Women survivors of male violence brand MSPs refusal to hear them a 'kick in the teeth'

28 October 2022, 17:07 | Updated: 28 October 2022, 20:16

A message at a women's rally objecting to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill outside the Scottish Parliament.
A message at a women's rally objecting to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill outside the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Three women who were refused the chance to give personal evidence about their experience of male violence directly to MSPs scrutinising the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill, have told LBC they feel they have been “kicked in the teeth”.

A total of five women offered to speak in a private session to the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities Committee after hearing concerns about protecting women’s single sex spaces, such as rape crisis centres and domestic violence refuges, dismissed by other people invited to give evidence about the government’s planned reforms.

However their request was rejected by the committee, with the convenor, SNP MSP Joe FitzPatrick, telling them they had no time to see them and to put their objections in writing.

The committee had held other private sessions including with transgender people, and parents of transgender children.

The women say the rejection - which came almost seven weeks after they made their request - made them feel “disbelieved” by the MSPs.

Nicola Sturgeon’s government wants to change the application process for a Gender Recognition Certificate, which replaces a transgender person’s birth certificate, legally altering their birth sex.

The proposals include removing the required medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and introducing a self-identification process, reducing the need to “live in the acquired gender” from two years to three months, and lowering the age at which a person can apply for a GRC to 16. The government says the changes will have no impact on women's rights or protections under the Equality Act.

Yesterday the Bill passed Stage 1 of the parliamentary process by 88 votes to 33, but nine SNP MSPs rebelled voting against the law or abstaining, with minister Ash Regan resigning from the government "as a matter of conscience".

Critics have argued that the changes to bring in self-identification of gender in law could impact on women’s rights and make it easier for sexual predators to abuse others by pretending to be transgender in order to access women’s single sex spaces which are protected in the Equality Act.

Concerns have also been raised that some organisations have already gone ahead of the law and introduced self-ID in their services, which has changed formerly female-only spaces into mixed sex spaces.

The women - who have spoken to LBC and whose names we’ve changed - had wanted to tell MSPs how that had affected them and made them feel unable to access the help they need.

Asked how she felt after being told the committee would not see her, Joanne said: “It's quite devastating. When you're kind of knocked back like that, particularly from a committee that's hinging a lot on feedback, on lived experience.

“Yes it would be really hard to change their mind, they seem very set on a course. But the rejection of us to go and speak to them is a little bit like being told we're being disbelieved again. And that's a real worry for abuse survivors that they will be disbelieved. So it's really a kick in the teeth to see that either they don't value our input or that our input is not necessary.

“To have been rejected seems like they don't believe that what happened to me happened.”

Joanne had previously been in an abusive relationship, where her partner persuaded her she was “severely mentally unwell” using gaslighting techniques.

“I wasn’t unwell, but for someone in my position, reality is really quite important and for official women's organisations to say there's no difference between men and women is a form of gaslighting to me,” she said.

She added: “I found it very difficult even dealing with male members of my family who were trying to help after what happened to me. When I heard a male voice, particularly very early on, it took me back to when I was being screamed at.

“As someone who's been abused, you're very anxious and it doesn’t take very much to make you much more anxious. It's the uncertainty.. when you hear a male voice. Is that male coming in to speak to me? Is he going to tell me the same things that my ex partner told me? That I'm no good?

“I needed women, female family members to support me and it's extraordinary that this is being ignored. Self-ID is putting the onus on women who are abused to make a request of services that they are single sex. And when you are leaving an abusive relationship and you're seeking help, you're not really in a position to make a request.

“You don't actually even know exactly what you need. But we know from a lot of studies that most women would prefer female only support. So the fact that now women have to phone up and ask for female only care, given this whole debate, women worry they might be considered transphobic and that really will put women off because you already think that you're a terrible person, you already think that you've brought this upon yourself, to then have to even consider that that someone might cast aspersions or may judge you for your request will just make you worse.”

Lucy fled her violent marriage after five years when she was in her 20s, with “just the clothes on my back and my baby”.

Now in her 40s she had wanted to address MSPs she said because “they had taken everybody else's point of view except women who had been victims of male violence.”

She added: “They seem to disregard the fact that women are usually the victims of male violence… and this whole idea that men are not going to take advantage of this self-ID to hurt and abuse women is nonsense.

“They don't know which men will take any loophole at all to be able to get into women's spaces and cause them either emotional distress, gaslight them or cause physical harm. I am angry that we as a whole sex class had been kind of ignored and because I have been the victim of male abuse in the past, why are we not allowed to say what will happen and how that makes women like me feel?

