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Queen of the Gender Crits

J.K. Rowling’s scathingly effective takedown of Scotland’s Hate Crime and Public Order Act has been a wonder to behold.

· 16 min read
Billboard with the text "I HEART JK ROWLING"
Photo by Amy Eileen Hamm.

In 1947, an English author who had made Scotland his home published a comic novel set in the Hebrides during the Second World War. Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore told the story of a wily group of villagers who outwitted the authorities to steal a consignment of whisky from a sinking ship, in defiance of wartime rationing. Mackenzie’s novel depended on Scottish stereotypes, pitting the dram-loving islanders against the stuffy English captain of the Home Guard, but it would become one of Ealing Studios’ most popular films a couple of years later. Mackenzie embraced his adopted Scottish identity, becoming an ardent nationalist, but three-quarters of a century later the country still hasn’t achieved his dream of independence from the UK. 

That’s in spite of having had a nationalist government since 2007, on its own or in coalition with a bunch of rather fanatical Greens. The ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) lost a crucial referendum in 2014, failing to persuade enough Scots to vote in favour of independence, and it has seemed rudderless ever since. Much of what has happened in Scotland in the last decade can be traced back to that crushing disappointment, as the SNP struggled to establish its purpose and identity. In an irony that’s hard to miss, a party built on the supposedly indelible differences between the English and Scottish has sought to solve its problem by embracing a faddish ideology, transgenderism, which proposes that anyone can be whatever they like. And that includes an apparently unshakable conviction that men can become women and vice versa.

Indeed identity politics has become as central to the SNP’s creed, if not more so, than taking Scotland out of the UK. In a reversal of Whisky Galore-type stereotypes, in fact, the Scots have now taken on the role of witch-finders, sniffing out heretical thoughts under the cover of a supposedly liberal ideology. A vast amount of parliamentary time has been wasted on bad and unnecessary legislation advocated by trans activists, including a bill to remove all safeguards from the process that allows people to change their legal gender. The UK government salvaged the day by blocking the reckless Gender Recognition Reform Act last year, but the SNP had another trick up its sleeve.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into effect on April 1—April Fools’ day, as critics were quick to point out. It’s been on the statute books since 2021, but implementation was delayed because no one could say with any certainty what it actually criminalised.

Officially described as an act “to make provision about the aggravation of offences by prejudice; to make provision about an offence of racially aggravated harassment; to make provision about offences relating to stirring up hatred against a group of persons” and various other “connected purposes,” the law extends existing protections against racial hatred to cover age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics. Women are not explicitly protected. And so the female half of the population will have to wait for a separate piece of legislation that addresses misogyny at an unspecified time in the future.

At a moment when trans activists physically disrupt feminist events, and scour social media for posts they can present as transphobic, the scope for trivial and malicious complaints is endless. Opponents of the legislation warned that the Act would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, not least because a new offence of “stirring up hatred” has no clear definition, yet attracts a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The Act has been denounced as a “clype’s charter” (clype being a Scots word meaning a sneak); and that is exactly what it has proved to be, prompting around 8,000 complaints to the police in the first week following the Act’s implementation. 

A new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ has no clear definition, yet attracts a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

In a development that surprised no one, the Scottish First Minister, Humza Yousaf, who steered the bill through Parliament when he was Justice Secretary, has been accused of watering down protections for “gender-critical” women (which is to say, those who believe in a biologically-based definition of womanhood) to avoid upsetting trans activists. Susan Smith, director of the feminist organisation For Women Scotland, claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that Yousaf and his fellow SNP politicians broke a promise that she and a colleague would be involved in drawing up training materials because he thought “it would upset the trans lobby if those examples were given in the guidance to the police.” And, as everyone predicted, one of the first targets when the legislation came into operation was another English novelist who has made Scotland her home.

J.K. Rowling has lived in Edinburgh since 1993, before she published her first Harry Potter novel. Her increasingly stellar fame was initially seen as an ornament to the city and she became one of Scotland’s foremost philanthropists, setting up a charity in 2006 that supports children in orphanages in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America. More recently, after Edinburgh’s rape crisis centre appointed a trans-identified male as its CEO, Rowling set up and funded Beira’s Place, a women-only service for victims of sexual violence. In any sane world, such generous acts would have won plaudits from government ministers. Not in Scotland, however, where the SNP is convinced that even the mildest resistance to the intemperate demands of gender warriors is tantamount to heresy.

