The tartan rainbow: why it’s great to be gay in Scotland

The leaders of four of Scotland’s six main political parties have come out, and the country has been identified as offering the best legal protection for gay people. But how deep does this new liberality go?

The most revealing thing about Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s recent interview in the Fabian Review was not her “coming out” – a single line in a long article – but the response it generated. Most follow-up press coverage concentrated instead on her perceived gaffe in admitting she might support Scottish independence should the UK leave the European Union, while her “female partner” was relegated to the fifth or sixth paragraph. In post-referendum Scotland, the constitution trumps pretty much anything.

Speaking to Mary Riddell, Dugdale said of her private life: “I don’t talk about it very much because I don’t feel I need to. My private life is my private life, that’s the thing I just have that nobody else gets to touch.” That aside also captured something of a significant shift in Scottish attitudes over the past two decades or so. While once such an “admission” (to paraphrase the Scottish Sun’s coverage of the story) would have dominated, now it is the Scottish Labour leader’s political troubles.

Dugdale’s news now means four out of Scotland’s six party leaders (the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson, Ukip’s David Coburn and the Greens’ Patrick Harvie) are lesbian, gay or bisexual, making Holyrood, as she put it in a recent newspaper column, “the gayest parliament in the world”. Last year, the Rainbow Europe Index identified Scotland as the best country in Europe when it came to legal protections for LGB people and, last week, the first minister of Scotland announced her intention to reform gender recognition law for trans people and those with nonbinary identities. So what’s behind this extraordinary transformation, and does political life mirror the nation as a whole?

Dugdale was born in August 1981, just a year after homosexual relations between consenting men were decriminalised in Scotland. This fact often takes people by surprise, not least in Scotland, for the date imprinted in most people’s minds is that of 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act became law. However, it specifically excluded Scotland (and Northern Ireland), and not through Westminster chicanery, but because – as Roger Davidson and Gayle Davis argued in their 2014 book The Sexual State: Sexuality and Scottish Governance, 1950-80 – Scottish political and public opinion demanded it.

Indeed, Scotland’s history of dealing with LGBTI issues reveals much about its modern identity. Although political discourse has long been dominated by the belief that Scotland possesses a more egalitarian, left-of-centre politics than England, until the 1990s survey evidence demonstrated that the same wasn’t true of its social attitudes: rather when it came to divorce, abortion and homosexuality, Scotland was significantly to the right of “Tory England”.

Only recently have attitudes – and the law – converged north and south of the border, although a prolonged row over plans by the first Scottish government to repeal Section 28 in the early days of devolution highlighted that even at the turn of the century Scotland was not necessarily the liberal, enlightened place many campaigners for a “new Scottish politics” believed it to be.

Today, almost everyone involved in Scottish LGBTI life stresses both the progress made and the need to avoid complacency, as well as the challenge of affecting cultural – rather than purely legislative – change.

Speaking from the campaign trail, Dugdale said she had “mixed views” as to whether Scotland in 2016 was a good place to be gay. “It’s very easy when you live in the east end of Edinburgh,” she said, “a very multicultural and cosmopolitan part of the city, with lots of venues where you can be yourself, but I’m not sure this translates across the rest of Scotland, especially in rural communities; that’s probably why so many young Scottish people gravitate towards cities.” This, of course, is as true of England as it is Scotland and most other European countries. Measured by the crude yardstick of bars and clubs, Glasgow is the gay capital of Scotland, while visitors are often surprised by the relatively limited “scene” that exists in Edinburgh.

Dugdale adds that her interview in the Fabian Review (conducted two months ago) was “neither planned nor accidental”, although it did go much further than previous interviews in which she had generally made clear her private life was off limits. The same isn’t true of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, whose female partner recently featured in a party election broadcast.

When Davidson was born, in November 1978, homosexuality was yet to be decriminalised in Scotland, a point she made last Thursday at the Scottish parliament LGBTI hustings at Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons. She didn’t, however, namecheck the late Labour politician Robin Cook, whose amendment to the 1980 Criminal Justice (Scotland) bill finally brought Scotland into line with the rest of mainland Britain. Although the then Scottish secretary, George Younger, urged MPs to think “carefully” before voting for the amendment, they did so by 203 to 80.

It is, of course, difficult for a Conservative politician to take credit for this change, not least because the Thatcher government’s subsequent moves to ban the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools (via Section 28) casts a difficult shadow over even an openly gay Scottish Tory leader such as Davidson. But even the Scottish Conservative party is now unrecognisable from those days: earlier this year, David Mundell, the secretary of state for Scotland and the only Tory MP north of the border, became the first serving Conservative cabinet minister to come out.

Again, the response – including tweeted approval from Nicola Sturgeon – was overwhelmingly positive. Keen, as ever, to detoxify the Conservative brand, senior Tories are quick to point out that it was David Cameron who led the way, in the face of considerable grassroots opposition, when it came to legislating for equal marriage in the last Westminster parliament. The Scottish parliament then followed suit, arguing that its bill was more “progressive” and broadly applicable, certainly when it came to religion.

