Identity and belonging matter to Joanna Cherry. As the eldest child of an Irish mother and a Scottish father, she was brought up as a Catholic, educated in an Edinburgh convent school and then struggled to reconcile her faith with her sexuality.
Cherry now comes across as having a very strong sense of self and is, undeniably, a very out and proud lesbian, but she is no longer a practising Catholic and admits maintaining that inner confidence has sometimes come at a cost.
This year has been particularly painful. While winning plaudits for her legal battles with the UK Government over Brexit, she’s also faced vicious online attacks, has had to counter claims of workplace bullying, required round-the-clock police protection after receiving death threats and has, absurdly, for a gay woman, had to sue PinkNews for defamation for wrongly claiming she was being investigated for homophobia.
“I’m sick of this witch hunt,” she tweeted PinkNews earlier this year. “I’m a lesbian, for goodness sake.” She later won the case; an apology from the publication and a donation to a charity of her choice.
Much of the abuse emanates from Cherry’s position around the SNP government’s planned reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which has become a lightning rod for a wider debate about sex, gender and identity.
A schism has emerged on the left of politics, but it’s much more apparent within the SNP, normally the party of iron discipline, but in government it’s also driving the legislative change.
While the SNP, like other parties, made a manifesto commitment to reform the GRA, some ministers have, along with other groups, urged caution, leading to a second consultation on the reform being launched and First Minster Nicola Sturgeon, who has previously declared that transgender rights are “not a threat to me as a woman”, calling for calm.
Cherry was among a group of 15 SNP politicians who published a joint letter urging the government not to “rush” into “changing the definition of male and female” amid concerns about the potential implications for women and for single-sex spaces of any legal changes to the GRA.
In what is now a bitter wrangle, Cherry has been accused of being a transphobe by people even within her own party. In turn, she has claimed that bullying allegations made about her and which she has now been cleared of, were part of “politically motivated smears” which she said arose from “SNP infighting”. She added, on social media, that “at least the Conservatives do their back-stabbing in public”. And in the context of the SNP’s infamous control, that one sentence made headlines.
I ask Cherry how she feels, particularly as a gay woman, being accused of being transphobic.
“It’s ludicrous, it’s offensive and it’s done deliberately, mainly by men to shut down the debate, but I’m very disappointed with the women who also go along with it.
“I believe in trans rights. I believe in gay rights – it would be a bit odd if I didn’t as a lesbian – but I believe in equal rights for everyone and I believe in equal rights for women and girls as well.
“Under the Equalities Act, there are certain protected characteristics and one of the protected characteristics is sex, and drawing on my own professional experience as a lawyer, I know that there are good reasons to have sex-segregated spaces, but what has disappointed me about the debate around trans rights is that a small minority within the LGBT-plus movement and also, sadly, within the SNP and also the Labour Party here, have tried to shut down debate by calling any feminists who speak up for women as transphobes. And they do it to bully and intimidate. And I won’t be bullied or intimidated and I will always stick up for women.
“That’s why the Joint Committee on Human Rights at Westminster was looking into online abuse and why I interrogated the Twitter executives about why Twitter lets men tell women to ‘shut the fuck up, terf’ [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] and yet women have their Twitter accounts blocked for stating facts like women do not have penises. Biological facts. If you look at the video clip where I made the statement at the beginning of the committee, in that I believed in equal rights and trans rights, that brought down a tsunami of hatred on my head. I know why that was, it was to bully and scare me. And I won’t give in to that.
“There are even some trans activists who are trying to say that lesbians are transphobic because they don’t want to have sex with somebody who has a penis. Come on…
“As a politician, I’m interested in the legislation and at the moment, there’s a debate about whether or not we should have self-ID. I think that debate should be conducted in a respectful fashion and that those women and girls and feminists who have concerns about self-ID should be listened to, not shouted and howled down. And unfortunately, there has been a significant and noisy minority who shouted and howled those rights down and have attempted to smear people who articulate those rights as transphobes.
“What I will say is that I believe in equal rights for all, but sometimes rights compete, and it must be respectful dialogue, and the tendency to shut down debate, particularly to silence women, I won’t allow that to happen.
