Transgender debate in Scotland: As a merkin wig becomes latest culture war symbol, we need to work towards a consensus – Susan Dalgety

Far be it for me to argue with the renowned current affairs magazine The Economist, but its choice for word of the year doesn’t quite hit the mark.

I can understand why it chose ‘hybrid work’. This new term, which describes working from home some of the time while going into the office for the rest of the week, sums up neatly our post-pandemic lifestyle, at least for those who enjoy an office-based job.

I am not so sure our local supermarket or A&E clinic would relish their staff spending half their working week at home in goblin mode with their laptop camera turned off and “thinking time” marked up in their calendar. ‘Goblin mode’, by the way, was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year; apparently it means to indulge in lazy or selfish habits, like wearing your pyjamas all day and eating cereal out of the packet. Think any teenage boy since 1963.

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But for me the word that sums up 2022 has to be the gloriously old-fashioned, much misunderstood word, merkin. “Merkin?” I can hear you mumble, “What’s a merkin? Is it a character in Harry Potter?” Not quite, but there is a link if you have the energy to bear with me. It is Hogmanay after all, the last day of an exhausting year.

Merkin, according to my dictionary, is “an artificial hairpiece for the pudendum; a pubic wig”. It’s not a word that was in common usage until ten days ago, when a resolutely middle-class, professional woman stood up in the Scottish Parliament, lifted her kilt and showed the world – and some easily-shocked MSPs – her merkin.

Elaine Miller, a self-described frank, funny and factual physiotherapist and comedian, exposed her pubic wig, sown onto the front of a pair of nude but sturdy tights, in protest at the passing of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. “If you won’t be decent, then I will be indecent,” she shouted in her best Fringe-performance voice, before being hustled away by shocked security staff. But not before giving new meaning to the old Edinburgh phrase, “all fur coat and nae knickers”.

Elaine was in fact wearing underpants and no real pubic hair was used in her protest, but to observe the shocked reaction to her piece of political theatre, one would think she had exposed her naked vulva to Scotland’s finest. Dour-faced Green MSP Ross Greer, who is not yet 30, took to Twitter to express his shock that a woman had “flashed” children. Though at 28, I would have said that he had left childhood far behind.

It wasn’t just faint-hearted politicians who almost fainted at the sight of a woman’s thighs. Trans activist Beth Douglas, who was in the public gallery at the time, later tweeted her anger at a woman “exposing herself”. The same self-styled “gender borg queen” told cis people that “we are going to beat you up” earlier this year, but what are literal threats of violence compared to a mangy piece of fake fur? By the way, cis is a term used by trans liberation folk to describe a person whose gender identity matches the sex at birth. Yes, dear reader, you are most likely cis.

Elaine Miller, a comedian and physiotherapist pictured with a 19ft inflatable model of a vagina, is being investigated for revealing her merkin in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Sandy Young/PA)Elaine Miller, a comedian and physiotherapist pictured with a 19ft inflatable model of a vagina, is being investigated for revealing her merkin in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Sandy Young/PA)
Elaine Miller, a comedian and physiotherapist pictured with a 19ft inflatable model of a vagina, is being investigated for revealing her merkin in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Sandy Young/PA)

And it now transpires that Scot Squad, oops sorry, Police Scotland are investigating Elaine’s heinous act. Never mind that actual sexual crimes, most against women, are six per cent higher this year than in 2021. A woman dared to express her frustration at a piece of legislation that will directly affect women. Off with her head!

Looking back at 2022, when the belief of a minority – that human beings can change sex – has become the law of the land, against majority opinion, it is hard to feel optimistic for the year ahead. I would like nothing more than for our parliamentarians, from Ross Greer to Douglas Ross, to spend their time trying to solve the very real problems that plague our daily lives.

But I fear that, in the words of John Proctor from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible about the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692: “We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are dangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!"

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Civil discourse in Scotland has been reduced to people screaming at each other. Mobs can stop free speech, seemingly with impunity, as happened in Edinburgh University only a few weeks ago when a screening of the film Adult Human Female was prevented from going ahead by students, spitting with fury at middle-aged women.

The belief that sex is immutable is now regarded as a right-wing dog whistle, and daring to say that a human being cannot change his or her sex is, according to some, akin to a Nazi salute. JK Rowling (there’s the Harry Potter link I promised) is dubbed a bigot for establishing a female-only rape crisis centre.

The truth has become flexible, with reality only in the eye of the beholder. General elections have become referendums. Men can choose to be female. A triangle of fake fur is a violent weapon when worn by an angry woman. The merkin was conceived in the 15th century, when personal hygiene was a bit more slapdash than it is today. Pubic lice were common, so women shaved off their hair ‘down there’ and replaced it with a wig.

And prostitutes used merkins to cover up the genital warts and syphilitic sores that were the distressing by-product of their trade. Today, a merkin, worn for a few seconds in Holyrood, has become a symbol of the culture war that currently infects our society.

Yet surely all of us, even if we disagree vehemently about sex and gender, are trying to build a better future. So, ever the optimist, may I suggest that as 2022 comes stuttering to a close, we raise a glass and toast ‘consensus’ as the word of 2023.



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