What have the SNP leadership candidates said about LGBTQ+ rights?

Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan and Kate Forbes

As Scottish National Party members get ready to vote for the new first minister of Scotland and SNP leader, the campaign trail has seen a key focus on LGBTQ+ issues. 

The SNP’s 100,000 members will begin casting their votes from Monday (13 March) and will have until 12pm on 27 March to name their pick for Scotland’s top job – with the choice between Humza Yousfa, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan. 

Voters will be subject to an Alternative Vote (AV) system for the three-horse SNP leadership race. AV is a type of proportional voting. 

SNP members will rank their preferred candidate by marking a number 1 next to their favourite, 2 for their second choice and 3 for their least favourite. 

If a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the first choice votes, they win. If that is not the case, the person with the least first choice votes is struck off the list and their supporters’ second and third choice votes are moved over to the relevant candidates. Whoever gets more than half the votes will be named as the new first minister. 

Why is there an election? 

In January the UK government used Section 35 of the Scotland Act to halt the devolved nation’s gender law reform from gaining royal assent (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

The leadership race was triggered when Nicola Sturgeon, the devolved nation’s longest serving first minister, announced she was stepping down from the role after eight years

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Sturgeon’s shock resignation on 15 January was linked to the fiasco surrounding Scotland’s gender reform bill, which was passed by the Scottish parliament but subsequently blocked by Westminster using a Section 35 order. 

The outgoing SNP leader faced mounting criticism and a strong anti-trans backlash following the bill and subsequent conviction of rapist Isla Bryson

Speaking in Edinburgh a month after her resignation, Sturgeon denied her move was due to “short term pressures.”

“I’ve faced more short-term issues that I care to remember. If it was just that I wouldn’t be standing here today,” she said.

What have candidates said about LGBTQ+ issues? 

Kate Forbes

Kate Forbes talks at the SNP leadership hustings, on March 10, 2023 in Edinburgh, Scotland (Russell Cheyne – Pool/Getty Images)

Kate Forbes has a troubling record on LGBTQ+ issues and abortion rights. 

In 2019, she was one of 15 SNP politicians who signed a letter calling on the Scottish government to delay plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

“Conflating sex with gender identification affects a wide range of policy and service delivery, including data collection education, health and social care, justice and sport,” the letter read. 

In 2018, she made a pro-life call at a religious event, at the height of controversy over abortion access in Northern Ireland. 

She told an audience at an event organised by the National Prayer Breakfast for Scotland that the treatment of the “unborn” is a “measure of true progress”.

In terms of the current leadership contest, Forbes courted controversy within the first 24 hours of her election campaign after she revealed that she would not have voted in favour of same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP at the time. 

Finance secretary Forbes, who has been the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch since 2016, told news outlets she would not have supported equal marriage as a “matter of conscience”. 

A member of the Free Church of Scotland, she said: “I think for me, Angela Merkel is the example I would follow, I would have voted, as a matter of conscience, along the lines of mainstream teaching in most major religions that marriage is between a man and a woman. 

“But I would have respected and defended the democratic choice that was made. It is legal right now and I am a servant of democracy, I am not a dictator.”

At the same time, Forbes told the BBC she had “significant concerns” about self-ID for trans people in Scotland. 

During a debate broadcast on Channel 4 on Thursday (9 March), Forbes doubled down on her personal views by saying there are “some issues where it’s important to allow a conscience vote”, although she urged that such views would not impact her decision making when it comes to policies. 

“I’ve certainly said in this contest that I’ve given my honest and solemn pledge to uphold legal protections for every Scot, whether they’re male, female, gay, straight or trans,” she said. 

Humza Yousaf 

Humza Yousaf talks at the SNP leadership hustings, on March 10, 2023 in Edinburgh, Scotland (Russell Cheyne – Pool/Getty Images)

Throughout his election campaign, Humza Yousaf has backed LGBTQ+ rights. 

He told PinkNews if he becomes first minister, he would put LGBTQ+ rights at the heart of an independent Scotland’s constitution. 

“If I’m elected… you can be absolutely sure that you’ll have a leader who will not just protect your rights, will not just defend your rights, but will absolutely advance them in a progressively, socially just Scotland,” the health secretary said. 

“I would hope that we will be an independent nation sooner rather than later. But even within the confines of devolution, I will protect those rights as best I possibly can.”

Following Forbes’ comments on same-sex marriage, the Glasgow Pollock MSP, who is a practising Muslim, told Times Radio he cannot “change what Islam says about gay marriage, or gay sex or what the mainstream Islamic view is” but said he has not – nor would – use religious teachings as a basis when crafting policy. 

However, Yousaf’s criticism of Forbes came under fire when it was pointed out he actually missed a key vote on equal marriage in 2014. Something he believes was “dragged up” by his opponents’ supporters for political advantage. 

He told SkyNews this was due to a meeting with the Pakistani government at the time and that he would have voted in favour of the legislation, had he been there. 

During the interview with the broadcaster he also asserted that he does not see gay sex as a sin

He told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I believe that people’s marriage, if they are gay, and they are married, that their marriage is no more inferior, or worth less, than my marriage as a heterosexual individual.

“So no, I don’t subscribe to that view (that gay sex is a sin).”

During the Channel 4 hustings on Thursday (9 March), Yousaf took another dig at Forbes’ views, saying “hundreds” of LGBTQ+ people had been in touch with him, concerned Forbes would not stand up for their rights. 

“I don’t think people take as much comfort as you think they do [when you say] you’ll tolerate people.

“I’m a Muslim in this country – if someone said, ‘Look, I don’t agree with your lifestyle but I’ll tolerate you,’ it wouldn’t give me a huge amount of confidence that they’re going to defend my rights,” he said. 

Ash Regan 

Ash Regan talks at the SNP leadership hustings, on March 10, 2023 in Edinburgh, Scotland (Russell Cheyne – Pool/Getty Images)

Like Forbes, Ash Regan has made it known that she does not support Scotland’s gender reform law. 

Regan was also one of the 15 MSPs, alongside Forbes, who signed a letter calling on the Scottish government to delay plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in 2019. 

The Edinburgh Eastern MSP served as community safety minister in the Scottish government until 2022, at which point she resigned amid her concerns that the gender reforms would negatively impact the safety of women and girls.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Mail in February, Regan said she would revoke Sturgeon’s gender reforms if she was elected. 

“I would not be progressing the GRR Bill, it’s caused a lot of division, it’s extremely flawed and I wouldn’t want it to take up any more time,” she told the newspaper. 

However, despite her opposition to trans rights, Regan has backed equal marriage. 

In the wake of Forbes’ controversial interviews in the first 24-hours of her campaign, Regan stated she “firmly” supports same-sex marriage and praised the SNP’s for bringing in the legislation in 2014, The Herald reported.