Gerry Hassan: Saying it loud, principled, equal and proud

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The Scotland of today is a land vastly different from that of even a few decades ago. Curiously, Scots whether in politics, public life or private conversation, often don’t recognise this.

Many understand that the Empire has gone, the rise and fall of the welfare state, and that the Sunday Post isn’t the force in the land it once was. But there is so much more that we don’t seem to understand, including the scale of transformation and its consequences.

The Kirk, once an omnipotent force of theocratic power, has been reduced to a bit player in “civic Scotland”. Discrimination on the grounds of religion has mostly disappeared from employment. And to take another example, the council housing which was such a dominating characteristic of post-war Scotland from Cumbernauld to Dundee has been reduced to a declining minority status.

These and other changes have altered profoundly how we think, act and live. Religion doesn’t determine many aspects of our lives anymore or even shape how we live our Sundays. Sectarian divisions have little resonance outside of the context of ‘the Old Firm’.

The end of the era of council housing has coincided with the demise of all-powerful municipalism – a creed now much derided but which lifted people up, took working people out of poverty, and cleared Scotland of the scar of humiliating living conditions.

Last week another momentous change happened with the publication of the Marriage and Civic Partnership (Scotland) Bill which will legalise same sex marriage. It is worth noting how uncontroversial this was, despite the efforts of Scotland for Marriage, which looks likely to speak for a declining, aging constituency. So far this occasion and debate has given little opportunity to reflect on the degree to which Scotland has changed, and the dark place we have come from where the word homosexuality could barely be spoken. Until this point in time modern Scotland has consistently shown at every opportunity that it has had a problem with the subject.

Take the Wolfenden Report of 1957 which began the process of decriminalisation of male homosexuality. This was a British-wide process, but a minority report by James Adair, chair of the YMCA and Kirk elder, opposed any reform, and was cited by opponents of any change in Scotland.

The Church of Scotland set up a committee in 1957 which reported in favour of decriminalisation, only to see it overturned by the Church and Nation Committee, a decision endorsed by a subsequent General Assembly.

Labour MPs such as Jean Mann, MP for Coatbridge, talked a language of prejudice and paranoia. Mann saw decriminalisation as part of a gay conspiracy to dominate society and an “evil thread” that ran “through the theatre, the music hall, through the press, and through the BBC”.

The Scotsman invoked the language of the period, declaring in an editorial that it was “no solution to any public problem to legitimise a bestial offence” and, in another piece, compared homosexuality to “perversion and subversion” and fear of communism.

When the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed for England and Wales, it wasn’t an accident but politics that excluded Scotland. Part of the politics was Willie Ross, Labour’s secretary of state for Scotland reading the runes of conservative Labour MPs, the mindset of what he saw as Calvinist Scots, the miners and other traditional unions, along with the Kirk.

Roy Jenkins, home secretary, could not understand the logic of the Scots opt-out – concluding that it was all about avoiding the “wrath” of Scots Labour MPs.

Even as recently as 2000 the Scots got stuck in a cultural war on gay issues involving Wendy Alexander, Brian Souter and Clause 28. Senior Scottish Labour MSPs such as Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and Tom McCabe equivocated in their commitment to equality. Donald Dewar proved incapable, as with many issues, of showing convincing leadership.

This is the Scotland of the not so distant past: one many of us have direct experience and memory of – open prejudice, violence, blackmail, and as importantly, of silence and collusion with this state of affairs.

Today Scotland is not a land of milk and honey, but in terms of gay rights we live in a different world. This needs to be widely understood because it tells us some important things about ourselves.

This is a land which gave power and status not so long ago to moral authoritarians and guardians who were our elect and elders, whether family, friends or church. It was a place where people were worried, anxious and felt diminished by authority, and perhaps even more insidiously, always felt they needed to look over their shoulder, worrying about the criticism or scorn of others.

Modern Scotland is a very different place: diverse, messy, pluralist and one in which authority is increasingly being questioned and challenged.

This is history in the making: made by Scottish lesbians, gays and bisexuals, and supporters and advocates of equality in political parties, trade unions, NGOs, churches and wider society.

We have moved from a world with no gay figures in public life two decades ago to one where two of our mainstream political parties (the Tories and Scottish Greens) are led by people who can be “out” and it just isn’t an issue.

Much of this change in Scotland has happened outside of conventional politics by people taking a principled and courageous stand for equality and empathy in their lives, families and work. It provides us with an example of wider social change, rather than just relying on politicians and legislation who have helped, but ultimately have followed rather than led public opinion. Isn’t it time to celebrate the modern Scotland many of us have had a small part in creating?