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How Scotland Became the Most LGBT Friendly Country in the World

Most of Scotland's political parties are led by people who aren't straight, and almost everyone seems to be cool with that.

Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, who recently revealed she has a female partner. Photo by David Chaskin / PA Wire / Press Association Images

When Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, revealed this month that she was in a relationship with a woman, a nation shrugged its shoulders.

Where once a politician's sexuality would have been considered by some to be fair game for speculation and ridicule, Scotland in 2016 has grown up and moved on. These days, Scots largely support equality for LGBT people, and they're more concerned with the big issues of tax, social services, and the prospect of a post-Brexit independence referendum than with the private lives of elected officials.


But while Dugdale's coming out might not have sparked much of a reaction among voters, it marks a symbolic moment for Scotland. With the Scottish Conservatives headed by lesbian Ruth Davidson, the Greens by bisexual co-convenor Patrick Harvie, and the UK Independence Party by gay MEP David Coburn, the majority of the country's mainstream political parties now have openly LGBT leaders.

With attitudes toward same-sex relationships becoming more liberal in much of the world, it's easy to underestimate just how much of a seismic shift this represents. Scotland has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the UK when it comes to LGBT rights, a hangover from centuries of religiously sanctioned intolerance and from a narrow definition of gender that had no place for anything outside accepted, straight norms. Same-sex sexual activity was only officially legalized in the country in 1980, more than a decade after limited legal protections were introduced in England and Wales.

Nowadays, Scotland boasts same-sex marriage, passed by an overwhelming majority in the Scottish parliament in 2014. It's worked alongside the rest of the UK to combat discrimination. The opening ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games even saw Captain Jack from Torchwood kissing a dude in front of an estimated worldwide television audience of a billion. In 2015, a study by human rights organization ILGA named Scotland as the best country in Europe to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.


But changing laws and attitudes hasn't been easy. As recently as the year 2000, Scotland was gripped in a venomous debate over Clause 2A—the Scottish equivalent of the infamous Section 28, which forbade positive portrayals of same-sex relationships in schools. The newly established devolved Scottish parliament mounted an effort to overturn the law, and while it succeeded, it sparked a bitter reaction from opponents, who claimed that exposure to "gay propaganda" would endanger the nation's children.

The "Keep the Clause" campaign saw Scotland plastered with billboards warning of the grievous harm that could come from presenting LGBT people as normal human beings. The Daily Record—then the country's best-selling newspaper—backed their stance, running blaring front page headlines warning of "gay sex lessons" in schools. Businessman Brian Souter, the tycoon behind the Stagecoach transport empire, contributed a reported $1.4 million to the cause.

"Keep the Clause" campaigners insisted they weren't homophobic, arguing that they were defending family values and religious beliefs in the face of a godless, politically correct assault. But their effect on Scotland's LGBT population was immense. The campaign may have avoided openly bigoted language, but its underlying message was clear: Same-sex relationships were morally inferior to straight ones. Gay, bi, and lesbian couples didn't deserve a family life. Queerness was something to be kept firmly behind closed doors.


As a 15-year-old bisexual, I heard all of this loud and clear. Every morning on my way to school, I'd pass one of the seemingly omnipresent billboards, and at a time when I was just starting to understand my sexuality, it filled me with shame, fear, and self-revulsion. I lived in terror of having my orientation exposed. I broke off relationships for fear of discovery. Shamefully, when my classmates cracked jokes about dykes and poofters, I joined in out of fear of arousing suspicion.

I wasn't alone in being affected by this toxic atmosphere. LGBT support groups reported a rise in calls from distressed or even suicidal people as the rhetoric about "protecting children" served as the worst kind of dog whistle to Scotland's homophobes.

Looking back now, it's hard to believe how much progress the country has made in just over 15 years. How did we come from such division and hostility to a point where Scotland is recognized as one of the safest and most accepting places on the planet? Where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon herself helped one gay man pop the question to his boyfriend?

Part of it is undoubtedly down to political changes. From the repeal of Clause 2A to the establishment of same-sex marriage and plans to ensure that transgender people have their identities legally recognized, a majority of MSPs from across the political spectrum have made it clear that they favor equality and are willing to take some flak to achieve it (with the notable exception of UKIP's David Coburn, who despite being gay himself, opposed same-sex marriage and dismissed campaigners for it as "equality Nazis".)

There's also the declining influence of religion in Scottish society; 52 percent of Scots now say they aren't religious, according to the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, and two thirds of those who are say they never or almost never attend services. While it would be wrong to suggest that all religious people are hostile towards LGBT rights, churches have been among the most outspoken voices in the debate, and those that preach the immorality of same-sex relationships are doing it to ever-dwindling congregations.

But if you ask me, the real heroes in the story are Scotland's LGBT people themselves. Not just the activists and firebrands who organized campaigns, marches and petitions, but the ordinary folks who've had the courage and the confidence to live openly and show that their relationships are no different from straight ones. It's because of them that when one of the country's highest-profile women came out, no one particularly gave a shit.

And that's a quietly beautiful thing.

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