Analysis: LGBT rights and the Scottish election

PinkNews logo surrounded by illustrated images including a rainbow, unicorn, PN sign and pride flag.

With everything to play for in today’s Scottish election, the issue of LGBT rights has never been hotter. Four of the five main parties have mentioned it in their manifestos and numerous individual politicians are pledging their commitment to reform. This isn’t just because we live in a progressive society. With the SNP in the lead but Labour still hoping to snatch victory, and with other parties keen to secure possible coalition bargaining power, gay votes really count.

Those who followed controversies over the sh[OUT] exhibition of 2009 and the production at Glasgay of Jo Clifford’s play Jesus, Queen of Heaven will be aware that Scotland has a much stronger anti-LGBT religious lobby than exists south of the border. It’s a lobby that has historically held back discussion of LGBT issues. The SNP have been particularly dependent on votes from this group and also attracted opprobrium from the LGBT community when they received funding from the Stagecoach magnate Brian Soutar, who supported Section 28.

As a consequence of this, some LGBT people were worried about the SNP coming to power, but over the past four years they have done nothing to undermine the equalities work done by the previous administration, a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. Funding for groups like the Scottish Transgender Alliance has been maintained despite fiscal constraint. This parliamentary session has also seen the passing of the Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) (Scotland) Act 2009, groundbreaking hate crimes legislation which was introduced by the Green Party and enjoyed cross-party support.

This time around, the biggest issue is the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

“We want to extend legal marriage to gay couples and civil partnerships to heterosexual couples,” say the Lib Dems, who, along with the Greens, have made this a specific manifesto commitment. Labour initially said that this was area they intended to look into, but have now joined the SNP in calling for a ‘full debate’ on the subject.

The problem is this: should equality be up for debate? Should the full civic participation of LGBT people depend on what other citizens think of them? In a representative democracy like ours, one of the duties of government is supposed to be to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. According to recent surveys, just over half of Scots think same-sex marriage is acceptable, so the outcome of a debate would be difficult to predict. Could the promise of a debate, in lieu of solid commitments to reform, be an attempt to win over LGBT voters whilst reassuring prejudiced voters that reform is still unlikely to happen?

Expressions of concern over this may be what led to SNP leader Alex Salmond appearing on STV’s Face to Face programme on April 21st to stress his personal support for equal marriage, though he stopped short of saying that religious groups should be obliged to let such ceremonies be held on their premises. Along with personal pledges made by a number of candidates across the political spectrum, this may have tipped the balance of the pre-election debate, meaning that opponents have less to lose by supporting LGBT rights. Labour leader Iain Gray said that he did not object to same-sex marriage, but would not clarify his position further.

Meanwhile, the Conservative party, which is fielding a lesbian candidate for the first time in a Scottish election, refused to declare any official position on LGBT rights issues. It sees them as matters of conscience on which its MSPs must be allowed a free vote. Some Conservative candidates have expressed support for same-sex marriage but it is not clear what the position of the majority is.

The other LGBT issue to attract manifesto commitments in this election is bullying in schools. Here, again, the Lib Dems have taken a lead, and Labour and the Greens have also confirmed their intention to try and make education safer and more accessible for all. Pressed on the issue of faith schools, where homophobic and transphobic bullying are more common, candidates across the board expressed concern, though the SNP and Conservatives are notably more reluctant to challenge the right of such schools to present their own view of morality even where it may encourage prejudice.

Most of the talk about LGBT policies has focused on gay and lesbian people, with only the Greens making an explicit commitment to address transgender rights issues. This may affect the way that any future changes to marriage legislation are drawn up, and activists are watching closely to make sure that people changing gender don’t remain in a position where they are forced to divorce or to dissolve their civil unions. Whatever the outcome of the election, there are likely to be some positive changes in store for LGBT people, but if real equality is to be achieved it will be important to keep up the political pressure.

We asked candidates from each party to state why Scottish LGBT voters should give them support.

Johann Lamont, Labour (standing in Glasgow Pollok): “In our manifesto, we pledged to take a zero tolerance approach to homophobic bullying in schools and crack down on hate crime. We also want to investigate the best way to implement the ‘Alli Amendment’ in Scotland, to permit the celebration of civil partnerships in religious buildings for the first time, as well as legislate to allow gay men previously prosecuted for consensual acts to have those unjust convictions removed – long after the offences themselves have been decriminalised. We also believe the time is now right to consult on options to address the different status of civil partnership and marriage, providing genuine equality for same-sex couples.”

Marco Biagi, SNP (standing in Edinburgh Central): “When other LGBT voters ask me why they should vote SNP, our voting record comes first. Down the line, the SNP always votes the right way, and does so through principle rather than through compulsion from Europe. Re-elect the SNP and we’ll open up the issue of equal marriage. The party whose conference gave me unanimous support when I spoke from the podium in defence of gay asylum seekers is a party I know has equality in its heart.”

Margaret Smith, Liberal Democrats (standing in Edinburgh West): “The Liberal Democrats have been at the forefront of LGBT equality for decades. We have the best record of any political party on LGBT equality issues, and we continue to develop and promote progressive policies for LGBT people. We will tackle the lack of awareness that still exists in Scotland about gay issues, equality and bullying through the teaching profession. We will find new ways of challenging homophobia in schools and colleges and underachievement by LGBT pupils through mechanisms such as development of the Education for All programme in Scotland.”

Ruth Davidson, Conservatives (standing in Glasgow Kelvin): “I have a big interest in making sure the Scottish Conservatives continue to make advances with regard to LGBT issues. I campaigned in the general election last year on a platform of enabling those religious orders that wish to perform civil partnership ceremonies to do so. I hope very much to be elected this Thursday as the Scottish Conservatives’ first openly gay MSP and I will ensure these issues are always considered in the future.”

Partick Harvie (standing on the Glasgow regional list): “The Scottish Greens have a great record of action on LGBT issues, from our Civil Partnership Bill in 2003 to the passage of our Bill on hate crimes in 2009. We have committed to legislating for equal access to marriage and civil partnership for same-sex and mixed-sex couples. We don’t regard LGBT equality as a special ‘conscience’ issue. All parties rightly deem racist and misogynist views unacceptable, and the Greens will consistently treat homophobia and transphobia in the same way.”

Jennie Kermode is a freelance journalist and the chair of Trans Media Watch.