What Happens When Politicians Brush Off Hard Questions About Gender

Dismissing good-faith inquiries about a gender self-identification law drained Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon’s authority.

Nicola Sturgeon
Pool / Getty

What brought down Nicola Sturgeon? The resignation of Scotland’s first minister this morning wasn’t exactly a surprise. Her party’s poll ratings, as well as her own, have been dropping in recent months. The troublesome coziness of the pro-independence Scottish National Party—whose chief executive is her husband, Peter Murrell—was being openly questioned at last. During interviews, reporters had begun to savage Sturgeon with the kind of brutality that suggested she was politically doomed.

But I had expected that she would stay long enough to live down the failure of her Gender Recognition Reform Bill. This proposed law would have reduced the waiting period for adults to change their legal gender from two years to three months and removed the need for a medical diagnosis of dysphoria—meaning that gender would ultimately be a matter of self-identification.

The measure never took effect, but Sturgeon had argued for months that relaxing the existing standards would have no downside. And so she came under extreme pressure when, in January, the Scottish Prison Service sent a rapist to a women’s facility. Sturgeon overturned the agency’s decision, but not before many excruciating interviews where she seemed to imply there were three genders: man, woman, and sex offender. Isla Bryson “regards herself as a woman,” Sturgeon said last week, but “I regard the individual as a rapist.”

Sturgeon had been warned about such a possibility, but had blithely discounted it. Her stance on the issue was an echo of the worst parts of her independence messaging, which implied that politics under the SNP was somehow loftier, purer, and more principled than that practiced elsewhere. Nationalists often implied that those who criticized her record were “talking down Scotland,” while Sturgeon suggested that her opponents on gender were reactionaries and bigots. Political disagreements were recast as matters of patriotism or morality.

Although the Gender Recognition Reform Bill alone did not bring Sturgeon down—“that issue wasn’t the final straw,” she said at her press conference—the controversy is the most prominent and most concrete example of what did: Her political dominance in Scotland led her to disregard critics and ignore obvious problems until they escalated into scandals. “With no possibility of an alternative party reaching government, the SNP is deprived of the democratic check of strong opposition,” I wrote in The Atlantic in 2021. “Charities and lobbyists, dependent on the party and the government for funding and contracts, tell Sturgeon what she wants to hear—even if public opinion is not with her. Inside the SNP, none of her ministers has anything approaching her public profile.”

Sturgeon tiptoed around acknowledging this problem in her resignation speech in Edinburgh. “I’ve always been of the belief that no one individual should be dominant in one system for too long,” she said. “The longer any leader is in office, the more opinions about them become fixed and very hard to change, and that matters.” A new leader would be better able to “reach across the divide,” she argued, advancing the cause of Scottish independence.

Her resignation speech showed some of her best qualities: dignity, seriousness, conscientiousness, and her fierce defense of her beliefs. It also showed humility and self-deprecation. “I’m not expecting violins here,” she said, framing her resignation as “not a reaction to short-term pressures” but “a deeper and longer-term assessment.” The past few months, by contrast, have often shown Sturgeon’s worst qualities: blinkeredness, tribalism, and invocations of feminism to rebuff good-faith questions about her own judgment—most recently about her husband’s financial relationship with the party she leads. Brushing off such questions was bound to fail eventually.

Back in 2021, the fissures over Sturgeon’s embrace of transgender issues as the next great civil-rights cause were already apparent. She has always dismissed feminist concerns that predatory men who are not really trans will cynically exploit relaxed gender-recognition rules to gain access to women’s spaces. Last year, the novelist J. K. Rowling, a resident of Scotland, posed in a T-shirt calling the first minister a destroyer of women’s rights.

Reasonable people can disagree on how to deal with sports and single-sex spaces such as prisons, as well as the appropriate treatment of gender-nonconforming children. But what became clear during the passage of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill was that Sturgeon had adopted a bullheaded, crusading posture and was not interested in dissent or even scrutiny. People who disagreed with her were “deeply misogynist, often homophobic, possibly some of them racist as well,” she suggested in January, offering no evidence and giving no examples.

