Rainbow Nation Scotland
Scottish Review, April 6th 2016
Scotland is a land of tolerance and acceptance in at least one respect.
Four out of six leaders of our main political parties are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Plus the Secretary of State for Scotland.
This is a far cry from the Scotland of old. Only sixteen years ago there was the near cultural war over Section 28/Clause 2a, centred on the supposed ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, passed by the Thatcher Government in 1988. This episode saw Brian Souter and Jack Irvine lead a campaign against abolition which was nasty, illiberal and filled with fear and prejudice, and which hit a popular cord with parts of the public.
This Scotland was a land nervous and unsure of itself – doubting its attitudes on sexuality and homosexuality, but also much more. Whereas today, Scotland couldn’t seem more different and at ease in these areas. This is the country with the most lesbian, gay and bisexual leaders of political parties anywhere in the world, and was recently rated as the best country in Europe in terms of legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
How has this happened? And how do we describe and understand such change? There is, for example, an element now of complacency and conformity in some strands of society – of assuming everything has changed for the better and that much or most of the struggle for equality socially (if not economically) has been won and is irreversible.
One revealing characteristic is the way this shift is presented from old to new, darkness to light, repression and confusion to enlightenment. This is the standard conceit of cosmopolitan, open, individualistic liberalism, and used to caricature the move from Old to New Labour, or ‘old’ to ‘new’ Glasgow. This is a language usually used by advertisers and brand makers, and made for superficiality and over-statement.
No real public debate or awareness is evident of how this dramatic change took place, and which the above rhetoric obfuscates. What were the drivers and dynamics? Who, if we regard this as beneficial, were the champions, heroes and heroines, and who were our villains?
Scotland at the turn of the century was a land of nervousness on Section 28. This was the first ever public debate on homosexuality in this country (the 1980 decriminalisation of male homosexuality happening without any public debate, pushed through by the Thatcher government due to fear over the European Convention on Human Rights). Scotland seemed, even for some on the left, a place haunted by dark demons.
This ‘quiet revolution’ occurred for many reasons: it was a change without one clear leader or organisation, but thousands of brave, principled lesbian, gay and bisexual campaigners and supporters of equality through the generations played a central role. There were the politicians who were prepared to stand up and be ahead of their time – people such as Malcolm Rifkind, Robin Cook and David Steel. And with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, a new generation of politicians such as Wendy Alexander (the minister who announced the abolition of Section 28), forged ahead despite the reservations of their elders – such as Donald Dewar, who were a product of an age where this sort of thing just wasn’t talked about in public.
Bigger forces were at work – the decline of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, whose Cardinal Winning played a prominent role in the Section 28 episode calling homosexuality ‘a perversion’. Secularisation, a less deferential society and the forces of social liberalism all played a part, and some of this made Scotland a little like the rest of Western Europe. There was also the slow hollowing out of the conservative pillars of Scottish Labour: the age of politicians such as Willie Ross and Jean Mann who thought all of this was nothing more than ‘middle class’ distraction.
Section 28 brought this out into the open: a defining and historic watershed which few of the players and parties at the time fully understood the importance of. Previously numerous social equality measures had been advanced by stealth or administrative diktat. Examples include the 1980 male homosexuality decriminalisation, abortion reform and the arguments used against devolving it, and the Labour-Lib Dem administration’s excessive use of Sewel motions allowing Westminster to legislate in a host of devolved ethical and sexual rights’ issues.
Scotland did not completely change overnight as a result of that debate. But something profound and lasting shifted. Yet, at the same time, the uneasy nation still existed, and was given seeming vindication by the whole stramash. I remember a few years after the Section 28 moment, having one of my regular conversations with one of the commissioning editors of ‘The Herald’. Newspapers still had money and people then, and this person loved to chat. But when I mentioned the idea of writing a piece on the absence of gay Scotland from public life, there was only silence, and we rapidly changed the subject. Suffice to say I wrote a column on something else, and saved the idea for another day.