That, in itself, reflected the change in Scotland. Bob Cant, editor of a 2008 book called Footsteps and Witnesses: Lesbian and Gay Lifestories from Scotland, says that when he was growing up in 1950s and 60s Scotland, the illegality of homosexual activity was “not a problem for me at all”. “What inhibited me much more was the shame of being thought to be a ‘poof’,” he says, “and the way organised religion seemed to reinforce that sense of shame.” So the decline of religious observance in Scotland hasn’t bothered him in the slightest; on the contrary, he believes that “must make life easier for gay people”.

But however weakened the Roman Catholic church in Scotland has been by declining congregations and a scandal involving the former Cardinal Keith O’Brien, it still has influence in two important respects: via Scotland’s Catholic state schools and also a close relationship with the governing SNP. And while the SNP’s record on equality issues is widely acknowledged as a good one, it has been seen, on occasion, to drag its feet, usually on matters that might provoke a backlash from pulpits in the west of Scotland. At present, this relates to the campaign to combat homophobic bullying in schools.

Speaking at the LGBTI hustings, Scottish Green party co-leader Patrick Harvie referred to this as the “unspoken issue”. Teachers at Catholic schools have to be vetted by a priest before they are given a job. Unless that issue could be addressed openly, he said, then there would at best be “patchy results” when it came to training.

The SNP’s relationship with the Catholic Church in Scotland is a complicated one. Historically, Catholic voters in Scotland supported Labour and shunned the nationalists; now a majority support the SNP and independence. Few doubt Sturgeon’s personal commitment to equality, but there is probably tension between her views and her party’s need to sustain a broad electoral coalition. Also, an instinctively cautious politician, she won’t go out of her way to upset sections of the electorate, particularly those that have been hard won from Scottish Labour over the past two decades. And she is not alone. Asked about the same point, Dugdale simply said that, in order to drive cultural change, “you have to take people with you”.

To others, however, Scotland is in danger of becoming too self-congratulatory. “Scotland is a paradise on paper,” says one expat Scot who has been based in London for the past few years. “You can be part of middle-class Scotland and feel great about being gay, because you probably know lots of gay people,” he says. “But for most folk, Scotland still doesn’t pass the hold-your-partner’s-hand test, certainly compared with London.” Similarly, campaigner Jordan Daly says: “It’s not enough to say to LGBT kids, ‘Hey, you can get married, so don’t worry about being bullied at school.’”

Colin Macfarlane, director of Stonewall Scotland, speaks of the need to go further when it comes to education but also points to recent progress. “In the last [Scottish] parliament, equal marriage was passed with a thumping majority, affording LGB people full equality in the eyes of the law for the first time,” he says. “Legal equality is only part of the jigsaw though; the lived day-to-day experience for many LGBT people in Scotland is far from equal.” But, he adds, “for three party leaders to be out as LGB and to have two party leaders as strong allies is pretty groundbreaking”.

Susan Stewart, a founder member of the Women for Independence group, agrees, observing that it’s important for young people in Scotland “to have visible lesbian and gay role models in all areas of life – including politics – and that’s perhaps the most significant difference in the past couple of decades, especially for young lesbians”. Dugdale recently drove home this point, writing that in Scotland “the rainbow flag” was now “flying higher than ever”.

Back in 1956, when Compton Mackenzie published his novel Thin Ice, a sympathetic portrayal of a gay Scottish civil servant, the notion of gay flags and parliamentarians would have mystified, if not horrified, Presbyterian Scotland. When, for example, the groundbreaking Wolfenden Report appeared the following year, Scottish MPs ignored it and the civil servant James Adair, its Scottish representative, warned the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland that supporting its recommendations was to support the right for “perverts to practise sinning for the sake of sinning”.

James Robertson’s widely praised novel And the Land Lay Still, by contrast, finds its protagonist Mike Pendreich reaching 2008 and feeling he is living in a more tolerant, open Scotland than was the case 50 or even 20 years earlier. As Robertson remarked: “In my book, the gay characters don’t die. At least, the main one and his lover don’t. They survive, and at the end of the book are stepping into what they think is a better future.”

For a nation that often delights in emphasising differences rather than celebrating similarities, that Scotland has gone from being, as the political commentator Gerry Hassan has observed, “a more conservative country than the rest of the UK, to a place rather like the rest of the UK”, is significant: there’s now a much greater taboo around being homophobic rather than homosexual. When a lone protester tried to disrupt the LGBTI hustings in Edinburgh last week, Ruth Davidson reflected once again on the change within her lifetime. “He’s a person out in the cold shouting into the wind,” she said, “and it used to be the other way round.”

by David Torrance
Source – The Guardian