JK Rowling launches support centre for female victims of sexual violence
Beira’s Place will add to Edinburgh’s existing rape crisis centre, which is run by a trans woman

Even before the debacle that the Hate Crime legislation unleashed, the SNP’s hostility to “gender crits” was a thing to behold. Its former deputy leader at Westminster, Kirsty Blackman, has refused to meet the LGB Alliance, which campaigns for gay men and lesbians (but not those who describe themselves as trans), on the spurious grounds that it is a “hate group.” Yousaf’s predecessor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, accused opponents of her doomed gender reform bill of using women’s rights as a “cloak” for transphobia, describing them as “deeply misogynist, often homophobic, possibly…racist as well.” Rowling, who opposed the Scottish government’s policy of housing trans-identified sex offenders in women’s prisons, was clearly one of Sturgeon’s targets. Within weeks of that prison controversy, Sturgeon was gone, and you might imagine that Yousaf would have been wary of getting into a war of words with the novelist.

Not at all. And yet, as the Hate Crime Act came into force and reports to Police Scotland soared, the First Minister became tetchy. He said he was “very, very concerned” about the high volume of “vexatious” complaints, and pleaded with people to stop wasting police time. It was quite an admission, given that he’d repeatedly said that the Act wouldn’t be misused to stifle free speech.

But Yousaf knew exactly who to blame—and it wasn’t himself. He rounded on Rowling, claiming that her posts about the Act on X (formerly Twitter) were “offensive, upsetting and insulting to trans people.” His ill-tempered response was prompted by the fact that the novelist’s intervention (which we shall hear more about in a moment) was a body blow to his Act. “Most of Scotland is upset and offended by Yousaf’s bumbling incompetence and illiberal authoritarianism, but we aren’t lobbying to have him locked up for it,” Rowling snapped back. It was, as the historian Tom Holland observed, “like watching John Knox get repeatedly bested by Mary, Queen of Scots.”

It’s an apt analogy. Mary (1542–85), who was Catholic, clashed with the dour Protestant theologian over his view that women were not qualified to rule. Knox’s infamous 1558 polemic against female authority introduced the phrase “monstrous regiment of women” into political discourse, since which it has been repeated many times, both with and without irony. These days, the “monstrous regiment” is composed of feminists who reject the dogma that trans women are women, which has attained the status of holy writ in faux-liberal circles. One of its principal features is a bias against science, which was vividly illustrated in a speech by the aforementioned Blackman during a debate at Westminster. “I have no idea what my chromosomes are,” Blackman told her bemused fellow MPs. “I assume that they are probably XY, but I do not know.”

(All women, including Blackman, have XX chromosomes, and we will just have to wait until she is tested to find out whether she is that medical miracle, a human with XY chromosomes who has given birth to two children.)

The views of activists such as Blackman are risible, which is a problem for true believers in gender ideology. Because their claims don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny, these activists initially tried to prevent debate, before pivoting to a position that presented any from of disagreement as de facto hate speech. And in the run-up to April 1, many Scottish trans activists persuaded themselves that legal action against Rowling for her “misgendering”—refusing to use someone’s “preferred pronouns”—would be a slam dunk. In fact, a former prosecutor offered her “advice” in a series of patronising posts on X, warning Rowling to delete everything she’d written about trans people while there was still time. (One of the few things we know about the new law is that it isn’t retrospective.)

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, the SNP’s Minister for Victims and Community Safety, Siobhian Brown, began by insisting that “misgendering” would not be criminalised by the Act. Moments later, under forensic questioning from presenter Justin Webb, she changed her mind: “It could be reported and it could be investigated—whether or not the police would think it was criminal is up to Police Scotland.” 

JK Rowling could be probed by police for misgendering trans people, minister says
Harry Potter author has been fiercely critical of new hate crime law

What no one knew at this point was that Rowling was about to spring a trap that would test the law and humiliate the hapless Yousaf. That very morning, the novelist deliberately “misgendered” ten self-described trans women—trans-identified men, in other words—in a series of posts on X. “Lovely Scottish lass and convicted double rapist Isla Bryson found her true authentic female self shortly before she was due to be sentenced,” she wrote in one, next to a photo of the shaven-headed sex offender. “Misgendering is hate, so respect Isla’s pronouns, please.”

