Scottish Tory leader: I wept with relief when Holyrood passed equal marriage

PinkNews logo on pink background with rainbow corners.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson writes of how she cried “deep sobbing tears” of relief and joy when the Scottish Parliament legalised equal marriage last week.

Sometimes the political can become personal. As a practising Christian who is gay, the passage of the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act has been an intensely personal experience, as well as one which encompassed universal themes and fundamental rights.

Last Tuesday, MSPs voted to allow same-sex marriages to be conducted in Scotland for the first time. The act also enables same sex couples who have gone through a civil partnership ceremony to be able to convert their civil partnership into a marriage, should they wish to do so.

Scotland is now the 17th country in the world to pass such legislation, following the likes of Holland, Spain, Portugal, Canada and New Zealand, as well as England and Wales.

Growing up in a small village in the East Neuk of Fife, it was a day I never thought I’d see in my lifetime – never mind be a part of – and it was, without question, one of the proudest days of my life.

I am not ashamed to say that 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. In truth, I didn’t really know why I was crying – I hadn’t expected to – but I couldn’t stop for a full five minutes.

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.

In a Parliament which has seen a lot of entrenchment and tribalism surrounding the independence referendum, it also felt as if hands of friendship had stretched from one side of the Holyrood chamber to the other.

The Scottish Parliament is not yet 15 years old – still in its adolescence – and it had taken one of the most difficult and sensitive areas of legislation imaginable and shown maturity, courage and care as it sought to extend the rights of individuals while protecting freedom of religion.

MSPs spoke with passion and a raw honesty that few other subjects would lend themselves to, displaying a respect for those with differing beliefs, but recognising that those beliefs were just as sincerely held.

In short, Holyrood rose to the occasion.

Usually, political debates are based around party positions. Politicians set out their stall of what policies they want to see enacted, why they think their party’s ideas are better than everybody else’s and give evidence to support their claims.

The first debate into this bill was wholly different. Members from across the chamber talked of their own lives and experiences. They discussed love and faith – deeply personal issues – in a way that was exposing and arresting.

In ten years as a journalist covering Scottish news and politics, followed by nearly three years as an MSP, I had never heard the chamber more reflective.

While I have always been open about my sexuality and my faith, I have never been comfortable talking about either in public. I feel that they are parts of me that I should be able to choose who I share with, and on what terms. They are private and I feel vulnerable and self-conscious opening up such important and integral parts of myself to widespread discussion or criticism.

But this bill mattered to me. I wanted to be able to say out loud why it was important and necessary.

I spoke about my own family. How I grew up in a house that was filled with love and – even though my family had stresses and strains like any other – I always felt that our togetherness was secure.

The bedrock of that stability and security was my parents’ marriage and that stability helped me and my sister to flourish and believe that we could be whoever we wanted to be.

I talked of how the Presiding Officer and the other party leaders had known from childhood, without even thinking, that they would have the right to marry the person they loved. I wanted that unthinking right to marry to extend not just to me, but to the thousands of people across Scotland who were told that the law said no. That their love was something less, that their commitment was denied.

I talked, too, of the difficulties of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and the stigma which still exists and which can cause so much harm.

In 2012, Stonewall and the University of Cambridge talked to hundreds of lesbian, gay and bisexual schoolchildren across the country who were open about their sexuality. The majority said they suffered homophobic bullying and that it happened to them in their school.

Half were self-harming and nearly a quarter had attempted to take their own life on at least one occasion.

These were school children who were made to feel so much guilt and shame and despair. This bill could make their lives better.

Being ‘different’ is at the core of all homophobic bullying and this bill would wipe away the last legal barrier separating gay people from their peers.

It would create a Scotland where marriage was valued equally and would be open to all. A Scotland where no matter where you lived or who you loved, you could grow up knowing there was nothing you couldn’t do. A Scotland where LGBT people knew they had the same rights as everybody else.

Knowing that the Scottish Parliament had stood up for them, young gay people could walk taller into the playground the next day with the courage to face their accuser down.

As a Conservative, I saw this bill as a way to extend individual freedom, support families, encourage marriage and promote fairness and opportunity.

As someone who had experienced those same feelings of guilt and shame and despair, I knew that if my younger self had seen marriage offered to me by an act of parliament, then some of those dark years would have been a lot lighter.

In short, I believed marriage was a good institution which should be celebrated and I wanted to see it open to all.

I had never said those words out loud before.

I listened to others talking in similar, personal terms. Telling the chamber what this bill meant to them and what it would mean to others.

Last Tuesday, at stage 3, the testimony was every bit as arresting. When the bill was passed, the applause lasted a long time.

The act is a good piece of legislation. It enables civil marriage and allows churches and faith groups who wish to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies to do so, while fully protecting those who don’t.

For me, those protections are important.

I believe in the freedom of the church to make decisions regarding when, how and to whom they convey sacraments such as marriage. I would dearly love my own church, the Church of Scotland, to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies, but I fully respect its autonomy in making that choice. I have no doubts that this issue will be subject to much discussion, examination and prayer by the church in the coming years.

Just as I believe individual churches should be able to make their own decisions about whether to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies, I also believe that it was right to make voting on this bill a matter of conscience for individual MSPs. Each of the political parties in the parliament gave their members a free vote, rather than take an established position.

For the Scottish Conservatives, that meant that our parliamentary group was split roughly 50-50 between those who supported the bill and those who opposed.

At each stage of the process, we ensured that both sides were equally represented, so there were the same number of speakers for and against in each of the debates.

It was clear from very early on in the passage of the bill that there was a large majority of votes in the chamber in favour of its passing. Because of this, dissenting voices – from all the major parties – were hugely important.

When it comes to implementing great social change, it is crucial that a legislature carries the country with it. That can only happen if people feel as if they’ve been listened to and their point of view is represented. If only one side of the debate is heard, it does a disservice to democracy and, frankly, looks like a political stitch-up. No-one can say that about this bill – it has had more scrutiny than possibly any other single piece of legislation which has passed through Holyrood.

I am 35. When I was born, homosexuality was still a crime in Scotland. People could be prosecuted and punished for being in a relationship with the person they loved.

This week, the parliament has said that those same couples can now be recognised in marriage.

It is amazing to think how far Scotland has come, and how fast. However, while the changes in law may be great, the nature of love is unchanging.

After Tuesday night’s vote, I spoke at a Burns Supper and read an extract from a letter Burns wrote the night before his 30th birthday.

It said: “I myself can affirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment. All the pleasures, all the happiness of my humble Compeers, flow immediately from this delicious source. It is the spark of celestial fire which lights up the wintry hut of Poverty, and makes the chearless mansion, warm, comfortable and gay.”

The words are more than two centuries old, but the meaning still holds true.

Love is Love. Commitment is commitment. Marriage is marriage.

We all aspire to the celestial spark.”

Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.