Holyrood scrutiny of GRA reform bill condemned as a "sham"

16 June 2022, 18:26 | Updated: 17 June 2022, 11:47

Brian Whittle MSP, a former athlete, with Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies.
Brian Whittle MSP, a former athlete, with Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

A former Olympic athlete turned politician has slammed Holyrood's equalities committee, describing its scrutiny of a bill to reform the Gender Recognition Act as a "sham" after it refused to hear from female athletes concened about the impact of legislation on women's sport.

Brian Whittle, a gold medallist in the 4x400m relay at the 1986 and 1994 European championships, and a competitor at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, said the committee was only inviting people "who give the answers they want to hear".

He was speaking after a press conference held by Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies and marathon runner Mara Yamauchi. The pair hosted the conference along with Fair Play for Women and For Women Scotland, in an Edinburgh hotel after their requests to address the equalities committee directly were turned down.

The committee has had one session on the impact on sport of reform of the GRA - which would allow people to self-identify their gender rather than need a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria in order to obtain an official Gender Recognition Certificate, which replaces their original birth certificate.

Despite the contested nature of the bill, committee members have said they are satisfied with the evidence of two men, Malcolm Dingwall-Smith, Strategic Partnerships Manager at sportscotland, and Hugh Torrence, executive director of LEAP Sports Scotland, both of whom told the committee reforming the GRA does not impact significantly on sport.

After hearing from Ms Davies and Ms Yamauchi, Mr Whittle said: "I decided to to try and stay in the background on this, to trust the parliamentary procedure would at least explore this issue in depth.

"I was even unaware sport was being discussed on that day - of all the people in Parliament I wasn't asked to speak, I had put Sharron forward as the obvious person to speak in this and she wasn't asked.

"What the committee have done quite frankly, is I think they are inviting the people along that will give them the answers that they want. They seem to be frightened to tackle this this issue, and it has to be tackled."

He added: "I think it's an absolute sham. It's an absolute disgrace. I don't want to be able to say that because, you know, I really believe in the committee system in Parliament, but in this particular instance, I think we have completely dodged reality here.

"We have people in here who actually have lived it and understand the implications of, not the bill itself, but the unintended consequences of the bill, that are remaining unaddressed.

"I want everybody to participate in sport, everybody to have the opportunity to participate in sport. It's just the way in which the committee are dealing with this quite frankly, is sweeping it under the carpet. They are not and do not seem to be prepared to deal with this issue. The vast majority of people actually recognise this as an issue here and w e need to deal with it."

Mr Whittle said there were over a million women and girls participating in sport in Scotland and all could potentially be affected if males were allowed to self-identify into female sports categories.

'Trans people go through a hellish process, and I do believe people should live their lives, but this is just fundamentally unfair," he said.

"You do not create equality for one group of society by creating inequality for another group of society, and that somehow is being lost in this whole debate. And it seems to me that that it very loud minority is trying to steamroll across the whole of women's sport."

Sharron Davies, who lost out on gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics to East German swimmer Petra Schneider who was later found to be doping with testosterone, said it was " a real shame" not to be invited to the parliamentary committee and it was important in sport for MSPs to put "facts before feelings".

"Female athletes have not been given any opportunity to have a voice whatsoever [with the committee] and the fact the people they did hear from knew very little it's a real shame - a real shame they're not asking coaches, and not asking the general public either, because in my experience they are for fair sport as well

"The whole thing baffles me that we can't have open and respectful debate - we must be listening to the science and facts and in sport which is so relative to a biological reality we have to put facts in front of feelings. You can't feel your way into the under 15s or feel your way into the bantum-weight if you're a heavy-weight boxer, we have to have a set of guidelines, Sport is by definition is exclusionary so we have fair sport across society and if we didn't have that young, fit males would win everything."

She added: "I get asked if there's a simple answer - there's not really, but in a nutshell, ring-fence the biological female category and create an open inclusive category would be a way to do it. We know from college championships in the US and the Olympics last year that trangender women - biological males - don't race in male races they race in the women's so this is about more inclusion - inclusion in the male races.

"Sport is a physical thing and once you've been through male puberty there's a huge advantage between 10-30 per cent at Olympic level. Medals are won by hunrdedths of a second at elite level and you're talking about giving away 10-15 per cent that doesn't even put you in the same length of the pool."

Mara Yamauchi, who won bronze in the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in the 10,000m at the age of 33 and was sixth at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, said the pair had also met with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

She said: "My question to Scottish parliamentarians is this - there will be talented, hard working Scottish girls out there who could become the sports stars of the future and win medals for Scotland, are you happy for them to quit because they have no chance against male-bodied people?

"Insert a clause into your bill that says unequivocally that women's sport is for those born female only regardless of what a GRC says and this provides for everyone, not just males, that magic word inclusion. And two, put your money, time and efforts into serious work to get males in sport to be inclusive and welcoming to their gender non-conforming peers.

"If males everywhere at all levels, in all sports, would welcome and include their gender non-confomring male peers without question then females could also enjoy fairness and inclusion without being told to budge up and give up your medals, trophies and places on teams because males are more important."

A request for a response from the parliament committee to the comments of Brian Whittle and the women athletes was met with a copy of the letter written to Sharron Davies.

In it, Joe FitzPatick MSP, chair of the committee, said witnesses had been selected in early May and approved by the whole committee.

He wrote: "The Bill has a number of aspects on which the Committee must focus its scrutiny and you will appreciate that sport is just one of those aspects.

"For the evidence session you refer to, which took place on Tuesday 24 May, the Committee agreed to invite sportscotland, Scotland’s national sports agency and LEAP Sports who are a leading LGBTI charity in sports.

"You will be aware that Section 195 of the Equality Act 2010 makes provision for sporting bodies to restrict access to sporting competition for trans people. The scope of the GRR Bill does not affect the provisions under section 195 of the Equality Act.

He added: "I acknowledge the complexity of this important issue and that balancing rights for elite athletes and trans communities is one which may require further scrutiny.

"However, this matter is one that goes far beyond the Committee’s scrutiny of the specific provisions of the GRR Bill.

Accordingly, and following consideration of this issue at the Committee’s meeting last week, it made a collective decision not to hold a further evidence session with elite female athletes.

"I know you will be disappointed that the Committee does not intend to explore this issue further as part of its Stage 1 scrutiny of the GRR Bill. However, your concerns are noted and trans inclusion in sport in a broader sense may be a topic that the Committee may wish to consider further in a future inquiry."

In response Sharron Davies urged MSPs to 'talk to athletes, female ones, talk to coaches, sports clubs, the general public - widen the breadth of who you're speaking to and then decide that half the people voting for you are female and they deserve fair opportunities.

'We need good guidance from government and governing bodies to protect and ringfence the female category because if we don't have the grassroots where do our elite young female athletes come from?"

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