Another of her posts referred to “Samantha Norris [who] was cleared of exposing her penis to two 11-year-old girls. Hooray! Unfortunately she was then convicted for possession of 16,000 images of children being raped and sexually assaulted. Be that as it may, Sam’s still a lady to me!”

In a final post, Rowling issued a direct challenge to the police. “April Fools!” she declared. “Only kidding. Obviously, the people mentioned in the above tweets aren’t women at all, but men, every last one of them.” She went on to accuse Scottish lawmakers of placing a “higher value on the feelings of men performing their idea of femaleness, however misogynistically or opportunistically, than on the rights and freedoms of actual women and girls.”

There was a collective intake of breath as news of Rowling’s intervention spread. Would she be visited, perhaps even arrested, by Police Scotland? With a PR disaster looming, senior officers acted with unusual speed, announcing that Rowling’s posts did not meet the criminal threshold.

JK Rowling Is Right—Sex Is Real and It Is Not a “Spectrum”
Biological sex in humans is a binary system.

But the novelist wasn’t finished. Recognising a risk that complaints against less famous women would be handled differently, Rowling announced on X that she expected everyone to be treated equally under the law. “If they go after any woman for simply calling a man a man, I’ll repeat that woman’s words and they can charge us both at once,” she declared. Feminists hailed the novelist as a heroine, understanding that she had thrown the protection provided by her wealth and status over thousands of other women.

What happened next was unexpected and hilarious in equal measure: it was reported that complaints against Rowling were outnumbered by reports targeting the First Minister.

What happened next was unexpected and hilarious in equal measure: it was reported that complaints against Rowling were outnumbered by reports targeting the First Minister, citing a speech he made about race in 2020. There was a strong “those who live by the sword” vibe to this development, but officials at Police Scotland gritted their teeth and said they had dismissed complaints against Yousaf at the time. In the conflict between the novelist and the First Minister, it was game, set, and match to Rowling.

One of the mysteries about the Scottish hate crime law is why it is needed at all. Rudeness to strangers is an unappealing feature of social media, but threats of rape and murder can be dealt with under existing legislation. There is clearly a problem with people who fail to regulate their emotions on platforms such as X, but neither the police nor the courts have expertise in mental health or counselling.

Yousaf has repeatedly claimed that there is a “rising tide of hatred” in Scotland, but official figures tell a different story. The total number of charges with a hate-crime element was 5,738 in 2022–23, which is a small reduction (2%) on the previous twelve months. One figure is particularly striking in view of ministers’ insistence that trans people are in urgent need of protection, and that is the fact that recorded hate crimes against this demographic showed a substantial reduction in 2022–23 (55 compared with 86 in the previous twelve months).

Of course we don’t know how many are not reported, but we also don’t know whether such “crimes” are really motivated by hate. Police Scotland’s website defines a hate crime as “any crime which is understood by the victim or any other person as being motivated (wholly or partly) by malice or ill will towards a social group.” It’s an entirely subjective judgment, which might lead someone who’s easily offended to mistake abruptness or disagreement for hate. One of Scotland’s foremost legal scholars, Michael Foran, thinks the public information campaign around the new Act has actively encouraged the confusion, as it focuses almost exclusively on “hurt feelings.” And that was always going to lead to uncertainty and discrepancies in the application of the law.

The inconsistent approach of Police Scotland toward recording “non-crime hate incidents” (NCHIs) is a perfect example. Few people knew such things even existed until recently, when it became clear that NCHIs are a sneaky way of putting a marker on someone’s record when their behaviour doesn’t meet the threshold of a criminal offence. An NCHI isn’t usually disclosed to the individual concerned unless they’re savvy enough to make a formal request, but it may be revealed to a potential employer or a charity where someone wants to volunteer.

Most of us wouldn’t regard mocking someone’s “non-binary” identity as deserving of a “hate incident” marker, but that’s what happened to a Conservative MSP, Murdo Fraser, after he shared a post on X ridiculing the Scottish government’s “non-binary action plan.” Every “community” has to have its own action plan these days, leading to a proliferation of oppressed groups with confusingly similar titles. “Choosing to identify as ‘non-binary’ is as valid as choosing to identify as a cat,” Fraser wrote. “I’m not sure Governments should be spending time on action plans for either.” 