“To say that men abuse women anyway so what difference does it make makes me furious. What we do at the moment is we do our best to protect women and children, vulnerable people from male violence and still men are violent so how is the solution to open the doors and say, actually, you know what, just come in!”

Lucy said she has now stopped using changing rooms in shops and public toilets and the self-ID model has left her feeling she can’t trust anyone.

“My first marriage was to a very violent man. I finally got the strength to leave him and since then, I have met somebody else and remarried but it's really, really tough. It takes your confidence away, years of gaslighting and physical violence and you feel as though you're the daft one, the one who can't get it right, the one who can't get meals cooked on time, all that kind of stuff.

“There are things that take me right back... if there’s a raised male voice… I'm not frightened anymore but it makes me feel uneasy, makes me feel slightly panicked. So opening women's areas to men… it is minimising women's lives. It just makes them smaller and smaller.

“This whole thing has made me anxious, but it's made me angry more than that. It's just made me absolutely bloody furious. At the moment we don’t have self-ID in law in Scotland right now so we can say actually, I think you're in the wrong place and we’re in the legal right - this Bill will change all that, not just because more people have GRC's but because self-ID will mean they can't be challenged.”

She added: “I don't want to be in a Scotland where the people last on the list of safety are women and children. There's no understanding of the profundity of domestic abuse and violence. I've found my voice - I'm not going to shut up very soon. But still, there are things that take me right back. And it could just be something I catch, like on the TV or a smell or anything. And as soon as that happens, I am right back being a terrified girl in my early 20s You know, it doesn't leave you.”

Anne, a survivor of rape, wanted to speak to MSPs because “they're making it really clear that they're not looking at this from all angles and they have to look at how it impacts on everybody, look at all the protected characteristics. They're just not listening.”

She says she has been appalled at “some of the things” MSPs have said on social media around this reform, and a previous Bill on forensic services, when victims of rape demanded the law should state they can ask for medical professionals of the same sex, and not gender.

“What they were actually saying about us, women who are raped, the dialogue was atrocious, and now there's been a suggestion that survivors of rape and domestic abuse and other forms of violence are being used in a way to get at trans people and that’s not the case.

“I speak up voluntarily. I use my own voice and I find it quite empowering and healing. And because I don't have anywhere else to go to heal, because the services that were put in place for women like myself, by women, have been compromised.

“I definitely do have a need for single sex spaces. Trauma responses are really difficult to explain. I didn't ask for them. I have them. I have had to find ways to manage them so that I can function but they are never ever going to go away. And I understand that it's on me to manage my responses. I can't expect to be able to bend the world around me. But I already have rights in law in place that are there to protect me. And I should be able to access those places without people accusing me of being a bigot or accusing me of being used.”

She added: “I didn't realise I’d have a problem discussing things like this around men and males until it happened to me. The first time I spoke to the police, there was a male and a female officer and they phoned me in advance to say there was no longer going to be two female officers and did I mind if a male officer came? And my response was, that's fine. He's a professional. I am sure that’ll be fine. And he came along and I learned very quickly that wasn't fine because I could feel myself clamming up and withheld information and I stopped short of making a statement because I couldn't speak freely. Women need to be around women to heal.

“I can walk into a room and haven't even looked at everyone individually, but I'll know there's a man and I'll always know where the man is. Certain things will heighten my anxiety, but I've got quite good coping mechanisms, but that wasn't always the case.”

She said she was disappointed but not surprised at the committee’s response. “I would not have stopped them from talking to the 17 trans identified individuals that they spoke to - it’s important that their voices are heard. My voice should have been heard too. I keep hearing that everybody's identity should be respected. I didn't choose this identity. And I certainly didn't choose to be one of these women. But here I am. My identity is not being respected.”

Convener of the equalities committee Joe FitzPatrick refused to speak with LBC about the decision not to meet the women.

In writing to them - seven weeks after they offered to meet - he said the committee had concluded its evidence-taking and as the Parliament was in recess a meeting could not be arranged.

He added: “The Committee would, however, be keen to receive any views in writing from women with direct experience of VAWG issues and who have concerns about the Bill. These could come in the form of anonymised submissions if that was more appropriate. These would be circulated to all members and, subject to our usual guidance on GDPR and defamation, published by the Committee. We would then be able to consider the views received along with all the other written and oral evidence sent to us.”

LBC has also been told the committee were concerned about safeguarding and there was not time for vulnerable witnesses to be catered for ahead of the summer recess.