HOMOSEXUALITY was illegal in Scotland for the first decade of my life. It was only the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act that came into force in 1981 that legalised same sex sexual activity between men. When you ponder that, it is remarkable.
England and Wales moved earlier with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, but that continued to make it an offence to have same sex relations in a hotel room or if anyone else was in the same house. These absurdities were not reformed until they were over-turned by the European Court of Human Rights in 2000.
One year later the age of consent was equalised at 16. It was barely one year ago that the right to marriage was equalised in Britain.
For centuries it had been condemned as an offence against God and nature, a disease that could somehow be cured. Ugly, ugly world. At least by 1861 – a quarter century into Queen Victoria’s reign – it became punishable only by prison rather than the death penalty. By 1954 – with our current Queen on the throne – more than a thousand men were in prison for this “crime”.
One of Britain’s greatest 20th century heroes was Alan Turing, the scientist and mathematician whose code-breaking shortened the war by years. In 1952 he was prosecuted for homosexuality and accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. By 1954 he was dead by cyanide poisoning at his own hand at a younger age than I am now.
It is truly remarkable how far we have come in very recent history. And how far we still must travel before the civilisation process is anywhere near completion.
By 1997 legality was not in question but the stigma was still real enough to force the resignation of the then chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party before a newspaper could reveal homosexual affairs. It was and remains an absurdity that people’s personal lives should interfere in their ability to offer public service. We are all fragile, every single one of us. We need more people representing us who have lived with all the experiences life throws at most of us.
Critics can point to the hypocrisy of those who vote against equality legislation while harbouring their own position privately. For my part, I can understand the terror too many have felt for too long of offering any clue to the truth in an unforgiving society.
A few year’s earlier one of my friends at university had come out and returned home to find his own father had packed his bags for him as they awaited him on the doorstep.
In 2012, the Archbishop of Glasgow implied to an audience in Oxford that a former priest turned MP died, in effect, after his body shut down because he was gay. In fact he had acute pancreatitis. The list of heartache caused by such ignorance goes on and on.
So I wasn’t surprised at how difficult it was for David Mundell to take the decision to come out, “new year, new start”. It has taken him into his sixth decade of life to muster the will to do this, and given all that has gone on in our society over that period, we can all understand why.
Mundell is a decent human being and a gentleman. When I lost my own small role in Holyrood in 2003 he was among the first to send a long and generous handwritten note to wish me well. I haven’t forgotten that.
It is encouraging that so many people rushed to wish him well and take the heat out of the moment. From Downing Street to Bute House and all across the social media we are a far more civilised country than only a few short years ago. But we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think we have further to travel.
The echoes of the decades live on in the tendency to depression, self-loathing and self-harm of many young men raised in a society that scorns in soft ways and in hard, the people they were meant to be. Until we draw no distinction in any form at any level we will not have the right to declare ourselves content.
Things are improving of course. Friends tell me that it is now more possible for young people to express themselves with more acceptance than ever before. But as long as men like David Mundell must wait to their sixth decade, we are doing something wrong.
As long as an archbishop, to whom we look for leadership, feels able to peddle prejudice and un-Christian bigotry where love and understanding should reside, we will have work still to do. I prefer the compassion of Pope Francis who thinks the Holy See’s clergy and diplomats should be less fixated on questions of sexual morality and show greater concern for billions of people abandoned by a culture that pays little heed to the world’s poor and persecuted.
So good on David Mundell. I hope today is his most relaxed Sunday ever, he deserves that. And I hope his own brave decision has helped nudge our society a further baby-step down the long road to civilisation. We are not there yet.