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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 04 March 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, United Kingdom Government’s Approach to Negotiations with the European Union, Scottish Rate Resolution, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Early Years Education, Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2020


Point of Order

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I raise a point of order under standing orders rule 7.3.1, which says:

“Members shall ... conduct themselves in a courteous and respectful manner”.

That carries through to the guidance for section 7 of the code of conduct, which says:

“Members shall ... ensure that their choice of language in the Chamber is appropriate and meets the high standards expected by the general public.”

As I understand it, that particularly applies to terms that people find offensive.

I checked the Official Report today, in case I had misheard, and I am clear that, in his speech yesterday during the annual international women’s day debate, Patrick Harvie used the term “cisgendered”. “Cis” is an offensive term for many women, myself included. Indeed, I have already respectfully and privately asked a male MSP not to use the term in the chamber, because I find it offensive. It is limiting, confusing and divisive. It is imposed on women, many of whom find it inappropriate and inaccurate, because they do not want to adopt socially determined ideas of masculinity and femininity, and they believe that sex is observed at birth and is not assigned.

In its paper to the Scottish Affairs Committee, Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, the well-respected policy analysis collective, said:

“The term is highly contested and rejected by those who critique the underpinning assumption of innate gender identity.”

The term imposes an identity, regardless of the true lived experience of sex. It rejects the right of women to determine their own identity, and it implies that, since they are “cis”, they are somehow entitled or privileged. It minimises, and even erases, the oppression that women face from birth.

Language in the chamber is important, and we must be clear that, for many women, “cis” is an offensive term that has become weaponised, and that imposing it invalidates the rights of women to identify as women. Patrick Harvie referred to choice in his speech but, ironically, he is choosing terminology about women that many women find completely offensive, disturbing and upsetting. It is a particular affront that a man chose to do that while making a speech during the annual international women’s day debate, which, generally, is consensual and is a chance for women MSPs to contribute as sisters, across party divides. We do not usually have to contest provocative language that is used by men during an international women’s day debate, but perhaps Mr Harvie is not aware that that term is offensive to many women.

Given that sex is a protected characteristic and that there are women in the chamber and among the general public who find the term “cis” deeply offensive, I ask you to ensure that it is not used again in the chamber or in any parliamentary proceedings.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I thank Elaine Smith for giving me advance notice of her point of order—at least, I was given notice of it just before I took the chair.

First, the respect that members are supposed to show one another in the chamber is a matter of order for the chair to rule on. I have had a chance to review the contribution that Mr Harvie made yesterday, and it is clear to me that the term was not used in an inappropriate way. It was not an insult—quite the reverse: it was used in a very thoughtful contribution about intersectionality in what was a consensual debate.

The term itself is not a banned one in the Parliament. However, I recognise that this is a very polarised debate. I also recognise the point that the member made about the fact that language is particularly sensitive in this debate. Therefore, I take this opportunity to say to members on both sides of this argument—and in general—to be careful that they do not stray from using provocative terms to using pejorative or insulting terms. I am quite confident that that was not the case yesterday, and I have confidence in the chairmanship of the Presiding Officer yesterday.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

The Presiding Officer

I do not mind taking the point of order, but I would rather not pursue this argument, if at all possible.

Patrick Harvie

I am grateful. I hope that it is in order for me to state briefly on the record, so that all members are aware of it, that, when I made my speech yesterday, I was conscious that there are people who reject the term “cisgender” and do not identify with it and would not welcome it being imposed on them. I quite consciously and deliberately phrased that part of my speech in a way that reflected the fact that some do and some do not, and that some have no relationship at all to the socially constructed concept of gender, as many people would understand it. I fully respect that, but I am also someone who is, like many men and women, quite happy to say that I am a cisgendered person, and I hope that others are willing to respect that self-chosen identity.

The Presiding Officer

I did not wish to share this with the chamber, but I am also aware, because he has raised it with me, that Mr Harvie is particularly concerned about the sensitivities around language on this issue. I am conscious that members on both sides of this debate are very aware of the sensitivities around language. In this case, it is clear to me that Mr Harvie did not use the term as an insult. It may have been provocative, but it was not an insult. It was used as part of a balanced contribution.

I am not ruling in favour of Elaine Smith’s point of order, but I note that she has made her point forcefully on the record.