Throughout the drafting of the bill, Sturgeon ignored women’s groups that warned against eliminating the need for a gender-dysphoria diagnosis in order to legally change gender. She also ignored similar admonishments from the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, and the U.K.-wide Equality and Human Rights Commission. And she ignored opposition lawmakers who tried to amend the bill to remove the ability of those convicted of sex crimes to change their legal gender.

On December 22, the bill passed in the Scottish Parliament, with the support of the other left-wing parties, Labour and the Greens, before British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government blocked it. A slight on Scottish democracy, cried the Scottish National Party. These cries were quickly silenced late last month, when Bryson was convicted of rape against two women. When the crimes occurred, Bryson was using the name Adam Graham. After the verdict, Bryson was sent—on the basis of a female identity declared after charges were filed—to a segregated unit at a women’s prison to await sentencing.

This was exactly what Sturgeon’s opponents had warned about. Bryson’s mother and estranged wife both expressed doubts that the offender’s transgender identification was genuine. “Never once did he say anything to me about feeling he was in the wrong body or anything,” Shonna Graham, Bryson’s wife, told the Daily Mail. “I have a lot of sympathy for real transgender people, it’s a hard thing to live with, but he’s just bullsh*****g the authorities.” Bryson had also just been convicted of rape, the quintessential male crime against women’s bodily autonomy. How could the Scottish government believe that such a person belonged in a female jail? Sturgeon faced days of bruising press interviews and questions in Parliament.

Sturgeon has been in her post for a long eight years, outlasting four British prime ministers, all Conservatives: David Cameron, brought down by the Brexit referendum; Theresa May, felled by her failure to negotiate a satisfactory exit deal with the European Union; Boris Johnson, a victim of his own lies and rule-breaking; and the hopeless Liz Truss, outlived by a lettuce. Sturgeon had also weathered criminal allegations of sexual misconduct against her predecessor and mentor, Alex Salmond, and questions about how much this self-professed feminist knew about them. (He was cleared of all charges.) Then she boosted her popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, taking a more cautious approach than the British government led by Johnson. For all her day-to-day troubles, she could easily have led the party into the general election next year.

But the plain truth might be that Sturgeon was stuck. She wanted another independence referendum, but the request was denied by Westminster. She has proposed treating the next British election as a de facto referendum, but that would be only a symbolic gesture. Dented by the row over the Bryson case, she could not shake off questions about the Scottish National Party’s finances, including a fraud investigation, and the £107,620 loaned to it by Murrell in breach of reporting rules. “My husband is an individual and he will take decisions about what he does with resources that belong to him,” she argued earlier this month—a ludicrous argument from the leader of the party involved.

Sturgeon had also failed in her signature domestic promise, to close the educational-attainment gap between poor and well-off children. And her party, which once displayed near–North Korean levels of internal discipline, was showing signs of discord. One of the SNP’s rising stars, Ash Regan, resigned from government rather than vote for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. Another, the strongly Christian Kate Forbes, was on maternity leave when the law was passed in December, amid whispering that the bill had been fast-tracked to avoid her resignation on conscience grounds too.

Sturgeon’s departure will mark a generational shift in Scottish politics. No one else looms quite as large—not even Salmond, a diminished figure now leading a breakaway pro-independence party. She has articulated a vision of Scotland as a modern, progressive country with great social solidarity, contrasting it favorably with Conservative-voting England.

But her very success—she still has poll ratings that many leaders “would give their right arm for,” as she said today—became its own problem. Why didn’t she foresee a case like that of Isla Bryson? Why couldn’t Sturgeon see a problem with her husband entangling his own finances with those of the party she leads? Because she and Murrell have dominated Scottish politics for almost a decade, and no one is left to contradict them. Her successor will occupy a far less commanding position, and won’t be able to stifle debate as effectively on policy matters—which might be exactly what Scottish democracy needs.