Comment: The equal marriage vote was a proud moment for Scotland

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The Equality Network’s Tom French reflects for on how last week’s decision of Scotland to legalise equal marriage was cause for celebration and pride.

Last Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister told guests at our crowded equal marriage celebration in Edinburgh that she had “never felt more proud to be an MSP than I felt at 6.30pm tonight”.

A couple of hours earlier, at the end of a moving debate in the Scottish Parliament, the Presiding Officer had announced an overwhelming majority of 105 to 18 for the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill, passing the bill into law and making Scotland the 17th country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.

At nearly six-to-one in favour the vote was the third strongest majority for equal marriage of any legislature to date, a resounding demonstration of our support for equality.

As the result was announced campaigners and supporters in the public gallery spontaneously took to their feet to applaud MSPs, and – breaking with convention – the First Minister, the Scottish Cabinet and Members from across the chamber responded in kind by standing to applaud the gallery.

We might not have broken out into song like our friends in New Zealand, but in an understated Scottish way that moment conveyed exactly the emotions that many people across the country were feeling.

Earlier in the afternoon, as a rainbow appeared in the sky over Holyrood, hundreds gathered outside the Scottish Parliament for the final rally of our six-year-long Equal Marriage campaign. Jerry Slater and Larry Lamont – from the small town of Kirkcudbright on Scotland’s west coast – were the star couple, taking part in a symbolic marriage celebration led by Rev Maud Robinson of the Unitarians.

Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil and Lanark-born singer Horse McDonald were among those on hand to throw the saltire-coloured confetti over the couple, as Loud and Proud – Scotland’s LGBT choir – sang their own rather tongue-in-cheek rendition of Beyonce’s Single Ladies, urging MSP’s “if you like us then you’ll let us put a ring on it”.

Tuesday was a day of celebration, and an historic moment that many people in Scotland thought might never come.

The day was particularly poignant for Jerry and Larry who have been together for over twenty years. Larry, a born-and-bred Aberdonian who turns 81 this year, has spent most of his life living in a country that rejected LGBT people and only decriminalised homosexuality in 1980. A place where, for many years, being open about your sexual orientation meant risking your career, your social standing, your safety, and even imprisonment.

For some, Scotland’s equal marriage vote was simply about allowing two people who love each other to celebrate their relationship and have it recognised in the same way as everyone else.

For others the vote represented something more – a moment of release, the last major step towards full legal equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people following many decades of campaigning. The moment when our government, our parliament, our political leaders stood up and declared finally and unequivocally that LGBT people are equal and valued members of our society and deserve to be treated accordingly.

Many people across the country will empathise with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP, who described how “on returning to my parliamentary office after the vote, I cried deep sobbing tears of relief and release and joy and pain and pride and dozens of other emotions all mixed up together…It felt (and still feels) like we had just changed the world for the better, and what we had done could now never be undone. It felt that big.”

The significance of the vote was also recognised in the chamber itself by MSPs of all parties. The SNP’s Alex Neil, the Minister responsible for the legislation, reflected in his opening speech that “If we pass the bill, today will mark an historic day…this legislation sends a powerful message to the world about the kind of society that we in Scotland are trying to create—a nation where the principles of fairness and equality are woven into the very fabric of our society.”

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie noted in her opening remarks that, “For me, the bill is about equality, fairness and social justice… about how we see ourselves as a nation, and how others see us. It is about the values that we hold and whether Scotland is indeed a confident, progressive nation where equality is truly valued.”

While Jackson Carlaw, the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, described how “There has been huge change in my lifetime from the brutal atmosphere in which gay people had to live when I was a teenager” and urged “We politicians have the opportunity today to be part of a generation that teaches the next generation…about the kind of country that they want to work in, to live in, to marry in, and the country that I want to vote for tonight.”

After 15 years of having a devolved parliament Scotland has become a world-leader on LGBT rights and equality, with progressive and inclusive legislation like our equal marriage bill.

While there is more work to do to secure full legal equality for trans and intersex people, and to tackle the barriers, prejudice and discrimination that LGBT people continue to face in society, we should recognise and celebrate the significant progress we have achieved.

Tuesday’s equal marriage vote was a proud moment for Scotland, a milestone that will be remembered in Scottish history, and a day that many will never forget.

Tom French is the Equality Network’s policy co-ordinator and tweets at @TomfromBrighton.