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Gerry Hassan: Same-sex marriage row shows need for equality

'The numbers merely illustrate the hypocrisy of the politicians'. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

'The numbers merely illustrate the hypocrisy of the politicians'. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

  • by GERRY HASSAN
 

EVERYBODY has the right to freedom and open debate is essential, especially when attitudes are changing, writes Gerry Hassan

The issue of same-sex marriage has become a major political controversy both sides of the Border.

Both the Scottish and UK governments are planning to legislate and at the same time try to balance freedom and equality of sexual orientation with freedom of religious expression.

There are huge differences between Scotland, and England and Wales. The Cameron government once viewed same-sex marriage as an easy way of proving its liberal modernising credentials, but now finds itself enmeshed in bitter Tory wars. It faces significant opposition from within the Conservative Party and right-wing press, and has had to offer an “opt-out” on conscience grounds to the Church of England and Church in Wales.

The Scottish Government, after a couple of wobbles, seems on surer ground. There is a convincing majority in the Scottish Parliament for change, and the proposed legislation offers Churches the opportunity to “opt-in” to equality.

Scotland has had a long, difficult relationship on this subject. The 1967 Sexual Offences (England and Wales) Act which decriminalised male homosexuality did not cover Scotland or Northern Ireland. Scotland was exempt because Willie Ross, secretary of state for Scotland at the time, argued that the forces of conservative Scotland, namely Scottish Labour MPs and the Church of Scotland, would not put up with it.

For 13 years from 1967 to 1980, when Scotland finally under the Thatcher government passed legislation decriminalising male homosexuality, Scotland’s lesbian and gay communities sat in a kind of limbo: with police authorities not prosecuting, but gay clubs, bars and support not completely legal. Northern Ireland followed two years later.

The 1980 reforms were passed without any major public debate in Scotland: the Tories in office were acting not out of principle, but fear of European action, while Labour and SNP were both divided.

Then came the Section 28/Clause 2a “cultural war”. This was a seismic moment for modern Scotland. Originally initiated by Wendy Alexander, then equalities minister, it became unintentionally the first time Scotland had ever publicly debated the subject of homosexuality.

It was painful, horrid and not attractive at times, but was a growing-up experience. It is impossible to continually advance equality by stealth and subterfuge, and a host of prejudiced opinions and homophobic attitudes were “outed” and defeated.

The tale of Scotland since then is a fascinating one. In 2000, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 48 per cent felt that same-sex relations were always or mostly wrong; in 2010, this had fallen to 27 per cent. Simultaneously, support for same-sex marriage has risen from 41 per cent in 2002 to 61 per cent in 2010, with those disagreeing falling from 29 per cent to 19 per cent over the same period.

There is in the above the final, belated emergence of socially-liberal Scotland, a society which could not find voice and confidence in the 1960s or even 1970s, but which has finally flowered.

This is a scale and importance of change that we should all pause and draw breath to acknowledge, one which has mostly happened without formal leadership, advocacy or explanation.

We have gone from a society where homosexuality was a taboo word in the 1960s and 1970s, and even in the Section 28/Clause 2a episode, to one where that taboo has been broken.

A decade ago, when I proposed to a commissioning editor on a major newspaper that I spoke to every week, that I write a piece on gay Scotland, the response I got was embarrassed silence. And not everything has changed. When James Robertson published a couple of years ago And the Land Lay Still, a novel with a central gay male character, an unprecedented event in literary Scotland, some reviewers assumed he was a “gay writer”.

The writer, Bob Cant, has chronicled the lives and times of lesbian, bisexual and gay Scotland, and believes that we have gone from one kind of silence to another, stating that, “silence increasingly feels like a default mechanism in Scottish life”.

Cant poses that Scotland seems to be incapable of talking openly about a recent time when, in his words, there was “a moral panic about sexuality”, or the last decade where change, liberalisation and tolerance have expanded and become the new consensus, but we cannot bring ourselves to discuss and understand the scale of change and what it means.

Talking about this requires facing up to the conservative part of Scottish society. Not all people who oppose same-sex marriage are homophobes; some are people who culturally, generationally or religiously think and take a different position, and they are entitled to do so as long as they do so without prejudice or bigotry. We cannot move from one set of orthodoxies seamlessly to another, where open debate and discussion is feared or stifled.

But we do need to take a stand against the social authoritarians and megaphone diplomacy of parts of Scotland, the Catholic Church and others, with their intemperate and sometimes shocking language, who clearly have a rather intolerant interpretation of what spreading love and understanding involves.

Equality and freedom isn’t just about the right to not be discriminated against and live as you wish unchallenged by authority or social convention. It is about positive equality and freedom across all aspects of society.

Not just the right to be consumers, to marry, and to buy and rent property, but to live a full, rich, varied life. This would entail challenging the narrow version of cosmopolitan freedom which is on offer from the political classes. And that might just be the kind of equality large parts of Scotland find attractive, inspiring and want to contribute to.

 

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