“I am also a lawyer and laws are made on the basis of evidence and distinctions on sex are made on the basis of biology and science. Sex exists as a scientific fact. Women’s oppression is evidence based, women’s and girls’ vulnerability is evidence based. So, there are very good reasons for this.
“I trained as a specialist sex crimes prosecutor and although a lot of the time it was a bit grim, particularly in cases of historic sex abuse, where you have maybe a family of siblings who’ve been abused by a relative throughout their childhoods and we just close this for them in their 30s or 40s when the person who did it to them is finally brought to justice and convicted, I felt that was something socially useful that gives people closure and helps them to move on. It also helps them for society to recognise what was done to them and that it was wrong. That was powerful for me and that understanding about vulnerability has undoubtedly affected, for example, the position I take in relation to the rights of women and girls and the importance of sex-based rights.
“That court experience was also an eye-opener as to how badly some people behave and how predatory some men are – it is largely men who are the perpetrators of sexual crime – and how important it is to be aware of that. Of course, it is a minority of men that are like that, most men aren’t like that, but how important it is to be aware that there are sexual predators out there and from whom vulnerable people must be protected.
“There is no doubt that experience made me a better person, more rounded and, I think a lot of the time, I was just really impressed by people. People who sat on juries and took their duty so seriously, came back for the sentencing and frequently wept during the sentencing for the gravity of the situation.
“And I was really impressed by people’s dignity and their resilience. Some of the victims of sexual crime, particularly historic sex abuse cases, who lived with that abuse for years but nevertheless managed to grow up, form relationships, work, get on with their lives, just gave me a respect for people’s resilience. For someone like me, who had a fairly comfortable, middle class upbringing, with parents who weren’t wealthy but had a car, took us on holidays and owned their own house, to prosecute crimes in the High Court where you come across a lot of people whose lives are nothing like that, it was really instructive for me to see how people’s lives are lived in poverty and deprivation, and not just financial poverty but the poverty of love, of communication and of emotional support. Very humbling.
“I was also involved in drafting some of the summonses in cases for pursuers who were suing Nazareth House and other organisations and I was disgusted by what I read, disgusted by the church’s failure to deal with what’s happened. Its lack of humility and its hypocrisy. That was a big challenge for me, to my Catholic faith, and there are probably two reasons why I’m not a practising Catholic. I will not be part of an institution which brands me as a second-class citizen as a lesbian, it certainly is not good for my mental health. And while I have a lot of time for the Catholic Church, which is full of great people and it does great work – for example, I’m a big supporter of SCIAF – but as an institution, I have big problems with the Catholic Church, because of the way it’s dealt with sex abuse in its midst and because of the hypocrisy in its position in relation to women’s rights and gay rights.”
Cherry is uncompromising in pursuit of what she believes to be socially just and that links her legal and political roles, her attitude to the Catholic Church, and her robust approach to the controversy that has followed on from the proposals to reform the GRA. But it’s been her high-profile role in legal action to prevent the PM taking the UK out of Europe without a deal that has really shown her mettle and led to many commentators asking whether Cherry could be the next SNP leader.
I ask her about this and interestingly, it is the one topic where she asks to refer to notes she had prepared earlier and had so far not looked at.
“Let me just think about what I want to say about that. I’d love to play a leadership role in a future independent Scotland, but leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being the leader of the party or being the first minister,” she reads. “There’s lots of leadership roles, and I want to play my part, but no woman should ever write herself off as a potential leader. I’ve worked very hard in my role and I know I’ve got quite a big public profile now and I’m popular with the party membership, but there isn’t a vacancy for an SNP leader. We have a very strong and effective leader and there’s no vacancy. Moreover, the speculation that I will or might challenge is a set-up by journalists. It’s ridiculous. I’m at Westminster, the leader of the SNP must be at Holyrood, because they must be capable of being first minister, and I have never said I want to be party leader; others have said it and frankly, I wish they wouldn’t, because it just causes me grief I could do without.”
