Andrew Wilson: The road from Alabama to Holyrood

NEXT Sunday marks the 58th anniversary of the day a 42-year-old woman from Alabama refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat to a white passenger. Her defiance and the Montgomery County Bus Boycott that followed became an emblem of the American Civil Rights Movement.

'The rights of gay people today are a direct parallel'. Picture: Getty

Until she and her fellow citizens took the stand they did, it was perfectly normal and acceptable in the eyes of the law to send people to the back of the bus on the basis of the colour of their skin. Looking back from where we stand now it seems such a backward, antiquated and unfair time. How embarrassing for our grandparents’ era and the leaders who allowed it to go unchecked. And its ending was another milestone on the journey of mankind towards civilisation. One of many journeys without end.

For me, and I respectfully recognise this is not the case for many other friends, family and fellow citizens of mine, the rights of gay people today are a direct parallel. I shudder when I think that the pain, humiliation and fear black people felt then, runs through the hearts of gay people in my country today, for whatever reason.

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Until a young person who is gay can openly declare their soul without fear or shame then this country will not yet to be able to declare our society fully civilised. In the words of many of the gay MSPs who spoke in last week’s debate we heard the fears of their younger selves.

As long as we institutionalise stigma and diminish the opportunities and equality of people because of their sexuality, we blow harsh wind into the sails of depression, secret lives and broken families. There is enough pain in this world about which we can do so little, without adding layers of our own that we need not, should not, must not anymore.

I often ask myself what my own darling children and their children will think of me and my generation when they are older. I think on that when contemplating our big vote next September. And I think on that when I consider the shape of the society we create for ourselves right now. I am certain that they will scoff over the table at Ancient Me when I recount the battles of our legislature on Section 2A in 2000, and on the Equal Marriage vote of last week. It is of interest that both votes passed with remarkably similar numbers of 99 to 17 and 98 to 15 respectively despite the separation of 13 years.

I have very substantial respect and concern for the rights of religions and of our churches. I believe that any progress of this nature must be built on understanding, concern and respect for difference. I don’t doubt that the handling of Section 2A amendments created much more division in society than was ever needed. It opened wounds that could have been healed with a defter touch.

If you remember, the heartfelt concern of many then was that the abolition of the clause would lead to the promotion of homosexuality in schools with many unintended consequences. It turns out the world continued to turn on its axis and all that changed was the end of a needless clause of legislation that diminished too many people without cause.

So I was pleased at the tone and conduct of the debate last week and the efforts that have gone into securing progress while avoiding needless offence to the deeply held beliefs of many. Of course some differences of opinion are impossible to mediate but our society has taken another step without the agonies and pain of the 2000 debate, which took place on a much less important piece of legislation.

I am a church member myself, but without the fundamentalism or certainty many enjoy. On the scale of what matters most for me, love comes first, and the importance of a stable, loving relationship for the people in it, for any children they raise and for society overall.

Marriage is society’s way of recognising such relationships and underlining the shared commitments that go with them. Allowing all the same opportunity to such recognition is a clear civilising step.

All marriages are frail, flawed and require work, effort and commitment. Some produce happy homes for happy children. Many do not. The idea that we pre-judge the outcome on the basis of anything, let alone sexuality, seems absurd to me. Let all that want to, try. It is so worth the try.

I see no reason why any church should be forced to conduct a ceremony they wouldn’t want to or any reason why any person would want a ceremony in a church in which they were not wanted.

My instincts are that the state and society should move at the pace of progress and that churches will have to make their own reflections on where they stand and why. Pope Francis made clear his own belief that the Roman Catholic Church had to turn its relentless gaze away from sexuality towards poverty and he speaks for many in that thought.

Moments like this week matter. And while I doubt it was a day to rival Rosa Parks’ moment it was a day the future will judge well, of this I have no doubt. Well done Holyrood. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW