Question Time descends into chaotic shouting match over Scotland’s gender bill and trans prisoners 

India Willoughby and Ella Whelan

An episode of BBC Question Time descended into a chaotic shouting match over Scotland’s recently blocked gender reform bill and trans offenders in women’s prisons. 

The topical debate show was broadcast from Strathclyde University in Glasgow on Thursday (2 February) and covered key issues gripping politics in both Scotland and the United Kingdom. 

Chair Fiona Bruce was joined by Scottish Conservative Party MP John Lamont, Labour MP Ian Murray, Scottish National Party MSP Jenny Gilruith, journalist Ella Whelan and transgender newsreader India Willoughby

In recent months, Scotland has become the epicentre of debates around trans rights after Scottish parliament passed landmark reforms of its gender laws, which were subsequently blocked by Westminister, and the conviction of Isla Bryson – who raped two women prior to identifying as a woman.

After being passed by 86 votes to 39, the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill –  which would make it easier for trans people to get a Gender Recognition Certificate – was blocked by the UK government in January using Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998; an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind move in the history of devolution. 

Just a week later, Bryson was found guilty of raping the women, one in 2016 and the other 2019, by a jury after a six-day trial at the High Court in Glasgow. 

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Controversy arose when Bryson was remanded to Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling while awaiting sentencing. 

Discussions on Question Time around these issues took up a large proportion of the episode, with topics focusing on teacher strikes and the economy sandwiched on either side.

A majority of impassioned debate was focused on Bryson’s crimes and identification with being trans, which began in an orderly fashion but quickly descended into chaos. 

Much of the turmoil came from heated exchanges between Willoughby and Whelan, who barbed back and forth about whether Bryson should be referred to as a man or a woman.  

Willoughby began by saying that the public have been inundated with “completely transphobic” narratives by the media about trans prisoners. 

“There are bad apples in all walks of life. There are bad protestants, there are bad Catholics, there are bad lesbians, there are bad gays. And yes, there are bad trans people. 

“And all of those people if they do something criminal and are found guilty, they deserve to go to jail and to be punished. 

“A jail that is suitable for them and where everybody else is safe.”

She continued: “We have an audited trail of 1,000-plus negative stories a month on 0.5 per cent of the population. It’s not even 0.5 per cent because if you half that, it’s only trans women that people are getting upset about. 

“So that’s 1,000 articles a month on 0.2 per cent of people.”

However for Whelan, “The question at hand,” she probed, “is not whether this rapist should serve a sentence for rape. 

“It’s whether this individual is a man or a woman and therefore which prison he or she goes into so what is your answer? Is this individual a man or a woman?”

Question Time host Fiona Bruce was forced to intervene

Further on in the Question Time episode, Whelan described how she sees it as “remarkable” that politicians have “given up on the belief in reality that sex is real and that it’s irrefutable”. Which, makes her question, why anyone should have “any belief in anything they say”. 

In her response to points Whelan made, Willoughby said it is not trans people but “predatory men” who attack women – as Whelan interjected to ask once more if Bryson is therefore a man. 

As Willoughby continued, tensions heightened as both she and Whelan continued to shout over one another. 

“I know you are desperate to drag this into the gutter, but I’m not gonna go there,” Willoughby continued. 

“If there is a gay sex offender or a gay predator, we don’t suddenly become homophobic, if there’s a black rapist we are not racists,” she said as Whelan inserted: “But they are not pretending to be something they are not.” 

As the episode carried on, Whelan accused Willoughby of “willfully misrepresenting” her points while Willoughby asserted that it was Whelan who was “dragging” the conversion down. 

“Anyone who has read your Twitter will know a lot about gutter,” Whelan added. 

At this point, just half way through the episode, Bruce was forced to intervene between the two and called for a “civilised and polite conversation”.

How many trans prisoners are there?

As of September 2022, there are at least 11 trans women and four trans men currently held in Scottish prisons.

This accounts for approximately 0.2 per cent of the population currently imprisoned in Scottish estates, with at least 7,092 male and 280 female prisoners.

Meanwhile, in England and Wales, there are at least 230 trans prisoners – 168 identify as trans women, 42 as trans men, 13 as non-binary, and seven who did not provide a response or identify differently.

According to a report from the Ministry of Justice in November 2022, a large majority of these prisoners were sent to estates that do not correspond with their gender.

The report stated that 181 trans prisoners were in male estates and 49 were in female estates, with six transgender women in female “establishments”.

Of the 11 trans women currently imprisoned in Scotland, six are in men’s prisons.

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