The Slow Revolution of Gay Scotland

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, October 2nd 2010

Scotland is a land of inclusiveness, faimess and kindness, a place which worries and cares about the disadvantaged, marginalised and those who face discrimination.

This Scottish story of egalitarianism – ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ – is well known and frequently told, but limited, partial and very flawed. It is also a very narrow notion of equality, focused on the economy, the workplace and class, and excluding numerous other aspects of Scottish life which don’t fit this picture – such as the hierarchical, conservative nature of much of public life.

One group in Scottish society who haven’t been a major part of the popular story of egalitarianism has been the lesbian and gay community. This is a part of our society which still seems relatively to have a low public profile and is nearly invisible in a number of ways.

Scotland still does not have many public figures who are ‘out’ about being lesbian and gay, and Scotland’s lesbian and gay communities lack a public leadership who can advocate for greater understanding and equality. This is despite Glasgow City Council having successive gay leaders: Steven Purcell and Gordon Matheson.

There are a few ‘out’ MSPs, but there has never been one ‘out’ Scottish MP. Arts and culture has nurtured for decades areas of tolerance and liberalisation, and our most famous national poet, the late Edwin Morgan, came out as gay years ago. In the world of entertainment we have seen the phenomenon of TV property presenters Colin and Justin, and comedian Craig Hill and that’s about it.

This is a peculiar situation which needs explaining. Scotland has been on a long journey in recent years. Not so long ago homosexuality was a word that was never mentioned in polite circles in Scotland.

England and Wales decriminalised male homosexuality in 1967 with Scotland left alone because of fears about conservative Scots Labour MPs and public opinion. It took until 1980 for male homosexuality to be decriminalised in Scotland (and 1982 in even more conservative Northern Ireland). This was passed with little to no debate or celebration in Scotland, but instead a sense of embarrassment and nervousness.

Political or public figures who have been prepared to take a stand for equality and lesbian and gay rights have been rare. None of the political parties come out of this well. Special mention should be given to David Steel and Robin Cook who both stood for lesbian and gay equality, when nearly all of their colleagues were content to look the other way.

Much more typical was Glasgow City Council’s stand in the 1980s – whose Labour Group time and time again voted down the inclusion of lesbian and gay issues from their equal opportunities policy, only incorporating it into their policy in 1994.

Then came the Section 28 episode. This will be seen in hindsight as one of the defining moments of modern Scotland. Wendy Alexander abolished the Tory Section 28 which outlawed the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. This unwittingly began the first ever public debate in Scotland on the role, status and rights of homosexuals and the issue of sexuality.

Many Scots at the time, both pro and anti-Section, thought that reactionary conservatism, prejudice and homophobia spoke for the majority of Scotland. They certainly spoke for a very vociferous minority, and the forces for equality, in Labour, SNP, trade unions and voluntary sector, found a hesitant, nervous voice which was thrown off balance by the certainty of the pro-Section 28 campaigners.

Despite the difficulty of much of this Scotland began changing, aided by the consequences of the Section 28 episode, and even more by New Labour’s quiet, but deliberate lesbian and gay civil rights revolution: an equal age of consent at last as opposed to the discriminatory different ages legislated for in 1967 onward, civil partnerships, gay adoption, employment protection and an end to the military ban on gays.

Scottish Social Attitudes surveys show that in recent years Scotland has experienced a liberal transformation. Scotland has in its views on lesbian and gay male rights gone from being a more conservative country than the rest of the UK, to a place rather like the rest of the UK.

This liberal revolution and evolution of a more tolerant, inclusive Scotland has happened in a way we are only beginning to recognise and understand – in a slow, leaderless manner, and in a way in which large parts of Scottish public life have yet to catch up with.

Many people still think that Scotland is shaped by potential mobs of raving homophobes. Labour MPs and MSPs still feel the Catholic Church’s various protestations on homosexuality – which don’t exactly amount to sweetness and light – speak for the Catholic community, when increasingly they don’t. The moral conservatives of our land, whether secular, Catholic or Islamic, may make a lot of noise and have a disproportionate influence in politics, but they are a small minority.

Scottish culture which thinks itself one of the most liberal areas of our land also shows the wider hesitancy on lesbian and gay matters. It has taken until 2010 and James Robertson’s ambitious ‘And the Land Lay Still’ to have in a mainstream Scottish novel a gay character – Michael Pendreich – as one of the central protagonists.

Robertson recently spoke of being asked by a journalist about writing such a central role for a gay character, and it being assumed because he has done so that it must mean that he is gay; it is a common occurrence in Scotland. It is also clear that by his so doing he has crossed a powerful unwritten barrier in Scottish society.

Not being ‘out’ and comfortable about being lesbian and gay in Scotland is still part of our uncomfortableness about difference, diversity and the body. Some of this is related to the anxieties and hang-ups which many Scottish men have about themselves, sex and emotions, which is then magnified in unease about the issue of sexuality. It is also about our yearning and need for conformity, and our secret fears that Scotland might be a land of homophobes: a society of cultural ayatollahs away to persecute gays and anyone different up and down the land.

We are no longer the dark nation of some of our worst fantasies. Something liberating, positive and optimistic has happened to Scotland these last few decades in terms of sexuality and lesbian and gay rights, and in particular since the advent of the Scottish Parliament. We have to learn to recognise, celebrate and live this new Scotland, have a bit more confidence in ourselves, and stand down the remnants of prejudice and intolerance which remain in our midst.