However, she doesn’t deny that she would want the position and I tell her that in itself is refreshing because so many women play down their ambitions.
“That’s why some people think I’ve got a big ego, because I don’t say, ‘Oh no, it couldn’t possibly be little old me’. That is what women are expected to do, but if I was a man of my age, with my professional background, people would take it for granted that I might want a leadership role, and I certainly wouldn’t have to apologise for it. So, what I’m saying is, I wouldn’t rule myself out for the future, but there is no leadership vacancy right now and I’m not putting myself forward as a potential leader of the SNP at the moment. Those who are doing so are mentioning my name without my involvement or my permission.”
Surprisingly, given her high profile, Cherry has only ever sat down with the current FM once and for her recent legal efforts in forcing judgements on Article 50 and on a no-deal Brexit, she received just a single text from Sturgeon congratulating her on the win.
Does she find that lack of interaction odd?
“I don’t know her very well. She’s running the country; I’m down in Westminster. And Ian Blackford has been very supportive of me and I’m really glad about that. But if you think about how big the parliamentary party is in London, and at Holyrood, it would be difficult for Nicola to meet us all and be friends with all of us, she’s got the country to run. So, I’m not complaining that I’m not Nicola’s best mate.”
She does, however, count the former FM, Alex Salmond, as a friend who she sees regularly and says she misses for his political strategy. And in some ways that, like her stance on the GRA, and her impatience for a second referendum, puts her on particular ‘sides’ of arguments that are currently causing division within the party.
“Well, look, Alex is my friend, and I was brought up to stand by my friends. It’s the kind of family I come from. Alex is clear that he’s innocent and I respect that. I also believe that justice will be done because I trust in the Scottish courts to deliver a just decision.
“Of course I worry about the political fall-out for the party from any trial because it’s an invidious position to be in for the former first minister, the greatest leader the party’s ever had, the leader who took the party from obscurity to government, being on trial for very serious claims. It does worry me, yeah.”
Cherry was elected as SNP MP for Edinburgh South West in 2015, having been very active during the independence referendum and having set up ‘Lawyers for Independence’. Her relationship with the party, however, stretches back to her childhood. Her Irish mother “always says she tried hard not to indoctrinate us into being Irish nationalists”, and her Scottish father “thoroughly indoctrinated us into being Scottish nationalists”. She belonged to the Young Scottish Nationalists as a young teen, but after the ’79 Group was kicked out of the party, she felt uncomfortable with its direction. She joined the Labour Party in 1983 but let her membership slip around the time John Smith died and voted SNP in 1997, eventually joining the party in 2008. It was Salmond who encouraged her to stand for election, and ultimately she was selected as the candidate for Edinburgh South West, which she won.
“By the time the election came around, I was prepared for the idea I was going to win but nothing prepares you for the reality of winning. An extraordinary, and not altogether pleasant experience, … is the first six months of being an MP.
“I like to be in control and I found that difficult in the first few months of being an MP, because in my old job, I’d been at the bar for years, I was at the top of my profession … and then I went from that to being like a fish out of water in a completely different environment.
“And … the relentless public gaze in which so many people feel able to say things about you. Journalists write about you when they’ve never spoken to you and they make assumptions about your personality without ever bothering to sit down, have a coffee or a drink with you, and I find that really frustrating.
“But I’m happy in politics. I feel fulfilled. I feel I’m doing something socially useful and it’s rewarding and it’s been an incredible time to be in politics.
“I’ve also got quite a high recognition factor now. I really cannot walk up a street in Scotland or London without being recognised. Largely, people are lovely, but … there are some days, you just like to shuffle out in your holey tracksuit bottoms with your hair not washed, no make-up on and get a flat white and go back to the house. I don’t really feel I can do that any longer.
“But my mum loves it …so she is very happy. My dad’s very proud because he really cares about the cause, but he got very upset when I was being attacked over the bullying thing.
As a long-time member, he said to me: ‘Why is the party not defending you?’ He couldn’t understand it. And I had to say: ‘That’s just politics, Dad. You’re on your own when you’re in trouble.’”