You don’t have to imagine what life was like for gay kids in Scotland just 40 years ago. They’ve told us. Take Damian Barr’s extraordinary, devastating memoir Maggie and Me. Take Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning autobiographical novel Shuggie Bain. Listen to Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”. “The love that you need will never be found at home… Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy.”
Hatred and violence were merely the obvious manifestations punctuating the pervasive fog of rejection and alienation. You are not welcome. You are a perversion.
There were almost no role models (save perhaps the defiance of Jimmy Somerville or the queerness of Annie Lennox) nor glimmers into a better life – gay adults didn’t have it better either. Homosexuality had only been decriminalised north of the border in 1981. Just seven years later, Margaret Thatcher snuffed out any flickers of progress by imposing across Britain Section 28 (Section 2A in Scotland), which gagged teachers from talking about gay people. Silence plus prejudice equals a deathly blackout. Good luck trying to breathe.
Fast forward to Monday 27 March 2023. A narrow victory (52 per cent to 48 per cent) landed Humza Yousaf the role of leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland. The relief among so many LGBTQ people could be felt across Scotland and beyond. This is a politician – and the first Muslim leader of a Western country – who distinguished himself from the other two candidates by unequivocally supporting LGBT rights.
“As someone from a minority background myself, I will champion, defend and celebrate equal rights for all to the hilt,” he said during the campaign. Now imagine what seeing him win must have felt like for, say, a lesbian Muslim from Glasgow.
Yousaf supports same-sex marriage – and yes, he voted for it and then was absent for a further vote, but contrast that with his nearest competitor, Kate Forbes, who said marriage is “between a man and a woman” and that she would have voted against it. Yousaf also supports the policy of making it easier to legally change your gender, again unlike Forbes – whose socially conservative views helped undermine not bolster her campaign. The third candidate, Ash Regan, even resigned last year in order to vote against the law streamlining gender recognition as it would “put women and girls in danger”.
LGBT people have always been cast as a threat, and our rights always depicted as a danger: equalise the age of consent and older gay men will prey on teenagers; allow gay people in the military and they will sodomise fellow soldiers; allow gay teachers in schools and they will turn kids gay; allow same-sex couples to marry and it will destroy the institution of marriage; allow trans people to more easily obtain the right paperwork and they’ll attack women in public toilets. Few heterosexuals bothered to worry about the danger we were in.
Yet hate crimes against LGBT people have soared in recent times. Since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, homophobic hate crimes in Britain have more than doubled and transphobic hate crimes have tripled. These are only the recorded figures. Research by Galop, the anti-hate-crime charity, found only one in eight LGBT people report it to the police. This doesn’t represent progress and nor does Brexit, which enables Westminster politicians to more easily remove the rights we have secured without a higher court to appeal to.
But Humza Yousaf, unlike Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer, wants his country to re-join the EU, the institutions of which triggered many of the legal protections we now rely upon, including: homophobic discrimination protections (The Treaty of Lisbon); transphobic discrimination protections (The European Court of Justice); the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland (the European Court of Human Rights); and the equalisation of the age of consent (the European Commission of Human Rights). Leaving the EU leaves more room for lawmakers to chip away at LGBT rights in the UK, especially with the repeal of the Human Rights Act, which reduces the powers of the ECHR.
Meanwhile, anti-LGBT rhetoric is ramping up in the UK, the US, and beyond, with trans people and drag queens particularly scapegoated, harassed and abused by those on the right (among others). Senior Conservatives have said the party will fight the next election on culture war issues such as trans rights. Starmer is now wobbling on gender recognition, arguing there should be a “reset of the situation” in Scotland. An anti-trans protest in Australia last week saw a sickening display of Nazi salutes. Hundreds of anti-LGBT laws are being introduced in America. And Russia, Hungary, and Uganda continue their descent into anti-LGBT prohibitions. The aims of many around the world are clear: elimination.
So allow us a minute to feel the relief of Yousaf’s victory, to take that breath that was denied so many in the 1980s, and to remember that as recently as 2014 the SNP was accepting huge donations from the businessman Brian Souter, who in 2000 spent up to £1m of his own money on the Keep the Clause campaign, which aimed to retain Section 2A (or Section 28 in England), the very legislation that imposed the silence and darkness on gay kids in school.
But across the beautiful country of Scotland, LGBT pupils and all those who remember the blackout and the beatings, can at least believe that the fog has lifted – for now.