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Damian Barr on Scottish independence and the LGBT voter

By Ben Kelly


“An independent Scotland will herald a new era for equalities, enshrining rights and protections in a written constitution,” promises Alex Salmond.  Glasgow City Hall recently flew the rainbow flag, Scotland offers sanctuary to Commonwealth citizens fleeing homophobia and equal marriage is a reality.  A truly equal society will dawn immediately after a Yes vote, we’re told.

So, why do I feel nervous?

I grew up near Glasgow but moved away to Brighton in 1999 (as so many of us do).  Scotland then was not Scotland now or as it might be.  People and places change and big change is coming.  It must be for the better.

Historically, Scotland has trailed England on equality — homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised there until 1980 (1967 in England).  The Church of Scotland makes the Church of England look like Heaven and still wields huge power, particularly in rural areas.  The macho sectarian violence that scarred Northern Ireland still blights Scotland, particularly the west — homophobia is the one belief they share.  These are uncomfortable truths.

I’m not idealising England with its UKIP and BNP and EDL.  I’m not saying the SNP is homophobic.  I don’t doubt the sincerity of rainbow alliances like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).  And I’m not slamming Scotland.  But I would be lying if I didn’t say I still think twice about holding my husband’s hand on the street in Glasgow.  Maybe that’s my issue, maybe it’s not. Here’s (partly) why.

Let me take you back to 2000 and a visit to my Mum. She lives in the same council house where she raised my sister, brother and me. It’s in a former mining village near Glasgow but a million miles away.

“Keep the Clause!” screamed the posters in the window of every house on my street.  Every window but ours.  ‘Protect Our Children!’

“Ignore them,” my Mum said.  But they were our neighbours, their kids were my pals and now they hated me.  I couldn’t miss the giant billboards of vulnerable looking boys (never girls).  Amendments were spray-painted: “Don’t bend over for poofs” was my favourite.  The Daily Record, Scotland’s red-topped moral guardian, screamed: “Gay sex lessons for Scottish schools!” If only!

Clause 28 was the hateful law introduced by Thatcher’s government designed to “prohibit the teaching of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship”.  As nebulous as it was pernicious, no prosecution was ever brought but it enshrined homophobia in schools so pupils like me never got the education or protection we deserved.  Scottish Labour proposed killing it.  One very rich man fought to save it:  Brian Souter, millionaire cofounder of Stagecoach.

Sir Brian, as he is now, funded and directed Keep the Clause.  He printed the posters, bought the billboards and balloted every registered voter.  Two out of three simply binned it.  But of those who responded, 86.8% agreed.  That’s well over a million bigots (sorry — principled individuals whose beliefs we must respect).  Where are they now?  Who will be welcome in their Scotland?

That was just 14 years ago. Since then, Sir Brian’s given over £1.5 million to the SNP.  Not to the Yes campaign but Salmond is to Yes as the Queen is to Monarchy.  Is this buying influence?  SNP were totally committed to renationalising public transport.  That commitment – which would empty the pockets of their biggest single donor – has been dropped.

There are questionable donors on both sides but none as committed, connected or homophobic as Sir Brian.  What other promises might be broken?  Once they have our votes, will we get our rights?  There will be no United Kingdom to run to.  We must hope that positive voices like RIC will shout louder than Sir Brian.

Salmond just welcomed a new poll by KaleidoScot which claims 85 percent of LGBTI respondents back Yes.  Maths was never my strong suit but let’s examine KaleidoScot’s statistical small print: “This [result] could be in part because the Yes campaign has committed itself to LGBTI equality enshrined in a Scottish constitution if Scotland gains independence.”  It could.

“It could also be affected partly due to the nature of surveying we used, as well the engagement level of both sides on social media. For example, Yes LGBT shared our post with over 12,000 of their Facebook followers, meanwhile LGBT Together has just over 1000.”  Do you think?  Hardly rigorous.

Whoever wins on Thursday, let us work to ensure the triumph of equality.  For all of us.

Damian Barr is the author of Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury, £7.99). Follow Damian on Twitter @Damian_Barr​.

More from Damian Barr:
> Damian Barr: ‘Dolly Parton and me’
> Damian Barr on holiday destinations for LGBT travellers