Explained: How transgender rights was at the heart of Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon resignation


On 15 February, Nicola Sturgeon shocked United Kingdom politics when she announced that she was standing down as Scottish National Party leader and Scotland’s first minister after eight years. The 52-year-old leader said she knew “in my head and in my heart” this was the right time to step down.

The longest-serving first minister and the first woman said she would remain in office until her successor was elected.

While many dubbed Sturgeon’s move as shocking, it didn’t really come as a surprise. Her party’s poll ratings, as well as her own, had been dropping in recent months. Moreover, she faced pressure over her husband, Peter Murrell’s £107,000 (Rs 1.06 crore) loan to the party. To add to her long list of woes was her relaxed transgender laws — the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. The straw that, it seems, that broke the camel’s back was allowing a rapist to be sent to a female prison.

Sturgeon, however, alluding to these in her resignation said that her decision to quit was not a “reaction to short-term pressures”, adding that she had been “wrestling” with the decision for several weeks now, saying she had had to consider the “physical and mental impact” of leading the country after being in charge since 2014.

As Scotland now deliberates on their new leader, let’s take a closer look at how Sturgeon’s transgender policy was her final undoing.

What was the Gender Recognition Reform Bill?

In December last year, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill that would reform the system through which people could apply for their gender recognition certificate (GRC). This new bill lowered the age to apply for the same from 18 to 16.

It also eliminated the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria — the feeling of distress caused by a mismatch between assigned gender and gender identity — which can be costly and challenging to attain. Applicants above the age of 18 would also be allowed to be recognised in what Scotland calls their “acquired gender” after three months living in it; 16- and 17-year-olds would need to wait six months.

The bill also provided that people would send their applications to the Registrar General for Scotland instead of the UK panel.

This was a massive change from the previous system in which people had to provide two medical reports and live in their acquired gender for two years.

In passing the bill, the Scottish government led by Sturgeon had said that the old system adversely impacted people applying for gender recognition, adding that the process of getting the GRC can be “demeaning, intrusive, distressing and stressful”.

Supporters of the bill said it would be a simpler and fairer way for transgender men and women to be legally recognised as who they truly were. The Scottish government at the time said that the legislation empowered trans people, giving them more liberty to change their gender.

Several hailed the Nicola Sturgeon-led Scottish government for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill that made the process for transgender men and women to be legally recognised as who they truly were simpler. File image/AFP

What was the objection to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill?

While many hailed Sturgeon and her government for the reforms, it wasn’t received well by everyone.

Some argued that the simplification would fundamentally alter who can access women-only services and leave them vulnerable to abuse by predatory male offenders. They argued that the bill could jeopardise women and children’s safety as it would make it easier to men to access single-sex spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms. JK Rowling, the woman behind the Harry Potter series, was perhaps one of the most vocal critic of the bill, saying that the legislation would “in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.”

Even the Rishi Sunak government in Britain blocked the legislation, which it believed was not compatible with the existing Equalities Act. The UK government’s Scottish secretary Alister Jack invoked a section of the Scotland Act that allows London to veto Scottish legislation that impacts matters that are considered “reserved” for the UK Parliament.

What was the trans woman rapist row?

Even as Sturgeon fumed over Rishi Sunak’s government blocking the legislation, calling the move as “a full-frontal attack on our elected Scottish Parliament”, she faced a tough time at home over the Isla Bryson case.

But who is Isla Bryson and what was the matter? Isla Bryson, a trans woman formerly known as Adam Graham, was convicted in late January of raping two women in Scotland in 2016 and 2019 and was sent to Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling. Bryson’s incarceration at an all-women prison stirred outrage.

Many argued that Bryson only decided to declare their self as a trans woman after appearing in court on a rape charge. In fact, Bryson’s mother said she was disgusted by Isla’s behaviour and that she had given no indication of being transgender as a child. Speaking to The Mail, Janet Bryson had said, “I don't know why it took him until he was 29 to say he wanted to become a woman. But I understand why some people think it’s just a way of getting out of going to a male prison.”

Many slammed the Sturgeon government on the matter with Russell Findlay, a conservative member of Scottish Parliament, telling Yahoo News, “This rapist decided that he was no longer a man only after appearing in court on a rape charge.”

“We now have the utterly perverse situation where a Scottish court refers to someone who says he identifies as female using ‘her penis’ to rape two vulnerable women. We warned of the inevitability of this happening if the SNP’s gender self-ID law passed, but for it to have become reality is deeply worrying and an affront to the victims.”

Following the mass outrage, Bryson was removed from the woman’s prison. Sturgeon refused four times to say whether she thought Bryson was a woman, despite her previous stance on self-identification.


But, it seemed the damage was done and we probably saw the effect of it on Wednesday when Sturgeon decided to step down.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: How transgender rights was at the heart of Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon resignation
Explained: How transgender rights was at the heart of Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon resignation
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