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Gay Caledonia – Scottish Review of Books
by David Torrance

Gay Caledonia

March 2, 2012 | by David Torrance

There’s a question I often put to gay friends of mine in Edinburgh – a predominantly informed, professional and therefore naturally anti-Conservative lot – which is, ‘when was homosexuality decriminalized in Scotland?’ Most can’t pinpoint a specific date but are reasonably sure it was during the liberalizing wave of Home Office reform in the 1960s. Furthermore, they’re usually confident this applied across the whole of the United Kingdom.

They would, on both points, be incorrect. Not only was Scotland specifically excluded (along with Northern Ireland) from Leo Abse’s Sexual Offences Bill of 1967, but the law remained unchanged north of the border for another 13 years. Robin Cook and Malcolm Rifkind joined forces in 1976 to try and bring Scots Law into line with England but failed (most Scottish Labour MPs voted against), while in 1977 – a few months before I was born – the indefatigable (and promiscuously bisexual) Bob Boothby tried again in the House of Lords.

Only in 1980, when Cook proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scot-land) Bill, did the House of Commons seem minded to support a change. George Younger, the then Scottish Secretary (and personally liberal, as I argued in my authorized biography), urged MPs to think ‘carefully’ before voting for the amendment; but they did, by 203 to 80. After almost a decade-and-a-half homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in Thatcher-era Scotland.

Curious to think that for the first three years of my life, what I would become – or rather how that identity would manifest itself – was still deemed ‘criminal’ within the eyes of Scots Law. Paradoxically, it was the first significant act of liberalization to take place under Mrs Thatcher’s government, not that the Iron Lady got any credit at the time, or since, for facilitating it. It’s usually this point that sticks in the throat of my (by this point irritated) Edinburgh compatriots.

It makes people squirm because it’s an inconvenient truth, one that contradicts a story most Scots like to tell themselves, of a more liberal, tolerant and – perhaps most flatteringly of all – egalitarian land than our larger southern neighbour. An equally uncomfortable point is that arguably, for most Scots, this legislative time lag was in line with public opinion. For until relatively recently, when Scots were asked for views on three key social indicators – homosexuality, divorce and abortion – their responses were significantly more conservative than those in England.

And it persisted beyond decriminalization in 1980. As the Scottish political classes battled against Mrs Thatcher and campaigned for devolution, the irony was that a significant chunk of them shared her small ‘c’ conservative instincts when it came to single mothers, gay people and terminated pregnancies. That this was the case until the end of the 20th century tells us much about heterosexual Scotland, and more specifically its prejudices, fears and aspirations.

This subtext has also been mirrored in the lives and works of Scotland’s poets and writers. Much was made of the fact that it took until 2010 for a mainstream Scottish novel to include an openly gay character, Mike Pendreich in James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still. In this, Robertson doesn’t flinch from tackling Scotland’s historically conservative attitudes while sympathetically incorporating sexual politics into his narrative. Scottish fiction’s rather tortured representation of masculinity – from R L Stevenson to William McIlvanney – was finally brought up to date.

Robertson took his title from one of Edwin Morgan’s landmark Sonnets From Scotland, and indeed the late Makar’s career neatly encapsulates the story of gay Scot-land. Although actively homosexual since his youth, for personal and legal reasons Morgan hid his sexuality via the non-gendered use of ‘you’ in his poetry. Thus ‘The Milk-cart’ (‘to wish for you, harder to sleep, useless to weep’) can be read as heterosexual or homosexual. His poems of love rendered sexual orientation irrelevant, but nevertheless concealed the truth.

Only in 1990 did Morgan ‘come out’, explaining his sexuality in Hamish Whyte’s (ed.) Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections on his Work and Life. By contrast, the late Hamish Henderson not only gave no public declaration of his sexuality, but that aspect of the late folklorist’s life was dispensed with by his biographer Timothy Neat in a single paragraph. Female Scots on the other hand, most notably Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy (for a while lovers), not only embraced their sexuality, but made it a prominent feature of their work. But then Kay and Duffy (born in 1961 and 1955 respectively) hail from a different generation.

In Scottish Writers Talking 3 (John Donald, 2006) the writer Ali Smith (‘sexuality-wise I’m on the margins, supposedly’) tells Isobel Murray: ‘I know what happens to gay characters. I know what happens to them in soaps; I know what happened to them in A L Kennedy’s Everything You Need, I know what happens to them in books; I know what happened to them in Alan Spence’s marvellous Way To Go, which is that the gay character dies. The gay character dies, the gay character dies, the gay character dies…’

It’s a compelling point. To Smith’s list could be added Ronald Frame’s The Lantern Bearers, in which Euan Bone, a gay composer living in a Scottish village, dies in a sting operation following a child molestation allegation, and perhaps Children of Disobedience (1989) by A. Findlay Johnson (actually Alison Johnson), whose bisexual character Alan Cameron doesn’t die, but suffers the grave consequences of a sexual liaison with an adolescent boy, again in a remote part of rural Scotland.