Slowly though things began to change. The generation and culture of anxious elders who were not comfortable with such issues passed into retirement or away. They ranged across many different opinions. Most weren’t out and proud apologists for homophobia and discrimination, and most weren’t as outspoken and absolutist as Brian Souter or Cardinal Winning. The more common attitude was my man at ‘The Herald’ or the first First Minister, Donald Dewar, who just found it uncomfortable to even say or contemplate the word ‘homosexuality’.
Silence was a large part of this world. Awkward silences, pauses between words, soft clearings of the throat, and looking at one’s feet or away in the middle of conversation. This meant some people would say stupid, ill-informed things, without any basis in fact: lines like ‘there are no poofs in Forfar’, or ‘all the waiters in the Witchery are gay’, but this was because the world of gay identity seemed impossibly distant, other, maybe even foreign. This was something for some which happened a bit in some parts of Glasgow or Edinburgh, but was more common in more southerly climates such as London or Brighton.
Scotland April 2016. Now we live in a country where the leader of the second biggest party, Labour, Kezia Dugdale, can come out – making the four out of six – and do so with a quiet grace and dignity. And it isn’t that big a story, apart from ‘The Sun’ using the loaded word ‘admitted’. Instead, the controversy in her interview was all about her remarks on independence as being ‘not inconceivable’ if the UK left the EU. That’s progress.
Such is the shift we can now talk about non-binary gender identity legislation and it isn’t all that contentious. However, the limits of this have to be explored. While we are this land of tolerance and affirmation in one respect, what would a politics and culture of non-binary identities entail? Is it even possible or desirable, or just plain daft?
What about a Scotland which didn’t divide and simplify itself into a world of two opposing camps, sometimes armed at least with words that wound and ears that don’t listen too much? A Scotland which wasn’t just wait for independence versus oppose independence at all costs; which wasn’t just about nationalism v. unionism (which is a debate of two nationalisms: one out and one mostly in denial); or left v. right; or anti-Tory Scotland v. the Tories?
This would not just be a gender fluid nation, but one that was proudly and at ease with being multiple, even infinite Scotlands: politically, socially, identity wise, and culturally, fluid, about hybrids and fusions: a society invoking Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of ‘liquid modernity’ in a hopeful, enlightened manner.
This all sounds good and positive, but a little too easy and alluring. Moreover, as we have become more liberal and tolerant on gender and sexuality, being poor, economically disadvantaged or one of the hundreds of thousands who make up ‘left behind’ Scotland, don’t see themselves being championed by this new cosmopolitanism.
Scotland has become a glorious, beautiful Rainbow Nation in one area – and we should celebrate and love this reality. Yet, we have huge catching up and reality checks to do in large swathes of our country – about blighted lives, opportunities denied and blocked, the limits of inclusion and tolerance, and prevalence of economic discrimination and exclusion.
With these caveats the Scotland which has changed on gender and sexuality offers a few pointers to how we could begin to address such concerns. First, we have to talk about the excluded, forgotten Scotland, understand it, hear its voices and concerns. The ‘missing Scotland’ achieved a status and role in the indyref that became one of its defining factors.
Second, the act of bringing into the public, issues once shied away from is seismic, as Section 28 showed. Therefore, a Scotland which understands it isn’t this place of egalitarianism, fairness and a modern ‘democratic intellect’, could choose to live up to these foundational stories. Finally, noting where the silences and omissions are matter; the constraints and boundaries of what it is permissible to talk about in polite society or what subjects you should keep well away from in taxi driver conversations, tell you an awful lot.
We still have too many silences across our nation, as there are across the Western world. Mostly now they are the same ones: of feeling uncomfortable with the consequences of living our lives as consumers and through a culture of individualised self-expression. Wouldn’t it be good if the Rainbow Nation could face up to these hard truths and do something about it?