily influenced by Queer Theory, which of course centres male sexual rights…

RRS: Thank you for bringing up Queer Theory. We recently learned that the Scottish Census 2021 might feature a list of 21 sexualities to choose from, including ‘asexual’ and ‘skoliosexual’. You opposed this move and countered that some religious communities are upset they won’t get their own ethnic identity box on the census, yet the National Census has allowed for 21 ‘sexuality options’ arguing that this is what stakeholders wanted. How or why do you think the lobby groups for ‘gender identity’ have gained so much traction within state institutions?

JMA: I think many politicians realised they had been too slow to advance LGB Rights in the past and are now trying to compensate by failing to question demands for sex self-ID. For too long, people were discriminated against for being gay, only receiving protection in the Equality Act 2010. Equal Marriage was only passed in 2014 and until the turn of this century there was a ban on teaching about homosexuality in schools.

The equal rights movement campaigning to address these injustices was funded by progressive Labour and SNP governments in both Scotland and the UK. As homosexuality became visible and celebrated, these organisation received large amounts of private sponsorship too. This coincided with a trend for governments to fund third sector organisations to help develop and deliver policy for them. As a result of all this, when Equal Marriage passed, we had a number of very well-funded campaigning organisations looking for a new “cause”. They chose trans rights and pitched this as another injustice against LGBT people as a whole. They also used the language of discrimination to frame the debate as one about a “vulnerable marginalised group.” When, as many feminists pointed out, this is males who identify into a marginalised group (women) and then claim to be the most marginalised of all.

RRS: Have you suffered any professional or personal repercussions for your political opinions on this issue? Do you feel you have risked your career or reputation?

JMA: Yes. I always championed equality and opposed injustice in my career as a journalist and as a politician. As a teenager, I was an early supporter of gay rights when others did not speak up. Unfortunately, some have twisted even measured arguments about protecting women’s rights as “anti LGBT” even though a significant number of the trans-identified males they represent are heterosexual men who wish to present themselves using feminine stereotypes.

RRS: What would you like to say to our Dominican audience about sex-based rights, as opposed to women’s rights based on ‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’? What should our audience, including policy makers, know before jumping on board this ‘gender identity’ bandwagon?

JMA: Women are uniquely vulnerable because they can be raped, assaulted and impregnated by physically stronger men. They carry children and have caring responsibilities which affect their earning potential. This is all because of their sex, not because of how they identify. If being a woman was determined by feminine identifiers then being a woman would be about clothes, make up, personality traits and mannerisms. That reinforces sexist beliefs about women and is regressive and damaging. Therefore, gender identity theory is damaging to women and should not become law.

Because of women’s unique vulnerability, it is vital that they have single-sex spaces. Also, women need to feel confident to assert their boundaries and refuse to consent to men in their spaces. If women are told that someone who looks like a man but says he is a woman cannot be challenged in female private spaces, then those boundaries are meaningless. Women have a right to refuse men being allowed in their spaces, especially in intimate situations, such as the personal care of elderly, sick or disabled women.

Patriarchy means males and females are socialised differently and males often dominate and put their needs first. Preventing women from setting boundaries is a huge risk to them and it excuses rape culture. Women’s rights have been won by women self-organising and building confidence together. If women cannot define themselves, they cannot self-organise as a sex.

RRS: You probably knew beforehand how toxic the debate on sex and gender is. What compelled you to voice your opinion?

JMA: Truth is important. I will not be pressured into stating something that is not true. I feel very strongly that policy-making should be transparent, and the power structures that have influenced gender identity policies are opaque and unhealthy, which is exactly the type of thing I opposed as a campaigning journalist.

I am also angry that the opinions of so many respected women, Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Rosa Freedman, Beatrix Campbell, Martina Navratilova, Kelly Holmes and many more are simply brushed aside by the authorities in this debate. In Scotland, a number of leading female academics spoke out about the failure to collect sex data in the census and their expert opinions were completely ignored. I think this proves we still live in a deeply sexist society.

Thank you to Scottish Parlamentarian, Joan McAlpine, for her public policy insights. And thank you very much to every single woman who has contributed to these newspaper series. I am hopeful that these conversations will continue in the future.

Raquel Rosario Sánchez is a writer, campaigner and researcher from the Dominican Republic. She specialises in ending male violence against girls and women and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol.

The original, shorter version of this interview was published by Dominican newspaper El Caribe on December 16th, 2019. You can read it in Spanish here.

Read all the interviews in the El Caribe series on sex and gender identity within public policy here.



We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.