I didn’t blog anything yesterday because I was away at a wedding. One of my oldest friends married her girlfriend in a simple and beautiful ceremony, and then we celebrated over lunch. It was a little romantic tale of modern Scotland, remarkable and memorable only for the happy couple and those of us who had the happy privilege of being their guests. It wasn’t always like that.
I’ve known my friend since we were both in our late teens. Back then the possiblity that lesbians and gay men could live normal lives in the open was fraught with difficulties and struggles to assert yourself and a constant battle against prejudice and hate, a beautiful dream which all too often turned into a nightmare reality. The notion that we might be able to participate in a legal marriage was a fantasy.
The world has turned, the world has changed, and Scotland is no longer the same country that it was way back in the early 1980s when my friend and I pondered the shape our lives might take and wondered if we’d ever be allowed the normality that our straight friends and family took for granted. Yet here we are forty years on living in a Scotland where four Scottish political party leaders are either lesbian, gay, or bisexual, which was recently voted the country with the most LGBTI friendly legislation in the world, and whose government has pledged itself to adopt legislation protecting transsexual people and allowing them to define their own gender identity.
The Scottish government has recently been criticised for not doing more to challenge homophobic bullying in schools. It’s a serious problem, and the TIE campaign must be congratulated for all the hard work they’re doing in order to publicise an issue which blights the lives of untold numbers of young people in Scottish schools. It’s a far cry from my school days, back in Coatbridge in the 1970s homophobic bullying was normal, because homophobia was official policy. Homophobia was the law.
Not long after realising that I was gay, around the age of 13, terrified that anyone might discover my secret, two older boys in my school were caught by a teacher having a wee kiss under a stairwell. If a boy and girl had been caught kissing in similiar circumstances they’d have been told to move on, and little more would have been said. But this was two boys, and that’s not what happened. They were removed from the school and were never spoken of again. At the age of 13 my school taught me that what happened if anyone found out you were gay was that you would be disappeared, you’d vanish into the maws of public disapproval and disgust, never to be heard of again. That was the price of an innocent kiss in 1970s Scotland.
The TIE campaign must be lauded and supported, but it operates in a very different world from the bigotry and fear of a Scotland that remains well within living memory. Problems and issues remain, but we are a better place and a better country than we were just a few decades ago.
It’s not just around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity that Scotland has made huge progress. The rampant sectarianism of my youth is also a thing of the past. In the 1960s and 70s everyone of Catholic Irish descent in the West of Scotland knew that there were many places of employment where you could forget about applying for a job. Left footers were not welcome. Sectarianism defined you, defined your employment, defined who you could marry and how you lived your life, defined who you voted for. It was all encompassing and all pervasive.
Nowadays the discussion about sectarianism centres on offensive songs at football matches and the marches of marginalised bigots. Sectarianism no longer has the power it once did, it’s a shadow of its former self. Problems and difficulties remain, no one is denying that, but in this issue too, Scotland is a much better place than it was. We have made enormous strides towards a Scotland where a person’s religious background is not an issue, and for most people, in most circumstances, we’ve already got there.
But of course we’re Scottish, and being Scottish means that you’re not allowed to acknowledge your achievements, you have to keep beating yourself up over the injustices and inequalities that still exist. No one is denying that problems still exist, that there are challenges still to be faced and obstacles to overcome, in tackling homophobia or sectarianism as much as in other areas of Scottish life, but if we don’t acknowledge the achievements we’ve made and how far we’ve come then we lose all sense of perspective.
Scotland is too used to seeing itself reflected through the distorting mirror of the Union. That’s a view that portrays us as the poor backward northern relative of the cosmopolitan and sophisticated south, and because of that we lose sight of the achievements that we’ve made for ourselves, the changes for the better that we’ve wrought in Scotland. We risk losing sight of the fact that Scotland is a much happier country than it used to be, and it is so because of the increased confidence and self-assuredness of ordinary Scottish people.
The changes in Scotland have little to do with our political classes. Politicians follow public opinions, they don’t shape them. The credit for the positive changes in Scottish society is due to the people of Scotland. We’ve achieved so much, we can achieve so much more. Our potential is endless and our future is a vista of great possibilities. We did that. You, me, the guy next door, the woman on the bus and the auld guy playing bools in the park, the people of a Scotland that is open to change and is increasingly aware of its own potential.
And as we celebrated the beautiful wedding of a loving pair of women, I raised a wee glass to toast the Scotland that made it possible.
BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE Barking Up the Right Tree has now been published and is an anthology of my articles for The National newspaper. You can submit an advance order for the book on the Vagabond Voices website at http://vagabondvoices.co.uk/?page_id=1993
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