Next SNP leader: Who could replace Nicola Sturgeon – and what would they mean for LGBTQ+ rights?

Photos of Kate Forbes, John Swinney, Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon

Following Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation as first minister of Scotland, attention has turned to who could succeed her.

Sturgeon announced her resignation at a press conference on Wednesday (15 February), saying she no longer believed she could give the job everything it requires.

In 2014, when Alex Salmond stepped down as first minister, Sturgeon had been deputy first minister for almost eight years. She was the obvious choice to take on the top job, and was elected unopposed.

This time, there is no obvious successor. And while it’s clear Sturgeon’s replacement will continue her fight for Scottish independence, it’s less clear whether they will follow her lead when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.

Sturgeon advocated for LGBTQ+ rights throughout her time in office, passing the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) bill that would have made life easier for trans people, were it not vetoed by Westminster.

The bill passed with a majority of SNP MSPs voting for it – but the party is far from united when it comes to trans rights. There is a vocal gender-critical faction, with long-standing complaints of anti-trans rhetoric within the party’s ranks.

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As the party gears up for a leadership race, we take a look at where the likely candidates for the next SNP leader stand on LGBTQ+ rights.

Kate Forbes

Kate Forbes presents the 2022 Scottish Budget at Scottish Parliament Building on December 09, 2021.
Kate Forbes presents the 2022 Scottish Budget at Scottish Parliament Building on December 09, 2021. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

Finance secretary Kate Forbes is considered one of Sturgeon’s most likely successors – and she could spell bad news for LGBTQ+ rights.

Forbes is an evangelical Christian who opposed Scotland’s gender recognition reform and has spoken out against abortion rights.

In 2019, she was one of 15 SNP politicians who signed a letter calling on the Scottish government to delay plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

In December 2022, when the parliament finally voted on the legislation, she was the only MSP to abstain. She later told The Times that her view hadn’t changed and that the government “risked creating bad law”.

Forbes has faced criticism from LGBTQ+ party members in the past over her views, but that hasn’t stopped her from rising through the ranks of the SNP. A recent poll put her as the public’s favourite to succeed Sturgeon as the next SNP leader.

John Swinney

Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney arrive for first minister's questions in the Scottish Parliament on March 8, 2018.
Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney arrive for first minister’s questions in the Scottish Parliament on March 8, 2018. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

John Swinney currently serves as deputy first minister, meaning he would be one of the more experienced candidates if he throws his hat into the ring for the SNP leadership.

He voted for gender recognition reform and he has expressed support for LGBTQ+ inclusive education in schools.

Swinney would be seen as a trusted pair of hands to bring the SNP forward, but the fact that he also briefly served as first minister in the early 2000s could go against him.

Humza Yousaf

Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Transport and the Islands speaks to delegates ahead of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's keynote speech at The SNP Autumn Conference 2017.
Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Transport and the Islands speaks to delegates ahead of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote speech at The SNP Autumn Conference 2017. (Mark Runnacles/Getty)

Humza Yousaf is also tipped as a potential successor to Nicola Sturgeon. He currently serves as health secretary.

Yousaf has expressed support for LGBTQ+ rights during his time in government. He voted in favour of gender recognition reform, but he did face some criticism for watering down hate crime legislation.

In 2020, he delivered a speech in the Scottish Parliament following the murder of George Floyd in which he drew attention to the massive number of powerful positions held by white people in Scotland.

Angus Robertson

Nicola Sturgeon (R) and Deputy Leader Angus Robertson (L) are joined by the Party's Westminster group.
Nicola Sturgeon (R) and Deputy Leader Angus Robertson (L) are joined by the Party’s Westminster group. (Jack Taylor/Getty)

Culture and external affairs secretary Angus Robertson is another likely contender for SNP leader – he’s seen by some as a veteran with plenty of experience.

In December, he joined the majority of his SNP colleagues by voting in favour of gender recognition reform.

He previously expressed support for gay men who were convicted of gross indecency to receive an apology as well as a pardon.

Màiri McAllan

Màiri McAllan MSP SNP attends the Scottish Parliament.
Màiri McAllan MSP SNP attends the Scottish Parliament. (Fraser Bremner-Pool/Getty)

Environment secretary Màiri McAllan has only been an MSP for two years, but she’s proved herself time and time again since she was elected.

It’s likely too soon for McAllan to be considered a serious leadership contender just yet, but it’s possible she’ll throw her hat into the ring.

If McAllan were to become the SNP’s next leader, she would likely be embraced by the LGBTQ+ community – she has indicated support for the community by voting in favour of gender recognition reform.