There are, of course, exceptions. Probably the first “gay” novel I read, Christopher Whyte’s The Gay Decameron (1998), was originally intended as a satire on well-heeled Edinburgh gay circles but grew into a sequence of ten dinner-table narratives which paid ‘tribute to the not often enough told or sung lives of gay men, their friends and those who love them, from classifieds to AIDS to meeting his mother’. Whyte’s novel in some respects echoed Alasdair Gray’s Something Leather (1990), which deployed a similar stylistic device, but with a different gender (four lesbians) and city (Glasgow).

By refusing to treat his characters’ homosexuality as something peripheral, while avoiding coded language for a more direct, realist, approach, The Gay Decameron anticipated, or perhaps more accurately mirrored, a significant shift in Scottish attitudes to homosexuality. As Gerry Hassan has argued, the row in 2000 over Wendy Alexander’s intention to remove Section 28 from Scotland’s (then relatively new) statute books, ‘unwittingly began the first ever public debate in Scotland on the role, status and rights of homosexuals’.

On the cusp of a new millennium almost half of Scots still believed sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong, while only 29 per cent felt they were ‘not wrong at all’. According to the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, however, those statistics have more or less been reversed, something the ubiquitous pollster John Curtice has described as a ‘cultural revolution’.

Curtice has also charted a related shift in terms of attitudes towards gay, or ‘same-sex’, marriage, which in 2002 41 per cent agreed should be allowed by law (29 per cent disagreed), but support for which today stands at 61 per cent (with only 19 per cent opposed). Perhaps taking this as a cue, the Scottish Government recently launched a consultation on gay marriage (Alex Salmond having indicated that he’s minded to support it) that, if anything, highlighted Scotland’s changing attitudes.

The consultation prompted a mini-split within the hitherto ultra-disciplined SNP ranks, while the Catholic Church in Scot-land railed against the proposals, as did veteran Nationalist Alan Clayton. ‘The gay marriage situation is not what I fought for for 30 years,’ he explained to a journalist. ‘I fought for an independent Scotland, not to have a politically correct secular society.’ This muddled remark not only betrayed a socially conservative element within Scot-land’s National Party (although certainly a minority), but also the wrong-headed notion that constitutional change and public policy is necessarily one and the same thing.

Alex Salmond has, thus far, tried to rise above this while working hard to keep his party united and faith leaders on side. Interestingly, he recently selected And The Land Lay Still as his book of 2010, while lauding the contribution of ‘Eddie’ Morgan to Scottish cultural life (even before learning of the poet’s £1 million bequest to the SNP). Long forgotten, curiously, was another Nationalist writer’s contribution to liberalizing attitudes. Compton Mackenzie’s novel Thin Ice (1956) was not only ahead of its time in depicting a gay politician, but doing so sensitively.

If homosexual figures in Scottish public life were a rarity in the mid-1950s, today they remain relatively discreet; there are only a handful of ‘out’ gay or bisexual MSPs, while on the other hand Glasgow City Council has had two successive gay leaders in Steven Purcell and Gordon Matheson. Most significant, however, was the recent election of Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Being gay, she told one interviewer last year, ‘is not a big deal’. ‘To be honest, people of my generation just don’t care who you’re going home with,’ she added. ‘It’s a far bigger taboo to be homophobic than it is to be homosexual.’

In the bad old days, of course, gay Tories had to resign, their careers being terminated, in life as in art (as recently as 1997 the mere whiff of such a scandal ended Scottish Tory chairman Sir Michael Hirst’s political comeback). Similarly, when the narrative of And The Land Lay Still reaches 2008, Mike Pendreich feels he’s living in a more tolerant, open Scotland than was the case 50 or even 20 years earlier. As James Robertson says: ‘In my book the gay characters don’t die. At least, the main one and his lover don’t. They survive, and at the end of the book are stepping into what they think is a better future.’

For a nation that often delights in emphasizing differences rather than celebrating similarities, that Scotland has gone from being, as Gerry Hassan has observed, ‘a more conservative country than the rest of the UK, to a place rather like the rest of the UK’, is not considered noteworthy in this piously optimistic era of ‘moving Scot-land forward’. Instead we carry on much like before, expressing ourselves via referendums, constitutional reform and other worthy, but ultimately rather soul-less, means.

From this Issue

Gay Caledonia

by David Torrance

Boz in the North

by Paul Schlicke

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