I was in two minds about whether I should write anything to be included as part of Brig‘s brilliant LGBT History Month coverage this month.
I wondered what I could possibly add to the vibrant tapestry of stories we have been able to collect this month, as people across campus – many of whom have never written for Brig before – told us of their LGBT experiences. All of the pieces have been honest, heartfelt and insightful. A few have deeply moved me.
The reality, though, is that all the reading in the world will never give me a full understanding of the complex web of LGBT experiences, because I won’t ever live any of them out myself. Often I feel like the best course of action when it comes to these issues is to listen, empathise and learn, rather than try to wade into the discussion. I’ve made clumsy mistakes while trying to do that in the past.
But I’d like to talk about the nature of what being an ally to people in the LGBT community is, as I understand it, and I’d like to tell a bit of a story.
I had never previously thought too hard about what the word ‘ally’ meant in this context, or whether it applied to me. I hope it does.
When I was a child, growing up in East Lothian, one of the little treats of life was to take a drive with the family west to our uncles in Glasgow, Jerome and Gordon, to their glorious, cavernous tenement flat in the west end, which had incredibly high roofs, chandeliers, a big telly, video games, shelves and shelves of books – the whole works (or what we would have called ‘the whole works’ back in the 90s). As a kid it was like visiting a mansion, full of stuff to do, stuff to look at, and lots of space to run around and be annoying kids in.
And as a kid, my initial understanding of Jerome and Gordon’s relationship was simply that they lived together – that they were flatmates and good friends. Which is funny now, but I was just a kid. Jerome was my mum’s brother, but Gordon was a good family friend so we called him Uncle too. I never considered the matter any further than that.
It was far too long ago – and my memory is far too poor – to recall the scenario that led to my mother explaining the full situation to me: that Jerome and Gordon lived together because they were a couple. I also can’t really remember how I reacted, or what I thought about it. I seem to remember feeling a little surprised, and also – as with my discovery (spoilers ahead) that Santa and the Tooth Fairy weren’t real – a little bit stupid and annoyed at my mum for not telling me sooner.
And as a child, it made some things make sense but also raised a ton of childlike questions, which I very much hope I never asked.
And life went on. In 2004, a young Scottish Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act which afforded same-sex couples the right to legal recognition of their relationship. It was not equality, but it was one of many forward steps. People – straight people especially – are prone to forgetting that it was only 24 years prior to the enactment of civil partnerships that same-sex sexual activity was still technically illegal in Scotland. It seems incredible now to think that could have possibly been the case such a short time ago, but it’s true.
In 2006, the family went to Arran for Jerome and Gordon’s civil partnership. It was great. Funnily enough, it was just like a wedding. The setting was beautiful, there was a ceremony and then there was a big dinner and a massive party. What strikes me looking back was just how many people there were. It felt like there were hundreds and hundreds of them; maybe there were. They’re a popular pair with friends from all over who were willing to make the trip to share that day with them. Just like a wedding.
Reflecting on it, the fact that it took my uncles over two decades before they could have their love legally recognised is a stark reminder of just how far we’ve had to come to get to something beginning to resemble equal rights.
But, of course, it still wasn’t equal. Gay couples could not marry. There was never any credible argument for maintaining that state of affairs. The only reason there ever was to resist equal marriage is bigotry – or at best, a social conservatism that essentially amounted to religiously-mandated bigotry.
I have it on good authority (an MP) that when Holyrood emphatically voted for equal marriage on November 20, 2013, it did so with the largest majority of any legislature anywhere in the world, and that is something we can all take a deep sense of pride in.
The thing is, even though the vote was a crushing 98 -15, I’ve never been able to let go in my mind of those 15 parliamentarians who voted against it. I can’t forget it. I consider myself a liberal who is tolerant of opposing views – but I just can’t bring any empathy to the table when it comes to elected officials hiding behind tradition and religion to infringe on people’s rights. There’s no logic there to argue against, no through line. Just prejudice, however cloaked in scripture or ‘family values’ it may be.
Maybe it’s because I took it personally. Because I knew first-hand that the love my uncles share is as valid, normal and enduring as any other.
Maybe it was also the surprise of learning who those 15 MSPs were. Eight of them were Conservatives – not a huge surprise. One was Labour. But six were SNP.
I had joined the SNP the previous year (and left later that year for reasons unrelated to this article) and still felt an affinity to them. Now of course, no one is claiming that six isn’t a teensy minority in what was at the time a party governing with a majority.
On the other hand, one of those six – Roseanna Cunningham – was promoted from minister to cabinet secretary by Nicola Sturgeon at the end of 2014. On top of voting against equal marriage, in 2006 Ms Cunningham unsuccessfully tried to stop gay couples from being able to adopt children.
Another one of those six – Fergus Ewing – also made the same jump from junior minister to cabinet in the First Minister’s most recent reshuffle last May. And indeed, of this gang of six, all but one remain MSPs, including professional bampot John Mason.
I don’t know if I’m being fair anymore. Do Ewing’s and Cunningham’s views on equal marriage make them in any way less capable of carrying out their respective policy briefs of rural affairs and the environment? No. But am I comfortable with homophobes serving in the Scottish cabinet? Also no.
That they are in senior cabinet positions should serve as a reminder to us all: we have gone someway but we still have someway to go.
There are, of course, far more egregious reminders of that fact – and the fragility of what has been won – than Roseanna and Fergus, who you might feel I have targeted somewhat unjustly here.
Across the Western world, intolerance is getting a look-in to mainstream discourse the likes of which it hasn’t enjoyed for decades. From the newly-empowered religious right in the US, championed by Vice President Mike Pence, who wish to turn back the clock on gay and trans rights, to Theresa May’s government in the UK and its predilection for cruelty and dog-whistle xenophobia masquerading as immigration policy, we are being taught a hard lesson: progress can, at any time, lurch violently backwards, taking with it hard-fought-for rights.
The right to love, the right to marry. The right to be able to live your life free of discrimination. The right to express yourself, whatever your sexual identity. I’m proud of the fact Brig has been able to facilitate that self-expression on these pages this month, and I hope it doesn’t stop just because the month ends. It’s been beautiful.
I hope that LGBT people think of me and the millions of straight people like me as allies – there are so many positive reasons to believe in this generation and to take heart from our well-documented progressive social attitudes. I hope ours will be the generation to truly cement a legacy of racial and sexual tolerance, that will eventually drive homophobia, biphobia and transphobia to the fringes for good. But we are not there yet, and there are many fights to fight.
It will be those fights where us straight people will have to put our money where our mouth is, and truly earn our stripes as allies. I, for one, will be with you.