There are supporters of equality in unexpected places north of the border in Scotland. Ruth Davidson MSP, elected as the openly lesbian leader of the Scottish Conservatives last year, is one of them. Davidson told So So Gay that the Conservatives had ‘gone a long way’ towards shaking off the image of the party created by Section 28. ‘We’ve said that we’re sorry…I don’t think that there’s much more to do on the issue’. But unsurprisingly, Colin Macfarlane, Director of Stonewall Scotland, doesn’t agree.
‘Sadly, we know homophobic bullying is endemic across the country. We work with education authorities and our own network of champions at a leadership level, which then filters down into schools’. Eleven years after the abolition of Section 28, two thirds of young LGBT people experience bullying in schools every single day.
‘Kids aren’t born bigoted. They’re taught it’ says Macfarlane. The word ‘gay’ is still used as a put down, but ‘schools still don’t know how to talk about homophobic bullying. People are broken by it’. Macfarlane cites the work undertaken by gay soldier James Wharton and Sir Ian McKellen through Stonewall’s Education for All campaign. ‘It’s so important that kids feel safe at school – and the feedback we get is brilliant’.
Supporting schools in creating an atmosphere of tolerance and an ethos of dignity is crucial, but the battles are not just fought in schools. Educating kids about the different sorts of human relationships is one way of preparing them for adult life, when some might decide to tie the knot with their own same-sex partner. And despite some noisy protests, the idea is more popular in Scotland than in any other part of the UK – in no small part down to the Scottish government’s own advocacy for the issue and a strong youth movement.
With the general support for the move, there’s a possibility that gay marriage could be legalised in Scotland before any other part of the UK. A 2010 Social Attitudes Survey showed that some 61% of Scotland’s population supported same sex marriage. In contrast, a 2011 survey claimed that only 43% of British people thought that gay couples should be allowed to marry – not including those who supported existing civil partnerships. The gay marriage campaign is gaining support as moves towards changing the law gather pace. Is Stonewall Scotland pushing at an open door?
‘Look at the campaign’ says Macfarlane. ‘A whole host of organisations – including the four main political parties – have pledged their support’. And, as Macfarlane points out, more people – some 55,000 – have responded to the Scottish government’s consultation on gay marriage than any other in recent history. That includes the 20,000 people who responded through the Equal Marriage Campaign. The Scottish government is now analysing the enormous number of responses which means that it’s now taking a bit longer than originally expected. Macfarlane does, however, concede that the majority of the public ‘don’t have a strong view either way’ about same-sex marriage – if asked they generally say ‘why not?’. Indeed.
But as Macfarlane points out, not all of the responses to the consultation have been positive.
‘Some of the language used by church groups has been quite inflammatory. There is a determination among those that don’t want gay marriage to happen – some bishops have threatened to withdraw support from the SNP’. The Scotland for Marriage campaign, run by the Catholic Church, reputedly spent £10,000 on billboard posters against the proposals. ‘But Stonewall Scotland has been respectful of other people’s views’.
‘It’s about a message of tolerance – young people want a forward-thinking, tolerant Scotland. And it’s about choice and about treating people with dignity’.
Macfarlane’s advice to Scots who want to be a part of the campaign is simple. ‘Ask your MSP to say ‘I do”, he says.
We come to the subject of homophobia in sport – and in particular, football. With racist incidents in the Premier League and a recent BBC Three programme on homophobia placing a spotlight on equality and diversity in football, research shows that LGBT people are less likely to participate in sport. ‘But I wanted to put it at the heart of the agenda,’ says Macfarlane.
‘If a Scottish Premier League footballer came out – that’s great – but there’s much more to it than that,’ says Macfarlane. ‘LGBT people need to be able to participate in all the activities their straight mates do’. Overwhelmingly, Stonewall Scotland found the level of violence and abusive language against LGBT people increased on big match days.
A small-scale survey conducted by Stonewall Scotland found that 34.5% of respondents had experienced homophobia at a sporting event, either as a spectator or participant. And a separate survey carried out by the Equality Network suggested that homophobia was even more prevalent when respondents were asked to include events associated with football, such as a pub where a match is being shown. Some 56.3% of those surveyed reported abusive jeers and chanting, often directed at players. And while most respondents reported verbal rather than physical abuse, the language that some would dismiss as ‘banter’ paints a picture of how threatening it can be, and how unclear current legislation is. Comments included:
‘I’ve heard people chant and say homophobic things at football matches when I was a teenager and trying to come to terms with my sexuality. It made me feel down, and unwilling to accept my sexuality.’
‘I would not do anything at a football match that would identify me as a lesbian – I know that the reactions would be extreme and I fear violence.’
‘It’s that language and tension that prevents LGBT people from partcipating in sport’, adds Macfarlane. ‘The Scottish Football Association are saying there is no place for homophobia in sport and I want to work with them.’ Macfarlane also wants to see a strong uptake of young LGBT people taking part in sport from 2014 onwards. ‘All eyes will be on Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games’.
With independence a possibility on the horizon, might Scotland need its own version of the Equality Act? If the level of campaigning on LGBT issues in Scotland is anything to go by, party politics can be brushed aside. Macfarlane is unequivocal: ‘Equality for LGBT people is a no-brainer.’