He was aghast when he discovered that Police Scotland had logged an NCHI on his record for this joke, but hadn’t done the same in relation to the complaints against Rowling and Yousaf. He accused the force of “double standards” while SNP MP Joanna Cherry, a rare sensible voice within the party, suggested that senior officers were revising policy “on the hoof” to avoid the embarrassment of recording an NCHI against an internationally famous author. (This sequence of events became even more absurd when the force suddenly changed its tune, telling Fraser his personal details hadn’t been logged in relation to an NCHI after all.)

Supporters of the new legislation say that the bar for prosecution is set so high that there will be very few convictions. It’s the process of investigation that worries critics, however, as Police Scotland say they will investigate every single complaint. Most will be dismissed pretty quickly, but some individuals may be subjected to months of inquiries, during which they’ll be instructed to hand over computers and mobile phones.

Meanwhile, police time that could be spent on investigating crimes such as sexual and domestic violence risks being diverted to what are essentially frivolous accusations against neighbours or public figures. Eighty per cent of burglaries in Edinburgh remain unsolved and reported rapes reached a new high in Scotland in 2022–23, but officers will be facing an additional workload of hundreds of thousands of reports of “hate crimes” over the next twelve months. Senior officers have warned that some crimes simply won’t be investigated because of the demands placed on the force, while the overtime bill in police control rooms is rising fast.

Officers have been given a two-hour online briefing on the Act, and some hadn’t even received that by April 1. Critics were assured that a conviction requires evidence of intention, yet a widely-mocked publicity campaign by Police Scotland suggested the opposite. Published on the force’s YouTube channel, it featured a fuzzy red figure rejoicing in the sinister moniker of the “Hate Monster,” apparently as a visual representation of “that feeling some people get when they are frustrated and angry and take it out on others.” Next thing you know, it went on, “ye’ve committed a hate crime.”

The campaign suggested that young men aged 18–30 from deprived backgrounds were particularly susceptible to being invaded by the “Hate Monster”—a generalization that, itself, sounds suspiciously like a “hate crime” based on age and social class. It left messaging about the Act in tatters: most people tend to know whether or not they’ve committed a crime, but if Police Scotland and government ministers can’t agree whether someone might do it by accident, how are members of the public supposed to know?

The new Act is, in effect, a blasphemy law in which police officers, rather than priests, are the arbiters. A couple of days after the new law became operational, the SNP’s Minister for Victims and Community Safety—the aforementioned Siobhian Brown—was doing the rounds again, this time condemning hate-crime “hysteria,” as complaints poured in at an average rate of more than one per minute.

People who don’t want to speak to an officer can file a hate report via a long list of ‘third party reporting centres,’ one of which turned out to be a sex shop in Glasgow called Luke & Jack.

And not just to the police, either. In a twist that nobody saw coming, people who don’t want to speak to an officer can file a report via a long list of “third party reporting centres,” one of which turns out to be a sex shop in Glasgow (“All your sexy sundries. From simple things like condoms and lubricant to the more adventurous accessories, Luke & Jack have you covered.”) Another is a salmon and trout farm (“Located in the picturesque Borders of Scotland, Farne Salmon & Trout source and supply the finest smoked salmon available.”) Would you like a couple of slices of oak-smoked salmon as you try to get your neighbour arrested?

No one ever asked the Scottish public whether they want police officers to prioritise people with hurt feelings over victims of actual crimes. They don’t, as it turns out; the first opinion poll published since the Act came into force showed that it was supported by only 21% of Scots, while more than twice that number are already calling for its repeal.

Swallowing nonsensical claims about the unique oppression of trans people may have produced a warm feeling of righteousness in Scotland’s political parties, all of which—with the honourable exception of the Tories—toed the line and supported a blatant assault on free speech. But they’ve ended up with a law that very few people like and nobody understands. Ministers have been reduced to making the feeble defence that the legislation isn’t as bad as its opponents suggest while one of the few clear outcomes, ironically, is that people in Scotland can now call a man a man without fear of prosecution.

That’s thanks to Rowling, whom everyone agrees has played a blinder. It’s not so much an Ealing comedy as a farce in which a group of zealots tried to control an entire nation’s speech, only to be outwitted by a woman who knows how to use words to devastating effect.

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